Sunday 26 July 2015

Xi'an Impression, Holloway

I've long lamented that New York gets Xian Famous Foods and we don't. I crave those cold skin (liang pi) noodles, jelly-like in texture and served cool and refreshing, with a light kick from the sauce. The chang-an tofu is the stuff of dreams; slippery fresh tofu with a sweet, sour and spicy sauce on top. 

But, no need to lament now because Xi'an Impression has arrived and it is almost as good. I say almost because they don't have chang-an tofu. I was tipped off by this write-up on Fuchsia Dunlop's site, and I made arrangements immediately. Located directly opposite the Emirates stadium, I visited on a match day and the tiny restaurant seating 20 at most was full. They've obviously had the sense to capitalise on the volume of people passing by, and they also had heated dishes at the front of the room offering sweet and sour chicken with fried rice. There were plenty of people there having it, and I wondered if they weren't even a little bit curious as to what all these vibrant dishes were that everyone else was eating. 

Our waiter explained to us that all the noodles are hand-pulled, and they had a selection both dressed or in soup. These are biang biang noodles, so called because of the noise made when they are being made, by slapping the dough on the table. They were pretty fantastic - a great elasticky chew, and dressed with a fragrant, spicy oil rich with coriander seeds and anise, complete with a small mound of raw garlic to flavour but not overwhelm. They're mixed table-side, carefully turned over and over until the noodles are well dressed. A head of bak choi adds required vegetal crunch, but I wondered if a little more wouldn't go astray. Cabbage, perhaps, or a little coriander. 

"I call it a Chinese burger but it's really more of a kebab..." Our waiter insisted that we try both the spiced beef and the pork 'burgers'. Rou Jia Mo is the Chinese name for it, and they come simply as meat inside bread, no further embellishment. It's not just about the meat, the quality of the bread is important here and it was toasted until crisp, sturdy enough to withstand the rich juices from the beef. A great little snack for £3.80. 

The pork version was entirely different, being a little drier and resembling pulled pork. It was still packed full of flavour, though less heavy on the cumin and spice of the beef version. 

There they are. Liang pi noodles, so called 'cold skin'. God, I love them so. These are served cold and sliced thickly, alongside some spongy wheat gluten and julienned cucumber. Beansprouts nestled within the folds of the noodles. This was one of my favourite dishes there; the spice level was subtle, but it built up the further down the bowl we went. 

The fried dumplings, these with pork and seaweed, are typically left open ended, as is traditional for Xian-style dumplings. We had black vinegar, soy sauce and chilli oil to make up our own dipping sauce. I can't get enough of dumplings, so naturally, I loved these. 

I loved Xian Impression, and I could eat those cold skin noodles every day forever and not get bored of them. The menu is extensive, and includes many more noodle dishes, so plans are afoot to go back and try more already. The service is sweet - our man told us excitedly that someone from The Guardian had called to arrange a photo of their food, which can only mean one thing... He looked a bit scared when I told him to prepare for the rush. 

At £35 for two with service (no booze), it was really great value, meaning I can go as often as I like! Holloway, though. Holloway. 

Xian Impression
117 Benwell Street, N7 7BW
Tel: 0203 441 0191

Sunday 19 July 2015

New Noodlings in London

These are by no means new restaurants, so apologies if the title is misleading. No; instead, these are places I've been going to repeatedly that I love for their noodles, but I haven't talked about here for some reason or the other. But sharing is caring. 

First up, Kanada-Ya (opening pic). A Japanese import, with branches in Hong Kong and the US, I like this little place a lot. At first it was because of the gumption it takes for opening almost directly opposite the behemoths that are Ippudo (I wrote about my New York experience here) and within the same month. They're everything Ippudo are not - they are austere and unfussy, with a limited and traditional menu. They don't have the snazzy sides that Ippudo does, and they offer their noodles cooked soft, medium or firm. What they lack in choice, they more than make up in flavour, though. The broth is rich and flavoursome, but doesn't sit heavily on your stomach making you feel a bit overwhelmed, unlike other tonkotsus I've tried. The noodles have a good spring to them. In short, it's a damn good bowl of noodles. Get there at 12pm though, or you will queue. 

64 St Giles High Street, WC2H 8LE

Chang's Noodle is a little place on New Oxford Street. It's so basic I can't find a website for them. The cuisine is Hubei, Henan and Sichuan, and the menu is littered with items like 'tasty fungus'. Helpfully there's pictures. I haven't been there to give the menu a thorough working out, but what I did have is their famous lamb noodle soup. This is not Summer food. It's a milky, lamb-flavoured broth with hearty wheat noodles, rough and torn into the soup. Deep within, glass noodles and tofu skin noodles also lurk. I couldn't finish it. But it was so good. 

