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Making Soy Milk, the Old-Fashioned Way

Winter has taken grip outside, but inside the cottage spinning the wooden handle of the old stone grinding wheel, I’m starting to build up quite a sweat. A trickle of creamy soy milk is dripping from the heavy grinding stone into the basin below, drop by drop, and it already smells good.

The mysteries of soy milk (dòujiăng 豆浆) and how it is created from soy beans have puzzled me for some time, although never for long enough to actually do some reading or research about it (shame on me). Doubtless for any of this blog’s Chinese readers it will be no mystery whatever, but I didn’t grow up drinking sweetened or savoury soy milk for breakfast everyday and I didn’t even know that making soy milk is the first step in making tofu (more shame on me!). When the opportunity came to actually make soy milk myself this weekend I jumped at the chance to see how it was done and learn more, and I could hardly have asked for a better teacher.

This is Ah Ping, who lives in the loveliest little white-washed stone cottage on the shores of Yangcheng Lake, where she entertains guests of the nearby hotel by showing them how to make soy milk the traditional way, using organic dried soybeans grown on the hotel’s own impressively large organic farm. Ah Ping is also the apiarist who takes care of the nearby beehives, producing a delicious dark local honey, and a great farm-style cook.
Yangcheng Lake is home to the world’s best hairy crab thanks to its clean, deep waters, and because of the fairly strict (for China) management of the lake’s valuable natural resources it has become an area of increasing interest to Chinese foodies for its nearby organic farms and food producers. More and more Chinese people are developing an interest in where food comes from and how it is grown, an interest in no small part fuelled by frequent food scandals and disasters. 
I walk into Ah Ping’s neat three-roomed cottage. The sun is streaming through the open lattice windows onto a small settle by the window where the heavy stone grinder sits. It has a circular top with a stout wooden handle to one side, and a small hole for placing the soy beans and water. This top stone rotates over the lower grinding stone as you turn the handle, and the resulting soy milk trickles between the two stones into a circular stone trough, and over the lip of the trough into a basin placed below it. It must weigh a tonne and I ask Ah Ping whether anyone still keeps such a heavy piece of equipment in their home. ‘Nearly everyone who makes their own soy milk now uses a small electric machine’ she tells me, ‘but in the countryside some people still use these grinding stones.’
Ah Ping brings me two bowls of soybeans, before and after soaking. Before soaking the soybeans are small, hard and yellow, but after an overnight soaking in water they have quadrupled in size and softened.
She places a spoonful of soy beans into the hole on top of the grinder, using the blunt end of a chopstick to push them down and begins to grind, adding a little water now and then when the liquid soy milk looks too thick. When the hole is empty she adds another spoonful of beans and some more water. The thick soy milk oozes between the two grinding stones and runs down into the trough, and after ten minutes of grinding we have a litre of cream-coloured milk. As for the optimal grinding speed? ‘Not too fast, not too slow’ she says, with a smile.

After grinding, the creamy milk is poured through a muslin cloth into a clean wok, and the muslin twisted and squeezed to get every last bit of the milk. The remaining bean grindings can be used to cook other dishes including a type of cake, Ah Ping tells me. Once strained, the milk is heated to simmer point for a few minutes, and the inedible froth skimmed from the surface and discarded. In this process the unhelpful protease inhibitor enzymes in the soy milk are inactivated and removed.
The result? Like milk of any kind it tastes better and stronger when it’s fresh. Served hot, plain or sweetened, it has a creamy texture and a light nutty taste with grassy overtones. I’ve taken the glass outside to sit in the winter sunshine, warming my hands as I sip. Ah Ping pokes her head out of the window. ‘Tastes different to the soy mik in Shanghai, doesn’t it?’ she asks. ‘You have to make it fresh to get the best taste.’ I agree with her, and decide I’m going to invest in a soy milk machine in the next week or two, because I have a grandiose plan to try making my own tofu. Now that would be an achievement.
Yangcheng Lake can be reached by taking the fast train from Hongqiao Station, Shanghai to Kunshan South Station (17 minutes at 300km/h, trains run several times every hour). Ah Ping’s house is part of the organic farm owned and run by the Fairmont Hotel, Yangcheng Lake. You can visit for a lesson in soy milk making (50 yuan, including 500ml of organic soy milk) or to taste and buy honey. By arrangement, Ah Ping also hosts cooking classes and lunches using the farm’s own organic vegetables. 

