Delicious grains: millets of China, Mongolia, and Central Asia

A fried foxtail millet pilaf with sweet and savory Chinese sausage and pickled mustard greens

The millets of China, Mongolia, and Central Asia are hearty crops that can be sustained in very arid climates. For tens of thousands of years they have served as important staple crops for many of those region’s food cultures (especially before the widespread use of wheat). Today I am writing about two of the most common types of millet that have ancient Eurasian roots, but can be easily found in Philadelphia Chinese markets: foxtail millet (Setaricia italica) and broomcorn millet (Panicum miliaceum). Both are nutty, delicious, and nutritious, and both are definitely worth checking out as a an interesting alternative to other grains.

If you don’t know what to expect with attempting to cook these millets, I find their tastes and textures remind me very much of a starchy couscous (in fact, in Chinese, couscous is often called by the same word used to refer to foxtail millet 小米, despite the fact that couscous is not a grain but a type of pasta). In porridge forms, the taste and texture is reminiscent of Cream of Wheat (for me this isn’t a negative connotation). The millet grains that I describe below are smaller than rice, and they cook faster than rice too. These would be versatile in pilaf or porridge preparations, savory or sweet. Both have “glutinous” (I presume those would be best in porridge-type preparations) and “regular” forms in Philadelphia markets. I’ll be focusing on the non-glutinous types today.

Two types (out of four available, including glutinous varieties of each of these) of millet purchased at Heng Fa market on Washington Ave (aka Hung Vuong). Wise Wife brand “Northeastern big yellow grain” and Merry Group brand “Northeastern small grain”

I took several weeks to research as many millet-focused recipes as I could find from my Chinese, Mongolian, Uyghur, Uzbek, and Kazakh language cookbook collection, and some existing resources online. Most recipes that I found were for porridge preparations, like a sweet snack or hot breakfast recipe. There were also several pilaf-like preparations that intrigued me. As I’ve been home-bound for several weeks now due to the COVID-19 related lockdown in Philadelphia, I decided to try several millet-based dishes, and I share some of my millet adventures below.

Foxtail millet (Setaricia italica), 小米, qonaq, shar budaa, etc.

Foxtail millet was domesticated in north-central China some 10,000 years ago1 (in the same region that is the Chinese wheat heartland of breads and noodles along the Yellow River) and is still an important crop there. The grain is also now common in Central Asian and Mongolian food cultures.  In Chinese this is commonly referred to as “little grain” 小米, as opposed to the “big grain” 大米 (which is a common way to refer to rice). It is also sometimes referred to as 粟米 or 谷[子]米.

Broomcorn millet (L) and the smaller foxtail millet (R), a side-by-side comparison

According to my dictionaries, Central Asian Turkic languages near China refer to foxtail millet as: қонақ/قوناق (Kazakh) qo’noq/қўнақ (Uzbek), конок (Kyrgyz), and چۈچگۈن قوناق (Uyghur). It is interesting that the unclassified cognate qonaq in Uyghur refers to corn/maize instead of millet, but in all other languages it seems to point specifically to millet.

In Mongolian this grain is commonly referred to as “yellow grain” шар будаа ᠰᠢᠷ᠎ᠠ ᠪᠤᠳᠠᠭ᠎ᠠ, or “day grain” хоног будаа ᠬᠣᠨᠤᠭ ᠪᠤᠳᠠᠭ᠎ᠠ. Is it possible that the Mongolian khonog might be a cognate to Turkic qonaq?

Broomcorn millet (Panicum miliaceum), 黄米, tariq, tari, khar budaa, etc.

Broomcorn millet was likely domesticated in Central Asia2, again in ancient times, but it has long been used in Chinese and Mongolian food cultures as well. This is known commonly called “yellow grain” 黄米 in Chinese. It is a little fatter than foxtail millet, and it is a little starchier. It works as a starchy grain stand-in as part of a broader meal, but it is likely best suited as a porridge grain.

In Mongolian, this is called “black grain” хар будаа ᠬᠠᠷ᠎ᠠ ᠪᠤᠳᠠᠭ᠎ᠠ. In nearby Turkic languages it is known as тары/تارى (Kazakh), tariq/тариқ (Uzbek), таруу (Kyrgyz), and تېرىق (Uyghur).

A very simple foxtail millet porridge 小米粥. Put a small amount of millet (start with 1/2 cup or so for 1-2 people) and cover with water. Bring to boil, and keep adding boiling water as needed to cover the grains. Boil for 20 or 30 minutes until the grains start to break. In China sugar is often added, and sometimes red goji berries. I kept mine plain as a nutty alternative to rice porridge

In my search for recipes in various modern Central Asian language cookbooks, it was evident that primarily China focused on the difference between these two grains. In almost all of my non-Chinese language cookbooks, the types of millet were not specified. Instead a generic term for millet (or perhaps the meaning is “groats”?) was generally used: сөқ/سوك (Kazakh), so’q/сўқ (Uzbek), سۆك (Uyghur). 

A breakfast of foxtail millet porridge, boiled with water and goat milk (thanks Betty’s Acres!) with salted butter and a touch of sugar. The name of this dish is “yellow grain zutan” шар будааны зутан ᠰᠢᠷ᠎ᠠ ᠪᠤᠳᠠᠭᠠᠨ ᠤ ᠵᠤᠲᠠᠩ and it is a classic recipe from the Nomads restuarant chain cookbook 99 Recipes of Traditional Mongolian Foods Уламжлалт монгол хоолны 99 жор. Imagine a chewier Cream of Wheat, but 100 times richer…

Making a pilaf-style dish with millet

This can be done a few different ways. A “fried rice” approach (i.e. the image below) may be the easiest starting point. You can simply par-boil the grains to your desired consistency (just before al-dente would be good). Then you can drain, cool, and set aside until you are ready to stir fry with the other ingredients. Or you can put in the hot drained grains right into the stir fry preparation. The grains would go in last, just to season and finish. If your grains are fully cooked, an overnight rest in the fridge would make them perfect for a fried “rice” (just like day-old rice is always better for fried rice).

This was loosely based on Northwestern-style [i.e. Shaanxi province] fried [par-boiled] millet “rice”, with egg, gai lan, chile, scallion, and ground venison from Wisconsin. Plus salt and pepper and a touch of pickling vinegar. It was really delicious.