35-37 New Oxford St, London WC1A 1BH

Joy Luck Restaurant are smack bang in the middle of Chinatown. Their menu reads with spring rolls, prawn crackers and all that shit, but skip straight to the specialist noodle page and therein lies the Shanxi Oil-Splash noodle. And they will splash. The sauce is sweet, it's sour, it's spicy. The noodles are slightly frilly at the edges. I love this dish. 

47 Gerrard Street, Chinatown, London W1D 5QJ

Lastly, Sanxia Renjia. Say that after a couple of beers. An unassuming front, I'm pretty gutted I discovered this place in my last month at my job that was a mere 5 minute walk. I'd missed out on 6.5 years of this place! The lunch menu is a laminated card of noodle dishes and one-plate rice dishes. On my first visit, we had a scrambled egg and black fungus dish with rice, which was very homely. My dining companion found it bland, but I thought it comforting. We also shared some dumplings which were fine, and this 'Soup noodles with stewed spare ribs Sichuan Style'. As I suspected they were little ribs with bone in them which I think is fine as you pop the thing in your mouth, chew around it and spit it out, but some might find it fiddly. Anyway, the soup was FIESTY. They're not messing. It was Sichuan peppercorn-tingly, and packed quite a punch. 

I returned and the 'hot & sour rice noodles' were not rice noodles, they were glass noodles. It was a good job he was wearing black because those things are slithery. This dish was not for the faint-hearted; the incandescent chilli oil slick lingered on top, staining each mouthful. It was great. 

Their rice dishes are good too. The sea spicy aubergine in particular is excellent. We're talking about noodles though. Anyway, nothing on the lunch menu tops £7, so it's really great value too. 

29 Goodge Street, W1T 2PP 

Wednesday 15 July 2015

Corn, Mushroom & Feta with Polenta

IT'S NOT ASIAN! Yup, sometimes I cook and it doesn't involve rice or noodles. It's strange and peculiar.

So polenta. Polenta is a thing I love, because it's sloppy like baby food and it's actually a requirement to cook it with enough butter and cheese so that it actually has some flavour. Alternatively, you can make an incredibly flavoursome topping (like lamb ragu...), so flavoursome that you need to cut a bit of the richness with the bland polenta itself. Since there's no lamb happening in this house this week - and maybe we should leave that for when the chill sets in - butter and cheese was the way forward.

I chose these vegetables for their combination of sweetness from the corn and tomatoes, with a little bitterness, from the cavolo nero. I bumped up the flavours a touch to really bring them out.

Corn, Mushroom & Feta with Polenta

Serves 2

150gr polenta
450gr vegetable stock (I used half a Knorr stock pot. They're actually pretty good.)
3 cloves of garlic, minced
50ml white wine
1 ear of fresh corn
3 large chestnut mushrooms, chopped into 6
5 large oyster mushrooms, roughly chopped
2 stalks of cavolo nero, stems removed and shredded
8 cherry tomatoes
1/2 tsp sherry vinegar
A pinch of sugar
A pinch of salt
A knob of butter
70gr feta
A handful of parsley, minced
1 tbsp olive oil

Bring the stock to the boil and whisk in the polenta. Bring to a low simmer and stir every few minutes, scraping the bottom. Cook for 12 minutes - it should be a little runny. Stir in the butter and put the lid on, and leave while you prepare the rest.

Heat the olive in a frying pan on a medium heat, and add the garlic. Turn onto low and using a knife, cut the corn kernels directly into the pan carefully. Cook for 5 minutes, stirring every so often. Turn to medium and add the mushrooms. Cook for a minute or so, stirring, then add the white wine. Simmer until most of the wine has evaporated, then add the cavolo nero and cook for a further 3 minutes. Add the cherry tomatoes, the sugar, the salt and pepper. Place the lid on and cook on a low heat for 5 more minutes, stirring intermittently. Add the parsley, take off the heat and leave the lid on.

Dish out the polenta, then add the corn mixture on top. Garnish with crumbled feta.

(Got leftover ears of corn? There's a recipe for Miso-Buttered Corn in Chinatown Kitchen!)

Tuesday 14 July 2015

Sesame Peanut Noodle Salad

Admittedly this would go well with a nice piece of barbecued chicken. Or the hoi sin and ginger ribs from Chinatown Kitchen. I am the worst vegan ever. BUT I still ate this all on its own and it's incredibly satisfying, due to the quantity of rich, creamy peanut butter. Mmm.

