Demystification recipes: blog amnesty edition

A few weeks ago I did a session on things to cook with possibly unfamiliar things from the Asian grocery store for my women’s group. I came home and started to write it up, and then my laptop died and I am still resting between computers. On a borrowed laptop for the moment, and claiming the blog Amnesty originated by Eating With Jack and used to such great effect by Jackie herself, then extended by Claire of Melbourne Gastronome and enthusastically (and gratefully) joined by Ed from Tomatom and Sarah of Sarah Cooks. It’s twitter’s fault.

This is approximately how much stuff you need to demystify your average Asian grocery store, with the addition of a bonus Hairy McClary backpack full of nappies, wipes, toddler snacks and a cold drink. If your car is getting fixed, you’ll be needing a large hand truck. Fortunately I didn’t have far to go.

img_1990 goodies

When you get there you’ll need tables to fill up with all manner of until-now mysterious things, like giant packets of fungus and small jars of stinky fermented tofu, bundles of greens, jars full of bark, tiny bottles of mustard oil so pungent it burns your nasal hairs, etc, etc.

I think one reason why some people are cautious about buying things from an Asian grocery store is that so much stuff is packaged, and if you don’t know what it is, or what the thing you want looks like, it gets confusing. So we ripped open all the plastic and set about rehydrating, sniffing, poking and tasting.


I wish someone had mentioned my hair before they started taking pictures, but there you go.

We rehydrated four different kinds of dried fungus and compared them, observing that the (relatively) expensive white capped shiitakes absorbed more water, became much softer and more luscious and had an altogether more savoury and appealing smell than the cheaper brown ones, that black cloud ear (also called wood mushroom) was a “texture food” because it didn’t really have a lot to offer in the taste department but that on the other hand there’s something pretty special about white fungus.

Many of the women were very familiar with tofu, but some had never cooked with or eaten it, so we opened up some silken, firm, puffs and pressed five spice tofu – I forgot the tofu sheets – and talked about what kinds of uses they have and what they weren’t good for. Unfortunately I couldn’t bring some of the really good locally made tofu (by Shanghai Yulin Tofu) because I hadn’t been able to get to the shop.

We passed around dishes of light and dark soy sauce, and talked about what the hell that meant. We sniffed black vinegar, and rice vinegar and Chianking vinegar. We had a go at the Shaoxing wine, which Anglifed recipes often suggest can be substituted for with sherry. Well, why would you when a flash bottle costs about $8 and is MUCH better than sherry.

By this stage we were getting pretty hungry, so started to whip up some food. I explained that you only need a cheap wok from the Chinese shop, but that it must be seasoned properly. The claypot dish I had intended to make went belly up because there was a concealed switch to turn the oven on, but we ended up stir-frying the topping so we could taste it anyway.

Basic leafy Chinese veg stir-fry

The NSW Government has standardised names and published a pictorial guide to Asian vegetables. Personally I’m sad to see the end of the hairy melon, but that’s progress I suppose. Clicking the veggie’s name in the guide will give you a bigger image, alternative names and cooking information


  • non-stingy splash of corn or peanut oil (not olive, it doesn’t handle the necessary intense heat well)
  • 2 cloves garlic, smashed in a theatrical fashion with the flate of a cleaver from shoulder height down onto the chopping board
  • 1 bunch leafy greens like kang kong or amaranthen choy
  • light soy sauce (I like Kimlan best, then Pearl River Bridge)
  • Chinkiang vinegar (Gold Plum brand is the best, but has been hard to find recently)


  • Wash your greens and trim into 5 cm lengths
  • Turn the exhaust fan on
  • Heat the empty wok hot, hot, hot until smoke is rising
  • splash in oil, quickly followed by garlic
  • push the garlic around quickly with a big flat spatula/wooden spoon for about 30 seconds
  • As soon as you can smell the garlic, toss in the greens
  • push, push, push them around to coat them with garlicky oil
  • throw in a splash or two of soy sauce and push around for a minute or two more – the stems should be crispy and the leaves soft but not “melted”
  • take off the heat and add a splash or two of Chinkiang vinegar

Fuchsia Dunlop’s Ma Po Tofu

It makes a huge difference to roast and grind the Sichuanese peppercorns fresh each time. We passed around some raw and toasted peppercorns so the women could see the difference themselves. We also chewed one to get the “numb and tingling” effect that they’re known for. If you don’t have a mortar and pestle to grind them, put them in a teatowel and give them a good bash with something heavy, like the end of a cleaver, a rolling pin or a can of beans.


