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July 25, 2021

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Chilled delicacies ideal for hot days

ICE creams and chilled beverages can keep you cool, but they won’t keep you full. When it comes to preparing the daily meals, it takes courage to spend a few hours in the kitchen by the heat of the stove.

As the city continuously sizzles in the burning sun after the Plum Rain season, restaurants are quite packed during the hotter months because people are reluctant to cook complicated recipes. In Chinese home kitchens, one of the solutions to stay away from the heat in the summer is to make liangcai, the Chinese-style salads.

A typical Chinese meal often starts from a few cold dishes to get everyone settle down and prepare the appetite for the hot entrees, consisting of meat, vegetable and sweet creations. This week, we’ll take a look at the classic Chinese cold appetizers that will bring a breeze of coolness to the dining table.

The savories

Chilled vegetable salads are top ordered items on summer menus: light yet flavorful, with the extra crunch to promote the dull appetite.

Cucumber and the sweet pink radishes can be sliced or cut and then tossed in a dressing directly to make the salad, so are the leafy vegetables like lettuce and endives.

But with other ingredients, there’s often an extra step of poaching them briefly in water before chilling them in an ice bath and then season with the delicious sauce.

A classic salad combination in China is putting together thin shreds of beancurd sheet, carrot, cucumber and kelp, then add a dressing of vinegar, soy sauce, sugar, sesame oil, oyster sauce, garlic, scallion and white sesame seeds. Cellophane noodle can also be added into the salad. Taking a big bite is true happiness in the summer.

Eggplant salad is another favorite, the eggplants are first steamed until the texture becomes very soft, then it’s shredded by hand and then topped with a dressing that emphasizes on the pungent taste of raw garlic paste.

Now is the best season to enjoy jiaobai, a vegetable that’s also known as Manchurian wild rice, and it’s very popular in Shanghai and across the Yangtze River Delta.

Originally cultivated as a grain instead of vegetable in ancient times, jiaobai was known as gu before the Tang Dynasty (AD 618-907). The freshwater plant requires a kind of smut fungus called Ustilago esculenta to grow, which causes the cell to size up and develop the juicy stem that’s now enjoyed as a vegetable. The vegetable is best enjoyed on the day it’s harvested, and the better quality jiaobai should have meaty stems, white flesh and a hint of sweetness.

Jiaobai is typically braised with soy sauce or stir-fried with other vegetables and meats, but it can also be made into delicious, healthy salads by steaming the peeled stems and slicing them into strips, or slicing in thin shreds and poaching in boiling water until they’re fully cooked. Serve with a dressing of light soy sauce, sesame oil, chopped scallion, sugar and the optional small red chilies for a little bit of heat.

Jingjie, which is a mint-like herb used as a vegetable especially in central China, is known for its unique aromas and slightly pungent flavors. A great summertime recipe in Henan Province is jingjie and cucumber salad, a fresh herbal starter seasoned with a dressing of vinegar, sesame oil and soy sauce.

For meat lovers, zaolu and drunken delicacies are ideal in the hottest summer months.

Zaolu is a food preparing technique in the area south of the Yangtze River. It’s simple to make the zaolu dishes: soak the cooked and chilled meats, vegetables and seafoods in the brine and serve when they absorb the salty and rich flavors. Yes, it’s a two-step solution of poaching the ingredients and soaking them.

Zaolu is made with the sauce extracted from aged distilled grain and then seasoned with spices and herbs. Edamame, shrimp, duck tongue, goose feet and pork trotter are popular choices.

Braising the meats is more complicated, as the lean cuts and rich offal are braised and soaked in spiced stock known as lushui. It takes a certain amount of cooking time to infuse all the flavors into the ingredients. To take the shortcut, buy the bottled lushui sauce in supermarkets and simply add water in the right ratio.

Soy products and vegan meats like suji (imitation chicken) can also be stewed in the spiced stock to make meatless version of braised delicacies.

Some meats, like duck gizzard and lean cuts of beef or lamb, can be boiled in water with some cooking wine and ginger, then chill and slice to serve with a vinegar-based dressing.

The crabs and shrimps are often made into drunken delights by infusing them in yellow wine or hard liquor. A typical recipe for drunken crab or shrimp is yellow wine, salt, sugar, light soy sauce, chilies plus a large amount of ginger and garlic. The crabs and shrimps can be raw or cooked, but it’s safer to use the cooked ingredients.

It takes at least overnight to make drunken crabs so that the salty and sweet brine can get inside the crab shells, but a few hours are sufficient for the smaller shrimps.

The sweets

The cold starters are not limited to savory delicacies, sweet dishes are also very popular.

The simplest sweet cold salad dish in China is perhaps tomato salad, which is sliced tomato topped with granulated sugar, and that’s it. Fresh tomatoes are healthy and nutritious, it’s a great source of vitamin C, and the fresher the tomatoes, the more vitamin C they contain.

The sweet tomato salad must be made with the freshest fruits you can find in the market. Then, just rinse the tomatoes thoroughly, slice them in the appropriate thickness as you prefer, and sprinkle a generous amount of the granulated sugar. Sugar is not healthy, but as the sugar is marinated into the flesh of the chilled, juicy tomatoes, with some extra sugar still lingering on the top for texture, it’s a simple pleasure to heal the burning spirit. And don’t forget the spoonful of sweet tomato juice left in the bottom of the bowl, many people consider it the best part of enjoying the sweet tomato salad.

A trendy tomato salad recipe that’s been quite popular this year is the cherry tomato and dark plum salad, a somewhat bizarre combination with unexpected great taste and texture. The dark plums are cut open to remove the pits, then the flesh is sliced into the right shape to be sandwiched in the cherry tomatoes that are sliced open on one side (without cutting through).

Dark plum is a preserved fruit with inky black color, it’s also an ingredient in traditional Chinese medicine with properties such as constraining the lung and astringing the intestine.

Glutinous rice stuffed jujube is another classic sweet appetizer made by cutting open the red jujubes to remove the pits, then stuff small balls of glutinous rice dough in the middle.

The stuffed jujubes are then steamed until the flesh becomes soft and moist and the glutinous rice is fully cooked. The dish is usually served with a drizzle of honey (or osmanthus honey) and some white sesame seeds for the extra aroma. The dish also has another common name of xintairuan, meaning soft hearted.

Popular sweet salads also include steamed yam with blueberry sauce and lotus root stuffed with glutinous rice.


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