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Five Things I’ve Learned From Chinese Cooks

1. You don’t need a large kitchen

In a past life, before I came to China, I had a cook’s dream kitchen. Vast expanses of stainless steel benchtops, loads of cupboards, twin ovens and two large sinks. What I see here every day though, is marvellous, delicious food produced from the smallest imaginable preparation space, consisting of a sink (or sometimes just a plastic tub full of water), a chopping board (often blanced on top of the sink) and a single portable wok burner – either conventional electric or induction. There is isually also a rice cooker plugged in somewhere which can do double-time as a hot-pot and soup cooker.

The set-up in the photo is typical, and when your kitchen is this small it can be set up anywhere – outside your house on the street, at the back of your shop (I had one of my best meals cooked in the back of an indoor plant shop) or in your stairwell (in Shanghai, large houses were divided into multiple apartments during the Cultural Revolution, and with only one existing kitchen, all the new tenants needed somewhere to cook – usually the main stairwell). It makes me wonder what on earth I thought I needed all that space for.

2. You need only one knife, and it’s called a cleaver (qiē ròu dāo 切肉刀 or cài dāo 菜刀)

What a great invention the cleaver is! It sits so well-balanced in the hand that you can perform delicate tasks like peeling ginger, or heavy jobs like chopping roast duck. The broad flat blade is great for crushing garlic and nuts too. The only job it’s not much good at is slicing bread. 

3. You need only one pan, and it’s called a wok (chǎo guō 炒锅)

A single pan for frying, braising, boiling, steaming, smoking or deep-frying. The majority of woks now come with flat bases to make them suitable for induction hotplates (safer too). I’ve made bolognaise, curry, paella and pasta in mine. It’s big, it’s deep, it’s great.

4. You need only 5 condiments plus 3 seasonings to cook Chinese food

Soy sauce, oil, dark vinegar, oyster sauce and rice wine, plus salt, sugar, and white pepper will see you through hundreds if not thousands of different Chinese dishes. Used in different combinations and ratios they are the basics every cook keeps in a little tray next to the wok.

5. Nothing is inedible if cooked correctly

Now this is open to interpretation, and edible in one man’s book is inedible in another. But did I think duck tongues or jellyfish could be delicious? No! Are they? You bet! We could learn a lot from a food culture where absolutely nothing is wasted. When I bought the duck for last week’s Project Food Blog Challenge, I was given the liver and heart in one bag, and the feet and head in another. I’ve yet to learn what I was supposed to do with these, but rest assured they would have been cooked in some delicious way and eaten with gusto.

I’ll leave you with a picture of the duck tongues. They’re really more like duck mandibles with the lower bill attached, and the deal is, you dip them in the spiced salt, then gnaw the tiny bits of meat off the bones. It’s all about the gnawing really.

Fiona Finally Visits World Expo and Sees a Cactus Play Guitar

For months I have had 10 Shanghai World Expo tickets sitting in my drawer, unused. You know I was never really looking forward to Expo, both for the disruption it caused before it began and the way I thought the site would be run, and there always seemed to be a good reason not to go – it was too hot, it was the weekend, it was too daunting to battle the crowds. Busy days were seeing more than 600,000 people, with queues of up to 8 hours for the most popular pavilions. Oh God, I thought, I can’t bear to go into a place even more crowded than the streets of Shanghai.

But I finally did it. No more excuses. It’s only open for the next 18 days, so it was now or never.

The first thing to tackle was the entry queues. But where the heck was everybody?

As it turns out, they were already inside, queueing for the German Pavilion, the Swiss Pavilion (with a chairlift!), the Belgian Pavilion (with free chocolate!) and the UK Pavilion. For three hours at a time.

Standing forlornly wondering where to go first on a site about the same size as LAX, including all the runways, we realised the Expo parade was about to start right in front of us! So that was the first sight we saw, and I have to say it doesn’t get any weirder. Imagine a Disney style parade with canned music, floats, and cheesy costumes, and ramp it up to eleven. Then totally Chinese-ify it. Have Chinese whirling dervishes, Chinese American Indians (in cut-off denim fringed shorts!) and Chinese Africans.