Alternatively, you could start by frying all of the other pilaf ingredients, and then dumping in pre-soaked (30 mins) and drained millet before frying it together. You would then need to add some boiling water as you cook all of the ingredients together, just enough to bring the grains to boil/steam to fully cooked. It might take 10-15 minutes or so. I did that process below with a recipe very loosely based on a Shaanxi dish I saw for “Millet fried sheep parts” 谷米炒羊杂. Instead of sheep organ meat, I used a sweet and savory Chinese sausage.

A Uyghur-style millet “rice” with lamb stir fry سۆك ئېشى

Millet can also be prepared as a separate starch to eat together with stir fried things. I found one such recipe in the Rice cookbook of the “Uyghur food and drink culture” series (2007 by Yunus Hemdulla ئۇيغۇر يېمەك – ئىچمەك مەدەنىيىتى – گۈرۈچ تائاملىرى). The recipe is called “millet rice” soek eshi سۆك ئېشى 黄米饭 and it was delicious. I boiled pre-soaked (for 30 mins) broomcorn millet in just enough water to ensure it cooked through. I kept adding boiling water and kept stirring until water was absorbed and the grains were not too crunchy. I also added a little butter. Based on the image from the cookbook, I was actually going for this slightly sticky texture. I can’t say for certain if it is more commonly presented as independent grains. It was delicious in any case, and the near mashed potato consistency was a great pair to the lamb and pepper stir fry.

I should note that in the Uyghur cookbook, the millet was steamed in a bowl. That process may be easier to control the cooking time of the millet and better protect against burning on the bottom of the pan.

These are trying times as the world faces a pandemic. Stay strong everyone, and eat well when you can.


1,2E.N. Anderson, Food and Environment in Early and Medieval China. University of Pennsylvania Press, 2014. (pages referenced 36-37)

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Central Asia-focused market in NE Philadelphia

Vatan Market in Bustleton

I was thrilled to learn about a new market that opened up in NE Philly this past year–a market that caters to Central Asian tastes! It is called Vatan Market and it is located at 11726A Bustleton Ave, just across the street from the large NetCost market that I previously highlighted. Vatan means “homeland” in several Central Asian languages (like Uzbek, Tajik, and Uyghur, for example), and the market clearly caters to these groups. Much of the products come from neighboring countries with stronger imports to the US, notably Russia, Turkey, and Iran. It is a great mix, and there are a lot of rare items here!

As you might imagine, a key genre of food for this market is dried Central Asian fruits and nuts (i.e. items best consumed along with flatbread and tea) They have an AMAZING selection. They have all sorts of items for teatime, including special rock sugars and also several candies from Russia. I came home with some large dried raisins and dried mulberries:

The market also stocks cookware, including some nice heavy kazan pots, best for cooking delicious Central Asian rice pilaf (aka as polo, plov, palaw). They even sell charcoal cookers for the full experience!

Charcoal cooker with heavy kazan for cooking amazing rice pilaf!

Finally, they had an ingredient I’ve been long in search of, ever since I started getting into Karim Mahmudov’s books (I highly recommend Boris Ushumirskiy’s translation for newbies): G’o’raob (ғўраоб), a sour grape juice that has been left to ferment. It is an important ingredient in many Uzbek salad preparations, and I’ve never seen it in US markets (even at Brighton Beach’s amazing Tashkent Supermarket).

G’o’raob found!

From what I understand, in Uzbekistan this was a traditional food ingredient and medicine and it is produced by harvesting unripe grapes, juicing them, and then bottling them to sit in the sun for several weeks. Today, many Uzbek observant Muslims do not use it because it may contain alcohol. The version I got above was produced in Iran, and has no alcohol. After viewing some Persian language YouTube videos it looks like the processing for this is simply bringing sour grape juice to brought to boil and then bottling it. I don’t know how different it will be to the fermented-in-the-sun one, but I’m still happy to try cooking with it!

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Fragrant and crispy peppers, for snacking on

A recent attempt at replicating Yunnan-style fragrant and crispy peppers. They are not as spicy as they look–those are sesame seeds, not pepper seeds

In recent years an interesting snack seems to be trending all around China: fried “fragrant and crispy” peppers (香脆椒, aka 香辣酥), sometimes translated into English as “fried chile crisp”, or “magic chili”. I don’t recall seeing these in the 90s when I lived in Guangzhou, but it was probably already a thing at least in Sichuan, if not the broader Southwest. Now you can find iterations of this snack at corner stores and groceries all over the country, as well as in the US.

This snack is most commonly available in China in plastic jars like the image to the left. Peppers are cut into little cylinders, packed and tossed with sesame seeds, starch, salt, sugar, (and often MSG), and deep fried and mixed with peanuts.

The example on the left is a Beijing-produced 香辣酥, found at a Chinese shop in Ulaanbaatar a few years ago.

My second attempt at this snack, this time mixed with dry roasted peanuts. This is basically the same process as the recipe at the end of this post, but with a final mixing of peanuts (either dry roasted or deep fried). See the Magic Ingredients video for more details. Beware that chile seeds have a better chance of remaining in the pods with this cutting style, so you might consider boiling the chiles separately or using a larger chile.

Among rare discussions of this food item online (primarily in Chinese), it seems like this snack ultimately came from Sichuan as a drinking food. Some, like this “history” page by a local Sichuan brand 陈大妈, suspect the food item should date from at least the time of the creation of “governors chicken” (宫保鸡丁). Other discussions hint at the natural evolution as Sichuan is home to some of the best baijiu liquors in China, and hence a need for local drinking foods.

Last summer I noticed this item on the “Chinese only” chalkboard specials menu at Philadelphia’s Xi’an Sizzling Woks. The dish was basically a fried chicken recombined in a hot wok with a generous handful of Huangfeihong “magic chili” (or it is possible they made their own in house). I was with a large group of people, and several ranked it as their favorite dish on the table! I was late to snap a poorly focused image but this may give you some idea:

A special menu item in Summer 2018 at Chinatown’s Xi’an Sizzling Woks: fried chicken and 香脆椒

Earlier this year, our family in Thailand sent us a new food product from Bangkok, Tony’s Kitchen BKK brand “peppers for munching” พริกเบรคแตก. They were really addictive, and the ingredient list was exceedingly simple: peppers, salt, sesame seeds, and sesame oil. Chile skins were curled around sesame seeds. So basic, yet so delicious!