Because you want the garlic flavour without the harshness of raw garlic, there's an extra step here that requires a BIT of faff but also some lovely crunchy non-honky garlic pieces. If you don't care about your breath then just add it in raw. You can add whatever crunchy vegetables you have - sugarsnap peas, snow peas, cucumber, peppers - as long as you julienne them thinly. This noodle salad keeps incredibly well and travels very well too, so it's perfect for lunch boxes (careful of the honky garlic) or picnics. As I write this it's lashing it down. Hmm.

Sesame Peanut Noodle Salad

Serves 2

150gr dry weight wholewheat noodles
3 tbsp chunky peanut butter
1 tbsp tahini
Juice of 1 lime
1 tbsp light soy sauce
3 tbsp water
1 tbsp sesame oil
50ml vegetable oil
3 cloves of garlic, thinly and evenly sliced
1 carrot, julienne
2 Romaine lettuce leaves, sliced thinly
5 radishes, julienned
2 spring onions, greens only, julienned

In a small saucepan add the garlic in with the oil cold and heat it up gently, stirring all the while. When the garlic starts fizzing and starts turning the merest golden, take off the heat, as the garlic will continue to cook. When it becomes more golden drain the oil into a heatproof container and scatter the garlic chips on kitchen towel.

Cook the noodles as per the packet instructions, and then drain and run under cold water. Toss with 2 tbsp of the garlic oil.

Whisk together the peanut butter, tahini, water, light soy and sesame oil until it has combined. If it's too thick - it should look like emulsion paint (?!) - add a dribble of water and continue to whisk.

Add the vegetables to the noodles and add the sauce, tossing well. Garnish with the deep fried garlic chips. Serve cold.

Monday 13 July 2015

Broccoli & Pea Salad

Some Americans have this thing where they use mayonnaise in their salad dressings, which has always struck me as a bit counter-intuitive. Salads, supposedly light and refreshing, bogged down by all that claggy egg and oil. Don't get me wrong - I love mayonnaise, but mainly for dipping chips in, or swiping freshly peeled prawns through. Not to dress my greens with.

I get the need for a creamier dressing, though. If this salad were to be dressed with an oil emulsion it just wouldn't be the same, it just wouldn't be as good. That's where yoghurt comes in - the thick, Greek-style stuff. Forget the 0% fat liquidy one - you need the creamy tang of the set yoghurt here.

This salad is perfect alongside something like a baked pastry; I ate this with a spinach and cheese borek, with a little watermelon and feta to go with it. I used freshly podded peas and I think frozen will do, but wait for them to thaw out rather than actually cooking them in boiling water. And a note on the broccoli. I went to LA recently for just a day for work, and they really do eat raw broccoli as a crudité. Nope. That raw fluffy floret top - no, not raw. If you can handle it, then sure, but I prefer mine lightly blanched.

Broccoli & Pea Salad

Serves 4 with sides

4 large broccoli florets, blanched in boiling water for 1 minute only and refreshed in iced water
500gr fresh peas in the pod, podded - or 200gr frozen peas, thawed at room temperature
1 pickled cucumber, drained and diced
Flat-leaf parsley chopped finely to make up 3 tbsp
200gr full fat Greek yoghurt
1 tbsp extra virgil olive oil
A large pinch of sea salt
1/2 a red onion, diced and soaked in the juice of a lemon for 20 minutes
1 tbsp pomegranate molasses
A hefty sprinkling of sumac

Chop the broccoli florets up roughly and add to the peas, alongside the pickled cucumber. Add the parsley in.

To make up the dressing, whisk together the olive oil with the salt and the yoghurt. Add the pomegranate molasses, and then stir the cucumber in. Drain and rinse the red onion and add to the dressing. Cover the vegetables in the dressing and toss well, then sprinkle with the sumac and allow to sit for 10 minutes while the flavours meld.

(Vegetarianism not your thing? I have a great recipe for braised broccoli, chicken and mushrooms in Chinatown Kitchen. Proper Cantonese homestyle comfort food. You can buy it here.)

Sunday 12 July 2015

Hot & Sour Soup - The Vegan Version

There is no doubt about it - hot and sour is a flavour combination that comes up quite often on this blog. I count 6 times; Hunan hot & sour soup, complete with noodles to make a one dish meal; Hot & Sour Aubergines with Tofu, one of the most successful recipes I've come up with, and deviating from the normal heat you get from the classic hot and sour - instead, fish sauce, birds eye chillis and lime juice flavour this one. Hot & Sour Mustard Green Soup is bulked out with a surf n' turf of pork ribs and fish balls; Hot & Sour Tofu, one of those dishes that might change your preconceptions about tofu; Hot & Sour Chicken Noodles, which almost graced the front cover of Chinatown Kitchen; and a Sichuan style of Hot & Sour Soup, way back in the mists of time when bad pictures were my game (arguably they still are...).