For good measure, add dancing Chinese bananas, a Chinese Uncle Sam, and finally, a host of dancing Chinese cactuses playing the guitar. If I didn’t live here, it would have made no sense whatsoever. But it sure had a lot of COLOUR and plenty of DANCING.

After all that excitement, it was time to see some pavilions. Only we couldn’t get into any except Australia, and that was only because we took our passports with us. And would I queue up to see it ? No….(where is my patriotism??)
Anyway, I’ve heard many of the pavilions are just as good from the outside. Spain (above left) is covered with woven wicker panels,  Russia (centre) is like a snowflake lit from within, and the Netherlands (above right) is a higgledy-piggledy house of the imagination. The UK pavilion, also known as The Seed Cathedral, has 60,000 perspex rods, the tip of each embedded with seeds sourced from all over the world. This pavilion alone is worth every cent of the entry price (160 yuan). It’s astounding.
Instead of queueing, we embarked on an international food tour of the Expo site. The restaurants and cafes can be freely entered at any time, so we tried meat pies and lamingtons at Australia, Dutch frites and beer at the Netherlands, Canadian waffles drenched in maple syrup, and ice-cream at the UN. This was the most fun for me, and next visit I’ll try some Turkish food and Thai food.

As the night drew on, we dragged our weary selves to the centrepiece of the Expo site, the China Pavilion. It is absolutely impressive from without, and the inside I can only imagine – because I’m unlikely to ever see it. The only way to get in is with a special Reserved Ticket, and the only way to get one of these is to start queueing at 5am, to be first in line to sprint through the entry gates at 9am and crash tackle one of the volunteers giving out the day’s quota of reserved tickets. All gone by 9.01am.

Of course, if you want to pay between 200 and 800 yuan to jump the queue you can ‘purchase’ a ‘VIP Ticket’. We’re not living in a democracy after all – this is China, land of the entrepreneur.

So will I go back? Good question, but in the end I’ll have to – I’ve still got seven tickets to get through.

Sweet Osmanthus

Osmanthus – guì huā 桂花 . It should be called Sweet Blossom of Heaven or something like that, because the tiny gold flowers of the osmanthus tree have the most unforgetable scent, an impossible combination of apricots and roses. The flowering of the osmanthus always signals the start of autumn in Shanghai, although I missed the official autumn start while I was in Qian Dao Hu last week.  

In China, the Weather Bureau Guys in their climate controlled offices have the seasons all sorted out. For autumn to arrive, for example, they wait until the temperature has dropped to below 25 degrees for five days in a row, then they make the season ‘official’. In Qian Dao Hu, and Beijing, and Xinjiang, autumn will come at a completely different time according to their weather bureau guys. Don’t you love it? Season by committee. 

Anyway, back to the osmanthus. I have been stealing out under cover of darkness to pick branches of the golden yellow flowers for drying. So far undiscovered by the lane guard, I think. The flowers can be steeped in tea, or jelly, or my favourite – cream. They fill the house with their delicious scent, slowly fading as they dry. Whenever I smell osmanthus now it will take me back to early autumn days with just a touch of crisp coolness in the air. I’m not very poetic but here is a lovely 3 lines from Song Dynasty poet Liu Yong. 

Layers of lakes reflect the peaks and serene towers

Autumn fragrances linger with osmanthus flowers

Ten thousand li of blooming lotus

Liu Yong 987-1053

Project Food Blog Challenge 4: Voting Open!

Another challenge over, now it’s time to vote for your favourite food blogger again. That would be me, right?  

Don’t know anything about Project Food Blog? It’s an interactive competition that started four weeks ago with 2000 bloggers. Through a series of excruciatingly tricky challenges there are now just one hundred left, including me! 
To vote, click on the link above and follow the instructions. Dead easy!

Project Food Blog Challenge 4: How to Look Good Naked – If You’re a Duck

Did that really happen? Did I really make it through to Round 4? Thank you! THANK you EVERYONE for votes and support. I couldn’t have made it this far without you!

The challenge for this round is called Picture Perfect. Project Food blog would like us to use our amazing photographic skills to show you an instructional, step-by-step photo tutorial.

