A Chinese pan-fried flatbread and “Chinese hamburger”

IMG_6188As the cuisine of China’s interior becomes popular in US cities (i.e. among the popular Xi’an-themed restaurants in NYC and Philadelphia–see here for my past post on that topic), items like “Chinese hamburger” are slowly becoming commonplace on menus at Chinese restaurants.


A Chinese food cart selling baozi and roujiamo in Madison, Wisconsin in 2013

Roujiamo 肉夹馍 is a popular street food in China’s north and northwest (but it is now pretty much everywhere), consisting of a bland wheat flour flatbread–the “mo” in roujiamo–sliced into a pocket and packed with a coarsely chopped slow-cooked fatty marinated meat. The finished product is a very satisfying greasy snack: a slightly crispy exterior filled with a juicy and savory punch of intensely seasoned fatty meat.

If you want to try a local restaurant version of this Chinese street food, Xi’an Sizzling Woks has a pretty good standard. The new Henan restaurant (that has “Authentic Lanzhou Pulled Noodles” on its sign at the corner of Arch and 10th) also has a delicious version. All the local versions I know in Philadelphia are with pork. In the Muslim Chinese heartland, a fatty mutton version is preferred.

If you want to try to prepare this at home, read on. I’ve been working on my ideal roujiamo and today I had pretty satisfactory results with a slow cooked pork belly.


I think the hardest part to a great roujiamo is getting the bread right. In China this style of bread is called baijimo 白吉馍. In Shaanxi, it is occasionally prepared in an oven, but it is perhaps more often witnessed street-side frying on charcoal-fired griddles. You can see some gorgeous examples in the popular Chinese food tv program A Bite of China (舌尖上的中国), via this link to CCTV’s youtube post. While you are at it, watch this sublime  example of homemade roujiamo session from the beautifully edited Chinese video series “daily food diary” 日食记.

Recipe: Baijimo lazhirou (aka “Chinese Hamburger”, or roujiamo) 白吉馍腊汁肉 (肉夹馍)

Making baijimo at home can be done by frying breads in a dry heavy-bottomed pan, over low heat and for a prolonged period. Today I had some decent results using a small stainless steel frying pan.

In my research for best practices in making the baijimo flat bread, I came across several Chinese videos, one of the best of which was produced by video food cook “Shaanxi Kitchen Beauty” 陕西美厨娘 (click to see video on YouTube). The video is in Chinese, but you can get a good sense of the kneading technique and the appreciated qualities of a good baijimo. The video’s host outlines the attractive characteristics of a successful baijimo step-by-step: the “tiger’s back” hubei 虎背 is created when the bottom of the concave dough is placed on the hot pan (at approx. 5 minutes into the video). This creates a browned center on the bread. When the bread is flipped, the edge of the bread will crisp first, creating an attractive ring that is often referred to as and “iron circle” 铁圈. The host points out that on the flip side a “silver border” yinbianr 银边 is created, and finally, by pressing the bread flat, a “chrysanthemum flower” juhuaxin 菊花芯 pattern is formed. These terms are often used by other Chinese food bloggers in Shaanxi to describe the qualities of a great baijimo.


Some of my more attractive examples from today’s experiments

A few points on making baijimo:

1. The bread is a simple dough of all-purpose flour, yeast, water and often a sprinkling of some jianshui 碱水 (potassium carbonate+sodium bicarbonate) or baking soda. Traditional recipes don’t include salt or sugar. I used about 2 cups of flour, 1 tsp of yeast, and 1 tsp of baking soda to approximately 3/4 cups of water. After mixing, let dough rest for an hour or so before sizing and shaping concave discs for frying.

2. Size dough balls approximately the same size as English muffins or small hamburger buns.

3. When preparing the concave discs for frying, first roll out the pre-sized balls into long flat torpedoes, then roll flat with a rolling pin. Roll this strip into a tight coil. That will help ensure the edges of the dough disc to turn into a concave shape after you press it flat with the round bottom of your palm or your rounded rolling pin.

4. No oil is used in the dough or on the pan, and a heavy-bottomed pan is put on low heat. I used a cover to help my breads rise at the beginning of the frying process. The took about 10 minutes to cook (each). If you use a larger pan, you can do several at once.

Lazhirou 腊汁肉

For roujiamo in Central China, the long-simmered fatty meat is referred to as lazhirou 腊汁肉 (i.e. “stew-preserved meat”). The preparation is similar to other five-spice preparations (i.e. the kinds of slow simmers that help to enhance a meat braising stock of lushui 卤水–discussed in my past posts on Guilin mifen noodle soups). This process requires time, but there is otherwise little fuss. If you are doing this all the same day, start this part before the bread.

Before filling the bland bun with the chopped meat mixture, taste for seasonings. Drizzle the chopped mixture with the lushui stock to refresh and intensify the flavors. Add a touch of soy sauce or vinegar if necessary, and pack into an opened baijimo. Enjoy.


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Delicious greens: water spinach


Water spinach is one of our favorite vegetables. It is a popular vegetable to stir fry in Southern China and Southeast Asia. When quickly fried at high heat, its leaves wilt and the stems stay crunchy. Its flavor is like a cross between spinach and watercress.

This Vegetable grows in wet subtropical areas and has several names in English: water spinach, water convolvulus, Chinese watercress, and sometimes morning glory. In Chinese this is generally known as “empty heart vegetable” (kong xin cai 空心菜) or “open heart vegetable” (tong xin cai 通心菜), as in hollow stem. In Chinatown you might hear it referred to by the Cantonese name, Ong choi (蕹菜). In Philadelphia it is available year round, and can be found in two or three varieties: A green version like the one I’m using today, a pale green variety, and a variety with very thin stems can sometimes be found at Cambodian markets.