  • 1 block of silken tofu
  • 6 stems green garlic (garlic chia), or green onions aka “shallots”
  • 150 g beef mince (although we used pork)
  • 2 tablespoons Sichuanese broad bean chilli sauce (look for one that uses broad beans, not soy beans. Ideally, the ingredients list reads something like “broad beans, chilli, flour, salt”
  • 1 tablespoon soaked salted black beans
  • 1 cup chicken stock
  • a pinch of sugar, a splash of soy
  • 2 teaspoons potato starch in enough water to make a slurry (cornflour is fine; you don’t need to use either if you like a slightly runnier sauce)
  • roasted and ground Sichuan peppercorns


  • Cut tofu into squares (you can do this while it’s still in the packet) and set aside. If feasible, rest in it just boiled salted water for a few minutes.
  • Cut the green garlic stems into “horses ears” – 2 cm long slices on a sharp diagonal.
  • Measure everything else out into little bowls or dishes and line them up next to the stove.
  • Turn on the exhaust fan. Heat the wok on high heat and add 4 tablespoons oil (1/3 cup). It might seem a lot, but remember that Chinese food is served from a shared dish on the table, and you leave the oil in the serving bowl.)
  • Add the mince and cook until it has brown crunchy edges.
  • Lower heat to medium, and add chilli bean paste. Stir quickly, then add the black beans. Mash up a few with your stirring tool. If you’re keen, add a couple of teaspoons of ground dried chilli now.
  • Have a bit of a cough. If you added the ground chillies, have a sip of water as well.
  • Add the stock and then the tofu. Move everything around gently so that the tofu gets coated. If you don’t want the pieces to break up, be careful.   You don’t need to move fast here, it’s not stir fry.
  • Add a pinch of sugar and a couple of splashes of soy and leave for a few minutes to simmer.
  • Stir in the green garlic and after a couple of minutes, add the starch slurry.  Let it thicken for a couple of minutes.
  • Scatter Sichuan peppercorns on top to serve.

Dry fried green beans – vegan and omnivore versions

To make this substantial enough as a meal on its own with rice, you can add some smoked or five-spice pressed tofu, cut into slivers of a similar size to the beans. We did because the packet was open and because I wanted the vegetarians to stop looking sad.


  • 300 g snake beans cut into 5 cm lengths (green beans are fine)
  • 75 g soaked and finely chopped shiitake mushrooms (or use a mix including some soaked and finely chopped white fungus and black fungus, aka black cloud ear, which we did because we’d been inspecting them all) or the same weight of pork mince
  • 2 teaspoons light soy sauce
  • 2 teaspoons Shaoxing wine
  • 1 tablespoon Tianjin preserved vegetable (finely chopped if not already shredded; it often comes in a squat little brown crock with a plastic lid)
  • Sesame oil


  • Turn the exhaust fan on
  • Heat the empty wok hot, hot, hot until smoke is rising
  • Splash in oil, then the beans.  Move them around until they start to blister and get black spots – five minutes or so. They should start to get a smoky and slightly sweet smell.  Set them aside.
  • Heat the wok again over a high flame and add more oil.  Add pork mince or mushrooms and stir fry for a minute, splashing in the wine and soy.
  • Add Tianjin preserved vegetable and mix; add the reserved beans.
  • Put in a bowl or plate and drizzle a little sesame oil on top.


Claypot pork with dried shiitakes, red dates and dried sausage

Claypots are cheap and surprisingly useful, but any heavy pot with a lid will do. If you’re using a claypot for the first time, soak it in a bucket of water for 24 hours (the lid, too). For subsequent uses, soak it for an hour or chuck it in a bucket in the morning to use in the evening. I have made this in one big claypot or two smaller ones.


  • About 500 g pork, with some fat and lean meat (ie, 750 g chops with bones and some fat removed and sliced into pieces about 4 cm by 2 cm by ½ cm)
  • 4 large shiitakes, stems removed and soaked in hot water for ten minutes then sliced
  • handful dried Chinese red dates (aka jujubes, and not a true date – leave out rather than use other dates)
  • 1 tablespoon Shaoxing wine (or use Sherry, but as Shaoxing wine is tastier and cheaper, go buy a bottle – get Golden Pagoda brand if you can)
  • 1 teaspoon roasted sesame oil
  • 1 tablespoon of ginger in fine matchsticks
  • 2 tsp potato starch (cornflour is fine)
  • 4 green onions or garlic stems, cut into 3 cm lengths on an angle
  • 3 chinese sausages, cut inot ½ slices on an angle (so they look like ovals)
  • 2 pinches sugar
  • 300 g jasmine rice
  • two generous cups of chicken stock