Bugger, thought I. This is where I could really do with my sister Emma’s help. Emma, the professional food and travel photographer, who should be helping me but just can’t drop by today and give me a hand because she’s in Brisbane, Australia, and I’m in Shanghai, PRC. Bugger.

So I called her up this morning and had a very expensive long-distance chat because I thought she might have some really fabulous technical tips for all of us budding food photographers. Like how to make a hunk of raw meat attractive, or more specifically, how to make the ugliest duck in the world look lovely in a photo. She told me I wasn’t really an ugly duck, although I was getting old.
I’m talking about the recipe! I said. Not me! Oh please…….

Here’s what she said:

Emma’s Tips for Technically Great Food Photos (and Fiona’s Reality Check)

1. Photograph in a room with good natural light (No worries, I’ll just move the entire small dark Chinese kitchen to a sunnier part of the house). The light should come from the side and slightly in front of you, so that shadows fall away behind you. 

2. Minimise shadows with a reflector or white drapes (I just made the bed. Now I have to take the sheets off again and hang them up in the living room? Are you serious?)

3. Use a tripod to get a different perspective on the dishes. If you have time, take shots from 3 different heights or angles for maximum interest (Oh yes, I’ll just debone that duck, race around to the other side of the camera and with my greasy dirty hands take 3 different and wildly interesting shots. Sure thing.)

4. If photographing unaided, use manual focus and a self-timer with a 20 second delay – time to position, then to relax. Otherwise, use a remote control held in your mouth. (Easy see? No hands! And can I make it work? No!)

5. Always have clean hands and fingernails. (Are you truly serious? In addition to the cooking, the photography, the styling and the writing, now I have to find time to get a manicure??…)

6. If your hands look too veiny, hold them in the air for 30 seconds, then take the shot (Hilarious! See how any shots I remembered to do this in…

7. Avoid blue plates. It doesn’t look that appetising. (Emma’s view, not mine. I quite like blue plates….)

8. Always give the food left at the end of the shoot to the photographer (Oh! that’s me!)

Anyhow….down to the real photo-tutorial. 

Kylie Kwong is an Australian Chinese chef and author, whose Sydney restaurant, Billy Kwong, is an all-time favourite of mine. Her signature dish is featured today – Crispy Skin Duck with Blood Plum Sauce, an intense sweet-savoury, spicy and tart combination with sour plums and twice cooked duck. It’s fabulous. I’ve served it with Chinese steamed buns from a recipe by David Chang of Momofuku fame. These sweet little steamed breads are very traditional in China’s north, and they’re easy and fun to make.

So today I’m going to teach you how to make both of these dishes, and when we’re done, I will have cooked my first duck at home, ever. Thanks PFB, I’m not afraid any more! I will cook duck! I will deep fry it! I will debone it! I will remember to debone it first and then deep fry it! Here goes….

Crispy Skin Duck with Blood Plum Sauce


  • 1 x 1.5 kg (3 lb) duck
  • 2 tablespoons Sichuan pepper and salt
  • 1/4 cup plain (all-purpose) flour
  • vegetable oil for deep frying
Sichuan Pepper and Salt
  • 3 tablespoons sea salt
  • 1 tablespoon Sichuan peppercorns
Blood Plum Sauce
  • 1 cup water
  • 1 cup white sugar
  • 250g ripe blood plums (about 4-6)
  • 2/3 cup fish sauce
  • 6 whole star anise
  • 2 cinnamon quills
  • 1/3 cup lime juice


  • First make the sichuan pepper and salt
  • Dry roast the salt and sichuan pepper in a heavy based saucepan until the peppercorns begin to pop and become aromatic
  • Allow to cool
  • Grind to a powder in a mortar and pestle or spice grinder.
  • Makes 4 tablespoons

  • Rinse duck under cold water.
  • Trim away excess fat from inside and outside the cavity, but keep neck, parson’s nose and winglets intact.
  • Pat dry and rub the skin all over with two tablespoons of Sichuan pepper and salt. 
  • Cover duck and place in refrigerator overnight to marinate.