Seasonings for cooking this vegetable can be as simple as salt or soy sauce, but they often include a funky fermented paste of some sort, and a touch of sugar. In China and Taiwan, fermented tofu (doufu ru 豆腐乳) is often broken up and added to the this vegetable as it is quickly sauteed. The pairing may seem odd, but the pungent creamy tofu really pairs well with the grassy crunch of the vegetable.

Likewise in Indonesia and Malaysia, it is common to fry this (which they call kangkung) with fermented shrimp paste. See here for a Google image search of that dish kangkung belacan. That is a very similar flavor pairing to the pungent tofu (and to the bean paste version I’m making today).

This is also delicious in Southeast Asian soups and curries. For example, it is delicious in place of eggplant in a Cambodian sour beef soup that I posted on a few years ago.

I will prepare this today our favorite way… a typical Sino-Thai style with fermented soy bean paste, garlic, and chile. In Thailand this preparation is popularly called “red fire fried water spinach”, referring to how this is often prepared at street carts, starting with a big ignited flame in the wok as the pile of seasoned and sauces vegetable is thrown in–not recommended for home kitchen stoves with a low overhead.

Red fire-fried water spinachผัดผักบุ้งไฟแดง


Get yourself a nice bag of water spinach. Chinese markets tend to sell these in big quantities. I usually do a big wok full at a time (about 1/2 a bag) for a nice accompaniment to another stir fry and rice. Unfortunately, this doesn’t last as long in the refrigerator as most other long leaf greens (like Chinese broccoli, bok choy, yu choy, or kale), so you need to try to use it sooner than later.  Trim wilted stem ends off of the bunch and remove any blackened slimy leaves, then wash well in a big bowl. Next, cut the vegetable up into about 2-3 inch long pieces (including the leaves). I usually wash them again at that stage and drain:


Finely chop 3-4 cloves of garlic, and slice a few chiles into large chunks (depending on how spicy you want to make it). Today’s chiles were relatively mild, I used some large red Korean chiles.

There are two ways to do this dish. Some people fry the vegetable in the garlic and chile and add sauces/seasonings one by one. Today I did the flash fry method where I added the seasonings right into the bowl of chopped vegetable and tossed it all in the hot pan at once. My seasonings were pretty standard: about 1 Tbsp Thai fermented bean sauce (here is a link to an image of the kind commonly available in Philly), 1 tsp oyster sauce, 1 tsp fish sauce, just a touch of sugar. I put those right onto the chopped vegetable in the bowl.

Start a large wok or pan on high or medium high heat. When the pan is ripping hot, add enough oil (1 Tbsp or more). Throw in the vegetable and sauces, chiles, and garlic into that hot pan, and stir constantly. Add a little water to keep the mix from burning. The vegetable will cook very fast, likely in about a minute or so. If you are unsure if it needs more salt, taste for seasoning and add a squirt of fish sauce or soy sauce if you need to. When all the leaves are wilted, turn off the heat and plate the vegetable. Enjoy.


Posted in - Featured Food Discoveries, - Recipes, Chinese food, Malay/Indonesian food, Thai/Lao food | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

A childhood comfort food memory via Kashgar flatbread and a savory mutton stew


Have you ever had that unexpected situation when you taste something that transports you back to your childhood–even though you happen to be thousands of miles from where you grew up? The subject of today’s post is exactly that, and improbable as it may seem for me, in the embodiment of a simple homestyle mutton stew with Uyghur flatbread in Kashgar in 1999.

At the time I had been living in Guangzhou for a few years studying Chinese music and Mandarin, and like many other foreign students, teaching English on the side. As I slowly became aware of the fascinating cultures in China’s far west (particularly the Uyghur people of Xinjiang), my summers were used more and more to travel and explore out west. My diet at that point was pretty much converted to a South China “normal”: rice, with stir-fried long leaf vegetables and a preference for Sichuan-influenced spice. Coming from Wisconsin, this was a pretty big shift.

From there, let’s jump to Kashgar in 1999, where my travel companion (who later became my wife) and I explored the city from our base near the famous Id Kah mosque. There was a small restaurant near our hotel where we ate most of our meals at (out of convenience and frugal necessity). Sadly, this restaurant is now long gone as Kashgar has undergone a pretty dramatic facelift and reorganization. Below there is an image of me (white T-shirt) hanging out with the guys who ran the restaurant out front. There is a butcher (center) preparing skewers of kebabs (kawap in Uyghur). The guy seated in front grilled the skewers and the guy in the blue shirt was the waiter. As you can guess from the carcasses hanging, mutton is big in Xinjiang, and is the go-to meat for most meals. This joint’s food was great, as were the welcoming staff.


Many American and Western European foreigners based in China’s big cities at that time likely recall the first time they tasted or experienced Uyghur food. For many, this became an outlet where you could find flavors much closer to home: sauces of garlic and tomato, wood-fired breads (at a time when “Western bread” in big Chinese cities was a shitty Wonderbread sponge with sugar glazed onto the crust), and even boiled noodles with a tomato topping similar to spaghetti (a topic of a prior post). All of this served with a laid-back attitude that was quite unlike the cultural zones of East China.


Some home-baked naan with sesame seeds

Uyghur naan bread is kind of unusual in that it is extremely thin in the center, as it is punched and punctured to inhibit rising before baking. This creates a crater in the center that is very compacted and brittle, much like a tough saltine cracker. Ultimately, this is what spawned my food trip today. This qordaq was a savory stewed meat in a tomato and garlic base, together with potatoes and carrots, topped with submerged naan saltine cracker. An unlikely taste of home, in distant Kashgar.IMG_6081

Naan is often used in restaurant settings to act as a kind of plate, in serving kebabs on skewers, and it is sometimes pre-sliced in pizza-like wedges and then topped with a stew. That presentation can be witnessed on the cover of a recent acquisition to my cookbook collection: Goshluk qorumilar (translated as “meat fry dishes”) by Mehmetjan Rosi (2007 Shinjang xalq neshriyati)–pictured to the right.