Why do I love it so much? It's hard to say, but as someone who is slightly addicted to both chilli and pickles, the clues are pretty strong. The heat in your classic takeaway-style hot and sour soup doesn't come from chillis, though. White pepper is what gives it that nose-clearing pep, though I usually add chilli too for good measure. With this vegan version you lose the silken strands of the egg-drop technique, a classic Chinese finisher for many soups. It's made by whisking egg up, bringing the soup to the boil and very gently drizzling the egg into the soup so that as soon as the egg hits the hot liquid, it cooks, forming wispy strands and that lovely, silken texture. However, what you do gain in losing the egg is a light, bright and refreshing broth packed full of interesting textures and a lot of goodness.

The key to making the soup pleasing to eat is to chop everything up similarly, so that you get the appropriate textures. Everything in this soup was julienned / matchsticked to get that effect.

Hot & Sour Soup - The Vegan Version

Serves 4 with sides (like these dumplings)

4 tofu bamboo sticks, rehydrated in hot water
4 large pieces of black fungus, rehydrated in hot water and julienned
4 inches of daikon / mooli, peeled and chopped into matchsticks
200gr firm tofu, cut into matchsticks
3 slices of ginger, peeled
4 cloves of garlic, peeled but left whole
2 large chestnut mushrooms, sliced thinly
4 large oyster mushrooms, also sliced thinly
3 spring onions, whites and greens separated - the whites can be left as is, the greens should be sliced into thin rings
1/2 a star anise
750ml vegetable stock
2 tbsp light soy sauce
1 tsp white pepper
3 tbsp Chinkiang black vinegar
1 tbsp cornflour, slaked with 2 tbsp water
1 red chilli, diced (optional)

Bring the stock to the boil and add the whites of the spring onions, the ginger, garlic and the star anise. Simmer for half an hour with the lid on, and then drain the stock into another pot.

Add the tofu, the bamboo sticks, the daikon, the chilli and the black fungus and simmer for 20 minutes. Then add the mushrooms and the white pepper and simmer for another 10. Add the cornflour solution and cook until slightly thickened. Take off the heat and add the soy sauce and black vinegar, and taste - add more vinegar or more white pepper as appropriate. Ladle out into bowls, and garnish with the greens of the spring onion.

Saturday 11 July 2015

Green potstickers

I love my friends so much that when one of them decides to go vegan, caffeine and sugar-free AND teetotal for a whole entire month in the name of charity, I'm still friends with them. Sigh. It's hard hanging out with these kind-hearted people. (If you donate £20 you can have a poem written for you with your choice of theme!) I remember how difficult veganism was, so I was only pleased to invite them round for lunch.

I almost always default to Asian food anyway but even more so with veganism, as that's where it feels most versatile without losing as much flavour. You won't get far with trying to replicate a bacon sandwich, but these potstickers, packed full of vegetables with no meat in sight are (almost) as satisfying. I will freely admit that I eat too much meat - I think we probably all do - so I'm making a more concerted effort to get more vegetables in there. It just needs a little imagination.

Green Potstickers

Makes around 30 

1 packet of white round dumpling skins (not wontons) - sometimes labelled gyoza, or make your own
1/2 a medium sized courgette, diced
3 sticks of celery, peeled and diced
100gr peas, freshly podded or thawed
1 inch of ginger, grated
3 cloves of garlic, minced finely
2 tbsp light soy sauce
120gr firm tofu, chopped finely
1 tbsp cooking oil
2 stalks of spring onion - whites minced and the greens finely sliced into rings
2 large shiitake mushrooms, rehydrated and minced

Dipping sauce:
Ginger, slivered
2 tbsp Chinkiang black vinegar
1 tsp sugar
1 tbsp light soy

Heat 1 tbsp of cooking oil in a saucepan until it is shimmering. Add the garlic, ginger and celery and stir fry until softened. Add the courgette, tofu and soy sauce and cook on a medium heat, stirring constantly. Add the whites of the spring onion and cook for another 2 minutes. By this point the mixture should be quite dry, if not cook on a higher heat, still stirring.

Remove and leave to cool. Add the fresh or thawed peas and the greens of the spring onion. Add it to a blender or a food processor and pulse briefly until it has all been chopped finely.

Place a wrapper on the palm of your hand and add a teaspoon of the filling. Fold the dumpling, pleating as you go. (For step by step pictures, and a meatier filling my book, Chinatown Kitchen has it all.) Otherwise, here.