This jar is empty, and I didn’t snap any pics of the chiles before we finished them. Here is a Google image search to give you some idea.

That Thai chile snack looked exactly like a style of snack typical in Yunnan. Here you can find a YouTube video from Xiangcun Yige, a traveler from Hunan to a shop in Yunnan where he documents product preparation:

After tasting some delicious iterations of this snack (with my favorite version above not yet available in the US) I decided to figure out how to make them at home. It turns out the process is remarkably simple.

Recipe: Yunnan-style fragrant and crispy peppers 云南式香脆椒

There are several videos on YouTube showing how to make versions of this snack, though they are focused on the style with starches (sometimes even a batter) and peanuts (i.e. the style that can be best witnessed in the HuangFeiHong example above). As always, I recommend viewing as many versions of a recipe as you can, to get a sense of what the essentials are for any given recipe. This snack was highlighted on the very popular CCTV food show “everyday cuisine” 天天饮食. I’d also highly recommend the just-published video from Magic Ingredients (her videos are always clear and carefully produced). And if you are interested in having a crispy peanut as part of your chile snack, I’d highly recommend the video detailing peanut preparation by 美味小舍. All of those examples are in Chinese, but you can learn a lot by simply watching the process. The powders used are starch, salt, sugar, MSG, and sometimes custard powder is added too (that would be the yellow powder if you are puzzled).

  1. Select your chiles. Cut or break the chiles in half to discard the seeds. Because the seeds are discarded, this snack is probably not as spicy as you might think it would be. I used the chiles below, imports from China:

2. Soak the chiles in water for 30 minutes. If you watch that Magic Ingredients video above, she soaks in boiling water and then further boils the chile skins before mixing with seasonings in order to remove most of the pungent hotness. I wasn’t worried about that.

3. After the chiles are soft, squeeze the water out. You’ll also likely get rid of more seeds with the draining process. Slice or scissor cut the chile pods lengthwise on the bias to make two long pieces. That cut will ensure the chiles curl when they are fried.

4. Mix together with fine salt, a little bit of sugar, a generous amount of quality sesame seeds, and a little bit of flour or starch of your choice. MSG and other powders (like custard powder) are common additions. In hindsight, I think garlic powder would also be great here. Gently toss the peppers with your seasonings, and you’ll notice the sesame seeds and powders will be attracted to the insides of the chile. That is exactly what you want, basically a sesame seed-packed pod.

5. Deep fry on medium low for about 7 or 8 minutes until the chiles turn golden. Don’t overcook! Strain the chiles and let cool.


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Dough covered meals of the Uyghurs, Kazakhs, and Mongols

A Uyghur-style qordaq stew topped with a thick noodle skin. In Uyghur this might be called simply yapma, or by qualifying the type of dough toping: petir yapma or Qumul yapmisi

Greetings after a long hiatus! Even though I haven’t been reporting here as much as I’d have liked, since my last post I have been continuing on my journey through culinary traditions on the frontiers of Turkic, Mongolian, and Tibetan food culture. Today’s theme is a style of cooking that is shared among three cultures between Xinjiang and Mongolia: Uyghurs, Kazakhs, and Mongols. It is “covered” meals–i.e. a soup, stew, or stir fry topped with either an unleavened noodle or leavened bread dough. The resulting dish pairs a savory dish underneath with either a gummy noodle or something more like a braised bread dumpling on top.

The same stew from above, but topped with a braised flatbread instead of a noodle. In Uyghur this is called bolaq yapma, or Mori yapmisi.

I imagine this cooking method would make a lot of sense for those hoping to maximize cooking fuel while being able to cook all meal components in the same pot. As the stew simmers or as a stir fry cooks, a dough cover (or even multiple covers) can be draped over the top to steam and/or braise until cooked. This produces a noodle or bread with a slightly gummy texture that is a hearty and pleasant complement to the stew, soup, or fry. Perhaps needless to say, this cooking technique would be particularly apt for cooking with a kazan or togoo (i.e. the heavy cauldron typical among Central and Inner Asian nomadic peoples over a stove) in a ger or yurt.

a favorite in my collection: “99 Recipes of Traditional Mongolian foods”

I first came in contact with this genre of food with a fabulous Mongolian language cookbook find in 2016 published by the restaurant chain Nomads (Уламжлалт монгол хоолны 99 жор [99 Recipes of Traditional Mongolian Foods], Admon publishing). In that book, several braised meats, stews and soups are topped with a thick noodle, either while cooking in the cooking pot, or steamed separately and then tented over the dish as it is served. Mongolian examples include classic dishes like жимбий, “jimbiy” (see here for a nice Facebook video demo by Bayan Kitchen, and битүү шөл “covered soup”. For a beautiful short film of that home-style recipe, check out a recent video from ARTGER and Nargie’s Mongolian Cuisine.

I’ve found several parallel dishes to those Mongolian recipes in Eastern Xinjiang in Uyghur and Kazakh food culture in cookbooks and DVDs that I collected from my bittersweet trip to Kashgar and Hotan last year. Ultimately I think the link between these dishes is nomadic cooking, with both the meat stew and staple starch together in the same pot. I theorize this came into Uyghur food culture via the Kazakhs, as the dish seems to be most common in Eastern Xinjiang regions near Kazakh communities.

It is often even identified with Kazakh place names when talking about dishes in Uyghur and Chinese. For example, the stew topped with a leavened bread is sometimes referred to as Mori yapmisi after the Mori Kazakh Autonomous County north of Turpan. In Chinese, the thinner noodle-topped stew is often referred to as “Barkol braised noodles” 巴里坤羊肉焖饼, after the Barkol Kazakh Autonomous County. Hunan’s MangoTV recently posted a video about this dish featured at an Urumchi restaurant called 九胜 that specializes in NE Xinjiang food. As seems to happen often in Chinese tourist videos of Xinjiang, the host is for some reason obliged to dress up like a Uyghur dancer before she tries this specialty.

Kazakh examples of this type of dish are harder to locate online. That said, I did find that Uyghur word yapma ياپما that implies “covered” has a cognate in Kazakh with jappa جاپپا or жаппа. This dish known as jappa is usually a dry-fried meat, onion, and root vegetable preparation known as quwirdaq (қуырдақ is also a cognate to the Uyghur qordaq!), topped during cooking with a flat noodle, and then plated by inserting the dry-fried stuffing into a noodle envelope. That dish is illustrated in this very short Facebook video from the Almaty restaurant Қуырдақ көкесі in Kazakhstan.

