Monthly Archives: April 2011

Middle Eastern Monday II: Falafel

Much delayed sequel to the previous post. It’s been a busy week (at work, sadly, not as much in the kitchen).

Sean had been wanting to making falafel since our Philly/NY days, but then it’d just been easier to buy them fresh off a cart complete with veggies, sauce, and rice/pita for 4 or 5 USD. Here, choices are more limited: I’m not a huge fan of Haya’s’ falafel and the 60+ RMB falafel “burger” at Gourmet Cafe, while super tasty, is only good for a splurge.

So we made our own, using this recipe as a rough guide for ingredients. Like the hummus, it turned out to be easier than we’d expected.

We started with a can of chickpeas…

…which we mashed with a spoon.

Then we added all the other ingredients, mixing til we got a squishy dough-like mixture. We made some modifications like adding an egg, but more on that below.

Since we don’t have an oven or deep-fryer, we pan-fried little falafel patties with a good amount of oil to imitate deep-frying.

They sizzled and browned and held together nicely in the pan. We watched with bated breath.

When they looked about done, we picked one out for a taste test. Having read some reviews about falafel falling apart and whatnot, we’d expected our first batch to fail in some way. But all we could do was grunt with pleasure for the next 5 seconds. It hit the spot like none other: crunchy on the outside, it was fragrant and moist and soft — but textured — on the inside. It might not look like your typical falafel, and I can’t attest to its authenticity, but I’d say the flavour and texture came very close to what we used to have in New York. (And yes, I’m using NY as a point of comparison for all foods whose originating country I haven’t yet visited…)

We removed them from the pan when they were just starting to blacken and most of the oil was soaked up.

Here is our lunch in full, probably one of the most satisfying meals I’ve ever had… ever:

(Yes, I know that isn’t pita bread. Sean biked all the way to City Shop to get pita that morning, but apparently the ovens over at MediterraneaN bakery had broken down — which basically meant no pita for the entire city of Shanghai that day. So we got the next best thing: nang bread, though even our fave Xinjiang place was out of their usual nang, which we like better.)

All in all, I’m incredibly thankful canned chickpeas can be found pretty easily in Shanghai; any supermarket Carrefour and up on the “foreigner-friendly” scale will stock it (usually for under 10 RMB/can). I have only just begun to fully appreciate their versatility.

Pan-fried Falafel

1 400g can chickpeas (garbanzo beans), rinsed and drained
1 small onion, finely chopped
2 cloves garlic, minced
2 tablespoons chopped fresh cilantro
2 teaspoons ground cumin
1 slice of bread, toasted a few times and crumbled (makes 2/3 cup bread crumbs)
1/3 cup flour (we used pancake mix coz we didn’t have flour)
3/4 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon fresh ground pepper
1 large egg
Olive oil for frying

1. Mash chickpeas in a large bowl until they become crumbly but moist (do not use food processor). Stir in the onion, garlic, cilantro, cumin, bread crumbs, egg, salt, and pepper (and other spices/herbs if used).
2. Add flour/pancake mix until the mixture reaches a sticky, doughy, and moist but decidedly solid consistency. When you pick up some with your hands it should feel like it can hold together in a pan without breaking apart (vague, I know, but you’ll know).
3. With your hands, shape the mixture into patties approx. 5cm wide and 1cm deep. You should get 18-20 patties.
4. Heat 3 tbsp (or just enough to cover the pan) olive oil in pan with heat on high. When oil is very hot, place falafel patties in pan. Fry until bottom is browned and has hardened into a crust, then flip. Falafels are ready when both sides have hardened and look crunchy :)
5. Remove from pan and place on plate lined with paper towel. Repeat (adding more oil as necessary) until the mixture is used up.

Enjoy with your favourite sauces (we used homemade hummus and cilantro-infused aioli (wrong part of the world, sure, but went superbly with the falafel)), raw veggies, and bread!