  • Transfer duck to a large steamer basket
  • Place basket over a pan of boiling water and steam, covered with a tight-fitting lid, for about 1 1/2 hours, or until the duck is cooked through (to test, insert a small knife between leg and breast – the juices should run clear)
  • Using tongs, gently remove duck from steamer and place on a tray, breast side up, to drain
  • Allow to cool slightly then transfer to refrigerator to cool further

  • Meanwhile, make the plum sauce.
  • Combine water and sugar in pan and bring to the boil.
  • Reduce heat to low and simmer, stirring occasionally, for about 5 minutes, or until slightly reduced.

  • Halve and de-seed plums. Leave skin intact.

  • Add the fish sauce and lime juice to the sugar and water mixture
  • Add the spices and plums
  • Simmer for 2 minutes
  • Remove pan from stove and keep sauce warm while you fry the duck

  • Place cooled duck breast-side up on a cutting board
  • Using a large knife or cleaver cut duck in half lengthways through breastbone and backbone

  • Carefully ease meat away from carcass, leaving thighs, legs and wings intact

  • You should now have two flat duck halves like this
  • Discard the bones

  • Lightly toss duck halves in flour to coat, shaking off any excess

  • Heat vegetable oil in a wok until the surface seems to shimmer slightly
  • Deep-fry duck halves, one at a time, for about 3 minutes, or until well-browned and crispy
  • Don’t forget to wear the best Chinese kitchen invention ever – arm covers to keep you protected from hot oil splashes!
  • Using tongs, carefully remove duck from hot oil

  • Drain duck halves well on kitchen paper
  • Leave to rest in a warm place for 5 minutes

  • With a large knife or cleaver, slice the duck
  • Arrange on a platter and spoon over the hot plum sauce
  • Serve with Chinese steamed buns – gently prise open the buns and place a piece of duck inside, or use it to mop up the delicious rich sauce.

Chinese Steamed Buns


  • 1 tablespoon plus 1 teaspoon active dried yeast
  • 1 1/2 cups water at room temperature
  • 4 1/2 cups plain (all-purpose) flour
  • 6 tablespoons sugar
  • 3 tablespoons non-fat milk powder
  • 1 tablespoon salt
  • 1/2 teaspoon baking powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1/3 cup pork or vegetable lard at room temperature

(makes 50 buns. Can be frozen for up to 3 months)


  • Combine yeast and water in a mixing bowl
  • Add all other ingredients and mix
  • Knead dough for about 8 minutes
  • Cover dough with a clean tea towel and leave in a warm place until dough has doubled in size, about 1 hour 15 minutes

  • Punch the dough down and turn it out onto a clean work surface
  • Using a knife or dough scraper, cut the dough in half, then divide each half into 5 equal pieces
  • Gently roll each piece into a log
  • Cut each log into 5 pieces, making 50 pieces total

  • Roll each piece into a ball
  • Cover the armada of little balls with a draping of plastic wrap
  • Allow them to rest and rise for 30 minutes
  • Meanwhile cut out fifty 10cm squares of parchment paper
  • Coat a chopstick with vegetable oil

  • Take a ball of risen dough and squash it flat with he palm of your hand
  • Use a rolling pin to roll it out into a 10cm long oval

  • Lay the oiled chopstick across the middle of the oval and fold the oval over onto itself to form the bun shape

  • Withdraw the chopstick, leaving the bun folded, and put the bun on a square of parchment paper
  • Let the buns rest and rise under a dry tea towel for a further 30-45 minutes 

  • Steam the buns in batches for 10 minutes

  • Buns can be used immediately – just gently pry the two halves apart and fill with succulent pieces of the duck.
  • Can also be frozen and used when needed by defrosting and then briefly steaming

  • Cook’s reward!!

Did you enjoy that fabulous duck? Voting for Challenge 4 opens Tuesday morning and continues through to Friday morning. Thanks to all voters, past, present and future!

You can view my other entries here:

Project Food Blog Challenge 3 – A mahjong lunch in four rounds
Project Food Blog Challenge 2 – The Great Xiaolongbao Experiment
Project Food Blog Challenge 1 – A Food-Filled Life in Shanghai

Aiyah!! I’m Through to Round 4!!

