Chinese yam, also known as 淮山 (“huai shan”) or 山藥 (“shan yao”), is a root that Chinese people eat as a mild tonic food. It is supposed to be good for the spleen, lungs and kidneys. My mother-in-law extols its virtues and in recent years she has added several slices of the Chinese yam in practically every soup she makes, regardless of whether she is making corn soup, fish soup, chicken soup or melon soup. Considering that she looks so beautiful and youthful at her age (85) and that it is good for the lungs, I decided to make a version that is chuckful of the goodness of sweet fresh Chinese yam with spareribs by modifying two recipes I found online. I was amazed by the result. It was refreshing and delicious. This recipe is a keeper!
Goji berry has been used in Chinese cuisine for thousands of years but recently it has become a super food for Westerners. It is high in vitamin C, has high levels of anti-oxidants and is great for the eyes and skin, provides immune system support and improves anxiety and sleep. In this time of the Covid-19 or Wuhan coronavirus, we can all do with a little tonic to strengthen our lungs and immune system.
In some countries like Taiwan or Japan (where it’s called nagaimo), Chinese yam is available fresh as a strange looking hairy, humongous root. If you don’t find it in the fresh section of your grocery store, it is available in the dried sliced form in most Chinese groceries. If you are using the dried version, do remember to rinse it before cooking. Fresh Chinese yam is better for this recipe as it is sweeter. When cooked in soup, its texture and taste is like potatoes. The fresh yam can also be sliced thinly and stir fried (that’s going to be another blog post in the future).
About 6 -8 inches long fresh Chinese yam 山藥 “shan yao” (peeled, washed and sliced) Spare ribs or lean pork (cut into pieces)
6 Red dates
3 dried figs
Handful of goji berries (also known as wolfberries)
2 slices of ginger
1 tbsp Shaoxing wine or Chinese rice wine
Salt to taste
Parboil the spareribs in small amount of water that just covers the spareribs for 2-3 mins. Discard the water that is used to parboil the spareribs.
Rinse the spareribs in fresh water to remove the brown foamy bits.
Fill the pot with fresh water, put in the spareribs, shan yao, dates, figs, goji berries and ginger.
Boil on high for 15 mins, then lower heat to continue boiling for 45 mins. Add in the wine and salt to taste towards the end of cooking time.
You had probably used a loofah sponge in your life, in the shower perhaps, but did you know it comes from the loofah gourd which is an edible vegetable? It doesn’t taste like much on its own but in Taiwan where it is called “shi gua” 絲瓜 , it is commonly found in the local markets and it is often made into delicious soups, like Loofah with Clams soup or Loofah with Carrots and Vermicelli soup. It is perfect for the hot summer weather as it is nourishing and replenishes fluids; and with the addition of vermicelli, it can be a meal in itself. Enjoy!
Loofah with Carrots and Vermicelli soup
Recipe for the Loofah with Carrots and Vermicelli Soup:
1 small piece of lean pork
3 dried scallops
3 dried figs
4 dried red dates
Rinse the dried scallops, then leave it to soak in a cup of hot water for 1 hour. Remember to keep the soaking water to add to the soup.
Cut the lean pork into thin slices.
Peel and cut the loofah and carrots into small chunks.
Rinse the dried figs and red dates.
Put all the above ingredients into a pot. Add 6 – 8 cups of water.
Boil on high heat for 10 mins, then lower the heat to boil for another 50 mins.
Add vermicelli and salt to taste.
Loofah with Clams soup: Omit the carrots, instead you add fresh clams to the pot towards the last 10 mins of the cooking process; and garnish with cut spring onions and thinly sliced ginger before serving.
Loofah with Shrimp soup: Fresh shrimp in shell may be used instead of clams.