Make your own chekkuch!

In order to make that brittle depression in the bread, you need to punch the wide basin of the bread with a device known as a chekkuch. These devices can be purchased in Xinjiang bazaars, and are sometimes patterned in interesting ways. If you don’t have access to a Xinjiang bazaar, you might consider making one of these devices yourself. I had a whole day to figure out how to do this with what I had in the kitchen, and had pretty good results with a pack of bamboo skewers, some masking tape, and some paper towels.

Do as I did if you are artistically curious, or, if you are lazy, use a FORK.

Qordaq is a rich stew enjoyed in Xinjiang. One very famous example of qordaq in China is becoming pretty well-known among trendy Chinese restaurants in North America: “Big plate chicken”, or 大盘鸡. I  previously discussed this dish as I was surprised to find it on menus in Philadelphia’s Chinatown back in 2013. In Uyghur that is known as “big chicken qordaq“. Like “big chicken qordaq“, regular (mutton) qordaq is stewed with onions, star anise,  huajiao, chile peppers, carrots, and potatoes. Like many great Xinjiang sauces, there is also a hint of tomato.

Recipe: Uyghur bazaar-style naan – بازار ﻧﯧﻨﻰ

My measurements for making 2 Uyghur naan are as follows:

2 cups all-purpose flour
3/4 cups water and/or milk (more or less depending on the weather)
1 tsp salt
dash sugar
1/3 package of yeast
grated onions or sesame seeds for topping

Procedure: Rest bread dough for a few hours. Heat your oven to as high as it will go (I use a baking steel inside my oven–like a baking stone but more sturdy–and get the oven ripping at about 550). Then divide and shape the dough into two balls. After your oven has been appropriately heated, shape the ball into something resembling pizza by pushing on the center and lightly pulling the ring around the outside. Puncture the basin of the bread all over (usually in concentric circles), and add sesame or onion toppings if you like. This is most easily done by dampening the top of the bread and then inverting the bread onto a plate of sesame seeds. Then, invert it back on to the pizza peel.

If you use a stone or baking steel, you’ll need to use a pizza peel to get the bread onto that hot surface. I have found that because the center is so thin, it will burn through very easily from the bottom. Because of that, I change to broil before I throw the bread on, to simulate the Xinjiang wood fire oven, or tonur (described in a prior post). The bread will cook very fast. Keep an eye on it, and rotate or move it toward/away from the broiler as need be. I recognize these are not user-friendly instructions… it is cooking with a kind of unpredictable flame. It is worth it though, if you can get a good browning all around.

Ok, bread is done. Now for the mutton stew. In reality, I did these at the same time. Start the stew after you set aside the bread dough to rise.


Recipe: Uyghur qordaq mutton stew – قورداق

My recipe is largely based on one found in the 1993 book Uyghur Tamaqliri, by Mahmut Sabit, and by the VCD video Andre the Giant-style narration by chef Osmanjan Zakir that you can see online at YouTube. Oh, the wonders of the internet!



2 lbs Mutton with bones
3 Tblsp oil or fat
1 onion
1 lb potato
1 lb carrot or daikon
2 large green chiles
2 Tbsp sliced ginger
1 Tblsp tomato paste
1 Tblsp star anise
1 Tblsp ground huajiao (“Sichuan peppercorn”)

Salt to taste
Soy sauce to taste
MSG to taste
For serving (optional): chopped cilantro, finely sliced onion, tomato wedges, pepper

This is a very simple hearty stew: brown chunks of meat in oil or fat, add onions, salt, tomato paste, star anise, huajiao. Top off with water and boil until meat is coming off the bone (around 1.5 hrs):

For the last 20 minutes or so, add coarsely chopped chiles, potatoes, carrots, and more stock or water. Bring to boil, taste for seasonings (salt, MSG), and cook until carrots are tender.

I used quite a bit of mutton fat in the initial frying process. As that hits the tomato paste and MSG, the overall flavor is intensely savory.


No more words. Make this dish and enjoy it.

Posted in - Featured Food Discoveries, Central Asia/Uyghur food | Tagged , , , , | 8 Comments

Besan flour and Burmese chickpea tofu


Tohpu thoke, or Burmese chickpea jelly salad

Yesterday I had an exciting new food experience with a starch jelly common in Myanmar. There it is commonly referred to as “tofu” တိုဖူး, though it isn’t made from soy or processed in the ways in which beans are fermented into blocks in other parts of East and Southeast Asia. In this case, a bean jelly is made by combining chickpea flour in water and simmering the mixture for a few minutes before pouring it into a vessel to set.

The result is a consistency similar to silken tofu, but with a slightly nuttier flavor, reminiscent of hummus. The finished jelly can be used in a variety of ways. It can be added to savory soups, it can be mixed with aromatics and sauces to make for a refreshing cold salad, and it can even be deep fried like Chinese tofu.


Deep fried chickpea tofu

Chickpea tofu is a fascinating example of the cultural mixing that happens in Myanmar. A name and notion from a well-known food preparation in China is adapted and applied to a staple of chickpea flour common in India.

