Ahead of the brand-new year starting in China this week, Penelope Walsh embarks upon a supermarket sweep with a difference, with Jeff Tan, head chef at Yuan restaurant, leading the way.
The Chinese celebrate New Year on Thursday February 19. To welcome in The Year of the Goat, we’ve taken up the task to help you not only eat like the Chinese, but shop like the Chinese, too. With one of Dubai’s top chefs on hand for expert advice – Malaysian-born Jeff Tan, head chef at Yuan restaurant at Atlantis The Palm (and formerly of Hakkasan) – we make an ingredients run to Dubai’s best-known Chinese supermarket, Wenzhou, in International City.
Tan tells us that he and his wife sometimes pop into this store to buy items to use at home. Ginger, Tan says, should be at the very core of your Chinese cooking. However, he helps us uncover some less familiar items. First up are ‘white carrots’ (which are actually half white and half green in colour). These, he says, can be used in a similar manner to orange carrots and are typically used by the Cantonese, finely sliced in soup. Ugly and bulbous-looking chunks of lotus roots do not give away the pretty, delicate lace pattern found inside once it is sliced. Yam, Tan tells us, is popular in the north of China, where it is used to make salads and dressed with vinegar, chilli oil and homemade pickles. Bitter melon, a bubbly, corrugated little vegetable, is particularly good for the health, says Tan, since it has a cooling effect on the body. It can be prepared using techniques including frying, boiling, steaming and braising.
Perhaps the most intriguing ingredients are the multitude of mushroom varieties in Wenzhou. You’ll find shitake, shimeji, eryngii, enoki and also a fatter, thicker genus of enoki. Normal enoki, Tan says, are excellent when steamed with fish. These thicker enoki, however, are crispier and have a more intense flavour. We also discover more than one kind of pak choi and a second variety of chives, which are yellow and have a more mellow flavour than green chives. There is also a vegetable similar to bamboo shoots which, when Tan translates the Chinese display for us, it turns out is grown within the UAE.
Among the vast number of sauces and seasonings, Tan recommends sesame oil and black vinegar as cornerstones to add to your Chinese repertoire. The Lee Kum Kee brand, he says, is a famous one from Hong Kong, known to be good quality and worth looking out for when you are making your selection. There is also a wide array of pickles on display. You name it, it seems to be here and pickled. One example is a little sachet of whole pickled garlic bulbs. These can be finely sliced and added to salads for presentation ‘like adding make-up to the dish’, as Tan puts it.
You’ll also find plenty of tofu here. What Tan refers to as ‘old tofu’ has already been deep-fried, and he recommends this variety for the non-Chinese to try. The soft, silken tofu, he adds is for steaming, while the harder varieties of fresh tofu can be deep-fried. Tan suggests adding ginger, mushrooms and oyster or soy sauce to the tofu once fried. For those who have never taken to tofu, Tan says that in a restaurant, you must ask the waiter to recommend a tofu dish you might like, adding that he sometimes comes out of the kitchen himself to offer this advice.
In the meat and fish section, Tan picks out baby duck, bags of fresh seaweed and chicken feet (used by the Cantonese as a dim sum treat). The feet are first deep-fried, and then steamed. Amid the display of fresh fish on ice, you’ll also find buckets of live eels, live clams and (apparently not so live) jellyfish by your feet. According to Tan, jellyfish do not need to be cooked (‘just five seconds in hot water and no more’), and can be eaten thinly sliced in a salad. The huge pile of blue-tinged crabs are ‘flower crabs’, but, as we speak, someone dumps a vast number of live ‘green crab’ in a tank next to us, still crawling and scrabbling about. Tan reveals that he prefers this Australian variety, since they are meatier and sweeter than flower crabs. Although not sold here, he says that Sri Lankan crabs (opt for those 1kg upwards in weight) are the best. But at Dhs98 per kilo for the green crab at Wenzhou, he hints that the Shindagha Fish Market may be slightly better value for crab.
Chef Jeff Tan is the head chef at Yuan, Atlantis The Palm, Palm Jumeirah (04 426 2626).
Wenzhou Supermarket is located in China Cluster A3, International City (04 450 8750).