Pulled Noodles, Lady Style

Have you ever watched hand-pulled noodles being made? An enormous leaden lump of dough, pulled and stretched with the use of sheer brute strength, is then twirled, pulled and stretched again and again until an armful of fine, evenly sized noodles appears like magic, ready to be immediately boiled in a cauldron of steaming broth.
The Herculean muscular strength required for those first few pulls has always put me off trying it for myself, until I discovered a technique requiring much less…er…grunt. The ‘Lady Style’ method of hand-pulled noodles is practised by the ladies of Kashgar, and thanks to our wonderful guide, Waheed, it had been arranged that I would learn to make hand-pulled noodles in the home of a local family living in Kashgar’s Old City.
I love to learn a bit of cooking while I’m on holiday, but Kashgar doesn’t have anything to offer the non-Uighur-speaking non-local in the way of classes, so it was very lucky Waheed was able to enlist the help of local friends. Waheed, as it turned out, could arrange practically anything, from impossible-to-buy train tickets, to tea in a traditional Uighur teahouse, to trips to an out of the way cemetery that caught my inquisitive eye. 
And so it was that one afternoon he arranged for us to meet Aygul, our host and reportedly an excellent cook, who greeted us at the door of her traditional house, hidden down a dusty laneway in the Old City. She was going to teach us to make laghman, Uighur hand-pulled noodles, made the way ladies make them at home.
The house was wonderful – built from honey-coloured bricks placed in decorative patterns. As you walked from the lane outside you passed through a colourful curtain into the double-story light-filled atrium. On the ground level were many of the functional rooms for washing and cooking, and upstairs the reception rooms for guests, the sleeping quarters, and a raised eating platform covered with carpets and furnished with a low table.
Aygul led us to the tiny narrow upstairs kitchen, which had a deep red dresser covered with brightly coloured paper doubling as a work bench. Next to it, a double burner hotplate occupied the corner and beside that stood a tall dresser filled with plates and bowls. There was a large pot filled with clean water in the corner, above which windows looked back out onto the house’s atrium.

Aygul got straight to work, making a simple wheat flour dough from three cups of wheat flour, a cup of water, and 2 teaspoons of salt, mixed and kneaded. Then she flattened the dough into a slab and sliced it into 12 inch lengths.

Each length was gently rolled, with hands slightly oiled, into lengths of dough the thickness of your little finger.
As the dough was rolled, Aygul coiled it inside a silver Uighur bread tin, covering each layer with a little oil and sealing it with a lid. It went back into the dresser at this stage to rest for an hour.

In the meantime, we prepared the sauce for the noodles, a simple meat and vegetable mixture using available local vegetables. 1 cup of diced potato, 1 cup of sliced peppers, I cup of sliced eggplant, 1/2 cup chopped mutton, half a cup of sliced  onion, 1/2 cup of beans chopped into short lengths were fried in a wok with 2 tablespoons of oil. Once softened, two chopped ripe tomatoes, a teaspoon of salt and a little hot water were added and reduced into a thick vegetable sauce, and kept warm to one side while a large pot of salted water came to the boil and we finally got down to the business of pulling some noodles.

Taking the tin back out of the dresser, Aygul took thick coils of dough from the pan, one at a time, and stretched them between her two hands, twisting her fingers slightly as she pulled the dough into a small pile of noodles with the thickness of twine.
Well-practised, Aygul could chat away as she did this, and still the strands were even and unbroken in her hands.
Once she had made two small noodle piles, Aygul took both thick strands and wrapped them cleverly around her hands, like skeins of wool.

Then a stretch, a slap onto the board…..

And a second wide-armed stretch…..

