On my grandmother’s farm in Tainan, Taiwan, everything was painstakingly grown. Nothing was wasted, not one morsel.
I remember a whole pig broken down, pork knuckles and trotters braised in a soy stock, the shoulder used for cha sao or char siu, the belly for braising, the ribs fried, and so on.
Fish-head soups and soy-braised chicken feet were standard dishes on our farm table; nose-to-tail eating was part of everyday life. Fresh produce was repurposed into a kind of zha sui (known as ‘chop suey’ in the West) stir-fry using leftover odds and ends, sometimes a dry-fry, sometimes saucier with gravy.
Traditional Chinese home cooking is frugal, using small amounts of oil, offcuts, diced up pieces of meat, fresh seasonal produce stir-fried on a high heat, splashes of store-cupboard seasoning ingredients – a wholesome, healthy dinner could be on the table within minutes. As inflation and energy prices surge, perhaps we should look to historical ways of cooking and eating in the East for inspiration. Once you invest in store-cupboard essentials like light and dark soy, dried chillies, chilli bean sauce, rice wine and sweet chilli sauce, these ingredients produce wonders – a little goes a long way.
A dish I’m cooking a lot for my family at the moment is Taiwanese run ping (in Mandarin) or lun piah (in the Taiwanese dialect). Like chop suey, this street-food pancake uses up bits from the fridge. It’s similar to a savory French crepe but without the calorific butter, and the batter, which uses coconut oil, is spread by being ‘painted’ on to a non-stick crepe pan with a brush.
Hoisin and chilli bean sauce are spread on the base, crunchy bean sprouts, spring onions, carrot, cucumber, omlette strips and fried tofu are piled into the centre, topped with coriander and a ground-peanut sugar sprinkle, then it is rolled to eat .
I’m mostly plant-based these days, but I do occasionally eat fish. When I do, it’s got to be sustainable, responsibly sourced, line-caught and MSC-certified. Having had the good fortune to go to Norway on a fishing trip with the chef Michel Roux Jr a few winters ago, I fell in love with Norwegian cod. From fresh, clean waters, the fish was super-sweet and tender, so now I tend to buy Norwegian. I make a sharing fish dish the whole family can enjoy, something sustainable, and less costly than serving one whole fillet per person.
I love fusion food, especially Macanese, a blend of Portuguese, Indian, African and Chinese influences, and one of the oldest fusion cuisines in the world. There is a classic Macanese dish called tchatini, which uses bacalhau, or dried codfish. It requires soaking and is then flaked and poached in a turmeric-coconut broth, garnished with fresh chillies.
My take is to wok-fry garlic, shallot and turmeric with a teaspoon of balichão, or what’s known in Malaysia as belachan, which is a pungent shrimp paste. Though my addition of shrimp paste is not traditional, this is a Macanese store-cupboard staple. It imparts a deep umami richness that is lip-smackingly addictive.
I adore easy, honest cooking, where fresh ingredients do the talking, and with the help of an Asian pantry are transformed into something magical. Enjoy!
Spicy sweet chicken with crispy rainbow peppers
On my first TV show, Ching’s Kitchen, I was surprised by how many peppers the production team bought just to make my sweet and sour pork ‘perfect’. Cubes of pepper, all the same size and shape, with the tops and bases of the vegetable discarded. I’ve always hated food waste.
When cooking a sweet and sour dish, I save the bits around the stalk and the base of the peppers and use them for this.
Tender chicken mini-fillets are cheaper than whole breasts, plus if you dust it with cornflour before cooking, it keeps the chicken pieces juicy.