After two months back in the UK, I had satisfied my need for all the homecooked favourites that I had missed whilst away and was ready to give in to my ever-growing cravings for Chinese food. I began looking for recipes that I could try at home, without too many complex ingredients, and decided that for my first venture into the world of Chinese home cooking I would follow Blondie In China’s chilli oil (辣椒油) recipe. I’ve followed her YouTube and Instagram for a couple of years, having found it whilst researching Shanghai back when I first started studying Chinese, and have loved following her travels and using them as inspiration for my own. Her recent video in which she made her own chilli oil (linked at the end of the post along with the original recipe) therefore also seemed a great inspiration for my first experience of Chinese cooking.
The recipe is really simple and mostly uses ingredients that are easily bought from any local supermarket yet the final product definitely exudes an air of complexity and gives the impression that it required hours of slaving over the stove. Chilli oil is a core ingredient in Chinese cuisine, used in so many dishes and a permanent fixture on every restaurant table, next to the soy sauce, black vinegar and pot of chopsticks. Doing a bit more research into the range of dishes in which chilli oil is itself an ingredient, it really did seem like the perfect start for my culinary adventure!
In Blondie In China’s video, she explains how she had been particularly enjoyed using the oil on avocado toast and this has since become an obsession of my own, alongside using it on fried eggs, halloumi and mixed in to hummus. As much as I have been enjoying these absolutely delicious culinary fusions, I was also aware that I had decided to make the oil as a gateway to creating traditional Chinese dishes from home. Therefore, for my first Chinese meal, I chose two dishes both requiring the oil.
The first dish that I chose, Mapo Tofu (麻婆豆腐), was actually one that I only ate once whilst in China, but it sticks in my memory due to the fact that I ate it on my first night in Chengdu, probably on my worst ever bad China day. Long story short: upon returning to our hostel, after balling my eyes out as I wandered the city streets in pursuit of finding the police station who I had been told would ‘possibly’ be able to solve the predicament that I had found myself in (specific story coming soon), Caitlin and I ordered this dish in the hope that some good food would cheer us both up. We had heard of Mapo Tofu as a popular Sichuan dish, combining numbing Sichuan peppercorns and the extreme spice that the region is famous for. As we were in the capital of the province and thus the well-known spice capital of China, it seemed like the perfect way to restart our time in the city on a positive note. The dish was delicious and, although was far from my favourite dish from my time in China, its poignance to my experience and fairly simple recipe made it the perfect dish for me to try to make myself.
Where Mapo Tofu was a something that I only ate once in China, the accompaniment that I chose for my meal was the exact opposite and a definite favourite – Scallion Oil Pancakes (葱油饼). Whilst both the Chilli Oil and Mapo Tofu both comprise of Sichuan flavours, Scallion Oil Pancakes are a classic Shanghainese snack, often found on street corners or at street food markets. It is essentially a pancake with a slight ‘flaky pastry’ vibe with spring onions rolled into the dough before frying. They are delicious on their own, but even more so when eaten with a dipping sauce made using all the restaurant table staples – including chilli oil! Despite it being my snack or side dish of choice whenever it was on the menu, below is the only photo in which it features.
The official recipes for all the dishes that I made are linked at the end of the page but I have outlined my own take on them below, including any adaptations that I made and my tips to recreate them yourselves.
Chilli Oil (辣椒油) Recipe
Blondie In China’s video does the recipe much more justice than I could ever achieve just through writing about it so I definitely recommend taking a look at that but I have outlined the instructions below, as well as the ingredients using more UK-friendly measurements!
- Group 1
- 30g Chilli Flakes
- 1 tbsp Chilli Powder (slightly less if worried about spice levels)
- 1/2 tsp Salt
- 2 tbsp Sesame Seeds
- Group 2
- 250ml Vegetable Based Cooking Oil
- 1 tsp Sichuan Peppercorns
- 1 tsp Fennel Seeds
- 1 Star Anise
- 1 piece of Chinese Cinnamon (optional)
- 1 Bay Leaf
- 3 slices of Fresh Ginger
- 2 stalks of Spring Onion
Step 1: Mix all of the Group 1 ingredients together into a bowl.
Step 2: Add all the Group 2 ingredients to a cold wok and begin to cook over a low heat.
Step 3: Continue to heat the oil on a low heat until the spring onions begin to turn very slightly brown and the oil begins to smoke. Prior to the colour change, the oil should begin to bubble and process should take about 15 minutes, although it may vary.
Step 4: Take the oil off the heat and pour it through a sieve into an empty bowl. Discard the contents of the sieve.
Step 5: Add half of the Group 1 mixture to the oil, causing the oil to sizzle.
Step 6: Once the sizzling has ended, add the remainder of the Group 1 mixture to the oil.
Step 7: Allow for the oil to cool before adding it to a resealable container and storing it in the fridge for at least 12 hours before consumption, allowing all the flavours to combine.
Vegan Mapo Tofu (麻婆豆腐) Recipe
The dish, with its signature red colour, compromises of both soft, creamy tofu and crispy minced pork cooked in a numbingly spicy sauce containing a serious helping of Sichuan pepper and 豆瓣酱(broad bean chilli) paste. My return to vegetarianism meant that I was faced with the dilemma of how to ‘vegetarian-ise’ the dish without compromising on its traditional flavour. It turned out that the three Linda McCartney sausages that were in our freezer made for the perfect substitute and something that I definitely recommend if you want to recreate the crispy texture of fried minced pork. As a result the dish ended up being entirely vegan! The recipe below is based on a similar vegan recipe which used shiitake mushrooms as a meat alternative, however I found that the vegetarian sausages made for a much more realistic substitute and so have included them in my recipe!