And the noodles went straight into the boiling water for about three minutes, as Aygul let me take a turn twisting, coiling and pulling the next batch of noodles. Amazingly simple!  
Once cooked the noodles were drained and spooned into a bowl topped with the vegetable sauce.
Aygul’s sister prepared our side-dishes of small bowls of unsweetened yoghurt, and cucumber with black vinegar.
We washed our hands using the beautiful silver washbasin and jug reserved for guests in every Uighur house, and then tucked in, sitting cross-legged on the carpeted eating platform of the house. The noodles had a perfect bite and consistency – firm yet yielding, smooth and slippery. The rustic mutton vegetable sauce had a rich tomato flavour and was surprisingly spicy thanks to the hot local peppers. 
I suspect that the secret of Lady Style Pulled Noodles lies not so much in the techniques of stretching and pulling, as in starting with the perfect dough with exactly the right amount of salt. Too much salt, and the noodles will break easily when stretched, too little and they will lack bite. Waheed told me, as we ate, that his own mother makes these noodles every single day of the year. It will take me a long time to build up that kind of practice!  I can’t wait to try making my own back in Shanghai.
Waheed can offer a guide service for Kashgar and its surrounds including camping and mountaineering adventures in the local mountains.
Contact him at
Travels on the Silk Road

Shanghai’s Kitchen Market – The Other, Bigger, Better One

Last year I visited the Shanghai Kitchen Market at Aomen Lu in Putuo District, a giant warehouse full of everything you might need to open a Chinese restaurant, from waitress uniforms, menu folders, to a whole department of rows and rows of lazy Susans. At the time, I couldn’t imagine that a better place for buying a wok, or a cleaver, or some hard-to-find baking items could exist. Well, was I ever wrong!
Thanks to sleuthing by a friend who needed to buy a giant ice bucket for a party, we trekked out to Tong Chuan Lu (the same street the Shanghai Seafood Market lies on) to find a giant restaurant supplies market with even more specialised goods and wider variety. They sell everything from fine crystal stemware to hoptpot setups, bakeware, jelly molds, and a vast array of dinnerware and cutlery. It’s just as interesting for the home cook, as the owner of a big restaurant or hotel and only a little further away from downtown than the Aomen Lu market. You could make a day of it with a kitchenware warehouse crawl…..or maybe that’s not something with very broad appeal…..
Unlike this giant jar of ‘colorful jelly’ which is very, very appealing in an off kind of way. Just what do you plan on doing with this, I wonder? I have a strong suspicion these colored jelly cubes end up in the bottom of bubble tea drinks, slurped up the straw along with the tapioca pearls….
First stop was the tinware and wok shop (don’t worry about specifics, there ten or more of these shops in the market). Woks range in size from domestic to something you could stirfry a whole tuna in. They also stock a whole range of pastry cutters (35 yuan ($5) for a graduated set of 12 circular cutters), baking dishes, cake tins, molds and cleavers. In other words, anything made from metal you might use in the kitchen.

I really loved this set of little brass spice scales for 32 yuan ($4.50). But given I’m not setting up a spice dealership anytime soon, I left them behind.

And next door, I couldn’t decide between the plate of plastic sushi or plastic noodles, all realistic and fresh looking. This market is also a great place to find Japanese style serving dishes, sake cups and platters (try Shop 148, the surprisingly named Cabaret Thing Company).

For beautiful copper and brass hotpots from Xinjiang in far western China, Shop 103 has an amazing selection, including these stunning enameled hotpots. I think I need to hold a hotpot party!

The inside of the market looks a little grim and industrial, but don’t be disappointed….

….because at Shop 176 you can buy everything you need to hold your own super fancy high tea, and should you be needing a chocolate fountain, well…they have those too. I’m pretty sure I’d win Mother of the Year if I came home from the shops with a chocolate fountain one day……

It’s surprisingly difficult to buy large flat white plates in Shanghai, and dinner sets are practically impossible. Bowls? No problem. But western-style plates are tricky. Not here though! They have dozens of styles lining the walls, all in matching seats with bowls, sideplates and serving dishes. So if you’re looking for a complete dinner set, this is the place to buy one.
The market also stocks espresso machines (from domestic to cafe size), proper kebeb skewers with wooden handles, juicers, blenders, food processors and KitchenAid mixers, baking trays, oven thermometers, sweets thermometers, cake decorating supplies, Esky brand eskies, aprons, napery, tea towels, and all kinds of professional kitchen equipment I can’t even tell you the names for. 
If you’re starving after covering what seems like several kilometres of shops, there is a great street food stall outside the entrance to the market. They sell a mutton bone broth with vegetables and tofu puffs served with a side of Shanghai style fried rice with finely chopped greens, 12 yuan ($1.80) for both. Simple, hearty, delicious. 