*Makes about 18-20 small falafel patties. I’m not sure how long the mixture would last in the fridge/freezer because these were gone by lunch the following day! I’m guessing one day max in the fridge, and much longer in the freezer… but it’s always better fresh :)

*The mixture also works pan-fried in much less oil — it won’t end up very crunchy, but that’s fine if you’re bringing them to work for lunch the next day.


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Middle Eastern Monday I: Hummus

Sean and I didn’t have work on Easter Monday, so we went and explored a bit of the Middle East… in our kitchen. We started with hummus, adapting a couple of recipes found on (my go-to recipe site).

The whole process took about half an hour, though most of that time was spent scraping down the sides of our cheap blender (see Notes below), so this would literally take 10 minutes if you have a good blender.

It tasted really good and fresh and, in our humble opinion, gave the 28 RMB hummus at Haya’s Mediterranean Cuisine a run for its money. But Haya’s still does a killer marinated eggplant which I will keep going back for, but which I’m going to figure out how to make as well :D

Tahini-less Hummus
1 400g can chickpeas/garbanzo beans, drained, liquid reserved
2-3 cloves garlic, crushed
2 tsp ground cumin
1 tbsp paprika
1/2 tsp salt
1 tbsp olive oil
1.5 tbsp fresh lemon juice
1 tbsp sesame oil
1/2 tsp crushed red pepper (optional)

1. Combine all ingredients in a blender or food processor. Blend on low speed, gradually adding reserved bean liquid — and stopping to manually stir mixture, if needed — until it reaches desired consistency (textured but without any hard bits).
2. Serve with pita, crackers, or even soft whole wheat bread.

1. Most hummus recipes call for tahini, but since we didn’t have that (unless you count my black sesame paste) we used a bit of sesame oil, with great results.
2. As with our peanut butter escapade last year, our blender couldn’t handle the hard solids very well, so we ended up having to stop and scrape down the sides/top pretty often. It also helped to add more liquid if it wasn’t moving much.


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Vegetarian Lifestyle set lunch

I’d been to Vegetarian Lifestyle once before about a month ago, but only discovered their set lunch last week.

At 22 RMB, the set lunch at this popular “modern” vegetarian (actually vegan I believe) restaurant is an amazing deal: a well-presented platter of soup, appetizers, (surprisingly flavourful) greens, a mock meat main dish, rice (mix of brown and white), and fruit, all served with some good tea in a clean, pleasant environment. Also, the food comes within 2 minutes or so — but looks and tastes far from cafeteria food — which is a huge plus if you’ve only got an hour for lunch and don’t work next door.

The sweet and sour vegetarian spareribs (lower right corner in photo) were incredibly good — the flavour and texture were on point and they did not feel greasy even though they were likely deep-fried. I could’ve had 10 more plates of the stuff.

The set lunch menu changes daily so there’s no choice — or time-consuming indecision — involved, though you could also order a la carte if you don’t like what’s on the menu, are willing to spend more, and have the luxury of time. For the price and environment and flavours, though, I’m willing to take whatever they give me :)

Vegetarian Lifestyle (a.k.a. Jujube Tree) 枣子树

  • Jingan branch
  • 258 Fengxian Rd. near Jiangning Rd. 静安区奉贤路258号近江宁路

  • Gubei branch
  • 848 Huangjincheng Rd. near Shuicheng South Rd. 长宁区黄金城道848号近水城南路

  • Luwan branch
  • 77 Songshan Rd. near Huaihai Rd. 卢湾区嵩山路77号近淮海路


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    Easter brunch

    Happy Easter! Today was supposed to be the end of our Lenten fast, the day we would be released once again into the world of omnivorism. But we’ve decided we’re not ready to head back yet. I guess you could say we’re still riding the high of our new gastronomic adventure; cooking and eating meatlessly is still interesting enough that we’re motivated to push on. So we’re giving ourselves another month, after which Sean is going to Ireland for two weeks and worries that familial/cultural pressures will make avoiding meat truly difficult. After his trip, we — or at least he — will know whether this resolve is sustainable for the long term.