The context of my food experience was a food outreach event yesterday with a student action group called the REFresh Initiative at the University of Pennsylvania. The event called attention to foodways of Philadelphia refugees from Myanmar. There were some moving stories told as we shared cooking duties to make several dishes together. Many of the flavors we explored were very similar to those of Northern Thailand, but one item in particular was a new to me among these otherwise Southeast Asian flavors: toasted chickpea flour. This powder was mixed into all of the different salads served. I was intrigued.

I later learned that there are different varieties of chickpea flour to use for different purposes. The powder we used for salad was different than the untoasted kind used for making chickpea tofu.

Chickpea flours are relatively easy to obtain in Philadelphia as many cultures share the chickpea (or garbanzo bean) food staple. I traveled down to South Philly’s 7th Street Burmese markets to talk with shopkeepers and get some suggestions on best varieties of chickpea flour to use for chickpea tofu.  As you can see in the image below, I was directed to an Indian brand of chickpea flour. Keep that in mind as Philly’s South Asian markets are more plentiful than Philly’s Burmese markets (which are concentrated on South Philly’s 7th Street).

There is a great video on Youtube that shows large scale “yellow tofu” processing in the Shan State in Myanmar. It is worth a viewing.


Besan (Bengal gram chickpea flour from India) can be found at South Asian and Burmese markets in Philadelphia for making chickpea tofu. At Burmese markets, you can also find toasted chickpea flour (on right) that is useful for mixing into Burmese salads.

I also found that I had a good deal of information on chickpea tofu already on my bookshelf in Naomi Duguid’s 2012 cookbook Burma: Rivers of Flavor. She has recipes for making the tofu (which she calls “Shan” tofu), as well as soup, salad, and deep fry recipes for using the finished tofu. I used her recipe for making the tofu, one cup of chickpea flour to 3 cups of water.

I prepared two batches of tofu, one that was just besan, salt, and water, and one that included a pinch of turmeric for coloring. The basic idea is the same as making a Chinese jelly noodle: 1. Premix the starch (or in this case bean flour) with part of the water until it is smooth and press through a sieve to ensure there are no lumps, 2. dump that mixture into a pot of boiling (remaining) water, 3. Stir on medium heat to heat through the mixture and make a velvety texture, and 4. dump into an oiled vessel that can be put into the refrigerator for several hours.

After several hours in the refrigerator, the tofu is stiff enough to be used in salad and deep fry preparations.

Above are my two batches. The one on the left was quite fragile and watery. That might be because I covered it while it was still warm and let it set in a very wide bowl. The second one (with yellow turmeric)  was set in a smaller bowl, and I left it uncovered–that one had a tighter texture.

Burmese Tofu Salad

Chickpea tofu is commonly used in Myanmar to make salads. Seasonings and sauces can vary based on region. Here is a nice image example from MyFoodMyanmar.com that uses shrimp powder, fish sauce, and cilantro as key seasonings. Mark Viens also has a nice video eating this salad this as street food in Yangon. In the end, I based my try on Naomi Duguid’s recipe, as it combined yesterday’s food memory with what seemed like the standard key ingredients (primarily shallot oil, sourness, and herbal aromatics).

Chickpea tofu fritters

Chickpea tofu can also be deep fried in crunchy thin slices or blocks that are crunchy on the outside and velvety on the inside. Below are some images of how those turned out. The flavors were nutty and sweet. The really small crunchy bits were so sweet they almost tasted like GrapeNuts (for me this is not a negative flavor association).


Posted in - Featured Food Discoveries, - Featured Markets, - Recipes, Myanmar/Burmese food | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Edible Southeast Asian tree and bush leaves


Tips of of the Moringa or Drumstick tree

Happy New Year greetings! Although I wasn’t able to post as much as I would have liked to in 2016, I was able to continue my careful exploration of interesting finds at our MANY Asian markets in Philadelphia (I now estimate there to be around 80 markets). In particular, I spent considerable time and energy this year getting acquainted with cooking with more obscure tree and bush leaves.

Over the course of this blog I have been hinting at the incredible edible plant diversity in mainland Southeast Asia with posts discussing fresh herbs, edible flowers, edible vine leaves, and long leaf green vegetables. As incredible as that selection is (even in Philadelphia), that is still the tip of the iceberg for edible plants of Southeast Asia.


Sweet leaf bush (in Thai: phak waan baan ผักหวานบ้าน)

If you visit Southeast Asian markets of South Philly’s 7th Street (see here for my introduction to that area), or the Seng Hong market of upper North Philadelphia’s Logan neighborhood, you’ll be stunned by the variety of a-typical edible greens. Vines, leaves, pods, and sometimes flowers.

I am inspired to learn how to cook with these less commonly used items. Each one has unique flavor and texture profiles, and each one is unique… they don’t all taste like spinach or grass.

As I post on interesting market finds going forward in the coming year, this focus on more obscure edible greens will be a sub-theme.

Eventually, these finds will also make their way into my Green Vegetable and Herb Guide. Until then, enjoy a few recent highlights of my exploration!


I know this one from Isaan… phak gadone ผักกระโดน. It is a sour tree leaf that is delicious to eat with laab, papaya salad, and sticky rice.

Many of the bush leaves and vines that can be found are great in bland soups or omelettes. Here are examples of leaf inclusion in a Lao-style chicken and rice stew (I posted on a similar kind of soup previously)–this time I am using chile pepper leaves. Notice the tiny chiles still attached in some places! To use these in cooking, simply detach the leaves from the stem. They are great as a mild-flavored vegetable accompaniment:

Together with that stew, I am making an omelette with moringa, or drumstick tree leaves. Leaves of this tree are commonly used in Southeast Asia, and the long pods (drumsticks) are commonly used in India and Southern Thailand. In Thailand, these leaves are called marum sprigs ยอดมะรุม. These leaves are a tiny bit sour, but have a nice flavor when paired with something savory. In this case, it is a couple of eggs and a good squirt of fish sauce. Again, simply pull the leaves off the stem to use.

