Wednesday, February 13, 2008


I wanted to celebrate Chinese new year. London's Chinatown is hugely busy for the week but perhaps a little too crowded for the likes of me. I wanted to cook at home but it really had to be special. I searched and searched for just the right thing. I have a couple of serious hunanese/szechwan cookbooks that I use a lot and from which I learn a lot too as I get better at this kind of food though both look largely at the domestic cuisine rather than more 'public' foods. Szechwan dishes contain many flavors - sweet, sour, bitter, hot, salty, aromatic, fragrant but the defining characteristic of most of the dishes I have come across is a serious chilli heat. As with all things in traditional chinese cuisine there is a reason for this. Red chili stimulate the palate, making it more sensitive to all these flavors, increasing the pleasure of eating.

My search paid off in Mrs Chiangs Szechwan Cookbook with one of the few grand dishes she writes about. Tipan is a centre piece dish for a szechwan feast. It's a magnificent thing fit for a star. A piece of gammon is simmered with ginger and spices till the flesh is succulent with the subtle flavours of the aromatics. The real transformation is in the flavour and texture of the fat. Mrs Chiang recalls the excitement of it in her Szechwan cookbook.

The best part of the tipan was the fat that covered the meat in a thick, translucent layer, so soft and luscious that it literally melted in the mouth. Perhaps the reason why Western gourmets do not prize fat the way Chinese ones do is simply that Western cooking does not produce anything that is as pure, sweet, and fragrant as the succulent layer of fat on a tipan.

The absolute truth of this cannot be appreciated until you have sampled this delight. Fortunately, it is a very simple dish to make requiring no more than a few minutes to prepare the ingredients and then it simmers till it's done. Though there are dried chillies and peppers in the simmering broth this is not a hot dish at all. Mostly highly seasoned foods are home cooking and would not be the centre piece of any kind of formal feast.


Piece of fresh unsmoked gammon, about 2kg in weight
4 scallions
5 inch piece of fresh ginger
10 large or 1/2 cup smaller dried mushrooms
3 whole star anise or equivalent in bits
4 dried chilli
1 tbspn szechwan peppercorns
1 cup light soy sauce
1/2 cup chinese rice wine or sherry
3 tbspns granulated sugar
1 tbspn sesame oil

Clean the scallions and cut them in half lenghtways, using both green and white parts. Smash the ginger with the side of a cleaver or heavy knife but don't peel it. Wash the dried mushrooms carefully. They do not need to be soaked.

Put the ham in a very large pot and cover it with water. Bring the water to the boil, skim any foam from the top then add the scallions, ginger, dried mushrooms, star anise, dried chillies and peppercorns. Simmer rapidly for about 60 to 90 minutes until the liquid in the pot is reduced by half.

Add the soy sauce, wine and sugar and reduce the heat and let the ham simmer for another hour. Add the sesame oil and continue to cook for another half an hour or so.

Remove the ham from the pan and put onto a plate and cover with foil. Continue to boil the remaining liquid till it is about a quarter of the original volume.

At this point the recipe suggests steaming some spinach then serving hot slices of ham and the reduced sauce which I am sure would be fabulous. But I wanted it for lunches so I strained the sauce and put it in the freezer. I plan to use it for some noodles and greens another day -when all the time that has already gone in to it will make for a fast and deeply flavoured soup.

We had it with a crisp salad of fennel, celery and carrot in lunches - like all good parties it lasted the week and simply got better and better.

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