Recipe: Uyghur-style yapma (2 ways) – Uyghur yapmisi ئۇيغۇر ياپمىسى

Though a Mongolian friend recently referred to this as a “lazy” dish, I find it very charming and satisfying. Recipes for this dish vary greatly based on regions and ingredients available. That said, Uyghur recipes for the stew underneath closely resemble classic qordaq (see here for a past post on that theme) home-style stews of mutton, beef, or chicken, with onions, root vegetables, and spices.

The process is simple. Bring a stew to near completion before topping with a noodle or bread dough. If you are using a leavened bread dough, lay the bread atop the stew or braise for 20 minutes before finishing). Noodle doughs need much less time, but thick noodles might take up to 10 minutes. Hopefully your stew has enough stuff poking out of the water that your noodle or bread is steaming more than boiling. That would likely be easier in a kazan or wok, but make sure you have a lid that fits!

For the recipe below, I first cooked flat noodles atop the qordaq stew and removed them to a plate before finishing the stew with a leavened bread dough, in order to show two separate presentations. For either dough used about 1 cup of flour.

Stew ingredients:


See image captions for more instructions. For a noodle dough, 1 cup of flour will make 2 wide discs or one thicker flatbread. In either case, add about 1/2 tsp salt to the flour and enough water (likely less than 1/2 cup) to hydrate the dough. For the bread dough, use 1/2 tsp or less yeast, and let rest to rise.

Fry ingredients, top with water and simmer as you would any other stew preparation.

Add root vegetables and prepare your dough topping by rolling or pressing it out. Let rest briefly before rolling it out more to fully cover your pan.

Finish stew with any final tender ingredients (i.e. herbs). Many traditional Uyghur yapma recipes include spinach, and this would be the time to put it in. I had some young watercress handy and just wilted the whole bag’s contents into the stew. In hindsight, I found the flavor and texture of this watercress to be similar to a traditional Uyghur green vegetable bedae بېدە (usually translated as “alfalfa”). It was a nice touch.


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Gundruk: an essential food staple and flavor in Nepali cooking


A quick gundruk and soybean “pickle” (Gundruk ko achar गुन्द्रुकको अचार)

Over the past several months I have been slowly exploring Nepali food and cooking with rare items from our local supplier of foodstuffs from Nepal, Friendly Market on S. 7th St. in South Philly (see here for my 2014 introduction to that market). Every time I go in there I come away with at least one new ingredient or condiment that opens my eyes to a new culinary horizon. The shop owners Julio and Sovannary are always happy to talk about how their very specialized stock of ingredients can be used, and I always learn good things about Burmese and Nepali food when chatting with them. They have recently acquired some cookbooks to have on hand to help shoppers get a sense of how some of these exotic ingredients come together in Nepali and Burmese dishes (ask to take a look at them–they’re behind the counter).

Sovannary, Julio, and their daughter at Friendly Market

One very important Nepali ingredient and flavor that I have been obsessed with lately is gundruk गुन्द्रुक, a fermented and then sun dried mix of leafy greens (and sometimes roots). It is a very intensely flavored ingredient, full of funk and umami. Although the vegetables used to make gundruk are quite familiar to me (these are leaves and stems of saag vegetables: mustard greens, radish, cauliflower leaves), the taste of the end product is utterly unique. After the dried leaves are re-hydrated briefly in hot water, they can be used in salads or “pickles” (i.e. achar), and dry leaves can be added to directly to soups. When tasted, there is a slight “barnyard” flavor at the outset, followed by a heavy and addictive umami. In sampling this ingredient in soup preparations I am reminded of the savory pleasure of a great Korean soybean stew (doenjang jjigae) or Northern Thai stew with “rotten bean sheets” (see here for a past post on that item). As a salad/achar preparation I am reminded of the punch and tang of Burmese tea leaf salads (see here for my prior post on that item). Gundruk’s bold flavor would be perfectly matched with rice and some comparatively less flavor heavy sides of lentils.


Gundruk, green leaves darkened by drying in the sun

This important ingredient and food staple in Nepal is produced by fermenting leafy saag vegetables and/or roots for a week or more and then drying the sour vegetables in the sun. As you might imagine, high up in the Himalayan Mountains there is a relatively short window on a green vegetable growing season. Traditionally, this preservation technique helped to carry important vegetable nutrients into winter. That is still the case with gundruk, but over the years it has pretty clearly taken on important identity for food culture as a staple foodstuff for year-round cooking. Many talk about it as if it is a national cultural heritage. For example, I came across an interesting Nepali food blog by Prashanta Khanal simply called–that might also give you a sense of the weight this ingredient carries in Nepali culture!


Gundruk soup (gundruk ko jhol गुन्द्रुकको झोल), made with dried fish, soybeans, and potatoes

I thoroughly enjoyed gundruk on my first try (which was as the soup above–see recipes in resources below), but I can imagine how the “barnyardy” smell may be a little off-putting to some. It’s kind of like fish sauce or shrimp paste is to uninitiated novices in Southeast Asian cooking. To those who brave the smell and try cooking with it anyway, you’ll know that the smell will take a back seat as other bold desirable flavors move forward. This case is no different. Be brave and you will be rewarded!


Over the past year there have been several videos uploaded to YouTube that explain the process for making gundruk. For a few nice examples, check out Chef Kunal Kapur’s informative video as part of his “nation of pickles campaign”. There is also a high quality multi-day video from harvesting to drying fermented mustard greens from Virtual Nepali.


A selection of Nepal-focused cookbooks

There are several food blogs and YouTube video recipes available online using gundruk. Most of those were for making either a type of gundruk soup or a type of gundruk “pickle”.  Yummy Food World has very clear, high quality English subtitled videos for a gundruk soup with potatoes and soybeans, and a for gundruk achar. I’ve also been collecting Nepal and Himalaya-focused cookbooks to research and compare recipe patterns. Of the books, Jyoti Pathak’s Taste of Nepal is far and away the most definitive source for recipes and detailed information about Nepal’s culinary cultures. Her blog by the same name is also a treasure trove of images and information. The Nepal Cookbook is another favorite of mine. It is much simpler than Pathak’s work, but contains a nice balance of recipes. By the way, Friendly Market has a copy of Taste of Nepal too–browse it next time you’re in the neighborhood.

