China: learning techniques of the far east
您好! 你吃过了吗? This is easily the best, most important question you could ever ask us.
It means “have you eaten?” in Mandarin, and even if we’d just waddled over from a multi-course Georgian feast (more on that in the previous post), our answer would most likely always be a resounding: “nope, starving actually” or “I did, but I could eat again”. Thankfully for us, we remembered to wear forgivingly stretchy pants as we headed off to meet our next guests, Qun and Yao. This week, we were ready to explore the wonderful world of Chinese cuisine (and not the pseudo kind you would usually order while binge-watching Netflix on a lazy Sunday). More specifically, we were all set to get the low-down on Nanjing cuisine, otherwise known as Jin Su Cuisine.
Qun and Yao welcomed us into their beautiful Vasastan apartment, promptly handing us each a pair of comfortable house slippers to change into. The perfect fusion of East-meets-West, their apartment was decorated with memories of their many travels, incredible Oriental furniture and, perhaps the most important thing... the very thing we immediately realized was missing from our lives as soon as we entered the kitchen: a rice cooker. If this is not a staple in your home already, then prepare to have your life forever changed. Not only because rice is deceitfully hard to cook (don’t judge), but also because it makes anything from bibimbap to risotto. After ogling their rice cooker for an inappropriately long period of time... we got down to cooking.
"I was very shocked when I came to Gothenburg, because I was told that it was Sweden’s second largest city. I was expecting it to be as big as Beijing or Shanghai..."
Recipe for a flavour explosion
Serves: around 4 people
Duration: about 1 hour, including prep (gotta love that, right?!)
On the lunch menu that day was: Kung Pao chicken, sautéed cabbage, and a refreshing cold tofu and cucumber salad. A lot of wisdom was gained during our time in the kitchen with Qun. We learned that traditionally, Jin Su cuisine doesn’t involve the use of metal knives to cut vegetables, as it detracts from the flavour and, like any life coach will tell you, finding balance is key- in this case, the balance of flavours. For example, meat and fish are often marinated with ginger, garlic, and white wine. Also, contrary to many misconceptions about Chinese food, Jin Su cuisine is all about focusing on the natural flavours of the different ingredients, so anyone with a spice aversion, rejoice (we get it, chili can be terrifying). Find out about how to make your own Nanjing feast below, and check out our interview, where Qun shares her incredible story of what brought her and her husband thousands of miles to Sweden.
Pair with: for a real Chinese experience sans ethanol-enhanced beverages, enjoy with some room-temperature (even slightly warm) water. In China, people believe (quite rightly so) that ice-cold water is bad for the organs. If warm water doesn't get you going, a Tsing-tao beer pairs perfectly with the flavours of Chinese cuisine. After the meal, do yourself a favour and enjoy a lovely pot of pearl jasmine tea, letting its delicate but floral scent transport your senses to the far East.
Listen to: Nanjing and Beijing traditional Opera tunes can be a mouthful to digest, but if you have never experienced this type of music, now is definitely the perfect time!
Kung Pao chicken
- Chicken (thigh meat) about 300 g, cut into smaller pieces
- ½ red bell pepper, cut into small pieces
- Light soy sauce
- White wine (cooking wine works too)
- Tapioca starch/potato flour
- Dried red chillies
- Sichuan peppers
- Ginger, a few cm sliced in semi-circles
- Garlic, about 4 cloves cut into small chunks
- Salt (a pinch or two, we’ll leave this to your discretion)
- Cooking oil (canola, olive, etc.)
- Peanuts (about 1/2 dl)
Key is lots of heat! And oil :)
- Place chopped chicken in a bowl and add soy sauce, letting the flavors marinate for a few minutes
- Add wine, starch, chillies and peppers, ginger (everything except for bell pepper) and mix
- On high heat, heat oil in a stir-fry pan. Add in the chicken and flash fry for a minute, until the chicken is lightly browned
- Remove chicken from pan and set aside.
- In a new pan, add oil and stir-fry the bell-peppers for a minute or so. Add in the chicken, along with the spices
- Add a little bit of water to keep everything from drying out
- Stir constantly, until the chicken in golden brown
- Add in peanuts and stir fry for another minute or so
- Ready to devour…. Erm, serve!
- Pointed cabbage (we used regular cabbage which also works, but doesn’t have the same texture)
- 1-2 garlic cloves, cut into smaller chunks
- Dried red chillies
- Using your hands, tear the cabbage into smaller pieces (about the size of half a money bill)
- In a stir fry pan, heat oil on high and add garlic and chillies
- Add in cabbage
- Add salt to taste
- Ready to enjoy!
Cold tofu and cucumber salad
- One whole cucumber, sliced first in half, and then lengthwise into thin pieces
- Thin sheets of tofu (preferably marinated in soy), sliced into long, thin pieces
- 1 tbsp Balsamic vinegar (rice vinegar or other varieties also work)
- 1 tbsp Oil (olive oil, canola oil)
- 2 tsp sugar (this is typical for Shanghai and Suzhou food, which tends to be more on the sweet than spicy side)
- Mix all ingredients together and you have a delicious and refreshing salad!