  • Marinate all but the rice and stock for an hour or more.  You can make the mix the night or morning before.
  • Wash the rice really well and drain. Put it in the claypot with a pinch of salt stock. Homemade stock is best, but use a liquid one in preference to powders. If using a bought stock, check if you need the salt.
  • Bring it up to boil, put the lid on and turn down as low as you can. I use a heat diffuser on an electric hotplate, but the hotplate itself would be fine. Don’t muck about checking it, it’ll be fine without you.
  • After ten minutes, stir fry the marinated mix in a hot wok with some oil until nearly cooked (less than 5 minutes). Splash in a little stock and maybe an extra splash of soy.
  • While still very hot, spread it on top of the rice and put the lid back on for 10 minutes.
  • It will be very tender and the fat will have a slightly jelly-like consistency.  Eat with a stir fried green veg.


Black Bean Sauce

This recipe is for beans, but can be adapted for most anything you fancy.


  • about 500 g green beans or snake beans, topped & tailed and cut into 4 cm pieces
  • 3-4 cloves garlic, chopped fine (as much as you like)
  • 2 tablespoons fermented black beans (salted black beans) soaked and drained
  • 1 tablespoon clear rice vinegar
  • light soy sauce
  • teaspoon of potato starch (or cornflour) mixed to a slurry with a little water
  • pinch of sugar
  • 2 tablespoons Shaoxing wine


  • Follow the first three steps in the dry fried green bean recipe above, reserving beans.
  • Heat wok on high heat, when smoking add oil.
  • Add garlic and black beans and toss about.
  • Return beans to pan, and add a splash of vinegar and a pinch of salt.
  • When veg is all hot again, stir in 1 – 2 tablespoons of stock (or water) .
  • Take off the heat and drizzle them with sesame oil.

It was really good fun, and I got lots of good feedback. Nancy of Roving Lemon’s Big Adventure came along to the session, and blogged about it here. Even better, two members of the group cooked stir fries for dinner that night.

16 thoughts on “Demystification recipes: blog amnesty edition

  1. Now I am ridiculously hungry and contemplating blowing off my thesis to make a stir fry for second breakfasts. Maybe I’ll settle for scrambled tofu.

    You really went all out didn’t you? Amazing effort!

  2. Well, personally, I think you should go and teach a little CIT course every now and again. Good money! Build yourself a cult following locally and then TAKE OVER THE WORLD!!!

  3. Hey Zoe – next time you’re in Melbourne, I will NOT content myself with a night on the turps (with or without million dollar views) particularly one where you pass out the minute the UNPRINTABLE has been cracked out.

    Food, and ideally the preparation thereof, will be involved.

    You got that?

  4. FDB, I’ve got one word to say to you and that’s AND. See, it’s not a case of food OR alcohol, it’s food AND alcohol when Zoe is cooking. So you have to be prepared, right?

  5. I need no encouragement on that score DSO, as the Lady Friend will readily confirm.

    Keith Floyd taught me everything I needed to know about the joys of combining the two, and my old man made sure the lessons stuck.

  6. Sounds like a fun event! It’s great to have a big group so you can try several new things at once without worrying about needing to eat up a whole packet.

    I love silken tofu, but it always breaks up for me.

  7. Have you tried cutting it into squares while still in its plastic tub, and then slipping the whole thing into a big basin of just boiled water from the kettle and salt? It’s recommended by Fuchsia Dunlop and may help (I usually do it). That said, for food at home it doesn’t really matter much.

  8. The Golden Century serves silken tofu stuffed with tiny sweet prawns – I always order it, and always think it’s a kind of miracle; the tofu is always still a perfect shape, even after stuffing

  9. how cool! I can see this being a theme – what about Indian next? Or even Italian? I found ordering at the deli a bit of hit and miss until I became more au fait with the all the different cheeses/meats etc.

  10. Christie, for some reason your comment was in the spam filter and I just dug it out. And that’s how I got to know what this stuff is – bringing it home and trying to eat it.

    Sue, there were some mutterings about Indian next! And I myself would love a deli one.

  11. Weird, I just got a Pingback on this. I’ve going to have to have a go at the Ma Po. I love that dish and her books. And I still need more amnesty.

  12. That is odd – perhaps the pingbacks need amnesty too?

    The ma po tofu is wonderful, but spoils you for eating it out (at least in Canberra). Only real trick is in the shopping, particularly for the chilli bean paste, about which more here.

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