Recipe: Gundruk “pickle” (or salad) – Gundruk ko achar गुन्द्रुकको अचार

In researching recipes for this dish I found a lot of diversity with preparation and spice. I settled on a combination of the ingredient list from my Association of Nepalis in the Americas cookbook and a video recipe by Yummy Nepali Kitchen.

See below for an image of what I included. Clockwise from the bottom I had jimbu, timur (those can also be found at Friendly Market) and 2 dried chiles, fenugreek seeds (all three of those little cups would be my tempering spices in oil at the end of the recipe), about 1 cup of dried gundruk, mustard oil, turmeric, some cherry tomatoes and a few fresh chiles, dried soybeans, lime, and salt (not pictured–start with 1/2 tsp or so).

Boil some water and steep the gundruk for about 10 minutes. Drain and squeeze water out and transfer it to a cutting board. Carefully feel around for tough stems and rip or cut those out. In a soup preparation this would be less important, but I really prefer not getting stuck with gundruk jerky. After tough bits are out, coarsely chop the gundruk and transfer it to a mixing bowl.

Next, prepare your dried soybeans. Note: you can also “soy nuts” for this, and those wouldn’t need to be prepared further. If you are using dried and uncooked soybeans, they need to be soaked and then fried in oil until they are crunchy. I find this is best done on a low flame, rolling them frequently over about 10 minutes.

Roast the tomatoes and chiles. I put mine under the broiler (sorry no image). Then remove skins of tomatoes and chiles. Mash those in a mortar and pestle.

Finally, heat some mustard oil in a pan and fry the fenugreek seeds, jimbu, timur and dried chiles to impart those flavors to the oil and until fenugreek seeds are browned.

Put all of ingredients (including salt and turmeric powder) into the mixing bowl and top with the hot oil and tempered spices.

Mix, and taste for seasoning. Add lime juice and salt to taste.


I also prepared some rice and black dal to accompany the gundruk pickle. For a recipe of that black dal, see here for my prior post on Nepal-style black dal.



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Some reflections on a recent food trip to Xinjiang, China


One of my favorite things in the world. Home-style laghman from a small restaurant Teweruk ta’amliri (“Legacy foods”) on Nobishi Road in Kashgar

Great laghman (لەغمەن) is well worth obsessing over. Hand-pulled and perfectly chewy wheat noodles are boiled, drained, and then topped with a hot stir fry of fatty mutton, garlic, tomato, and peppers with any seasonal vegetables. Check out my 2015 post on the topic if you want to learn more, or even make these at home. The noodles pictured above were perfect–it looked like a large plate of noodles, but I devoured them in an instant. They were so good. While laghman is one of the most delicious and ubiquitous foods of Uyghur Xinjiang, I was actually on a self-imposed mission to explore the foods that I knew much less about. Because of that goal, this was one of my only laghman experiences during my whole trip earlier this year in March. That said, my subsequent meals and snacks were no less intriguing.

Regular readers of this blog will be at least somewhat aware that the foods of Xinjiang (and adjacent Muslim regions just to the east) represent a fascinating mix of cultures. Turkic and Persian Central Asia, China, Russia, Tibet, and Mongolia all meet and mingle in this vast region famous for its own legendary agricultural products to forge a delectable culinary landscape.

Much to my dismay, my long-anticipated food trip return to Kashgar’s Old City was met with many closed restaurants, empty food stalls, and boarded-up storefronts. It seemed like half of the bustling businesses in the Old City were now closed or shuttered. The streets were unusually devoid of activity, aside from the parts that were adjacent to the streets with roving police vans with their blaring sirens and soldiers conducting military drills. Ever since the neighborhood’s streets were closed to car traffic a year or so ago as police checkpoints were installed on every block, far fewer people are out selling things and far fewer people are out buying things too.

Among the small handful of open restaurants that I found upon my arrival, one small restaurant seemed to be doing a brisk business. I went up to the locked doors and pressed the doorbell to be let in. Inside customers were quietly eating, keeping largely to themselves with few rare conversations. The waiter directed me to an empty chair at a shared table with an elderly woman and her son and brought me a teapot and bowl. “Nime yeysiz?” he asked. I responded with a dish that I had been dreaming about for a long time, which was also happened to be one of the restaurant’s specialties. “Öy leghmini yeymen–I’ll have the home-style laghman.”


“Teweruk ta’amliri”, a welcome sight and one of a handful of small restaurants operating in March on Nobishi road. Note: this image is from the morning after, the boy is preparing steamed breads outside for morning/lunch service while watering the street (a neighborhood initiative to fight dusty streets)

I was first introduced to the wonders of Uyghur food with travels to Xinjiang in the late 1990s, a time that followed a period of great economic and political opening that nurtured a flourishing intellectual and artistic curiosity throughout the PRC. Printing houses even in rural provinces were publishing new books like crazy, and you could find very interesting scholarly and layman works focused on all sorts of topics, including Uyghur culture and history, both in Chinese and in Uyghur. It was a thrilling time to be there—a time when anything seemed possible. Socially outgoing Uyghurs would often initiate conversation with a cheery “hello!” in English. I found that if I engaged in conversation, that undoubtedly would lead to the famous Uyghur hospitality: invitations to meals, drinks, and even home stay situations. Those extremely positive memories are part of what drove me to do Central Asian Studies in graduate school.

I knew that this trip would be different. The social and political climate in southern Xinjiang has been deeply affected by the “Strike Hard”-related police/military surveillance, as well as by the detainment and forced migrations of a substantial portion of the population. What I didn’t know was how widespread these effects would be, and how much they would influence daily life for Uyghur locals, and even their interactions with tourists like myself.


Kashgar’s night market, summer 2010

After I finished my plate of noodles, I took a long walk and ended up at Kashgar’s famous night market. The last time I visited in 2010, the market was alongside Liberation Road (Jiefang Lu), and it was thrilling—I was excited to return. Now the market has been relocated to a courtyard further down Orda Ishik Road (欧尔达西克路). It was clearly moved and modified to fit the “tourist village” redesign that the Old City has been undergoing for the past decade or so. The vendor stalls were built with identical styles, and they were placed together in a small labyrinth meant for tourists to explore. There were very few locals eating out at this market (unlike my trip in 2010), but there was a small handful of Chinese tourists as customers.