Finally, you can also use leaves like you would herbs, as final ingredients in stir fry dishes. Here is an example of “Sweet Leaf” (literally phak waan baan ผักหวานบ้าน in Thai)–this one’s stems were a bit tough, I’d probably remove them next time. Flavor was delicious though as a sturdy and mild flavored leaf:

More to come in 2017!

Posted in - Featured Food Discoveries, - Featured Markets, Cambodian food, Indian food, Thai/Lao food | 3 Comments

Sour times: the instant noodle-fueled rise of “old crock” sour vegetables


One of the Master Kong copycats we have in Philadelphia of the “Old crock sour vegetable beef noodle” – a spinoff of a noodle battle going on in China

In a 2014 post I tried to argue that the Kang Shifu 康師傅 (aka Chef Kang, or Master Kong) “happy chef” and his style of the popular beef stew noodles have influenced not only other instant noodle brands in Taiwan and China but also Chinese food trends more broadly.  In the US we still don’t have access to those incredibly popular Kang Shifu offerings (due to the real beef meat packets inside each package of noodles and US import restrictions), but we do have several copycat variations with powdered soup packets where we can see the effects of instant noodle brand battles.

Today I have another example of that influence, this time with a style of fermented Chinese mustard (changed from cabbage–see comments below), the so-called “old crock” sour vegetable.

Since my last post on Kang Shifu, I started noticing a new genre of instant noodle in the noodle isle of most Chinese supermarkets in Philadelphia. These noodle packs are usually purple, and there is a key active ingredient that is translated as “old crock” sour vegetable, or sometimes sauerkraut (and the flavor of this lacto-fermented Chinese mustard is similar to sauerkraut in many respects). This key ingredient is also signified on the package with an image of a pickling crock off to the side.

This combination of sour vegetable with beef noodles is not a new thing, in fact it is a classic. That said, the reference to the “old crock” (老坛酸菜), as well as the uniformity with the purple coloring, made me think this must be a corporate partnership with a brand called “Old Crock” (老坛). Instead, this is just a catchy name employed by two competing instant noodle empires, Master Kong and Tong Yi in China and Taiwan. See here for a Google image search with the keyword “Old crock sour vegetable” to get a sense of how these two companies are promoting the idea of “old crock”. For a very interesting blog post on the aforementioned noodle battle over the “old crock sour vegetable”, see the outstanding blog Reputable Sources.

This noodle battle and food trend finally started spilling over to the international market in recent years, and we now have a relatively stable section at Chinatown noodle isles for “old crock” sour vegetable noodles. In Philadelphia, we can clearly see popularity of this flavor, but we don’t have the original versions from the two main battling factions.

img_5530I have to admit, I find this style of instant noodle delicious. Sour vegetables go very well with the instant noodle beef soup base. In fact, as I get older, I find pickled vegetables go well with most anything.


Yuquan’s “old crock” sour vegetables. Now available in the pickle section

I am getting more interested in Chinese pickled vegetables in general, and am slowly working my way through the varied offerings at Philly’s many Chinese markets. Recently I found “old crock” sour vegetables for sale in foil packages alongside other types of preserved Chinese vegetables (see left).

This example comes from a well-known company, Chongqing’s Yuquan 鱼泉 (literally “fish well”), is perhaps best known for its line of Sichuan-style pickles, i.e. yuquan zhacai 鱼泉榨菜. See here for a Google image search for this kind of pickle. Unlike the more stem-focused zhacai or yacai (see here for my post on Yibin yacai), these sauerkraut-like lacto-ferments utilize more green leaves than stem.

Notice the purple packaging and the image of a pickling crock off to the side. To me, this is a clear example of how instant noodle companies are driving food trends in China and beyond.

Update 10 May 2017: Here is another example of “old crock” branding… Sichuan’s Baijia 白家 “Old Crock” sour vegetable potato starch vermicelli:


Posted in - Featured Food Discoveries, Chinese food | Tagged , , , , , | 4 Comments

Kluwak seeds and a savory black beef stew from East Java


Nasi rawon. Black kluwak beef stew with rice.

The black flesh of fermented kluwak seeds (aka keluwek or black nut) adds a very unusual and thick earthy base to meat stews in regional cuisines of Indonesia and Malaysia. It is particularly well known as a key ingredient in an intensely flavored East Java stew called Rawon, and in buah keluak pork and chicken stews in Malaysia. Fortunately for us in Philadelphia, this is yet another exotic ingredient that we can get locally at one of our several Indonesian grocers (light green points on my map of Philly Asian markets).


Packaged kluwak flesh from a South Philly shop

Kluwak seeds (see here for the wiki entry for pangium edule) are delicious as a base for savory dark stews. That said, the pale white flesh of the fresh nut is actually poisonous. It can only be consumed after the toxic effects are mitigated through boiling and fermenting in ash and banana leaves for 40 days. By that point, the flesh turns an oily dark brown. In bazaars of Indonesia, you can buy the fermented seeds, still in their dry, clam-sized oblong gray shells (see here for an image–as there are 6-8 seeds in a single fruit, the actual fruit must be huge!)

If you go to a Market in Indonesia, you can see people shelling the seeds, scooping the flesh out of the gray shells. The only kind available to us in Philadelphia is the seed-shelled flesh, vacuum packed in plastic (see left).

The freshly-shelled seeds have a much softer flesh. The shelf stable vacuum packed kind we have in Philadelphia are much more firm. To cook with the latter, first soak the flesh in warm water, let sit for 15 minutes or so and mash (I just use my fingers), much like the process for making tamarind liquid for cooking preparations.

