Time for another photo of one of the things from my kitchen that I heart with all my heart. This post also contains much bragging about times when I have – wait for it – MADE DINNER for other people. I know, wow, right? Anyway, it’s more about happy memories and happy times than about trying to show off. Honest!
Today I want to share with you the joy that is my Chinese blue carp (note spelling) crockery. I bought the set in two goes, on separate trips to the Chinese supermarket, and plan on going back to get more soon. I did go at the start of the year with the aim of adding to my collection but as soon as we got to the crockery section there was a power cut and we had to buy the shopping we’d already picked up and leave. Very poor timing. A return trip is on the cards now that the weather is less Arctic (we had to walk there in the snow, we felt like explorers and decided that Brian Blessed would be proud). Having said that, it’s not safe for me to go to the Chinese supermarket too often, because it’s full of things I want to buy and, while the prices are usually much lower than the same items would be in your standard supermarket, buying one of everything would still break the bank.
Aside: For the sake of simplicity, I’m speaking as though there’s only one such supermarket in Glasgow, but in fact there are five that I know of, and doubtless more. My favourite is the biggest one, See Woo, if only because it’s so huge that you can make a visit there last all afternoon. It stocks Chinese, Indian, Indonesian, Japanese, Malaysian, Korean, Thai and now Polish foods so there’s a lot to look at.
Of all the many new things to look at, the bakery section in particular was a revelation to me the first time I saw it, full of treats I’d never seen before but definitely wanted to see again. Red bean paste buns are my favourite, shaped as they are like flowers dotted with sesame seeds, but I’ve hardly scratched the surface of all the available delights, both sweet and savoury. I also try to pick up at least one new grocery or chilled ingredient each time I go, to mess around with at home in the continuing search for cheat-free cuisine from around the world (although mainly from China and Japan so far). This habit is the reason that I have a cupboard only for seasonings and condiments, and it looks like this:
The top half is seasonings and condiments, the bottom is baking. This cupboard was cleared out at new year, and only has stuff in it that I use. I’m proud of it, in an odd way. Some memorable finds I’ve added to the cupboard have been hot and spicy banana sauce, Lingham’s garlic, ginger and chili sauce (others are available, but this one is my favourite, even though it’s made in the UK), sweet apple vinegar, the previously mentioned shichimi togarashi, tinned fried catfish with chilli, and most recently, wasabi flavoured sesame seeds. The banana and chili sauces are good for dipping spring rolls or dumplings in, so no great adventure there really but they are a bit different to your usual sweet chili dip. I used the apple vinegar, mixed with rice vinegar, to soak chili slices, which made a hot and sweet vinegar for dressing, dipping or adding to other food. The tinned catfish is really spicy, meaty and chewy, and I put it through thin noodles with sliced bell peppers and spring onions. It takes a lot of work to get ready to use though, it comes in tiny, tiny steaks that you have to de-bone and skin, but the flavour and texture are worth it.
The snack aisles are quite something, too, with a mix of things I may never try – dried cuttlefish strips, anyone? – and things that look oddly familiar – crisps that look suspiciously like cheesy puffs but in different packaging. There are wasabi peas which I would highly recommend even though they make you feel like your sinuses are melting. I know, I’m not really selling them, but I want you to be forewarned. It’s an enjoyable sinus melting, if that helps. The kind of sinus melting where after one you go ‘Argh! No! The food is biting me!’ and then have another one anyway. Last time I was there I also picked up saltine crackers, which I thought you could only get in the States. They’re nothing fancy, just salted crackers, but oh my are they good for a hangover, or a quick snack that isn’t crisps. Plus the ones I got came in packs of six, three pairs of crackers with a cute perforated line down the middle of each. Why I thought that was cute I’m not sure, it wouldn’t be cute down the middle of a kitten, or a baby, but on the crackers it was. Maybe novel is the word I’m looking for.
I’ve gone off topic with reminisces of happy times in the supermarket… back to the crockery:
I have four of each piece, with the obvious exception of the teapot, which is a solo item, and also the flat serving dish, of which I have two. I have my eye on two large serving bowls and a tiny pepper pot as my next additions, but we’ll see what catches my eye. Just looking at this set makes me happy, and I have two of my six cupboard shelves devoted to it, so every time I go looking for pasta, noodles, dried or tinned goods I see it, and it makes me smile.