Sadly, only about half the stalls were occupied with vendors, and some of my favorite night market foods weren’t even there. I enjoyed what was there in any case, the offerings of opke-hesip ئۆپكە – ھېسىپ (boiled and chopped stuffed lungs and sausages) and hoshang خوشاڭ (pan fried meat pies), as well as freshly squeezed pomegranate juice:

I noticed something curious with the opke-hesip vendor. The butcher knife he used to cut up the offal pieces was locked with a chain to the bench. I noticed other vendors had the same setup. This, it turned out, was a new policy for food vendors (as well as butchers) as knives are under strict control throughout the province and are treated as weapons.

I didn’t capture an image of the empty stalls, but someone who came back to Kashgar just after I left, Gene Bunin, commented on that, and the lack of that most famous Uyghur dish polo in a Facebook post (see here for my 2014 post on that dish, with a recipe):

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So… why are so many restaurants and shops closed, and where are many of the food vendors? As Uyghurs who were born in Xinjiang have been forcibly recalled back to their hometowns (places where their hukou were registered) over the past few years for several government initiatives meant to control their movements, most were not allowed to return to where they were working–whether to the cities of the Far East or even cities in other parts of Xinjiang. Local business owners in Kashgar were challenged with continuing without staff, and some couldn’t make it and had to close. Other businesses are forcibly shuttered by local authorities (see example below left) because owners are under suspicion of some illegal activity or even “wrong thoughts”. Due to the sorts of people who are put into reeducation, are arrested, and/or disappeared, ranging from Uyghur folklore scholars to Uyghur pop singers, threatening people seem to include political and religious moderates who have a respected and/or influential voice in Uyghur society.

If my mention of the above forced migrations, arrests, and disappearances in Xinjiang comes as a jarring surprise to you, there have been several news stories and publications in recent months that do a decent job of explaining what has happened. The restrictions are based in the government’s move to clamp down on “illegal activities”, which can include anything from religious gatherings to promoting Uyghur culture (as well as any sort of violence, of course). There has been a pretty steady stream of articles this year highlighting the situation in news outlets like Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, and New York Times (sorry, these are mostly pay-walled). For some free links, here is a recent summary of events from Vox, and here is a very illustrative video report showing what police and military checkpoints look like from Josh Chin for WSJ on surveillance in Xinjiang.IMG_8298

I gleefully sought out every [open] bookstore I could find, to browse for cookbooks or anything new pertaining to Uyghur or Xinjiang culture, language, or food. Not too much has been published in Uyghur in the past two years (outside an enormous display of communist writings), and all of the Uyghur language bookstores I could find in Hotan were sadly shuttered. I visited Chinese language bookstores with the same excited anticipation, but this time I was unable to find ANY Chinese language books on Xinjiang or Uyghur culture, food, or language. Let that sink in for a moment. Isn’t that strange?

I was able to go home with some treasured souvenirs however: reprints of the entire “Uyghur food and drink culture” series, and a 2016 10-disc set of cooking DVDs focused on important and favorite dishes of the Uyghurs (see image on the right).

Despite a narrower range of options in restaurants and market stalls since my last trip and the despite the palpable somber mood of local customers, I was able to find my way to some pleasant and even joyful food experiences in Kashgar and Hotan. Many of these experiences will form the themes of separate posts in the coming fall, but I wanted to share a handful of memorable meals here…

Kawap كاۋاپ and somen سومەن from the restaurant beneath the 100 year teahouse, on Seybazar road:

A mug of mutton soup gangza shorpisi گاڭزا شورپىسى and a girde گىردە bread from a shop in the Grand Bazaar:


A beautiful selection of dried Xinjiang dried peppers from the Grand Bazaar, including the shriveled kind famous in “big plate chicken” from Shihezi:


A fascinating take on cooking with dry day-old flatbread where meat and root veg is piled on top and it is steamed until cooked into a rich breakfast: qazan kawap قازان كاۋاپ

Fancy street food! A spin on the Northwestern Chinese favorite Liangpi 凉皮 (cold skin noodles with gluten and dressing, or as it is known in Uyghur as rangpiza راڭ پىزا —Check out that fancy bowl!:


Mutton kebabs on red willow branches from Hotan’s new (and kind of disappointing) indoor “night market”):


Stay tuned for future posts that will delve more into the wonders of Uyghur cuisine…

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Garlic scapes, fried as a vegetable


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Garlic scapes, or 蒜芯 suanxin, from Chinatown’s underground market

We are deep into the season of garlic scapes. Fortunately for those of us in Philly, we are able to find these strong-flavored beauties with fair regularity through springtime in Chinatown and even at area farmer’s markets. These are a twisting flowering bud of the garlic plant, and they have a wonderful flavor. They are delicious fried, grilled, or even pickled. They can be slightly woody (especially older scapes) and have a similar fibrous structure to asparagus. In fact, you can cook them in much the same ways you do asparagus.

It’s already the first day of summer, but I was still able to find these treasures today in Chinatown. I’ll chop these into segments and fry them in a simple brown sauce with some pork, and it will be scrumptious.

Note: these are also sometimes referred to as “garlic stems”, like in the classic recipe with smoked Chinese bacon that Fuchsia Dunlop sites in Every Grain of Rice. The Chinese she uses is perhaps more familiar in mainland China: 蒜苔 suantai.

If you look for these in Philly markets, beware that they are not often labeled in English, and when they are, it might be in “creative English”. It’s best to know what to look for, or be observant of the Chinese characters. Here are two versions of signage, at the underground market and at Spring Garden Supermarket:

In shape, these are a little larger than the more regularly available “flowering garlic chive” or jiucai hua 韭菜花 (which is usually sold next to their leaves). Garlic scapes are thicker and are closer in size to long beans.

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Ingredients for today’s quick stir fry, garlic scapes: soaked chile peppers, sugar, oyster sauce, soy sauce, rice wine, sliced pork, cornstarch

Cooking with this vegetable is very simple as so much of the flavor comes from within. You don’t need to add garlic or onions–there are already plenty of aromatics present in this vegetable.

That said I’ve decided to over-complicate this today with a typical brown sauce: a touch of sugar, splash of rice wine, a tiny bit of oyster sauce, soy sauce, water and cornstarch. You could do far less and still achieve a tasty result. If you use salt and oil, They will be great. All else can be considered optional.