Incredible, but true! Thanks to your votes and support I’m through to Round 4 of Project Food Blog, and one of the final one hundred competitors of an original two thousand. So thanks again!
The next challenge will be posted tomorrow night, and voting for this challenge begins again on Tuesday morning.
And the chair photo? Just for fun, seen this morning on my way to coffee. Should you be needing a rocking chair, a cane recliner, or a set of four dining chairs, buy them from one of Shanghai’s many roving chair vendors.  What a way to make a living! The whole cantilevered contraption is pulled along the road by hand until a customer comes along…..just try not to choose the one at the bottom of the stack!

The Dragon Stairs Market, Qian Dao Hu

Colourful markets are front and centre of the Chinese way of life, and most people won’t buy their daily cooking supplies anywhere else. Supermarkets are plentiful, for sure, but nothing beats a street market or wet market for absolute freshness. Why make a special trip to the supermarket when you can easily get what you need, every day, on the way to or from work?
 In Qian Dao Hu township, the market stretches all the way up and down these imperial carved Dragon Stairs, with wares spread out in baskets, crates, and on tarpaulins.  Today the corn (dark gold, pale gold, and white) eggplants, and lotus root are looking great. 
The Dragon Stairs wind down through the town past loads of kitchenware shops selling steamer baskets, claypots, earthenware bowls and glass pickle jars. I had a ball – and although I would have loved to buy some mushrooms and lotus root, I’m staying in a hotel with nowhere to cook, so instead I bought a tin vegetable peeler, a rugged home-made grater, a 3-tier tin and bamboo steamer, and some serving spoons. Much hilarity all round at what the crazy foreigner might be needing a 1 yuan (16c) vegetable peeler for. 
Peeling vegetables maybe? 

Fish on a Stick!

The best street snack in Qian Dao Hu is the local lake fish, gently salted and spiced, and grilled on a stick to make it easy to eat. No mess, just spit out the bones as you go.

The perfect side dish for fish on a stick is a peeled, hand-held cucumber. The bristly bumps are peeled off to order, and you simply hold it by the unpeeled skinny end, like a giant cucumber popsicle. Fish in one hand, cucumber in the other, bite them in alternating fashion for the perfect lake-side fast food lunch.
After buying this fantastic snack, we inadvertently attracted a crowd. Again. Staring intently, the locals could see that in fact, weiguoren (foreigners) eat fish and cucumbers exactly the same way that they do. Only we’re not very good at spitting out the little bones without getting them stuck on our chins.

A Very Chinese Day Out…On The Lake

Sunshine! Blue skies! Sparkling blue water! Time for a day out on the lake, the whopping big one I can see from my hotel window. There seem to be boats of all sizes shooting all over it, so boat trips must be the thing to do at Qian Dao Hu. We make our way to the wharf to check it out, imagining hiring a little private boat for the day to tootle around a few islands, take a swim in the lake’s clear waters, have a bit of a nature walk, and be home in time for tea. 
Down at the wharf there is a buzzing, noisy carnival atmosphere, with people swarming everywhere and the whole place covered in coloured bunting and Chinese flags. Surprisingly there are no touts and no private operators hedging for business – the entire lake is run by the government, and is open to tourism in a very precribed and rigid fashion. You may take one of two boat trips. Each trip will visit three different isands. You may purchase lunch on the boat.  Full stop.
So we buy tickets to something. A boat trip hopefully. We buy drinks and snacks in case we misunderstood the bit about buying lunch on the boat, and set off down to the jetty. There are hundreds of identical boats in two sizes, and thousands of people in every direction. It’s at this point that it hits us. We are the only foreigners in Qian Dao Hu for as far as the eye can see. It’s a place surprisingly invisible to most non-Chinese tourists, thanks to the fact that it doesn’t make it into Lonely Planet China, Frommer’s, Eyewitness, or any other guide. Tripadvisor – nothing. But clearly every person in China has heard of it, because it looks like most of them are here.

