In this post for Expat Food Hacks, Antoine (小安) of The Roots helped prepare these tips for European Food. This is a bit of a departure and improvement from my original Expat Food Hacks post since all I was really doing was altering Chinese food to taste more…. “Western.”
This is the real deal for food lovers wanting to cook up a storm at home.
I’m thankful to be a patron and promoter of The Roots (香海西厨). I had the supreme privilege of giving The Roots their first food review in City Weekend last year, and Antoine has been kind to me ever since.
The Roots aims to bring flavorful food to the table of the average Zhou without demanding all his renminbi from a hard day at work. Antoine and his lovely business partner (and wife) have worked incredibly hard to find quality and local farming sources. If a reasonably priced herb or vegetable source can’t be found within Yizhuang or Beijing, Antoine tends to the life of The Roots cuisine on top of the building in large rimmed gardening pots. Very few things, mostly meats/fish and pastas, are imported from outside of the country.
Chinese Taste Buds Meet European Culture
What’s been hard, he says, has been giving enough authentic flavor in each dish to avoid the dreaded, “no flavor” response. Most flavors in France are subtle, as is the case with many other Mediterranean foods. His most prided moments are customer comparisons between his low cost dishes and the expensive foods of other foreign food restaurants. He proves tasty, honest, quality and varied menus needn’t come at a high cost.
Antoine’s love for food comes out of his heritage. He explained in France, cooking at home is a family event where everyone is involved and everyone learns. Restaurants are mostly for special occasions or for tourists. Thankfully, he’s also gracious despite his wealth of experience. As he was schooling me on these hacks, I realized how bad of a cook I really am as I frantically wrote down as many tips as I could! His response, “Oh, no one is a bad cook; you just haven’t been taught.”
Even though he now has a restaurant of his own and a good amount of business-to-business catering, he misses the German beers and flavorful meats of his hometown, close to the French-German border.
Now The Reason You’re Really Here
Ok! I’ll move on to the hacks and cooking tips. Please keep in mind I’m not as fantastic as Antoine, and might have I missed a handful of the things he taught me a couple of weeks ago. (Hey – my note taking was on my cell phone. Journalist fail.)
That Smoky Flavor
If you have the right spices and flavors, you can make almost anything from the country you’re missing.
Two meats easily available in China have great spices or smoke flavors in the fat. They can be used to make Spanish chorizo or as a base for risotto instead of using pricey pancetta.
Another tip not pictured, Antoine mentioned when making risotto to use dong bei rice (东北大米), more popular in the north of China. He said these rice grains have the closest similarity to the ones found in Italy, other than the grains imported here.
麻辣香肠(malaxiangchang) is cheap, frequently available at farmer’s markets, while 100g of 腊肉(larou) is available for 30RMB at most supermarkets.
All you need to do is slice these meats into the thin pieces, slowly fry to release the oil and throw out the meat afterwards. (The meat won’t be very good after a second cooking.) Use the fat to cook what you want to have that awesome and very much missed smoky flavor.
I tried his method in my own kitchen, and the Chinese and Americans in my home loved my “smoked” fried potato cubes.
Herbs & Spices
Herbs are the hardest to find, but some can be found within China. Antoine warned me to stay away from bay leaves. “Bay leaves are brought over in huge bags that just sit forever. It’s brittle and tasteless.”
Good news Yizhuang friends! Soon Antoine will be selling small-planted herbs so expats in the Yizhuang area can happily cook at home if the plants are well tended. In limited supply, classic herbs, such as rosemary, thyme, basil, coriander, and mint will find new homes! Contact the restaurant for more information, the full list of herbs, and when the herbs will be ready for sale. I assume closer to spring and summer time. (Their phone number: 6789-7276)
The lazy man will be glad for the one-clove garlic. This bulb is more pungent than traditional garlic and only needs to be peeled once for a huge head.
Mustard oil adds a long missed kick to mayonnaise and salad dressings popular in Europe.
For spices, make sure to pan-fry fresh spice instead of using dry portions. If you’re a Tex-Mex lover like me, cumin, garlic and red pepper are all available.
Avoid using fresh pepper to replace the chili powder. According to Antoine’s super extensive knowledge of the palate, the reason is that fresh peppers will be tasted at the same time as the spices and conflict with one another. To avoid that, you could dry out the fresh peppers. Or use these super spicy ones.
If you need paprika to complete your traditional Lebanese hummus or Tex-Mex chimichungas, follow this tutorial to make paprika from red peppers.
Of course, cinnamon is easy to find here. Also, dry cardamom pods are useful for Indian and south Asian foods. Antoine recommended these mixed in a detoxifying herbal drink with fennel seed or licorice and some fresh ginger slices.
I know very little about European foods other than the Mediterranean dishes I eat at The Roots. So, the pickling advice comes as a surprise to me. Antoine’s advice for European picklers is to use the powerful Chinese white vinegar for shorter amounts of time than the traditional white vinegar found in the West.
These peppers called 小螺蛳椒(xiaoluosijiao) are great for the pickled peppers dish in the Mediterranean area of cuisines.
Red cabbage and obviously cauliflower can be treated in the same way as in the West; just remember again, to lay off the amount of time in Chinese white vinegar.
For American cucumber pickles, these lovely cukes will do.
And this cool purple variation of radish is best raw or cubed and baked with pumpkin. Antoine suggested to toss the cubes with garlic, olive oil and salt and pepper before baking. Of course, it can be pickled, too. Make sure to use a brine. He also likes shavings of the skin tossed in vinegar as a fresh bitter cold dish to go with summer barbecues.
Beans, Grains & Berries
Do you really only want a wholly mole dish? Of course these beans will do. And the speckled beans will also fair well for a refried dish.
The corn zar pictured here can be used for polenta, as a duster for pizza dough, or in place of breadcrumbs or flour when making tasty meat dishes, like grilled chicken.
The goji berries we found here were only 5 RMB for a whole bag. Hope you haven’t been shelling out your Mao’s for this berry at Whole Foods or other similar markets.
Speaking of berries…. when you make jam, use small strawberries we found at my local farmer’s market behind my school. Avoid the big plump ones. Use equal parts fruit and sugar when you boil it down.
Don’t use white corn in any corn dish – too much starch! Try to find as yellow as you possibly can.
Small cherry tomatoes are the most flavorful. Avoid the huge ones which are full of water. Medium sized tomatoes grown by small-time farmers could also be great finds.
Right behind our school we have a great open air farmer’s market where many will come from the south of Daxing to sell their goods. I didn’t realize how privileged I was until Antoine gasped about the hazelnuts, which reminded him of his hometown.
Here’s a handy map if you’re wanting to get to that farmer’s market. This is a map from this post about Yizhuang playgrounds. The farmer’s market is across the street from #10.
Don’t forget, Antoine will be selling planted herbs he’s grown himself closer to the spring and summer seasons. Call ahead if you’re outside of the Yizhuang area! If you’re just wanting to try dishes from their seasonal menus, you’ll need a reservation due to their popularity with Yizhuang residents. (Their phone number: 6789-7276)
What food hacks and pleasures have you found while in Beijing?