This month’s Cook the Books Club pick was Kitchen Chinese. Kitchen Chinese is a novel that follows Isabelle (Iz) as her personal and professional life hit a dead end in the United States, where Isabelle is a first generation American born to Chinese parents.
In response to the loss of her job and romantic relationship, Iz decides to move to Beijing to rediscover her roots and to reconnect with her older sister who has also returned to Beijing.
Through her well-connected sister, Iz gets a job as a restaurant critic at an Expat magazine. It’s at this point that the book becomes a foodie’s dream, as Iz eats her way through Beijing!
The rest of the story follows Iz’s personal life as she navigates life in Beijing looking like everyone else, but unfamiliar with the language and customs while also navigating her relationship with her sister and attempts at romance. This book got 3 ½ stars from me.
So how about the food? The very first recipe mentioned in the book is Peking Duck and the main character loves it so much that I almost wanted to make it - but having never prepared duck (or even knowing where to acquire a duck for that matter), I quickly passed it by.
Many recipes, called by their chinese names, were mentioned in the story. I kept my phone nearby as I researched dish after dish while reading!
Chinese Hot Pot made the short list, but ultimately I didn’t feel like I could do it justice with the ingredients and cooking equipment I have on hand.
Dumplings filled with soup also piqued my curiosity. The Iz (main character) describes the dumplings in detail, noting how a mouthful of soup is somehow cooked into the center of the dumplings (Iz does not know how this is achieved, and ruminates on it extensively). My own research revealed that this is achieved by making a very gelatinous soup broth and allowing it to cool and set. Cubes of gelatinized broth are then carefully folded into dumplings. The cooking process heats the broth, melts the gelatin, and soup filled dumplings result! The recipe sounded really intriguing and I briefly considered an attempt. Then I remembered that I am not an accomplished dumpling folder (everything ends up looking like pierogi and a good quarter of them leak), so I abandoned that thought as well.
Then things started getting desperate. Finally, I found the recipe that took me full circle back to the beginning: Peking-Style Pork, also called Jing Jang Rou Si, Beijing Pork, or Pork Stir Fry with Sweet Bean Sauce! The big miracle here was that I was able to find bean sauce locally. It wasn’t the sweet bean sauce described in the recipes I found, but it was close enough (to account for this, I added a bit more sugar than was already called for the in recipe.)
The best part was that the pork was enjoyed by all, which is good, because I have extra bean sauce to use up, so this will definitely be made again!
I did not have rice wine on hand. After a quick search, I learned that gin was an appropriate substitute, so that’s what I used in this recipe
Adapted from the Woks of Life
1 ¼ lb pork loin, cut in thin strips
2 teaspoons Shaoxing (rice) wine (see recipe note)
1 teaspoon vegetable oil
1 heaping tablespoon cornstarch
½ teaspoon salt
¼ teaspoon black pepper
½ cup water
⅓ cup black bean sauce with garlic
2 tablespoons low sodium soy sauce
1 ½ tablespoons sugar
½ teaspoon apple cider vinegar
¼ teaspoon sesame oil
2-3 tablespoons oil
3 carrots, peeled and julienned
Mix together the pork and marinade ingredients. Set aside for 30 minutes.
Meanwhile, whisk together the sauce ingredients and set aside.
Heat a tablespoon of oil in a large skillet over medium high heat. Add half the pork and cook until browned and cooked through. Once cooked, set aside on a plate. Then heat another tablespoon of oil and cook the remaining pork. Move to the plate with the other park.
Add a bit more oil, and sauté the carrots until just soft. Add the carrots to the plate with the pork.
Finally, add the sauce to the hot skillet. Heat until boiling. Cook for 1 minute, then add the cooked pork and carrots. Cook for another 2-3 minutes or until the sauce is thickened.
Serve immediately with a side of rice.