I have another authentic Chinese recipe to share with you. This is a dish that makes me homesick. I don’t know how to JIANG* the ham shank properly and could never learn it from the recipes on the internet. Maybe deep down I don’t want to be able to make it, so it remains something I can only have properly at home in China.
It can be loosely translated as “Spring Wrap” or “Spring Pancake”. According to Wiki, it’s “a traditional Chinese food unique to the northern regions. People eat spring pancakes on the day called lichun to celebrate the beginning of the spring.” (Lichun is one of the 24 solar terms, meaning “the beginning of the spring”.) It’s a very different thing to spring rolls.
It’s a dish for big family gatherings. I remember having it with grandparents, aunts and uncles, cousins at Chinese New Year specifically. Family members usually prepare the dishes together.
My dad is a man of many talents and a perfectionist in everything. Apart from managing a business, fixing cars, bicycles and the toilet, he is also the chef of the family. I can always remember him tapping the dough to test if it’s ready; every single wrap is made to the same shape same size, all done by eye without any measuring tools except a rolling pin; TAN-ing* layers of eggs on the hob, slicing the JIANG-ed ham shank like carving a piece of art work, in between actions ordering my mum, his sister and other family members around, persuading my grandparents to sit down every 5 minutes (because they can’t help standing up and being busy). Children lay the table and try stay out of the way.
When all is ready, the dishes are arranged on platters and squeezed onto the table. I’m always extra happy if the meat dish is left in front of me. The wraps are covered under a towel to keep warm, so they are just the right temperature to eat. My aunt will pass the wraps around, one for each person. That starts the meal off. And grandpa always has to be the first person to pick up his chopsticks.
If properly done, the wrap should be thin, soft and bouncy, but never have any holes. The shredded egg is measured against a high standard – no one slices egg thinner than my dad. He always picks up his work, holds it in the air and says proudly, “look how thin they are!” There are usually at least two platters of JIANG-ed ham shank, one slim and one fat. Grandparents always spoil me by putting the slim one in front of me. And at this point, my parents and uncles will always say, “try the fat ones, the fat ones taste better silly girl.”
So for a Chinese New Year without my dad or any family members around, I improvised to make this version of the Spring Wrap. It uses available ingredients from normal UK supermarkets, Chinese shops and markets. It’s surprisingly easy to make and tastes almost as good.
I’m ashamed of how thickly sliced my shredded egg is… but have a look anyway:
Here are what you need and what you need to do:
To serve 4 people
1 ham shank + 1 chunk of ginger + 2 tbsp of rice wine – Throw in a pressure cooker with water almost covering the ham shank. Cook 40 minutes after the pressure comes on. Turn it off after 40 min and let the pressure go out slowly. If you can’t be bothered to wait and want to skip it completely, just buy a tin of Spam! I know it doesn’t sound very sophisticated, but it works fine here. You have my full permission ;)
4 eggs – whisk up. Fry in a flat pan and make 4 egg pancakes. Pile 4 egg pancakes on top of each other. Fold half way. Fold again. (Or roll 4 layers up like a swiss roll.) Slice widthways as thin as you can manage without breaking them.
Spinach (250 g) + glass noodles (1 bundle) – Boil the glass noodles until soft with just enough water in a saucepan. Add spinach until almost soft. Season with salt.
1 Cucumber – cut as thin as possible (matchstick/julienne cut).
1 bag of bean sprout – fry in a flat pan until cooked through.
8 tortilla wraps – heat them up just before eating. Either in a steamer or straight on the hob (flat pan is not necessary, but don’t set them on fire!) The disadvantage of heating up on the hob (apart from burning your fingers) is that when the wrap gets cold, it gets hard. So I use a steamer more often now.
When everything is on the table, say grace. Spread the hoisin sauce on the wrap (with the back of a teaspoon) and add as much or little filling as you like (with chopsticks). Wrap up and enjoy (with fingers)! Don’t be too greedy at the beginning, the wrap might explode! I imagine it can be messy at the beginning, but if done right, you should have entirely dry and clean fingers at the end.
*JIANG is a way to prepare pork. People usually use pork belly where there is a mixture of fat and slim meat. The pork is soaked in soy sauce with herbs and spices for 1 to 4 days. Turn it a few times to make sure the flavour and colour is even. Then take it out and air dry.
*TAN means to fry liquid (e.g. egg or batter) on a medium heat on a flat and thick based pan/griddle. It’s like what you do to make a normal pancake.
A recent BBC Radio episode called “Eat My Words” from The Food Chain programme looked at Chinese food and cooking from the perspective of language. It was very interesting. It compared Chinese food language with French food language. The interviewee argued that even without speaking French, many people know what a French word/term means in a cookery book. There is a rich vocabulary for French food, which gives a sophisticated and rich image of French food culture. However Chinese cooking terms haven’t been integrated into the English language in the way that French has, so awareness of Chinese food culture is very limited. The image of Chinese food is generally just associated with takeaways around the corner, fried rice and noodles, sweet and sour sauce. But that’s not even the tip of an iceberg. It’s more like a sesame seed on an iceberg. Imagine the size of China. It’s about the same as whole of Europe*. Do you believe people in Norway, Germany and Italy all eat the same type of salmon, sausage and pasta? Of course not.
Just to do my bit, I’ll try to introduce Chinese cooking terms and food names to you. That’s why I deliberately used some Chinese words (all in capital letters and a star) and provided a bit explanation at the end. Hope you find it helpful. Just to say that I’m from Beijing, which is only one city in the north of China, so if you ever show off the Chinese cooking vocabulary you read from here and come across objections and confusions, just remember and remind the other person how big China is. Thanks!
*Europe is 10,180,000 km square and China is 9,596,961 km square according to Wiki.