Shanghai Kitchen Market. The Big One.
QiLong Jiu Dian Yong Pin Shi Chang
(Qilong Hotel Equipment Market)

185 Tong Chuan Lu, near Lan Gao Lu

Open 7 days
Closest metro: Line 7 Lan Gao Lu Station

Making Mooncakes at the Chinese Cooking Workshop

Is it possible for a mooncake to taste any good? My experience of mooncakes is limited to the ones I was given at last year’s Mid-Autumn Festival – more effort had gone into the boxes than the cakes, whose fillings were dry, unidentifiable, or just plain revolting. Salted duck yolk with green tea anyone? How about white lotus with melon seeds, or red bean paste with olive kernel? Intriguing as these may sound, the taste leaves a lot to be desired. 
So when I heard that The Chinese Cooking Workshop on Weihai Lu was offering a special class in home-style moon cakes, in preparation for next month’s festival, I signed up straight away. No-one makes mooncakes at home anymore, because they’re fiddly, and you need an oven – but Chef Guo is a woman who never lets anything stand in the way of a good dumpling, and she taught me how to make the trickiest dumpling of all time, xiaolongbao, so I knew that mooncakes would be a doddle for her.
The fluted, highly patterned mooncakes sold in the shops are Cantonese style, she told me. The ones she plans to teach us to make will be Suzhou style, very rustic and homely.
Our classroom…and six enthusiastic students..
We start with the pastry. It’s like old-fashioned lard pastry.
 To make 8 mooncakes: 120g of wheat flour, 45g of pork lard, a teaspoon of maltose syrup, and enough hot water to make a soft dough. Knead for 10 minutes. Then make a second dough from only flour (80g) and lard (50g), no water, and knead it well. 
Roll the first dough into a square shape. Place the second, waterless dough in the centre.
Fold the edges over the dough ball to make a square packet. 
Now roll onto a rectangle about 15cm by 25cm, and fold each end of the rectangle into the middle, like folding a letter into thirds. The folding is what helps establish the flaky layers of the pastry. Now roll this rectangle into a large square, about 25cm across.
Roll up the square into a cylinder. Cut or tear the cylinder into 8 equal pieces. Take each piece and roll it into a rough disc, 10cm across.
Now for the filling – we used three different kinds – red bean paste, shown here, lotus seed paste, shown below, and a savoury pork mixture.
 Seasoned pork mixture – 1tsp each of salt, sugar, sesame oil, light soy, dark soy, rice wine, finely chopped shallot and finely chopped ginger mixed with 100g of fatty minced pork. 
Whichever filling you use, roll it into a small ball and place in the centre of the pastry disc. Now fold the pastry edges around the ball and pinch together so it is completely sealed. Gently roll it to return it to ball shape. The sealed side goes underneath and the top should look smooth and rounded.
The lotus paste, rolled ready for use.
Use a chopstick and beaten egg yolk to mark the top of the mooncake so that you know which ones have which filling. One dot for pork, two dots for red bean paste, and skull and crossbones for lotus paste.
We made some novelty shapes with the leftover dough – flowers, a walnut, and a money bag.
Ayi prepares to put them in the oven. 220 degrees C for 20 minutes.
Fresh out of the oven…..piping hot. The egg dots have turned dark brown.
Chef Guo has a taste. Her verdict? ‘Hao chi!’ (Chinese for ‘I’m surprised these taste so good!’) I liked the savoury ones the best – a little like a reaaly good home-made sausage roll. The lotus paste is rather bland and gluey, and is saved only by eating it fresh from the oven. The red bean paste is surprisingly good, but again needs to be eaten warm to minimise it’s glueyness.
The Chinese Cooking Workshop in the French Concession runs about ten bilingual classes every week in both dumplings and wok cooking. Highly recommended.