In my experience, I felt some shell pieces and some tough bits that I thought might not be so nice in my soup. Because of that I chose to strain my kluwak sauce. Other Indonesian home cooks simply blend it all up with the other soup base paste ingredients (dried spices, shallots, garlic, shrimp paste).

Recipe: Black kluwak-stewed beef with rice – Nasi rawon

Nasi Rawon is a much loved go-to meal for East Java (and in metropolitan areas all around Indonesia). Many recipes can be found online, and the basic ingredients seem to be pretty standard. Here are some online recipes for comparison: from Singapore Local Favorites and Travelling FoodiesI found some nice video recipes too, but they are in Indonesian. That said, they are pretty easy to follow if you recognize the ingredients. Here is a video from of a typical Surabaya recipe from Resep Masakan, and here is an East Java news TV program from NET JATIM that includes a restaurant visit to a visit to a famous rawon restaurant in Surabaya (Rawon Pak Pangat). There they serve the stewed meat over rice as well as a bowl of broth separate for customers to pour over when they are ready.

Common accompaniments to this stew (besides rice) are salted duck eggs, mung bean sprouts, lemon basil, cucumber slices, shrimp crackers, and spicy sambal. I loved this stew when I sampled it in Indonesia, but I found the salty duck eggs overkill as the stew was already so intensely flavored. In my version below, I mellowed the accompaniment to simple hard-boiled egg and cucumber. I recognize that may be possible heresy.


Most of the key ingredients for this dish, minus 2 lbs of stewing beef, galangal root, tamarind liquid, and torn kaffir lime leaves. Clockwise from bag of kluwak: kluwak, shrimp paste (belachan), tumeric powder, (Asian) shallots, garlic, ginger, salam leaves, coriander seeds, candlenuts, lemongrass stalks, dried chiles.

This stew is pretty simple to put together, with the most hands-on time spent soaking and mashing kluwak and tamarind, and mashing the soup base seasonings. Below is an approximate list of ingredients and quantities I used. I had a cookbook reference point (Indonesian Kitchen: 300 popular recipes across the archipelago, by Yasa Boga, Gramedia 2015), as well as several web sources:

  • Beef for stewing, about 2 lbs
  • flesh from soaked kluwak seeds (I used the whole package above)
  • 3-4 thick slices of galangal root (I used frozen)
  • 3 lemongrass stalks, bruised (I tossed some green stalk into the soup as well)
  • 3-4 salam leaves
  • 3-4 kaffir lime leaves
  • palm sugar
  • tamarind soaking liquid (about 1/2 cup)
  • salt to tasteFor spice paste:
  • [Asian] shallots (about 6)
  • garlic cloves (about 5)
  • ginger (about 1 Tbsp)
  • candlenuts (4)
  • ground tumeric (about 1 tsp)
  • coriander seeds (about 1 Tbsp)
  • belachan (shrimp paste, about 1 tsp)

  1. Soak kluwak seeds and tamarind. Mash flesh and make thick liquids. If you use too much liquid, you can just use less water or stock later. See above images for soaking kluwak, and see images here for soaking tamarind.
  2. Dry fry coriander seeds and candlenuts and pound into a fine powder. Add chile peppers, salt, keep pounding. Add shallots, garlic, ginger. Pound to a paste. Finally mix with tumeric and belachan (see above).
  3. Prepare lemongrass stalks and galangal. Prepare kaffir lime leaves (see above).
  4. Heat oil in a pot. Fry spice paste mixture, lemongrass, galangal, kaffir lime leaves until fragrant. Add cubed beef. Stir it up good.
  5. Add in the kluwak liquid and the tamarind liquid. Add water or stock to cover the beef. Boil until meat is tender to your preference. For me, after about 1 1/2 hours my beef was starting to fall apart.
  6. Serve with rice, salted duck egg, cucumber, bean sprouts, shrimp crackers, sambal, etc. As mentioned above, today I chose mild accompaniments of hard-boiled egg and cucumber.


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(A few) Asian grocery options for Germantown and Manayunk


Binto Market & Cafe

Regular readers of this blog may be surprised to find that for the past 3 years, I have been living about as far away from any Asian market as can possibly be in Philadelphia. Perhaps that has helped force me to continue exploration of Philly’s (sometimes far-flung) neighborhoods. This has also meant finding the most efficient street networks to bike all over the city to reach our many markets. I’ve gotten pretty good at getting around the city. That said, my own neighborhoods (Germantown and later, Roxborough) remained about 3 miles to the nearest Asian market.

But no longer! Over the summer there have been a couple of nice developments that will will directly influence my quality of life going forward, including Asian grocery options in Germantown and Manayunk…

Chelten Market IGA International Food Market (176 Chelten Ave). The grocery store at the corner of Wayne and Chelten in Germantown used to be a Pathmark, and it used to be the closest store to us when we lived in Germantown—it had been a basic grocery store for mainstream American food choices and it wasn’t very interesting. Over the summer the store has  changed into Chelten Market IGA. I can’t say that this is a full Asian or international market—in fact it largely maintains the look and stock of the prior Pathmark, and has kept many of the same staff  and they even still have their corny announcements on the PA (which I do enjoy). What has changed is a slightly more expanded produce section with items like lemongrass, daikon,  napa cabbage, and a few bok chois (though today lemongrass and daikon were quite old), and more importantly to the purposes of this blog, there is also “international” aisle that has an unusual mix of Asian items. There you can find several things that can’t be found in more mainstream US markets: Glutinous rice from Thailand, fish sauce, Mama brand instant noodles, basic staples for making Japanese and Korean foods. There is also a decent Caribbean section. It seems there is some effort to stock things for the local community, including the neighborhood’s growing Asian community (mostly students at Philadelphia University and Drexel University College of Medicine).  The most impressive addition to the store is the freezer section, which contains a large selection of Korean and Chinese dumplings, mantou, mandu Chinese youtiao.