Ingredients, to serve 3/4:
- 450g Soft/Silken Tofu
- 3 Linda McCartney Sasuages
- 4 tbsp Vegetable Oil
- 1 1/2 tbsp Sichuan Peppercorns
- 3 tbsp Grated Ginger
- 3 tbsp Minced Garlic
- 2 tbsp Broad Bean Chilli Paste
- 1 tbsp Chilli Oil
- 2 tsp Corn/Potato Starch
- 1/4 tsp Sesame Oil
- 1/4 tsp Sugar
- 1 Spring Onion
- 150ml Water/Stock
Step 1: Cook vegetarian sausages according to packet instructions, 15 minutes in the oven at 200C. Once removed from oven, break into small pieces to mimic minced pork.
Step 2: Prepare the tofu, cutting it into 2cm cubes.
Step 3: Grind the Sichuan peppercorns most of the peppercorns (leave a few to sprinkle over the final dish). I found the best way to do this with minimal equipment is simply using the back of a large soup spoon, crushing the peppercorns between the spoon and a plate.
Step 4: Over a medium heat, heat the oil and crushed Sichuan peppercorns together for 30 seconds.
Step 5: Add the ginger, garlic and sausage to the wok, in that order, allowing a minute between the addition of each ingredient. Once the sausage has been added, continue to cook for up to 5 more minutes.
Step 6: Prepare the starch mixture by adding it to a tbsp of water and mixing until it dissolves.
Step 7: Add the broad bean chilli paste, chilli oil and water/stock into the pan. Turn up the heat until the pan begins to simmer.
Step 8: Add the starch mixture to the wok and allow the sauce to thicken. The thickness can be adjusted as needed by either adding more water or another starch mixture.
Step 9: Add the tofu to the wok and simmer for a further 3-5 minutes.
Step 10: Finally add the spring onion (chopped up), sugar, sesame oil and last sprinkling of Sichuan peppercorns just before service!
Scallion Oil Pancake (葱油饼) Recipe
The ease with which I can recreate these savoury pancakes at home has been one of my favourite discoveries of lockdown and have already made them a handful of times! I’ve outlined their recipe below, along with the ingredients required to make a delicious dipping sauce accompaniment, using chilli oil of course!
Pancake Ingredients, to serve 3/4:
- 250g Plain Flour
- 4 Spring Onions
- 1 tsp Salt
- 1/2 tsp Garlic Powder/Granules
- 175 ml Hot Water
- Vegetable Based Oil
Dipping Sauce Ingredients
- 2 tbsp Soy Sauce
- 2 1/2 tbsp Rice Vinegar
- 1/2 tsp Sesame Oil
- 2 tbsp Chilli Oil
Step 1: Make the dough by combining the flour, salt, garlic and hot water. Be careful not to add too much water as if the dough becomes too wet or sticky, forming the pancakes become much more difficult. If the dough does become too wet, add some more flour!
Step 2: Leave the dough to rest for 30 minutes.
Step 3: While the dough rests, chop the spring onions into small pieces.
Step 4: Cut the rested dough into 4 equal pieces, set 3 to the side whilst working on the other.
Step 5: Slightly roll out a portion of dough, top it with a spoonful of spring onions.
Step 6: Fold the dough in half so that the spring onions are enclosed.
Step 7: Roll our the dough completely, to a thickness of no more than half a centimetre.
Step 8: Heat a tablespoon of oil in a pan before adding the pancake and cooking for 2/3 minutes on each side, until it begins to brown.
Step 9: Combine the soy sauce, vinegar and sesame oil to create a dipping sauce and service alongside the chilli oil and the pancake, cut into triangles if desired!
Overall, I was really impressed with how the entire meal turned out, particularly as it all ended up being vegan – making a small dent in the guilty conscience I have been battling, given how much meat I as ‘a vegetarian’ managed to eat in just 4 and a half months.
Next on the menu are some of my favourite noodle dishes, Laoganma Noodles (老干妈面), Dan Dan Noodles (担担面) and of course Shanghai-style fried soup dumplings (生煎包)!
Cooking traditional Asian food from home has the reputation of being almost impossible with the perception that the required ingredients are not on the supermarket shelves, beyond hoisin and soy sauce of course! Whilst this is largely the case, I was surprised to find how easy it was to access Asian ingredients outside the mainstream supermarkets. Over the past few weeks I have made several trips to my local Oriental Supermarket for fresh ingredients and also made an order from an online retailer, based in Nottingham but delivering nationally – both are linked below and I couldn’t recommend them (or your local alternative) enough!
Orientalmart (online): https://www.orientalmart.co.uk/
Oriental Shop (Bordon, Hampshire): https://orientalshop.uk/
Blondie In China’s Chilli Oil Video: https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=S63rlFv15rc
Chilli Oil Recipe: https://redhousespice.com/chinese-chilli-oil/
Mapo Tofu Recipe: https://thewoksoflife.com/vegan-mapo-tofu/
Scallion Oil Pancakes Recipe: https://www.simplyrecipes.com/recipes/scallion_pancakes/