Yangshuo Cooking School

For me, cooking is almost as much fun as eating, and after trying the local specialty here in Yangshuo, Pijiu Yu, I wanted to learn how to make it. The Yangshuo Cooking School offers  a hands-on class making five dishes in their open air countryside classroom just outside of Yangshuo. 

To begin with we take a tour through Yangshuo’s wet market with our teacher Jennifer (above). The market is enormous and sells fresh fish and vegetables in one hall, and meat and spices in the other. The vegetables are piled in abundant fresh heaps – and there are many things I’ve never seen in Shanghai – pumpkin flowers, baby taro, tender pink-tipped baby ginger, water vines, and wild greens. The spices are incredible too – sacks of cassia bark, giant star anise, cloves, buddha’s fruit and sichuan pepper. We buy what we need for the morning’s class, including a huge flapping catfish, and make our way back to the school.

The kitchen is in the courtyard of an old village house, and looks out over a thriving vegetable garden with fruit trees, and across rice fields to the mountains. The kitchen sink is a heavy rough-hewn stone tub in the courtyard with a softly dripping tap. We have a refreshing cup of local tea on the open-air terrace before setting to work.

Our workstations are already neatly set up with all the ingredients we’ll need for the first dish – stuffed pumpkin flowers. We gently stuff the flowers with a pork mixture, the fold over the petals one by one and hold the whole lot together with a piece of edible pumpkin stalk. We set these aside to be steamed and move on to the next three dishes – eggplant Yangshuo style with garlic and chilli-blackbean paste, chicken with nuts and vegetables, and stir-fried wild greens with garlic. Jennifer is a good teacher and all the dishes are simple to prepare under her direction. We eat as we go, taking each dish out on to the terrace to enjoy.

It’s then finally time for the dish I’ve been waiting for…pijiu yu – fish in beer. The ingredients are shown below – a piece of fresh fish with skin on, tomatoes, sliced red and green peppers, sliced pickled chillies, ginger, garlic, spring onions, and of course beer. Jennifer tells us that Guinness is no good for this dish – it really needs a light ale. 

The fish is first fried skin down until the skin begins to brown, then the ginger and garlic are added, and as their aroma develops, we follow with the tomatoes, peppers, chillies and the beer. When the beer has reduced and all that remains is a rich sauce it’s time to put the spring onions in and serve. Dead easy, delicious. 

If you ever have the chance to visit Yangshuo, you can find more information about the lovely Yangshuo Cooking School here.

Furnace Brownies

Today I wanted to show some evidence that cooking does actually occur at my place, as well as all the eating. Voila…..chocolate brownies!

Now before you go saying ‘chocolate brownies? We’re meant to be impressed by that?’ I want you to read this and reconsider. Because although my Chinese cooking is coming along nicely, especially with all the fantastic fresh food on offer from the wet market ,if I try cooking anything western I feel like I’m on some bizarre treasure hunt in The Amazing Race, trying to gather all the ingredients together in the allotted timeframe whilst dealing with unforeseen adverse circumstances. 

Get-togethers with other foreigners often sound strangely mundane: ‘Pine nuts?! You found pine nuts??? Do you have the shop’s address in Chinese?’ We get together and swap cocoa war stories and valuable gems of information on the whereabouts of icing sugar. I once came home with eight jars of capers in my handbag, just because that’s how many the shop had, and they wouldn’t give me a carry bag. 

Baking is particularly challenging – self-raising flour is non-existent, Chinese sugar is just plain weird, half the ingredients are probably tainted with melamine, and most houses don’t have any sort of oven at all. My house does have an oven, although when I light it I have to use a very long taper otherwise the ignition fireball will singe my little eyebrows off. The oven in reality has only  two settings – FURNACE and OFF. When I used my handy oven thermometer to test it I discovered its lowest temperature is 270 degrees. Celsius.I didn’t try for a highest temperature because a) the knobs on the front of the oven panel began to melt and b) I’m not planning on setting up a home aluminium smelter. 