Binto Market & Cafe (part of Chabaa Thai Bistro’s expansion at 4345 Main Street in Manayunk). This newly established market (named after the stacked lunch box popular in Japan and Thailand–2 countries that fittingly reflect the specialty food items inside) has surprising and unusual mix of high-end Japanese, Chinese, Thai, and Vietnamese pantry staples and snacks. Even more surprising is the refrigerated section of rare and crucial Southeast Asian vegetables (they had 4 types of eggplant for example, as well as lotus stems, kaffir lime leaves, etc). The market is light on leafy greens, but is seems the fresh veg stock may be on rotation.

Prices are a little higher than Southeast Asian markets in South Philly, but you might expect that for a boutique market in Manayunk… Thai mortars and pestles line the shelves on the wall (which you can barely see in the above image), and are also for sale. They are also packing quick meals out of Chabaa’s kitchen, with daily specials that range from pho, to grilled chicken and papaya salad, to banh mi sandwiches. The clerks are Thai and speak Thai fluently. They let me custom order an Isaan-style papaya salad! For my purposes, this will be a valuable new option for stopping by to pick up a few things for a Thai meal on the way home from work.

Posted in - Featured Food Discoveries, - Featured Markets, Japanese food, Korean food, Thai/Lao food | Tagged , | 3 Comments

Selamat pagi, Yogyakarta: a surprisingly rich and savory chicken rice porridge for breakfast

IMG_5225I’ll start by saying that I’m not one for sweet breakfasts. As regular readers will know (ex. 1, ex. 2, ex. 3), I prefer savory foods leftover from the night before to American breakfast cereal or glazed donuts. A recent trip to Yogyakarta, Indonesia brought savory breakfasts to a new level for me–and using simple rice porridge as a vehicle! This is explained in the following post.

Rice porridge (or congee) is a very common meal in East and Southeast Asia. It is remarkably filling and it is an easy-to-digest anytime food.

Perhaps to many readers, rice porridge will best known as a breakfast, a late night snack, or as a part of dim sum varied offerings in southern China and among Chinese emigre communities in Chinatowns around the world. In those locations it is generally known as 粥 zhou (Mandarin) or juk or jok in southern dialects. In Philadelphia, my favorite location for juk is sadly about to close down. Heung Fa Chun Sweet House, You will be missed! (UPDATE 10 Nov 16: It looks like Heung Fa Chun is still going, though it seems to be under new management. They are still selling their lean meat/preserved egg juk!)

Rice porridge is very easily prepared. Just overboil the rice in too much water to the point that it breaks down to a mush (1.5-2 hours). Sometimes it is boiled together with pork, fish, chicken, and/or eggs. It can then be seasoned with soy sauce, black or white pepper, fresh ginger, cilantro, green onion, fried garlic. It is delicious and classic. Below you can see an example of a great Sino-Thai version.

las jok

This is an example of Sino-Thai jok โจ๊ก 粥 -  my idea of what is amazing rice porridge. Courtesy La Sripanawongsa

In Southeast Asia, rice porridge is built off that same Chinese classic, largely due to the enormous ethnic Chinese populations that relocated to Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia, and Cambodia over the past hundred or so years. In most of those renditions you can still see vestiges of Chinese influence to the crucial accompaniments to this dish: deep fried dough, soy sauce, pickled Chinese cabbage. All of those are still standard in southern China, as well as in other places where southern Chinese have settled.

Somehow in Indonesia, that simple presentation of rice porridge wasn’t enough. From what I can gather through my travels in person and online, rice porridge in Indonesia is anything but boring. Just to give you a sense of how different rice porridge can be there, try following these two links: a Google image search for Chinese-style rice porridge, zhou 粥, and an image search for Indonesian bubur ayam “chicken porridge”. Do you see what I mean? For the first link you have recognizable congee or porridge, and in the other link, there’s party in a bowl.

My bubur ayam experience was eye-opening for me, though the preparation I regularly had in Yogyakarta was a little different than examples I see in videos online that are perhaps more Jakarta-focused (See here for one such entertaining video example from Mark Wiens of migrationology.com as he explores a Jakarta bubur ayam stall).

The experience that I am trying to replicate is from Hotel Meliá Purosani in Yogyakarta. Theirs was a rice porridge cooked thick in chicken broth, lumped into a bowl, covered with crunchy, pickled and salty Indo-Chinese toppings AND THEN topped with an intensely flavored coconut curry-like soup. That left quite an impression on me. Pickled cabbage, cilantro, white pepper, and crunchy deep fried dough were very familiar pairings to me, but the curry soup thing took things to a new and different level. I had to try it at home. Below are my first efforts on a “next-level” congee, followed by a recipe of sorts:


Bubur ayam Meliá Purosani – Chicken porridge à la Hotel Meliá Purosani

  • Step 1. Prepare intense savory chicken soup (for later topping). That recipe requires a recently discussed salam leaf, and will likely be a basic soto recipe that is chicken or beef based. I adapted largely from an excellent recipe posted online from André Chiang at Snapguide.com. See the photo series below of my version, and compare to Andre’s version. This soup can be prepared the night before if need be.


