When I was little, one of my favourite ever dining out treats was an outing to our local Chinese place in Sunbury On Thames.
I remember big plates of fried rice, neon orange piles of syrupy sweet and sour pork balls, prawn crackers and my first ever spring roll.
My favourite part was at the end of the meal, when my brother and I would each have our own plate of crispy battered fried bananas with vanilla ice cream. It all felt so exotic, so foreign and sophisticated and I absolutely loved it. Of course it only really bore a passing resemblance to authentic Chinese food, but those early experiences planted the seeds of what has grown into a real love of Chinese food- The good, the bad and the WTF??
The Yum Yum Tree is still there, thirty-odd years later in the same grotty spot in dodgy Sunbury Cross, but I'm sure I'll never go back. I just know that all those special little taste memories will be squashed flat, as if by one of Wyle Coyote's 20 ton anvils, the same way many childhood treat memories are when revisited as a grown-up.
I don't tend to get takeaways very often (ever) because our town just doesn't have a single good one, so we generally wait until we're in Chinatown to indulge. There's also a brilliant place in Camden we went to a couple of New Years ago, which was the first place I ever ate chicken feet. I can't remember what it was called but I really hope to find it again, as they had brilliant dim sum.
The food we ate in China and the cookery class we took in Yangshuo taught me a lot about cooking Chinese food and how important fresh ingredients are. Not once did we see glow-in-the-dark sweet and sour sauce or reject globs of pork fat surrounded in soggy fried dough like those you find in the average High Street place.
The animal welfare standards were non-existent, which was really hard for me to watch, especially when I thought about the number of people eating them. So much so, that if I lived there I'd probably be vegetarian if I couldn't raise my own livestock.
What was brilliant was that for better or for worse they do seem to use every bit of the animals that they eat. (see right)
We tried pig intestines on a stick (see left), as well as duck tongues (they have bones in them! Who knew?!) more chicken feet and some brilliant things done with pork skin. We did draw the line at dog though, I just couldn't go there.
So yeah, we all like Chinese food in our house, so I make some kind of stir-fry or noodle dish fairly often. I definitely think that if your kids are picky veg eaters that giving them (the veg, not the kids) a good toss in a wok with some garlic, ginger and a couple of sauces is a brilliant way to soften the blow for them.
This, like most Chinese food a super quick dish to cook, so it's important to have all your prep done before you put flame to wok.
Chilli Fried Egg Noodles With Szechuan Beef and Pak Choi
serves 4, takes 25 minutes
300g (10.5oz) rump steak, fat sliced from outer edge, then sliced very thinly across the grain.
4 small pak choi, leaves pulled and washed (leave small hearts intact)
1 medium onion, sliced
2cm ginger, julienned
2 cloves garlic, minced
2 large, red chillies, sliced
250g (8oz) package dried egg noodles
2 tbsp oyster sauce
1 tsp dried red chilli
2 tsp szechuan peppercorns, crushed.
2 tbsp shaoxing rice wine or dry sherry
2 tbsp light soy sauce
2 tsp corn starch
4 tbsp ground nut oil
Mix the soy sauce, cornstarch and Shaoxing rice wine together in a bowl and add the sliced beef, mixing well to coat. Set aside while you do the rest of the prep and cook the noodles (follow the package instructions).
Heat your wok over a high heat and once smoking, add 2 tbsp of the oil, swishing it well around the wok with a cooking spatula. Add the beef, leaving the marinade in the bowl and stir fry well for 3-4 minutes, until browned, then remove from the pan and set aside.
Add the onions, and half each of the garlic and ginger to the pan and stir-fry for a couple of minutes before adding the Szechuan pepper, any left over beef marinade and fresh chilli with a few tbsp of water. Stir in the oyster sauce, followed immediately by the pak choi. Stir-fry for another 1-2 minutes, then add the beef back to the mix, stir well to combine.
Remove to a bowl and cover with a lid while you fry the noodles.
Heat the remaining oil in the wok and toss in the remaining garlic, ginger and the dried chilli. fry for 30 seconds before adding the cooked noodles to the pan.
Stir fry quickly for a minute or so, sprinkling with a little soy sauce before serving.
Serve the noodles in a lovely big heap, topped with the beef and pak choi on top.