I haven’t written about my favourite Chinese dishes for a while. This time I have chosen five 凉菜 [liáng cài] – or “cold dishes”. Most Chinese meals begin with cold dishes. In many places these are pre-made and in my first few years I often saw them displayed in a glass cabinet, so diners could simply choose what looked good. Cold dishes are pre-cooked and can therefore come to the table quickly, giving patrons something to nibble on while waiting for the main dishes to arrive.
While 凉菜 is a big part of Chinese cuisine, many foreigners aren’t very familiar with common 凉菜, except maybe for 派黄瓜 [pài huáng guā] – garlic cucumbers. So I am going to introduce you to some of my favourites (as always, links to picture-filled recipes in Chinese are included).
qín cài bàn fǔ zhú
I order this simple liang cai a lot. It is just celery and a particular kind of tofu in a sesame oil dressing. Totally morish! Recipes I’ve looked at have hardly any ingredients – just celery, tofu, salt, chicken stock and seame oil. The specific type of tofu used (腐竹) is made by bunching dried tofu skin together and boiling it until it holds together in a texture almost like rubbery honeycomb. Don’t worry, it’s much more tasty than it sounds :) The celery is sliced and then par-boiled and put in cold water – this means it is stays crunchy, but loses the hard and stringy texture of fresh celery. See a Chinese recipe here.
jiàng niú ròu
The name of this dish literally means “sauce beef” but it’s much more complex than that! It is made from beef shins (the cow’s foreleg). Medallions of beef shin are boiled and chilled, then marinated/simmered in a complex mix of spices. The simmering soup has soy sauce, sugar, salt, green onions, and Chinese 5 spice powder; a steeping bag is also added to the pot, commonly containing cloves, pepper, star anise, orange peel, cumin, cinnamon, and bay leaves. Once steeped with these flavours, the chilled beef shins are sliced very finely. Sometimes they are served just like that (although artfully laid out), other times with a light dressing or dipping sauce of soy sauce with garlic, coriander (cilantro), and/or fresh chili. See a Chinese recipe here.
huáng dòu bàn cài xīn gěng
This is a simple dish made of soybeans (literally “yellow bean” in Chinese), carrot, and jie lan stalks (not the leaves). This Chinese vegetable is sometimes translated as “kale” but it’s not the kale known in the West. In Australia I knew it as “water broccoli”. The soybeans are soaked for about two days, then the carrot and jie lan stalks are cut into small cubes and par-boiled, and a light marinade/dressing (salt, sugar, vinegar, sesame oil, soy sauce, chicken stock) is added. See a Chinese recipe here.
liáng bàn jīn zhēn gū
Literally “gold needle mushroom salad,” this was for years the only liang cai I regularly ordered. 金针菇 are thin mushrooms known as “enoki” in English (the Japanese name for them). The dish is just enoki mushrooms and very thin slivers of other vegetables (usually cucumber, sometimes carrot or capsicum as well). The vegetables are marinated in sesame oil and soy sauce, and perhaps some other things depending on the chef. The finished product usually has some fresh coriander (cilantro) mixed in as well. See a Chinese recipe here.
guì huā lián ǒu
There are two types of lotus root liang cai; the first type is spicy, but I prefer the second type – rice filled and sweet. Lotus root (lian ou) comes as several “bulbs” joined together, so each must be separated and the ends sliced off exposing the holes down the core of the root. Chopsticks are used to forced uncooked glutinous rice down into the holes, then the whole rice-filled root is boiled in sugary water flavoured by osmanthus flowers (gui hua) or sometimes dates. The cooked root is sliced and served cold with a syrup-like sauce made by reducing the sugared water the roots were boiled in. (Osmanthus flowers are widely used in China for their apricot-like scent/flavour, including in my favourite tea. Chinese medicine claims many health benefits from them, too.) See a Chinese recipe here.