Taiwan has a lot of beautiful scenic places with poetic names. One place which I visited recently is Xiangtian (“Facing the Sky”) Lake in Nanzhuang, Maoli County. While we were waiting for the bus, we spied several small shacks next to the bus stop selling “Maqaw Eggs”. What in the world are Maqaw eggs? It turns out Maqaw 马 告 (pinyin “Ma Gao”) is a kind of wild peppercorn that is famous in Miaoli’s aboriginal cuisine. Its scientific name is Litsea Cubeba, a plant native to Taiwan, China and Indonesia. Its fruit produces a lemony essential oil which is used in soaps and its seeds are used in cooking. The stall was selling hard boiled Chinese tea eggs specially flavored with Maqaw so we naturally had to try them (they were delicious!) as well as Maqaw peppercorn seeds. The proprietor convinced me that they are very expensive in New York specialty stores but it’s a good price at Xiangtian Lake because they are locally grown. Not one to pass up a deal, I naturally had to buy a bottle of the fragrant wild peppercorn. It is supposed to be great for tea eggs as well as pork and fish dishes. So tonight I sprinkled some Maqaw peppercorn seeds on my cod fish and they certainly added a lovely citrony flavor to the dish.
1 piece cod fish
1 tbsp black bean and garlic sauce (Lee Kum Kee brand)
1/2 tbsp hoisin sauce (Lee Kum Kee brand)
1/2 tbsp XO sauce
1 tbsp Maqaw peppercorn seeds
Rinse the cod fish under running water. Pat dry.
Place it on a dish, add all the ingredients on top of the fish. Steam for 10 mins or until cooked.
Sprinkle spring onions on top for garnish. Serve hot with steamed rice.
This is a simple Taiwanese dish. It is a folk recipe that calls for one cup each of sesame oil, soy sauce and rice wine but its name is a bit misleading because in reality you don’t actually cook it that way. It is my favorite chicken dish in Taiwan. Its sauce is incredibly aromatic and goes really well with rice.
1/8 to 1/4 cup sesame oil *
1/4 cup rice wine
1/4 cup soy sauce
1 Tbsp sugar
2 lbs chicken – thighs and wings, cut into pieces
One inch piece of fresh ginger, thinly sliced into rounds
12 medium garlic cloves, peeled
1 – 2 fresh red chilis, seeds removed and cut into halves
1 bunch of Thai basil leaves (optional)
* I modified the original recipe to use less than 1/4 cup sesame oil and discovered that it didn’t compromise too much on the taste.
Heat the sesame oil in a frying pan. Add ginger, garlic and chili and stir fry until fragrant, about 1 minute.
Add the chicken to the pan and stir fry for about 5 mins until they are cooked.
Add rice wine, soy sauce and sugar and bring to a boil, stirring to dissolve the sugar. Reduce heat and simmer for about 15 minutes, stirring occasionally to cook the chicken thoroughly. Add in Thai basil leaves and serve with rice.
Savory Tofu Soup is a traditional breakfast which a lot of people in China and Taiwan grew up eating. Most people know of soy milk as a drink but when soy milk is heated up with vinegar, it curdles into chunks of soft delicious tofu swimming in a salty, vinegary broth (tastes kind of like a hot and sour soup).
It is often eaten with scallion pancakes, Chinese egg pancakes (Dan Bing) and crusty buns filled with pork, vegetables or sweet egg cream (Shao Bing).
There is a famous market stall in Taipei, called FuHang (阜杭豆漿) in HuaShan Market, across the road from Shandao Temple that sells freshly made soy milk as well as this savory tofu soup and traditional buns made fresh on the premises. They have an open kitchen where you can watch them knead the dough and bake the buns in huge earthen jars …. it’s great fun to watch the kitchen workers make the Shao Bing while you are in line, inching towards the cashier. It is such a popular place that there are always lines running outside the stall, down the stairs to the first floor, and sometimes snaking around the outside of the building! The queue starts from the minute the stall opens at 5:30 am to around noon when they sell out.
The savory tofu soup is actually quite simple to make it yourself at home. The ingredients can be bought ahead of time. If you live in western countries, you can find ready-made scallion pancakes and Chinese fried dough crullers at the freezer section of most Asian supermarkets. Whether homemade or ready-made, scallion pancakes go really well with this tofu soup, and you are sure to impress your family with this traditional Chinese Sunday breakfast!
Unsweetened soy milk
Chinese black vinegar
preserved vegetables 榨菜
a few stalks of spring onions, chopped
Chinese fried dough crullers 油条, toasted and cut into slices
chili oil (optional)
dried shrimp or dried Sakura shrimp (optional, may be omitted for a vegetarian option)
Heat the soy milk in a saucepan.