Kryddhyllan: What’s your favorite food from home?
Qun: Hmmm, I have lots of favorites. I personally like fish and seafood very much. So my favorite would be fish from the Yangtze River, cooked by my mom.
Kryddhyllan: How does she cook it? Is it spicy?
Qun: No, because in the area where I come from we don’t use spices traditionally. So it’s not very spicy food. We use a lot of soya sauce, so you cook the fish a bit longer, and it picks up that taste.
Kryddhyllan: What about you, Yao? What’s your favorite food from home?
Yao: I like duck, roasted duck. It’s called Nanjing duck, and it’s famous. It’s different from Beijing duck. But now I’ve moved towards being vegetarian, so I really like this dish with tofu and cucumber (recipe above) that we’ve been eating. Dried seaweed is also one of my favorites.
Qun: Yeah, it’s easy to make, because you just cook the water and put egg, and then you mix it with some tomato with the seaweed on top. Do you eat it in Sweden?
Kryddhyllan: No, not really. But it’s getting more and more popular because of Japanese food.
Qun: Yeah, like sushi places.
Kryddhyllan: Yeah, it’s getting pretty popular. So what brought you guys to Sweden?
Qun: Work. My husband is here because of me, and I am here because of my work.
Kryddhyllan: And why Sweden?
Qun: Ok, we’ll go back to the beginning, so the start of the 90s. At that time I was working for the Jiangsu provisional government in Nanjing. At that time we all lived there. I have a cousin who lives in Gothenburg now, and he was a Chinese state sponsored student in the middle of the 80s. I believe he went to study at Chalmer’s in ’84 or ’85, very early on, and he did his doctorate at Chalmer’s. Then he continued with his Post doctorate, and after studies he found a job and continued working in Sweden. So when we were in Nanjing he came to visit us one summer, and he told us about Sweden, and about studying there, which made us quite interested. Because as you probably know at the end of the 80’s and beginning of the 90’s China was still pretty isolated- there were no telephones, no Internet, nothing. So you knew very little about the world outside of China. So he made a great introduction about Sweden, which of course made us very interested. And of course, he told us that at the time it was free for foreign students to study in Sweden. So we thought, at least for me, I had an idea of studying abroad, I really wanted to see the world outside of China. At that time it was very difficult. You almost needed government approval to get a passport, it wasn’t like anyone could just get a passport. You had to have a reason to have one, and then of course at that time, even though I was working at the government authorities, I remember I was earning at the time like 250-350 RMB per month, which was like 90 US dollars a month. Of course everything was very cheap at the time, so 300 RMB could have been sufficient for food and transportation and even for clothing. But it was not possible to imagine that I could study abroad with so little money. And of course I didn’t want to spend my parent’s life savings either. At that time they earned maybe 100-200 RMB per month. Before that we’d had the Cultural Revolution in the 1960s until almost the end of the 1970’s. So in the 80’s things were just started to go back to normal. Because during the Revolution the universities were closed, and everyone with an intellectual background was basically put aside, there was basically no school- it was really bad. So we basically had no possibility, even if I wanted to, economically you couldn’t study abroad, in the US or anything… the only way at that time was to be very excellent and get state sponsorship to study abroad. So when I heard my cousin telling me that in Sweden you didn’t have to pay tuition fees and that you had free medical insurance, it was like “wow, why not?!”. Then you only had to manage supporting yourself and so on, but you didn’t have to think about the rest. That’s how everything started. So my cousin actually sponsored me to study in Sweden. I remember at that time there was no consulate in Shanghai, there was only an embassy in Beijing, and they needed to have an interview with me to give me the visa. So I went to Beijing to meet the person, the officer, and there was like nobody there. No Chinese, no one applying for a visa! I got my visa and then I came to Sweden. That’s how it all started. That’s why I always think that I’m very grateful that Sweden at the time offered that opportunity for foreign students like me and many others that didn’t otherwise have the possibility to study. It’s something that Sweden did for me and I want to do everything I can to return, give back what has been done for me. Otherwise, my life could be completely different. So that was very good, and that was what brought me here. Of course, during my studies I thought it was difficult with the darkness, with the long winters, and at the time phone calls were so expensive. 30kr per minute! I remember I bought a 100kr card, put it into the phone to call my mom, and she said: “oh wait a minute, I’ll tell your dad to come here” and by the time he got there, 100kr had run out! After my studies I started to work with Norwegian companies and then Swedish law firms, so I’ve always worked with Scandinavian companies.
Kryddhyllan: What an incredible story!
Qun: Yeah, it’s not exactly related to food *laughs
Kryddhyllan: Incredible nonetheless! But speaking of food, what are your favorite dishes since moving to Sweden?
