Temptations from the Great Wall

The Chinese New Year is a good occasion to experiment with Chinese flavorings like soy sauce, rice wine, and ginger root.

Hui tomato-lamb noodle soup_521 (photo credit: Richard Jung)
Hui tomato-lamb noodle soup_521
(photo credit: Richard Jung)
To learn when the Chinese New Year will take place, we don’t need a calendar. We just go to our favorite Chinese market. The special New Year foods start to appear a few weeks before the holiday, which is known as the Festival of Spring, like Pessah and Nowruz, the Persian New Year.
During the last several weeks, the market has been featuring gift cards with a picture of a rabbit because the upcoming year, which begins on February 3, is the Year of the Rabbit.
At the market we find all sorts of Chinese New Year sweets, including traditional glutinous rice cakes, dried pineapple and candied lotus seeds, as well as fresh pomelos and mandarin oranges, which are favorite gifts to bring when visiting friends on the New Year. We especially love the dried persimmons, which are prominently displayed during this season, and the warm, steamed, slightly sweet yeast cakes called fortune cakes that remind us of kubaneh, the Yemenite Shabbat bread.
Noodles, which symbolize longevity, are popular on holiday menus. Around China there are countless ways of preparing them. In their splendid book Beyond the Great Wall, Jeffrey Alford and Naomi Duguid feature recipes from the “Other China,” “the outlying regions of present-day China”– Tibet, Inner Mongolia, Yunnan, Guizhou and more. They include enticing noodle recipes, many of which are quite easy to prepare, such as lamb and noodle soup with spinach, flavored with sauteed ginger, garlic and fresh coriander.
Lamb is unusual in Chinese recipes. Long ago we learned from our good friend Nina Simonds, a Chinese cuisine expert, that most Chinese do not like lamb, except for people in certain areas such as northern China, where the cuisine was influenced by the Mongol invaders and the Muslims, who use it instead of pork.
We have enjoyed hearty Chinese lamb soups flavored with ginger and enhanced with plenty of tasty, springy, hand-made noodles at northern Chinese and Islamic Chinese restaurants in Los Angeles. At such eateries there were subtle notes that recalled Middle Eastern cooking. Cumin, a spice we don’t often find in Chinese dishes, was used to season stir-fried lamb. Flatbreads studded with sesame seeds resembled Persian lavash, while green onion pancakes reminded us of Yemenite melawah.
The Chinese also use sesame paste to make sauces. Usually it is dark brown and made from roasted sesame seeds. However, in the regions beyond the Great Wall, Alford and Duguid noticed that the sesame paste is very like tehina. They use tehina in their recipe for noodles with sesame sauce, a peppery dish from Xinjiang in northwest China, which borders Tibet, Afghanistan, Pakistan and India. To make the sauce, they mix the tehina with water, vinegar and soy sauce, and then toss it with cooked noodles and top it with chopped green onions and plenty of fresh hot red peppers.
The upcoming Chinese New Year is a good occasion to experiment with Chinese flavorings like soy sauce, rice wine, dried black mushrooms and gingerroot and to remember to use them to add interest to even the simplest of vegetable dishes, soups and entrees.
Faye Levy is the author of Faye Levy’s International Vegetable Cookbook.
Serves 4 as a one-dish meal
This recipe is from Beyond the Great Wall by Jeffrey Alford and Naomi Duguid, who describe the soup as “tomato-lamb broth with small tender pieces of lamb and tomato floating in it, served over slippery squarecut noodles... completely delicious and satisfying, a warm welcome on a chilly rainy evening.” The original recipe is made with home-made wheat noodles (made without eggs) cut in 2.5-cm squares. The authors recommend packaged egg noodles as a substitute. The soup is made with either lamb or goat.
The Hui are Chinese Muslims whose menus include different kinds of flatbreads and grilled lamb, as well as soups served over wheat noodles.