I used it to serve up a ‘banquet’ of food for three of us on one lovely, long Sunday of eating, a feat I intend to repeat soon as I have a couple of recipes I want to try, and can always find more in my much loved and much abused Fuschia Dunlop book, Sichuan Cookery. The book was a gift to help me with my intentions of learning to make authentic dishes and it really has, giving me such gems as beef and bell peppers with sweet bean sauce, char siu dumplings and a host of cold, dressed chicken dishes, all of which (and many more) featured on that day of endless eating. Another thing on the menu was sweet steamed bread which was pretty nice, although a little less sweet than I’d really have liked, but it was quite good dipped in honey, fondue style. I also made sweet potato cakes with gelatinous rice flour. Let me state for the record that gelatinous rice flour is my nemesis. I used a bit too much to try to make the mix dry enough to shape and the cakes were… I don’t know what the best word would be. Chewy doesn’t even begin to cover it. I don’t know if you’ve ever had the sensation that food is growing as you eat it, but I can tell you that it is not pleasant. You could practically hear the cartoon ‘boing!’ noise as we tried to bite off a mouthful. After chewing for a while I felt like I could use the resulting wad of what seemed to be rubber to blow a bubble big enough to carry me to the moon. Not what you’re after in a food, really. Maybe I should have contacted the military to see if they wanted the recipe to use in developing anti-missile shields. An opportunity missed, there.
Despite the growing food, the day of eating was a success. So much so that I did it again, on a smaller scale and in a style more reminiscent of buffet than banquet, with my parents and sister on another day, and with some other friends on yet another day. I love a day of cooking, me. I get a ‘greatest rock hits’ compilation on, turn it up, and go to it; making cold water and yeast doughs for won tons and bao tzi; mixing oils, vinegars and spices to make dressings and sauces; ‘mincing’ (read: hacking up) meat to fill dumplings… To me it’s one of the most satisfying ways to spend a Saturday, in readiness for a big lunch on Sunday. Not every weekend, mind, but I’ve always liked my own company, my own singing voice and the act of preparing food to share with folk, so it gives me a chance to do all three. When I had my parents over I made some slightly ‘Westernised’ spring rolls with filo pastry because I knew my dad really liked them, and I was worried we wouldn’t like anything else! Some other, more authentic, things I served up were wonton soup, shao mai dumplings and baked meatballs in a mushroom sauce, and I’m glad to say it was all very well received. Especially the wonton soup, which I was most worried about because of the texture of the wontons once they’ve been boiled. After the first taste my dad said ‘that’s very unusual’ and I thought it as all over, but he surprised and delighted me by absolutely hoovering up the bowl I gave him. For me, the day wouldn’t have been just quite as nice without my pretty crockery pulling it all together and setting a classy tone for the meal.
I also used my crockery to serve my parents and sister a dinner of sushi, steak rolls, gyoza dumplings and miso soup. My family are nothing if not well fed when they come round my house, I tell you. The little flat dishes were great for holding vinegar and soy for dipping, and I also bought tiny glass bowls for wasabi. Plus making sushi gave me an excuse to buy the little square, divided dishes – I used them to give everyone their own supply of pickled ginger on one side and pickled vegetables on the other. I had wanted to buy those dishes for ages but couldn’t think of a practical use for them so I was delighted to finally have one. They are so sweet, I think they might be my favourite pieces. Interestingly, they also have a dividing line down the middle, like the saltine crackers… Not sure what that means. I dug out a blue bed sheet and used it as a table cover, and with all the little dishes in place it looked great, if a bit studenty. That day was a lot of fun as it’s really satisfying to me to be able to share my new food interests and recipes with my friends and family, but especially with my mum and dad, who had never tried sushi, miso or perhaps any Japanese food before. The picture shows tuna, cucumber and salmon sushi rolls, and smoked salmon and japanese omlette nigiri.
The more I think about it, the more I can remember lovely days where I used these dishes to serve up various bits and pieces to people; they’re not just lovely to look at but also practical, and for someone like me who finds it hard to spend money on things just because they’re pretty that is a real bonus. On its own, the teapot has been great for evenings of me time, with a pot of jasmine or brown rice tea and a book, in front of the fire or cosied up under a blanket on the couch. I often use the square bowls for everyday meals and not just for special occasions and it makes dinner time just a bit more special – to me, if to nobody else.