"In general in China, breakfast tends to be savory and not sweet, and there's a substantial starchy element," explains Fuchsia Dunlop, and she would know. The chef and food writer has researched and written about regional cuisines across China, with a particular affection for the spicy foods of Sichuan where she attended culinary school in the mid-1990s. Her most recent cookbook Land of Fish and Rice: Recipes from the Culinary Heart of China takes an in-depth look at another region: Jiangnan, located on the southeast coast of China, which has earned the nickname "land of fish and rice" because of its agricultural abundance. The cuisine of this region is, admittedly, harder to define than that of Sichuan or Hunan, since, as Dunlop explains, it "is more subtle and less easy to stereotype." But, she adds, "everyone in China would kind of roughly agree that there’s this great culinary style in the east," and that is what she wanted to highlight.
The breakfast recipes in Land of Fish and Rice are fairly emblematic of the two poles of cooking in Jiangnan. On one end, breakfast is simple. Dunlop features a recipe for Hangzhou breakfast tofu that simply requires heating up silken tofu in a saucepan and topping with savory condiments and crunchy garnishes. As with most Chinese breakfasts, there's plenty of starches. "In the Jiangnan region, it's usually starchy rice, so you might have rice congee, for example," says Dunlop, and that porridge will generally be served with side dishes like, "salted duck eggs, peanuts, little relishes, maybe a fried egg. And you often have some sort of steamed bun."
That breakfast congee might also be served with a tea egg, which "have have been steeped in spiced tea with that kind of crackle pattern on them," says Dunlop, or a hard-boiled egg. But these eggs are also used in fine dining where technique is of the utmost importance. Scrambled eggs are "usually very delicate, very soft," and steamed egg custard, made by beating together a few eggs and pouring stock into a pot or bowl, are also common. "It's a very technique-driven approach," says Dunlop. As she writes in the book's introduction, there are banquet dishes "so elaborate they are known as Kung Fu dishes (gong fu cai)—that is, dishes that demand the same level of technical mastery as the martial arts."
One of these more technical egg dishes featured in Land of Fish and Rice is this recipe for Shanghai golden egg dumplings with Chinese cabbage. "The egg dumplings are sometimes one element in very complicated New Year's dishes. So, for example, in Anhui Province, they sometimes have these big open cooking pots, and there'll be some vegetables at the bottom," explains Dunlop. "And then they'll put layers of other ingredients beautifully patterned on top."
If you want to attempt these gorgeous pork and egg dumplings at home, Dunlop has some advice to make the process a little easier. "The traditional way is to make them in a ladle over an open gas cooker," Dunlop says. "But the way that I’ve done with without having that is to do it in a frying pan, but it’s best to have non-stick pan." The recipe also calls for a metal biscuit cutter, but Dunlop says a cookie cutter will do. Just be sure to, "use one that has an insulated rim around the top because it will get quite hot."
Unfortunately, there's no faking technique or quality ingredients with this recipe, as with most of the food from Jiangnan, but if you're willing to put in the effort, the results will be breathtaking.
Shanghai Golden Egg Dumplings with Chinese Cabbage
- Yields: About 10 dumplings
Put the sweet potato noodles in a bowl, cover with cold water, and leave to soak for at least two hours. (You can soak them for half an hour in hot water, but they will be more likely to disintegrate during cooking.)
Cut the Chinese cabbage into 1 to 1½ inch ribbons, discarding any hard stalky bits. Put the pork in a bowl, and add ¼ teaspoon salt, 1 teaspoon of the Shaoxing wine, and the chopped ginger and spring onion. Mix well. Beat the eggs with the remaining Shaoxing wine, ¼ teaspoon salt, and 1 teaspoon cooking oil.
Pour 1 tablespoon of cooking oil into a frying pan and heat over a high flame until faint smoke starts coming off the sides of the pan. Pour any excess oil into a heatproof container, then add a little fresh, cool oil, and swirl it around the cooking surface. Over a gentle flame, put a 3-inch metal biscuit cutter in the pan, and pour about 1½ tablespoons beaten egg into the ring. When the egg is half set but still runny on top, put about 1 teaspoon of the pork mixture onto it, off center. Remove the ring with a potholder or chopsticks. Use a spatula to flip half the egg skin over the pork and press the edges down, to make a dumpling. (Some beaten egg may run out of the circle; if you are very fastidious you may trim this off!)
Remove the dumpling, which should be golden on both sides, and set aside; the pork does not need to be cooked through at this stage. Repeat with the rest of the egg and pork mixtures. You should end up with about 10 dumplings. (If you are not going to use them immediately, steam them over a high flame for 5 minutes to cook the pork through, then allow to cool and chill in the fridge.)
Drain the sweet potato noodles well, then put them in a heavy-bottomed pan with a lid that you can also use as a serving vessel. Put the sliced cabbage on top and add the stock, lard and soy sauces. Put the dumplings on the surface of the pot in an overlapping circle. Bring to the boil and season with salt and pepper. Cover and simmer over a medium flame for about 10 minutes, until the cabbage is silkily tender. Serve with a sprinkling of spring onion greens.
Salt pork, cabbage and egg dumpling soup. At the Old Jesse restaurant in Shanghai they serve this delicious soup: place a few slices of blanched Chinese ham or salt pork (unsmoked bacon, gammon, or pancetta work well) in a clay pot with plenty of sliced Chinese cabbage. Cover with stock, then crown with the egg dumplings. Bring to the boil, season with salt to taste and simmer for 8 to 10 minutes, until the cabbage is tender.