Qun: Well, when I studied in Sweden everything was new! It was like a completely new world, and I remember when I first came to Gothenburg I thought “well, this is a socialist/communist country, I’ve learned from my textbook, it should look like it! Isn’t it more communist than China?” At that time, we’d learned from the textbook that, when you come from a Communist society, you get what you need, it’s not based on what you do, it’s based on what you need. And in Sweden, whatever you need the State has already thought about that, and everyone gets a good standard of living. Everything was quite new. Of course, I stayed with my cousin’s family for a few months, and then I moved out to my own flat. But we always stuck to eating Chinese food, not as much Swedish food. I like, as I said, seafood and of course Gothenburg has great seafood, great fish. This time, having lived away and coming back to Sweden, Swedish food is, compared to 90’s, much more developed. There is more variety, before there were maybe 3 dishes to choose from at a restaurant. And there is a lot of foreign influence, a lot more spices and flavors. More variations to choose from.
Kryddhyllan: Yeah, we’re getting better at that.
Qun: My favorite is still seafood though, all of the “skaldjur”
Kryddhyllan: Yeah, we’re good at that. No spices required, it’s just like “here’s the crab”.
Qun: Hummersoppa, that’s amazing. Or even, you guys have a lot of shrimps, I think shrimp sandwiches are really good.
Kryddhyllan: Did you know anything about Swedish food before you got here?
Qun: I didn’t even know Sweden! I had no idea what to expect. Before I came to Gothenburg I knew almost nothing about Sweden. Of course a little bit from what my cousin told me. Apart from that I knew that Sweden was good at ice hockey *laughs. So I was very shocked when I came to Gothenburg, because I was told that it was Sweden’s largest city. I was expecting it to be as big as Beijing or Shanghai, so I was a bit shocked. I also arrived in December…
Kryddhyllan: Oh boy, not the best time…
Qun: No… but still, my first weekend I was so excited so I went to the city center in the morning, because I wanted to see the city, and it was empty! I was starting to get panicked, I started thinking: “has something happened? Has everyone escaped from the city?”
Kryddhyllan: “Have I made the wrong choice?”
Kryddhyllan: No, there are definitely not as many people as in China.
Qun: Yeah, you can imagine when you grow up in a place where there are so many people, 24 hours a day, and suddenly you come to a place where there are no people, even in the city center.
Kryddhyllan: Now it’s the opposite going back to Asia, you think “whoa whoa whoa, there’s so many people!”
Qun: Yeah exactly- I was having lunch with Anna’s mom on Drottninggatan the other day, and I was thinking: “there’s too many people, it’s like Nanjing!” and she said “Qun, you’ve been in Sweden too long!” *laughs
Kryddhyllan: Yeah but to be fair, Stockholm IS getting pretty crowded- on the subway, and there are so many people in the city center. In the morning and afternoon, you have to fight to get on the subway… So now that you’ve tried some Swedish food, what do you think is the best and worst thing about it?
Qun: Hmm… I like that Swedish food is all about the concept that it has to both look and taste good. I like that, and generally I think it tastes good! One thing I don’t like is that there is too much meat and too much cream. I like more Chinese types of food, where when you mix the meat with vegetables, you cut it into small pieces. Here it’s just… a lot.
Kryddhyllan: That’s what all of our guests have said, there’s too much meat and too much cream *laughs, so maybe not the healthiest things. If you had to pick one food or category of food to eat for the rest of your life, what would it be?
Qun: Seafood. Shrimps and fish.
Kryddhyllan: Good choice… healthy choice. And then kind of a similar question, if you had to use just one spice for the rest of your life, what would it be?
Qun: Oh, then I would have to use salt.
Kryddhyllan: Practical. Us too! What’s the best meal you’ve ever had?
Qun: Hmm… I don’t know if I can think of one particular dinner, but I think it’s always, it’s important that the food tastes good- but I think the best meals are with the right people, so with good friends, with people you can talk to and have good conversations and a nice atmosphere. It’s not only the food.
Kryddhyllan: Yup, otherwise it’s a boring meal and you forget what the food even tastes like!
Qun: Yeah, it’s important when you’re with your friends and you’re happy!
Kryddhyllan: That’s why lunch at work is great, you can be sociable. It’s fun to sit down, and talk, not just throw food into your mouth. It’s a sacred time. Ok, last question, what’s your favorite restaurant?
Qun: A lot of restaurants! Hmm….
Kryddhyllan: It’s a hard one.
Qun: Yeah, I think so many are good… I’m thinking about the ones I’ve been to in Stockholm, and Sweden, and I would say that there’s one in Gothenburg, it’s a fish restaurant that’s around the harbor. They only serve seafood, and because I love seafood, it’s one of my favorites.
Kryddhyllan: It seems like that’s always a hot debate, who has the better seafood, Stockholm or Gothenburg? Feels like Gothenburg has to win that one… we’ll give them that. They can have their seafood.
Qun: Otherwise in Stockholm I would say Sturehof. They also have some very good seafood.
Kryddhyllan: Thank you Qun, next time we’ll cook Swedish food together!