In a very hot wok (I’m using a new stove with a much bigger flame than I’m used to) I seared pork slices for about 30 seconds before putting in the garlic scapes and chiles. Then in quick succession I tossed in a spoon of sugar, a splash of rice wine, tiny bit of oyster sauce and a splash of soy sauce. When all is cooked (on my new “high” it was 2 minutes), stir in water and cornstarch to finish.

Serve as an accompaniment to a larger meal or simply with rice.

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Savory Uyghur flatbread at the base of a stew


A recent Xinjiang delight from a Beijing restaurant: nan qordaq, or 馕包肉

Travelers to Uyghur cultural zones of Xinjiang will be familiar with the Uyghur staple flatbread (aka nan) and its many uses at the table. It is served alongside tea, dried fruits and nuts for breakfast and afternoon tea. At kawap (kebab) and laghman (pulled noodle) restaurants, nan is often served as a plate for the intensely seasoned bites of meat.


Prepping portions of “whole grilled lamb” on plates of nan at the famous “Qaxshal tonur kebabs” in Hotan (قاخشال تونۇر كائاپلىرى)

It is also served in restaurants in another way, as a base sponge for a savory stew. The bread is generally cut into triangles before a stew is dumped on top. In the US This might strike us as odd perhaps only because it otherwise closely resembles pizza, and as a pizza it would be difficult to pull out a slice with stew on top. Despite that, the combination really works. The coal or wood-fire bread is often baked with onion, and the smokiness and onion add a beautiful dimension to the stew. Additionally, Uyghur nan are generally made from much stiffer doughs (than say, a pizza dough). The consistency is closer to that of a bagel, with around 60% hydration. This helps it stay together, even under a stew.

The climate of the Tarim Basin is very dry. Breads tend to completely dry out not long after being baked. Culturally and historically speaking this has an important advantage. Dry bread basically lasts forever. Just add tea/soup/stew. That is likely closer to how this sort of presentation evolved as a bread-under-stew. In any case, the bread adds attractive texture and flavor components, and there is an added benefit of a dramatic presentation. This is something you should experience–it might change your concept of “bread bowl”.


My version of a Uyghur chicken qoruma stew on top of my home-baked onion nan

Recipe: Uyghur-style chicken qoruma over nan نان-توخۇ قورۇمىسى

As was previously mentioned, In arid climates nan can dry out fairly quickly after baking. In cases of further cooking in Uyghur households, this is not a problem at all as the bread readily welcomes broth/tea/stew. Personally, I’ve been getting a lot better at baking nan at home, and I am getting closer to a “tonur”-style nan (see here for a past post relating to that oven) by using a combination of a baking steel and my broiler. Although my bread recipe has evolved since last year to a stiffer dough, my past post on nan and stew has several key bit of information for those interested in baking Uyghur-style nan at home.

This is a simple qoruma-style stew. My recipe is built largely on one from Mexetjan Rozi’s 2007 cookbook in the “Uyghur food and drink culture series” Toxu goshi qorumiliri (chicken roasts and stirfrys) from Xinjiang people’s press.


Ingredients for today’s simple chicken stew, clockwise from left: 10″ onion nan, salt, fowl (I actually used a lean Asian fowl for this), white pepper, star anise, cassia bark, ginger, chile peppers, leek, and cilantro. Not pictured: soy sauce

1. Chop up the chicken, bones, skin and all. Trim skin and fat if you need to. Coarsely chop ginger, chiles, and leek.

2. Start frying the chicken pieces in a pot, pan, or wok. Toss in leek, ginger, chile, star anise, and cassia bark. Season with salt, soy sauce, white pepper.

3. Add water to cover. Boil until chicken is cooked and tender. If you use a tougher bird like the one above, you’ll need to boil for a lot longer.

4. Chop about 1/2 a cup of cilantro to include at the end of cooking.

5. Cut nan into triangle pieces and ladle stew over the top.IMG_0050 2

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Xi’an’s famous foods in the instant noodle section


One example of new instant cold “skin” noodles from Shaanxi Province 陕西凉皮. There is a Northwestern dialect expression under the chef: “liao di hen” 嘹滴很 (“very delicious”)

In 2014 I wrote a post on the growing popularity of “Xi’an” and “Northwestern Chinese” foods in Philadelphia and beyond. Since then we’ve seen even more restaurants open as Philly’s Xi’an Sizzling Woks added another location in University City and Chinatown gained yet another “Lanzhou style” pulled noodle restaurant (right under the arch). In New York, Xi’an Famous Foods has more than 10 locations in the city and the boroughs, and had a short-lived spinoff restaurant/bar Biang! Popular northwestern street food items are also slowly creeping onto restaurant menus that cater largely to Chinese eaters: liangpi 凉皮 (cold “skin” noodles), and “Chinese hamburger” 肉夹馍 are a few examples of things you might find–the new Danlu in University City [update: Danlu was short lived and is no longer serving] is featuring the latter as “Xi’an sandwiches”.

These food trends are not happening on the East Coast alone. Our local developments are similar to food trends happening on the mainland, with Shaanxi-style restaurants popping up all over. This can be further evidenced by the increasing number of “northwestern”-themed instant food products at markets catering to Philadelphia’s residents from mainland China. Over the past year and a half, I’ve noticed quite a few new offerings in the instant noodle aisles and in the refrigerated section at Chinatown markets, Spring Garden Supermarket, and at Hung Vuong (which since last year is owned by Heng Fa) on Washington Ave.

Below I’ll highlight some of the several instant/prepared food items I’ve picked up over the past year or so with some commentary…

Liangpi 凉皮

Liangpi 凉皮 is a style of cold noodle and gluten dish popular in Central China. It is dressed with spiced oil and vinegar, and is commonly consumed as a refreshing street food. As simple of a food as it seems to be, the process of making this from scratch actually takes a few days. Last year I found a great 4-part video tutorial on this process from the very talented Xiao Gaojie (小高姐的 Magic Ingredients)–click here to link to that YouTube video series, starting with the spiced chile oil. Steps include mixing a wheat flour and water dough, rinsing the starch away from the gluten and then boiling down that starchy water to make the “skin” noodles and finally recombining the “skin” and sliced gluten into a cold noodle dish with a savory sauce.