  • Step 2. Boil some rice in chicken broth. I used a few generous scoops of cooked jasmine rice, with leftover chicken broth from my soto experiment. Boil for as long as it takes so you don’t recognize the grains anymore. Don’t leave it alone for too long though, stir every 10 minutes or so otherwise it will burn on the bottom. If it is getting too thick and sticking too much, just add more broth or water. It will probably take 1.5 hours.
  • Step 3: While the rice is cooking, prepare all other toppings (besides the soup). That might mean baking or frying crunchy bits, and chopping green aromatics. Any or all of the following may apply…

BONUS: Chinese/Southeast Asian rice porridge topping guide

  1. Deep fried dough. In Chinatown and internationally, this item is likely best known by its Mandarin Chinese name, youtiao 油条 (see below image. If you find it at the fridge section it will likely be labeled as “Chinese cruller”, “Chinese donut” or “油条”). Among Chinese emigre communities it might also be referred to as “oil fried devil” 油炸鬼 you zha gui, or how they are referred to in Indonesia after being that name was transmitted in Hokkien: cahkwe.
    Assuming you don’t get them freshly deep-fried and find them in the fridge section, bake in your oven at 350 for 10 minutes or until starting to crisp. Then you can cut them up smaller if you like.
  2. Soy sauce. Kecap (have you heard the story about how our “ketchup” is related to Southeast Asian/Chinese sauces? If not, check this Codeswitch page. You can use different soy sauces to your preference. Basic soy sauces from China/Japan/Korea are very salty, of course. In Yogyakara, most prefer sweet soy sauce for their porridge, or kecap manis. Image below.
  3. Chopped cilantro and green onion. These are pretty standard everywhere.
  4. Pickled cabbage/other vegetable. At the hotel, they used a pale colored salty vegetable that I find is very similar to the Lychee Brand pickled cabbage (product of Thailand). In Indonesian, this may be referred to as tongcai “tongchai” 冬菜 (dongcai in Mandarin).
  5. Fried soy nuts/soy beans. These I haven’t seen in China besides as toppings for Guilin noodles. It must not be so common for southern Chinese cooking, since they are not commonly found Asian groceries. You can get fried/roasted soy nuts at health food stores, or places like The Head Nut at Reading Terminal Market. If possible, seek out lightly salted or unsalted soy nuts. For dishes like the bubur ayam, all of the other toppings are already salty.IMG_5111
  6. Ground white pepper. This may be a universal, but Southeast Asia is the home for this spice.
  7. Other crunchy fried toppings, like Emping bumbu (melinjo chips), deep fried noodles, etc. If you use emping chips, deep fry them first! I didn’t and it was awful. You’ll notice I had a raw one in my otherwise beautifully prepared bowl above. If you fry them, they crisp up like a poppadom.
  8. Chopped Chinese celery.
  9. Dried pork, beef, or fish sung or “floss”. This is known as 肉松 rou song in Chinese. It’s like meat cotton candy. See here for a wiki entry on the stuff.
  10. Fried garlic. This is a standard topping in Thailand. Just chopped garlic fried until completely dry and golden in oil. Fried shallots might be also used in Indonesia.

Batman view of toppings for this meal. Clockwise from the soup: pepper grinder for white pepper, sweet soy sauce, green onions, Chinese celery, emping chips (remember, fry those first), fried dough (youtiao, aka, cahkwe), shredded chicken from the soup, fried shallots or better yet fried garlic, Chinese preserved cabbage, cilantro, and soy nuts in the middle.

Posted in - Featured Food Discoveries, - Recipes, - Unique food traditions, Chinese food, Malay/Indonesian food, Thai/Lao food | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Salam leaf, an essential flavor in Indonesian cooking

IMG_5059 copy

What you are seeing above is NOT a bay leaf. I say this because it seems like a majority of all recipe sites and blogs online, as well as cookbooks translate daun salam as “bay leaf” in English. In fact, it comes from a totally different order and family of trees (Syzygium polyanthum), and it yields a VERY different flavor from that of the Mediterranean variety, which comes from the laurel family (Laurus nobilis).

Recipes from Indonesia that use this ingredient are honestly too abundant to list here. It is one of the most common aromatics from Sumatra, Java, and Bali. One such common, everyday dish is “chicken soup” (soto ayam). That will be a planned post in the coming week. In addition, Indonesian cooking does not typically use the western bay leaf. So, if you have an Indonesian cookbook that calls for bay leaves, daun salam is what you are looking for.

If you are interested in trying your hand at Indonesian cooking, this ingredient is well worth seeking out. It adds an subtle yet unmistakable sweet and savory flavor. I find it has a flavor between cardamom and cinnamon.

In Philadelphia you can find this at nearly any of the several Indonesian corner stores in South Philly, imported under the Wayang brand. I highlighted several shops that would carry this in a previous post, but I got today’s batch of leaves from One Stop Shop, on the corner of S. 16th and Morris streets.


If you open a bag of these leaves, you won’t smell much of a fragrance. You really need to cook with them to release their aroma. Frying 3-4 leaves in some oil or boiling them in some coconut milk turns on their flavor.

In Javanese and Balinese cooking, the fresh version of daun salam is widely used, and you can witness giant piles of the leaves at most fresh markets.

Bay leaf confusion. Just to give you a sense of how these leaves look compared to other “bay leaves”, see the image below for things I’ve acquired recently:


Typically referred to as “bay leaves”: on left, Mediterranean variety from Turkey, in middle daun salam from Indonesia, and finally on the right, UNKNOWN from a recent shopping trip in Thailand. I thought I was maybe buying a Thai variety of daun salam, and it is labeled as “cardomom leaf” (which, just to confuse matters is how “bay leaf” translates into Thai!). I now suspect that it is actually yet another leaf that is typically labeled “bay leaf”: Cinnamomum tamala, a.k.a. Indian bay leaf, or tejpat leaf. There are still other “bay leaves” out there, but these represent the most common in Eurasia.


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