In a small bowl, mix together a few teaspoons vinegar, salt, pepper to taste, a drizzle of sesame oil, a few teaspoons picked vegetables, chili oil and dried shrimp, according to your own taste.
Pour the mixture into the hot soy milk and let stand for a minute, without stirring.
Ladle out the tofu soup into a serving bowl.
Garnish with chopped spring onions and Chinese fried dough crullers. Serve hot.
The first time I tried this wild vegetable which Taiwanese call Shan Su Cai (山稣菜) was in Hualien’s Taroko National Park. I was told it is rarely available because people have to climb up hilly slopes to harvest it in the wild. To my surprise, I found it in the local market this morning, so naturally, I had to buy 2 bundles (ntd 60 which is about usd 2) to try.
On Googling this vegetable’s Chinese name, I discovered its English name is Bird’s Nest Fern! Imagine that, eating a fern. I wonder if this is the same Bird’s Nest fern that is ubiquitous in South East Asia. It can be found growing on the trees by the roadside, or in forested areas in countries like Malaysia and Singapore where I come from…. Well, nobody I know in Singapore has ever bothered to harvest the Bird’s Nest fern to eat. I wonder if this Taiwanese Shan Shu vegetable is the edible kind and the Bird’s Nest Fern of my Singaporean childhood is the inedible kind.
In any case, they don’t know what they are missing – a delightfully crunchy vegetable stir fried with fresh cut chili and small fish, done in the Taiwanese way.
2 bundles of Bird’s Nest Fern – washed and cut into bite sized pieces
1 chili – cut into slivers
5 Tbsp small fish (anchovies or ikan bilis)
2 cloves garlic – peeled and sliced
2 Tbsp preserved black beans or garlic black bean sauce
3 Tbsp oyster sauce
1 -2 Tbsp cooking oil
1. Blanch the Bird’s Nest Fern in boiling water for 5 seconds, drain and keep aside.
2. Rinse and pat dry the small fish. Stir fry the small fish, chili, black beans and garlic in 1 to 2 Tbsp cooking oil, using low heat.
3. Add in the Bird’s Nest Fern. Mix in the oyster sauce. Stir fry quickly using high heat. Add a few tablespoons of water if it is dry. Do not overcook the Bird’s Nest Fern as it will turn brown.
4. Dish up and serve with rice.
See stunning pictures of Taroko National Park here:
I am in love with tofu skin. It is such a versatile ingredient. I was actually planning to make Tofu Skin with Endamame (see previous post) tonight but when I got ready to cook, I realized that I didn’t have any Endamame in my freezer. Then, I remembered a dish I had eaten, a long time ago, at a vegetarian restaurant – Braised Tofu Skin with Mushrooms and I managed to re-create it here. It was delicious!
3 fresh or dried tofu skins
5 dried shiitake mushrooms
half a cup of dried black wood ear (also known as black fungus)
1 bunch asparagus tips or any kind of vegetable like sugar peas
2 cloves garlic, crushed
1 small piece of crushed ginger
1 Tbsp rice wine
1 Tbsp light soy sauce
1/2 tsp sugar
3 Tbsp oyster sauce
1 Tbsp cooking oil
Corn starch mixture – stir together 1 tsp corn starch with 1 Tbsp water and 1 tsp sesame oil
1. Soak the dried tofu skin for 15 mins in boiling water until it is soft. Drain and discard the soaking liquid. Skip this step if you are using fresh tofu skin.
2. Wash the shiitake mushrooms and black wood ear. Then soak them in water for half an hour. Drain and discard the water.
3. Simmer the shiitake mushrooms and black wood ear in a sauce pan with just enough water to cover it, for 10 mins. Drain and save the water which is used to simmer it.
4. Slice the tofu skin into 1 inch pieces. Slice the mushrooms and cut the black wood ear into bite size pieces.
5. Heat the oil in a frying pan. Add in the crushed garlic and crushed ginger and stir fry 1-2 minutes until fragrant. Add in the tofu skin, mushrooms, black wood ear and asparagus. Stir in the rice wine, soy sauce, sugar, oyster sauce and some of the water used to simmer the mushrooms in step 3.
6. Stir fry for 1-2 minutes and add in the rest of the simmering liquid. Cover and leave to simmer for 5 minutes. Stir in gently corn starch mixture until the sauce is thickened.
7. Serve hot with rice.