    So, instead of pigging out on bacon ham and sausage for Easter brunch, we had a satisfying meal of tofu-veggie-egg scramble and sweet potato fries with homemade aioli (garlic mayonnaise). Sean’s been frying sweet potatoes all week while I’ve been at work, so I wanted to get in on the fun too.

    Since we don’t have an oven and I’m wasn’t into the idea of deep-frying our fries, I just pan-fried pre-blanched sweet potato strips with a bit more oil than I normally do.

    In spite (or maybe because?!) of this, the fries didn’t really get crispy :( They were still delicious though, especially with the aioli, and when they were all gone we found ourselves craving more.

    The scramble was great with some ketchup. Usually if I use a whole onion and a green pepper with four eggs the veggies get really overwhelming, but the tofu balanced the textures while giving the dish more substance.

    The kind of tofu I used is called 五香豆腐干 (wuxiang doufu gan, spiced dried bean curd — though it doesn’t actually feel dry), which is much firmer and meatier than regular packaged “white” tofu (even the “firm” kind), and tastes faintly of five-spice powder. They go for around 2.7 RMB/three 5x5x2cm pieces, which is a decent amount for two people — though I could easily eat three squares of these in a meal!

    Sweet potato fries (pan-fried)
    3 sweet potatoes (white or orange)
    1 tbsp paprika
    1 tsp salt, or more as needed
    2 tbsp olive oil

    1 tsp sugar
    Ground red pepper/cayenne

    1. Wash sweet potatoes thoroughly, scrubbing off any dirt. Peel and cut into strips 1-2cm wide. Throw into pot of boiling water and leave for about 3 minutes, or until half-cooked. Remove from heat and drain well.
    2. Toss with paprika (and optional seasonings if used).
    3. Heat oil in non-stick pan with heat on medium-high. Add potato strips and salt. Fry, tossing every 30 seconds until edges begin to turn dark brown (~10 mins). Add more oil as needed.
    4. Serve hot with aioli (see recipe link below).

    **This is not the best recipe if you want crispy fries. If you have an oven or are willing to deep-fry, I’d suggest those methods. I’m considering getting a small oven so I can make these all the time with half the oil!

    Tofu-veggie-egg scramble

    3 squares 五香豆腐干 (spiced dried bean curd) or other firm tofu, diced
    1 small onion, diced
    1 green pepper, diced
    4 eggs
    1 tbsp milk
    1 tsp olive oil
    Salt and black pepper to taste
    1 tsp other seasonings e.g. sesame seeds, basil, chili powder (optional)

    1. Heat oil in pan with heat on medium-high. Add onion, frying until slightly browned. Add green pepper and bean curd/tofu, cooking for another 3-5 minutes. Remove from pan.
    2. Beat eggs with milk. Heat pan again and add eggs, stirring until fluffy and almost fully cooked. Then put tofu/veggie mixture back in, along with salt and pepper, mixing well.
    3. Serve hot with ketchup and/or other seasonings.

    Relevant resources:

  • The aioli recipe I used, plus a sprinkle of basil and dill (just ’cause) and less mayo/lemon juice for more garlic flavour

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    Soymilk in a bag

    I’m not turning vegan, but lately have been minimizing dairy consumption in a last-ditch attempt to tame my skin. In my search for a substitute for milk, I’d been surprised and disappointed by the absence of the cartons of soymilk — both Chinese and western brands — that can be found in supermarkets all over North America, and feared for a while that I’d have to buy a machine to make it myself (like many Chinese do, apparently) if I wanted it regularly.

    Luckily, a tip from the Shanghai Vegetarians Club website pointed me away from the dairy section to the tofu aisle (duh!)… where they sell Tramy brand soymilk by the bag!

