Sichuan pepper and 5 Spice Powder

I was surprised to learn that what we call Sichuan* Pepper (huajiao 花椒) is the only spice that is truly indigenous to China. Of course the Chinese cultivate and use many spices, but they all originated in other parts of Asia.  Even Star Anise which is much associated with Chinese cooking originally comes from Vietnam. Actually, compared with India, Malaysia, Thailand and other Asian countries, the Chinese use very little in the way of spices, and that distinguishes their food culture.

The first thing you need to know about Sichuan Pepper is that it is NOT a pepper at all.      It is the dried seedpod of a variety of Prickly Ash tree (Zanthoxylum simulans),

Zanthoxylum-simulans and it does not add a peppery heat to food, it gives a unique mouth tingling, numbing sensation which the Chinese call ‘mala 麻辣‘ and  which many people find quite addictive. The famous food guru Harold McGee in his book On Food and Cooking says: “they produce a strange, tingling, buzzing, numbing sensation that is something like the effect of carbonated drinks or of a mild electrical current (touching the terminals of a nine-volt battery to the tongue). ”   Several exhaustive studies have been done as to why this is, and if you really, really want to know more read this.

Sichuan Pepper  is used in many Chinese dishes – particularly those from Sichuan Province (what a surprise!) – either as whole berries or ground into a powder.

Sichuan peppercorns


It is also one of the components of Chinese Five Spice Powder  (wu xiang fen 五香粉 ),

which is used in many recipes. Whilst I find Sichuan Pepper used on its own rather overwhelming, I am a great fan of Five Spice Powder (which is easily obtainable outside China).

Here is a recipe which I often make because it is cheap, easy, takes no time at all, and is ideal finger food when watching a film on TV!  Kids love it – always a bonus. The wings are delicious when hot from the oven, but also good cold for a picnic or in a lunch-box.


Five spice chicken wings

24 chicken wings (cut off wing tips with sharp knife and keep them for stock).                                                                                                                                                                     2 teaspoons Chinese Five Spice powder                                                                                            2 cloves garlic, minced                                                                                                                             2 teaspoons soy sauce                                                                                                                            2 teaspoons honey                                                                                                                                    1 tablespoon vegetable oil (NOT olive oil)

Pre-heat oven to 220C

Rub the wings with the Five Spice powder.  Set aside for 10 mins.                                          Mix together the garlic, soy sauce, honey and oil.  Pour it over the wings, and mix so that they are completely covered.   Put the wings into a shallow oven proof dish or roasting spice hunter chinese five spicepan.   Roast in the oven for approx 20 minutes.

Tip on to a big platter and hand round with lots of paper napkins or pieces of kitchen towel to wipe sticky fingers.

They will vanish so fast you will be amazed (double the recipe next time!).



* Sichuan is the correct pinyin (romanised) Mandarin spelling of what was previously spelled Szechwan/Szechuan etc. Before pinyin was developed and standardised, many Chinese words were phonetically translated over 100 years ago using the Wade-Giles method, and that is why some people outside China still use the old spellings which are not really accurate.

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Hen duo shijian bu xin boke – Long time no blog!

By now you may have decided that I have disappeared for ever as it is a helluva long time since I wrote a blog post.

However I am still here, and the reason for the long blogging silence was the result of a  whole host of problems: poor health, rather too much travelling (China-UK-China, China-India-China), a major technical problem with my laptop, and last but most importantly the frigging powers that be here in the PRC.

I am going to have to phrase my words carefully here, but there are those in power in this place who do not want their citizens to have access to some of what is available on the interweb (you knew or suspected all this didn’t you?).

So when I first came here five years ago I discovered that my modest little former blog (The Three Rs: Reading, Ranting & Recipes) was blocked as were many other websites.  I quickly learnt that the way to get round this was to use a VPN (Virtual Proxy Network), and so I signed up for a free version. Nearly all ex-pats living here use VPNs and a few Chinese do so too.  After a month or so I realised that VPN was not doing the biz, so I signed up and paid for one of the best VPNs available – Astrill; and have used it successfully ever since. Until this January.  Astrill 1When we got back to BJ in late January, it became obvious that my internet access was being blocked at every turn.  At first I thought it was because of my laptop problem, but then friends here said they too were suffering the same hassles.