In a non-stick frying pan add the remaining 1 tbsp oil and heat on a medium heat until shimmering. Add the dumplings flat side down and fry for 3 - 4 minutes, checking that they're not burning. Add 50ml water and place the lid on so that they steam for 3 - 4 minutes. Remove the lid and, checking that the bottoms aren't burning, cook until the liquid has evaporated and you're left with a crisp bottom.

Mix the dipping sauce ingredients together and serve with the dumplings.

Monday 6 July 2015

Delancey & Co., Goodge Street

I'll confess - I never once went to Katz's Deli in New York in all of the 5 or 6 times I've visited the city. I know, it's an institution, but have you seen the sandwiches that come out of there? They are enormous. Behemoth. I couldn't face satiating my hunger quite so roundly. That would put me down for at least an entire meal time.

Delancey & Co. on Goodge Street is a New York deli-style kind of place. 'Modernising New York tradition', they call it. Smoked salmon, salt beef and the mystery that is smoked turkey - I'll never understand what is so special about smoked turkey - offered in bagels or various type of bread. When I first visited, challah bread took my fancy and it came totally wodged with salt beef.

That green goo? That's wasabi horseradish mustard and it doesn't seem to be on the menu anymore; all the better really, because that greenness gave me the wibbles. Nothing is wrong with normal mustard. In fact, please stick to normal mustard. The cheese, blow-torched onto the bread is entirely superfluous and I'm going to go out on a limb and say for once, this sandwich is better cheese-less. Yep. The unadulterated salt beef is really that good.

They're not buggering about with their smoked salmon, either. That shit is generous. Too generous for a 9am breakfast bagel. But perfect once the sun has passed the midday point.

It's not cheap - it's definitely not Brick Lane Beigel Bake cheap - at £7.95 for a standard salt beef sandwich. The meat is plentiful and moist, laced with fat and just the right side of salty, and the smoked salmon is obviously well made. Skip the chopped salad - it has the office canteen slop feel to it - and opt for the sweet n' sour pickles instead, to fill your vegetable quota. They are GOOD.

Delancey & Co.
34 Goodge Street
London W1T 2QL

Wednesday 1 July 2015

Minced Prawn & Egg Tofu

On Sunday The Independent published an article about a trip I took with their journalist, Holly Williams, around London's Chinatown to show her the wonderful array of ingredients you can use, and how easy they are to use them. This is a recipe using egg tofu, which I think is much maligned by people new to Asian cooking as it does look a little peculiar. There was only so much I could fit in the book, and compared to other forms of tofu this one isn't as common, so I had to kill it. 

But I do love it so, so here it is now. It's made by adding egg to the soy milk before it is coagulated to form and solidify it. It's very delicate - when you slice to tube in half the egg tofu slides out like jelly. The egg gives it colour and a slight hint of rich egg flavour; it's really good steamed, and I also like to dust it in cornflour and braise it in sauce, or simply dust it in spiced flour (the salt and pepper tofu coating in Chinatown Kitchen is great for this) and eat it as a snack. 

Thanks to Keiko Oikawa for the images
This particular dish involves mincing up raw prawns and delicately piling it atop discs of the tofu, and then steaming it all together. Some have it as is, savouring the sweetness of the ingredients but I like to take it a little further with a spicy sauce to drizzle over. Here is the recipe -it's really easy, takes less than half an hour and it is best served with a vegetable side dish and a bowl of steamed rice. 

Minced Prawn & Egg Tofu

Serves 4 with sides

300g raw prawn meat
2 tbsp egg white
Large pinch white pepper
Large pinch salt
1 tsp cornflour
2 tbsp chilli oil with sediment
1 tbsp Chinkiang black vinegar
1 tsp brown sugar
½ tsp sesame oil
2 tsp light soy
2 tubes egg tofu
1 tsp cooking oil
To serve
1 stalk spring onion, julienned
Coriander, roughly chopped

Smash the prawns with the side of a cleaver and chop finely. Place this prawn paste in a small bowl, then add the egg white, pepper and salt. Stir well. Add the cornflour and stir again.

In a bowl, mix together the chilli oil, vinegar, sugar, sesame oil and soy, and leave to one side.

Slice the tofu tubes in half and carefully squeeze out the contents. Slice into circles the width of your thumb. Arrange flat on a plate. Add 1 heaped tsp of the prawn mixture on top in a small mound, and place in a steamer. Drizzle with the cooking oil. Steam on a high heat until the prawn meat turns pink – this will take around 6 minutes.

Remove carefully and drain off any water collected. Drizzle the chilli oil mixture around the tofu, and top with the coriander and spring onion to serve.