    At Trust-Mart, it’s a bargain at 2.7 RMB/three 395mL-bags. They also have slightly pricier black bean and sweetened varieties, but the latter contains 3-4 additional ingredients on top of the added sugar, which is never a good sign. Fortunately, the unsweetened version — made only from water and soybeans, if the label is to be trusted — is rich and delicious without any of that burnt bitter taste you get sometimes from the street-side stalls. Having been a devotee of sweetened soymilk all my life, I was surprised to find it palatable… and even pleasurable.

    It’s very satisfying on its own, but also right at home in a frothy fruit smoothie.

    …Honestly, I’d like to avoid advertising for Trust-Mart (which is owned by Walmart), so I’ll just suggest looking in and around the tofu section of your local supermarket. The bags will keep for five days in the fridge, which makes it more practical for home consumption than the kind packaged with a built-in straw.


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    One month of meatlessness

    This weekend past we hit the one-month mark of our foray into meatlessness, which began on March 9 (Ash Wednesday) during our trip to Yangshuo. As of this past Sunday, there are exactly two weeks left of Lent, meaning two weeks left until Sean and I can eat meat again.

    Yay! Right? Except…

    …lately we’ve been reading up on healthy eating, vegetarianism, recipes, and such, and are very much tempted to keep going with this for at least a little while longer, if not for the long run (!).

    The thought of becoming vegetarian both excites and scares me — excites, because I never imagined I could do it, but now I think I can; scares, because “becoming vegetarian” implies something permanent… like converting to a religion, getting a tattoo. Part of me keeps thinking that if I go vegetarian and later decide I want to turn back or make an exception, that is somehow much worse and more hypocritical than not taking that step/making the leap in the first place. Also, it might be easier to do here, but what about when I’m travelling? When I’m back in Hong Kong with its charsiu and roast goose, and Vancouver with its salmon and sashimi? Would I be able to resist? Why should I force myself to resist?

    At the same time, the prospect of actually making a small contribution to the world — and larger contribution to my health — appeals to me very much. Although I was raised Catholic and do loosely follow a set of what might be called Christian ethics, I have long been living without a firmly, deliberately established set of principles to guide my actions. This is the first time in a while that I’ve found myself really convinced about something — namely, that significantly reduced meat eating is a necessary (though not sufficient) step to improved health, solving the food crisis, saving the world… and so on. Even though I admittedly haven’t read much first-hand research about this stuff, from what I have read and seen the argument makes a lot of sense to me, and I am eager to embrace the idea by putting it into practice.

    The question is: should I take the leap into full-blown vegetarianism, or is “significantly reduced meat eating” (ideally, one meaty meal per week) enough? Is the latter still a cop-out? Most vegetarians/vegans would probably say yes.

    A meatless month in Shanghai

    Has it been difficult so far? Most people I’ve talked to about this “experiment” have asked me that. The answer, generally, is no. It hasn’t been that difficult in that I haven’t been craving meat. Also, because we had already been eating meatlessly at home for a year and a half, we’ve ended up just eating at home this past month even more than we usually do.

    It’s been fine at work as well, even though I have had to turn down some offers of food and invitations to lunch (not great for bonding in a new workplace). I’ve found refuge mainly in Subway’s veggie delite and City Shop’s soups and breads and salads, though there are other (more expensive) meatless options around my office.

    On the few occasions that we’ve eaten out with friends this month, it’s still been OK. Even though menus are generally meat-heavy, we’ve had Chinese, Indian, Thai food without any problems, and our friends have on the whole been pretty receptive to our needs — even though I can’t help worrying that I’m inconveniencing them in some way. We don’t mind seeing people eat meat, or occasionally having to pick around meat bits to get at the veggies… if we did, it might be a different story.

    I did have one uninspiring meal of 金银菠菜 (spinach with egg) on rice at a HK cha chaan teng, which was when I realized Hong Kong cuisine is not vegetarian-friendly. At all.