Dozens of people look at our tickets, and helpfully point us to the right boat, which we board in a rush along with about 160 Chinese tourists. Now in Shanghai, foreigners are nothing special. We’re everywhere. But go off the beaten track and you are suddenly a person of intense interest. After about, oh, ten seconds of shyness, there is an all-out bunfight for the seats next to us. The questions begin before we’ve even pulled away from the wharf. ‘Where are you from?’ ‘How old are your children?’ ‘Do they study Chinese?’ ‘What kind of school do they go to?’ ‘Isn’t it expensive?’ ‘How do you like life in China?’
The boat guide stands up and the boat is suddenly filled with her voice amplified to maximum. It’s almost painful. There are lots of lake facts to get through, square metreage, number of islands, that kind of thing, then there is a long discussion about the really important part of the tour – lunch. The menu runs to twenty different hot dishes. I can’t imagine where or how they will make all of this food, because the whole boat seems to be taken up with seating space. Then, as another boat passes close by us, I spy the open-air kitchen on the aft deck of the boat. Nothing more than a few pots, and a gas-fired wok burner. Genius. We order fish, soup, and two vegetable dishes.

Before we eat though, we make our first island stop – San Tan Island. There are already twenty-three boats parked, but we just sound the fog-horn and ram in between two others. No problem! As we leave across the tiny gangplank the guide brands us all with a sticker bearing the boat’s number, just in case. But there is no chance of making off on our own because we stand out too much. Everywhere we step we hear ‘Weiguoren! Weiguoren!’ (Foreigners! Foreigners!) We get herded along with everyone else into electric golf carts to what we assume will be a hill-top view over the water. It’s not. It’s a snake park. (Actually, apparently it’s a Sanke Park, but we get the drift). A sadder Sanke Park I have never seen, and the highlight is a snake oil seller, giving away a free cigarette lighter with every bottle. Then off again to a peacock farm. And then a moth and butterfly house. And a fish museum with eight specimens. All of this inside fifty minutes, then back on the boat. The guide looks very relieved that she hasn’t lost the foreigners along the way.

Now it’s lunchtime! When we re-board the boat our lunch is already laid out. A whole lake-fish cooked with chili and scallions, a seaweed soup, a surprisingly delicious dish of black fungus, and a stir-fried cabbage dish. With rice, it comes to 80 yuan ($13). I’ve just eaten the last mouthful when we pull up at our second stop – Monkey Island. 

There are just a thousand or so people on the tiny island, and all of them are desperate to feed the few hundred monkeys with popcorn or mandarins. The monkeys are sensibly mucking around up in the trees, to avoid being loved to death by the hordes below. We’re allowed 15 minutes before we have to be back on the boat,  just long enough to shuffle along the path and shuffle back again. 
I’m feeling a bit like the monkeys at this stage, because we’re attracting just as much attention amongst the tourists from other boats. Information spreads ahead of us between them, and I can hear they already know where we come from and how much our school fees are. At least they’re not trying to feed us popcorn, but instead continually offer up their children to practice some of that English they’ve been learning at school. The kids, of course, hide behind their parents and say nothing until we’ve walked past, then shout ‘Hello!!’ to our backs.
Our last stop is Meifeng Island, and at last, a view. We take a chairlift to the top of Meifing Peak where the view is absolutely spectacular, and for a few short minutes we escape the crowds and find a quiet path along the peak. The islands spread out below us as the sun starts to dip in the sky. 
Now, for reasons not yet clear to me, whenever there is a tourist spot high on a hill in China, there is always a fast way to get back down. Like The Great Wall, for example – climb up to the majestic wall, consider Chinese history in all its glory, then take a luge back down the hill. Meifing Peak was no exception – they offered China’s Longest Fake Grass Slide. Now there’s a light you shouldn’t hide under a bushel. It was terrifying hurtling down the hill on a plastic bucket, but there you go. We survived.

And then back on the boat for the final leg home. Our fellow passengers look highly pleased with the amount they’ve accomplished in six short hours. Snakes! Peacocks! Moths! Monkeys! Chairlifts and grass slides! It’s been an exhausting and ever-so-Chinese all day adventure. 

Can we have a rest day tomorrow? Please?