(For you non-cooks, most ovens have a low setting of 60 degrees, and a maximum of 250 degrees).

So here’s how the brownies panned out. Chocolate – purchased from Ikea Shanghai. Pretty good too. Hazelnuts – smuggled into the country by a kind friend visiting from home. Sour cream – forget it. Substitute UHT cream. Oven – place on lowest setting. Leave the door open until the temperature drops to 180. Put brownies in and shut the door. When temperature rises to 290 degrees within 3 minutes, open the door again until it drops. Repeat 16 times over 45 minutes. Do not leave the room.

So thank you. These are the results of my Shanghai Brownie Challenge. Just spit out the burnt bits.

Fiona can make XiaoLongBao!

Unbelievable, isn’t it! Xiao long bao (small steamer basket buns) are a delicious Shanghainese specialty beloved by everyone. Their thin but strong wrapping holds the most aromatic
mouthful of hot broth and pork, and I had wondered long and hard about how such a volume of liquid might manage to be encased in a soft dumpling wrapper. Since I first visited Shanghai I’ve been dreaming of making xiao long bao , but I considered them well beyond the reach of the average amateur cook (myself). But then I discovered a cooking school right here in the French Concession specialising in teaching foreigners the art of making dumplings.

Firstly, make a wheat flour and water dough. Knead the hell out of it to make it strong but stretchy. Divide into walnut sized pieces.

Roll out the dumpling wrappers until 6cm across.

Now for the really disgusting part. Fill your wrapper quite full with the secret mixture. This secret mixture (don’t keep reading if you have a weak stomach. Or you are vegetarian) is pork mince mixed with a thick jelly made from boiling pork skin for hours, until it sets. At room temperature it’s the colour and consistency of lard, yet is totally fat free! There has to be an advantage to outweigh the thought of eating dissolved pig skin. At high heat the jelly dissolves inside the dumpling, mingles with all the other ingredients and makes an amazingly delicious soup. And yes, I still keep eating them even though now I know…… you ever think about those horses hoofs when you eat raspberry jelly? No!
So now, easy peasy, just pleat those little dumpling wrapper edges, oh, about eighteen times until it forms a tight spiral. Pinch to close. Steam for 10 minutes. Can you believe I made these little beauties?

Braised Tongli Pork…..Dribbling Yet?

Never, ever visit Tongli without trying their version of Wansan pork. You will regret it for the rest of your days. This slow-cooked, sweet, meltingly tender bit of pig’s leg can be carved with a spoon, or a single chopstick, depending on your preference. It’s that tender. If you want to relive the experience at home, back in your poky Shanghai kitchen, you can buy a take-away leg or three from one of the many vendors lining the last street in Tongli before you leave. Try not to open the foil bag and eat it on the way home………….

Cooking Sheng Jian Bao

Shanghai Fried Dumplings (shengjianbao) are delicious. And completely evil. You will put on 5kg just by looking at them, and boy, if you put one of these babies in your mouth you can expect to be completely hooked. They are the ultimate winter comfort food, a soft white steamed wheaten bun filled with a fragrant and savoury mixture of pork meat and soup, with a topping of chives and black sesame seeds, and a golden,crunchy fried bottom. A little like the coarse country cousin of the refined Shanghainese soup dumpling xiaolongbao.

At cooking class this week, we
made our first batch. The trick is to roll out the dumpling wrapper so it is thicker in the middle than at the edges….this keeps the top of the bun strong.

Then you have to carefully pleat the edges of the wrapper while keeping the filling inside, then pinch the pleated edges together…..for a beginner, this is so impossible you begin to lose confidence…………….but then at last, after much practice, you sort of get the hang of it.

Then pop them all in the pan, sizzle them with a little oil for a few minutes until the bottoms are crisp, then add a little water, and as the steam billows up cover them tightly with a lid. Steam away for 5 minutes or so….

Now enjoy the whole damn lot. Chinese vinegar optional. Try and eat just one…