    But the toughest meal so far was probably dinner at our friend’s house on Saturday — tough in a “face” sort of way. She and her mom had made like 8 different dishes, including lots of veggie dishes, but also jiaozi, which I love. When we told her we weren’t eating meat, she pointed to another platter of dumplings and said, “These ones don’t have meat. They’re shrimp. You can eat these!” But no, I couldn’t. And… I felt bad about it. Like I had offended them, or at least disappointed them. I have never been one to be picky about food, especially home-made food, because I think it’s rude. And it made me think of my parents and grandma, who are wonderful cooks, and having to refuse their food the next time I visit. I could probably do without xiaolongbao for the rest of my life, but wouldn’t it be ungrateful, even hurtful, to turn my nose up at my (grand)parents’ expressions of love?

    So I’m still undecided about the future. It’s been a great month — a little gassy, but great — and I feel cleaner in a way. I’ve been having truly delicious meals, I’m always full (though the focus now must turn to portion control!), and my coworkers’ charsiu on rice doesn’t appeal so much to me anymore. But can this last forever?


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    Mango season…

    …has arrived! They’re going as cheap as 3.8 RMB/500g at our neighbourhood fruit store, climbing up to 7.8 RMB for the best ones. Not a bad price to pay for a minute of heaven :D

    [Edit 2011-05-02: They’ve upped the price for the best quality mangos to 10.8 RMB/500g. Still worth it in my opinion.]

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    Open sesame

    One of my new favourite foods is black sesame. It’s actually two foods, I guess: black sesame seeds and black sesame paste, both of which can be found at our closest Carrefour store, giving me another reason to keep crawling back in spite of its less-than-comfortable shopping environment.

    Even with the odours of a neighbouring KFC hanging heavy in the stagnant mall air, the aroma of freshly ground sesame manages to make its way through the aisles, past the cashiers, and into my nostrils every time I walk past the store, luring me in. Inside, in the middle of the store, sits a little station displaying bottles of sesame oil and bags of various seeds, ground grains, and suchlike, as well as a machine that grinds sesame seeds into a paste — the source of the smell — that is funneled into plastic containers for immediate sale.

    Having read about the nutritional properties of sesame seeds and been told it is believed (by the Chinese, at least) to improve hair health/colour, I picked up a bag of pre-toasted sesame seeds a few weeks back… and have been sprinkling the stuff on almost everything since.

    Not sure if my hair is any different, but it has made many a savoury dish more interesting and textured and flavourful, and I feel better about showering a veggie dish with seeds than dousing it with its also immensely delicious — but likely more fattening and less fibrous — cousin, sesame oil. (I still use a lot of sesame oil though, just less :)

    As I’ve also been looking for a replacement for peanut butter, the newborn sesame junkie in me dragged me back to Carrefour last weekend for some black sesame paste. Luckily for me, they had just finished making a new batch, so I was able to grab a fresh container of the stuff.

    This sesame paste has a more subtle flavour than your average peanut butter — or even the sesame paste you find on supermarket shelves– and might be deemed too bland by some (Sean is sticking with his Skippy), but that’s because there’s nothing added — no salt, sugar, msg, hydrogenated oils. It does have the nutty fragrance and delightfully gooey, slightly grainy texture of natural peanut butter, making it a perfect match with honey on whole-wheat toast.

    The tar-like paste might look kind of ominous, but it has become my favourite way to start the day, and its relatively high calorie content gives me energy for my bike commute. I have a feeling the stuff would also be delicious with noodles — I’ll keep you posted.

    Where to find…

  • black sesame seeds: Carrefour, 17.8 RMB/300g bag (lasts ages)
  • fresh-ground black sesame seed paste: Carrefour, 33.8 RMB/500g
  • Mankattan brand whole-wheat high-fibre bread: Carrefour and Trust Mart (and prob. other large supermarkets), ~6 RMB/6-slice bag
  • Carrefour (Zhongshan Park store)
    B1-2/F, Cloud 9 Mall (龙之梦购物中心),
    1018 Changning Lu (长宁路), near Kaixuan Lu (凯旋路)

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