2 Tbsp. peanut oil, vegetable oil or rendered lamb fat 1 Tbsp. minced ginger 1 Tbsp. minced garlic 350 gr. boneless lamb, trimmed of fat and cut into bite-size pieces (about 11⁄2 cups) 1⁄2 to 1 tsp. salt, or to taste 2 medium tomatoes, chopped (about 11⁄2 cups) 5 cups hot water350 gr. wide egg noodles cut into 5-cm. to 7.5-cm. lengths 1 cup packed, coarsely chopped spinach or other greens (see Note) 3⁄4 cup minced fresh coriander (cilantro)
Condiments: Jinjiang (black rice) vinegar, cider vinegar or rice vinegar Soy sauce (optional)
Heat oil in a large, heavy pot over medium heat. When it is hot, add ginger and garlic and cook, stirring occasionally, until softened, about 5 minutes. Add meat, raise heat to medium-high and brown meat all over. Stir in 1⁄2 teaspoon salt, then add tomatoes. Lower heat to medium and cook, stirring occasionally, for 5 minutes.
Add the hot water and bring to a vigorous boil, then lower the heat and simmer, partially covered, for 10 minutes or until the meat is tender. Taste for salt, and adjust if you wish. Remove from heat. (The soup can be prepared ahead and reheated just before serving. Refrigerate, covered, if not serving within 1 hour.) Shortly before you wish to serve the soup, bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. Add noodles and cook until tender; drain.
Meanwhile, bring the soup to a boil. Stir in the spinach and cook for 1 minute or until softened.
Divide noodles among 4 large bowls. Ladle the hot soup over the noodles, distributing the meat, spinach and tomatoes evenly. Top each serving with a generous tablespoon of minced coriander.
Put out the remaining cilantro along with the other condiments so guests can adjust their soup to taste. Encourage them to drizzle a little vinegar into their soup; or put out a small condiment bowl for each guest so they can make a dip of vinegar and soy to use as a flavoring for the pieces of meat as they eat.
Note: You can substitute chard leaves, stripped from the stems, or other tender leafy greens for the spinach; cooking time will be a little longer for chard than for spinach. Or you can omit the greens entirely.
Makes 3 servings
This Chinese restaurant classic is usually made with Chinese broccoli, a leafy green with just a few florets, and is easy to make at home with regular broccoli. This recipe calls for only the florets of the broccoli; use the stems in soups or other dishes.
In addition to soy sauce, many flavor this dish with a tablespoon of Chinese oyster sauce, which is salty and slightly sweet. Vegetarians and kosher cooks use vegetarian oyster sauce, which is flavored with mushrooms.
You can find canned straw mushrooms in Asian grocery stores. If you don’t have them, use 100 grams quartered white mushrooms. Add them to the skillet along with the black mushrooms.
6 dried Chinese black mushrooms (shiitake) 1 cup hot water 1 Tbsp. Chinese rice wine or dry sherry 2 to 3 tsp. soy sauce 1 to 11⁄2 tsp. sugar 550 gr. broccoli, stems removed, divided in medium florets 1 Tbsp. vegetable oil 1 garlic clove, minced 1 tsp. minced peeled gingerroot 1 tsp cornstarch mixed with 2 tsp. water 1 can (170 gr.) Chinese straw mushrooms, rinsed and drained
Rinse black mushrooms. Soak mushrooms in 1 cup hot water for 30 minutes or until soft. Remove mushrooms and rinse them. Cut off stems if they are tough, and discard them; quarter caps. Reserve soaking liquid. Strain it through cheesecloth if it’s sandy. Pour into another bowl, without adding sandy portion at bottom. Measure 1⁄2 cup liquid. Mix with rice wine, 2 teaspoons soy sauce and 1 teaspoon sugar. Whisk to blend.
Add broccoli to a saucepan of boiling salted water and boil uncovered over high heat about 4 minutes or until crisp-tender. Drain, rinse with cold water and drain well.
Heat oil in a heavy skillet or wok over medium-high heat. Add garlic and ginger and stir-fry about 10 seconds. Add black mushrooms and soy sauce mixture. Bring to a boil. Cover and simmer over low heat 5 minutes.
Stir cornstarch mixture to blend; stir into sauce and cook 1 minute, stirring. Add straw mushrooms and broccoli and heat through. Taste, and add more sugar or soy sauce if needed.