When they are freshly made, Liangpi have a crisp and slightly gummy texture. Gluten pieces (I used to think these were pieces of diced white bread!) among the noodles nicely soak up the savory dressing and provide an interesting contrast to the gummy noodle. The instant noodle versions pictured above are not quite as nice; they have a rubberier texture. That said, they are still pleasant enough to enjoy as a side to a meal. If you decide to try these, I’d suggest steaming the noodles as opposed to microwaving them–they’ll be a little softer and less rubbery.

This is how one such example looked out of the packaging–the Qinsheng brand liangpi with the happy chef, image at the top of this post:

As you may know, Shaanxi, Gansu, and Ningxia Provinces are home to very large indigenous Muslim peoples. Many restaurants throughout China that specialize in these noodle dishes are run by Muslims themselves, and are halal (in Chinese qingzhen 清真). It is rare to see these influences in the US, but the Qinsheng brand advertises this on their products:


I’ve also been seeing gluten more available in different forms. The brand Havista (I previously posted on their line of tofu skin threads) can be found in the refrigerated section–this gluten can be eaten cold or warmed, perfect for a quick inclusion to a dish:


Liangfen 凉粉 (bean starch jelly noodles)

Liangfen is another item that is now being marketed as a “Shaanxi” notable food. I wrote on this unique cold noodle dish in 2014–be sure to check that out if you are interested in making these from scratch. As I hinted in that post, liangfen have become pretty widely available through the explosion of “authentic” Sichuan restaurants in the US. Liangfen is popular from Sichuan up through the northwest corridor through to Xinjiang, where it is known as langpung.

Here are two kinds of “Shaanxi” liangfen found recently from Spring Garden Supermarket, Qinzong brand, spicy and mild.

Lanzhou lamian 兰州拉面 (Lanzhou-style pulled noodles)

This is another topic that I’ve written about at length in the past, largely focusing on making this noodle at home and enjoying this at Philadelphia restaurants. I’ve noticed a steady shift over recent years seeing both dry and fresh “Lanzhou” pulled noodles at markets. I’m skeptical of what makes these different from other wheat noodles available at the market–the thing that makes Lanzhou noodles special is the way they are pulled by hand. In any case I had to get a pack and see. Nothing to write home about, but okay for a quick preparation. Again, Havista brand:


Qishan saozi mian 岐山臊子面 (Qishan-style minced meat noodles)

West of Xi’an in Shaanxi Province is a county famous for noodle dishes–all the way back to ancient times. This is Qishan 岐山a place already referenced above in the images of liangpi noodles. Saozi mian 臊子面 is a specialty, understood as “minced meat” noodles, and the brand “Dear Xidada” (DEAR XIDADA 旗下实力品牌) is producing this and a few other notable specialty noodles of the NW region. Again, Xiao Gaojie’s Magic Ingredients has a great video tutorial on making these noodles from scratch.


Biangbiang mian

Finally, that brand Dear Xidada is also making a version of instant Biangbiang mian (sometimes called “belt noodles”). This is the same Biang that the NYC short-lived Xi’an Famous Foods spinoff was named after. Tim Chin and Cook’s Science put out a nice video last year and now has a nice recipe behind a paywall for on making these at home–check it out.


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Delicious greens: yuchoy


Long leaf vegetables are a key component of most meals at our house, and yuchoy is a vegetable that comes fresh to Philadelphia markets regularly. That is to say it is usually in our fridge. It keeps pretty well for 3-5 days, so we can eat a bag over two or three meals, alternating with other vegetables.

Yuchoy 油菜 (or youcai in Mandarin) literally means “oil vegetable”. This is because it is closely related to the plant that produces rapeseed oil (aka canola oil). The vegetable is delicious chopped into bite size segments and stir fried with oil, garlic, and soy sauce. It is also nice in savory soups (like the Northern Thai stew “boiled greens” which I wrote on a few years ago.

I ate this vegetable often while living in Guangzhou in the 90s–it is very common there, so it is perhaps fitting that is frequently referred to by its Cantonese name in Philadelphia. The version of this vegetable commonly found in markets across Thailand–with longer stems and bright yellow flowers–is called simply gwangdoong vegetable, or ผักกวางตุ้ง (i.e. Guangdong Province). That variation might be referred to here by the Cantonese name “heart” of yuchoy, or yuchoy sum 油菜心.

My favorite way to prepare this vegetable is to simply blanch it for a minute or so and top it off with a quick mixture of oil, soy sauce, oyster sauce, sugar, and water heated in a pan. From start to finish, this dish can be done in five minutes or less. Needless to say, we eat this a few times a week because it is so fast and easy.


One tool I would recommend is a wide shallow pot. My pot of choice is one that is meant for Korean hotpot–it is made from lightweight material that helps water quickly come to boil.  I find myself using this pot several times each week, whether to blanch whole vegetables, or to boil long dried noodles. Its width makes it possible to quickly blanch or boil things things that are long or awkwardly shaped.

Recipe: Blanched yuchoy 清煮油菜

This recipe is so easy I’m almost embarrassed to post it here. Still, I realize that this simple preparation maybe hasn’t occurred to some readers–hopefully those people will be inspired to try it:

1. Bring water to boil in your pot, pan, or wok. Toss in a spoon of salt.



2. Wash vegetables. Give them a good rinse. If the sliced part of the stem is discolored or wilted, feel free to trim it a little bit. Don’t worry about draining them well–they’re about to go back into water. If you didn’t do a good job cleaning them, it likely won’t make much difference–the boil is like a second cleaning! I used a good handful of yuchoy, enough for 2 people as an accompaniment.


3. Put vegetables into the boiling water and use chopsticks or another utensil to ensure they get submerged. Boil covered or uncovered for 1-2 minutes. Stems will start looking bright green.


4. Turn off the heat. Take the yuchoy out of the water. I like to take them out one by one and stack them on a plate. Notice how I do that, with the plate tilted to drain water off back to the pot.


5. This is also optional, but I like to chop the vegetable on the plate into bite-size segments.


6. This part is also optional and highly customizable… you can serve the vegetable as is, or with some sort of a seasoned topping. I like a combination of oil, oyster sauce, soy sauce, chopped garlic, and sugar (with a little water to keep it from burning). You can premix those things or just add them one by one to the pan. I used one clove of garlic, and 1/2 tsp sugar, and about 1 tsp each oil, oyster sauce, soy sauce, and water.


7. Drizzle optional topping over vegetableIMG_7585

8. Enjoy with rice and some other accompaniment. Today this is breakfast, and I enjoyed the yuchoy with a rice and a fried egg:


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