As far as I can gather, there is a department of the government who are determined to stop ANYONE in China accessing anything from outside that they don’t approve of (pictures of kittens are ok) as it might cause national instability. For crying in a bucket!! They have proudly trumpeted the way they have managed to stop some of the VPNs and the big one they wanted to hit was – you guessed it – Astrill.   Now it has become a cat-and-mouse Astrill 2game between the Chinese Cyberspace Administration and Astrill.

At the moment Astrill is winning – by a gnat’s crochet – but who knows for how long?

To rub salt into the wound – so to speak – Cyberspace Aministration of China released a song (a song!?) praising their own endevours, it was on TV here over the Chinese New Year  – you can hear it here.  To be fair, most Chinese just laugh when I ask about it, and say that when it came on they just changed channels.

BTW – whilst in India, my DD solved my laptop problem for me – hooray!

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Grass Mud Horse – banning puns in China

Warning! This blog post contains some obscene language, don’t read on if you are of  a sensitive disposition or easily offended.

At the beginning of December, the State General Administration of Press, Publication, Radio, Film and Television of the Chinese Government issued an order restricting puns and irregular wordplay on television, in classrooms, on the internet and in advertising. The international media picked this up and it was widely reported in the English-speaking world. As a result I received a flurry of emails from family and friends asking how/why any government would try to ban puns.  Here is my clumsy attempt to explain, trying to write it down has not been easy…

The Chinese language (by which I mean Mandarin, though it applies equally to other dialects such as Cantonese, Fujianese, Sichuanese etc) is rich in homophones and these lend themselves brilliantly to punning.  Indeed I have always considered that punning was an intrinsict characteristic of Chinese linguistic culture.  The British have always been great ‘punners’ and so we really understand and appreciate this when learning/speaking Chinese.  It has a long, long history which is the same as we have within spoken English.

The Chinese have taken to social media like ducks to water, using Weibo, WeChat and other platforms, and many millions of them have been blogging/tweeting/messaging about things here that the powers-that-be would rather they didn’t comment on and they have tried to shut down critical comment.  However Chinese internet users are a smart bunch and they have found many ways round the web-censors. One of these ways is to use puns.  Puns don’t usually show up when the censors are searching the web for specific word use which might be anti-government.  What follows is merely a single example:

The terms ‘Grass Mud Horse’ and ‘River Crab’ are perfect examples of this.  In Chinese the words grass mud horse 草泥alpaca 5马  said together, mean the South American animal ‘Alpaca’ (ie an Alpaca is a Grass Mud Horse).

The Chinese characters for an alpaca. 草泥马, sound exactly the same – ‘cao ni ma‘ -but are written differently from the characters for the phrase ‘fuck your mother..’  The characters for River Crab, 河蟹 , are written very differently from (but sound exactly the same – héxiè) as the characters for ‘harmonise’ 和谐 .grass-mud-horse 2

A few years back, the then PM of China. Hu Jintao declared that no-one should criticise the State, they should work towards ‘harmony’ as a nation.  The Chinese netizens quickly took up the word ‘harmony’ and ‘harmonised’ and used them to describe posts that were being censored….but they used the words River Crab rather than the word ‘harmonised’ which is a censored word on the Chinese internet.  Combined with the characters for ‘Alpaca’ ie Grass Mud Horse this was understood as a protest phrase meaning ‘Fuck your mother harmonised’

grass-mud-horseEventually the Chinese web censors got the hang of these puns and started wiping them out – so the netizens replaced them with pictures of Alpacas and River is an ongoing battle.

This is but one of many puns that have annoyed the powers-that-be, for a more detailed list, see here.

Puns and wordplay are interwoven into the language of China and used by authors, poets and common people alike.  When I started learning Mandarin, and was struggling with the four tones, a Chinese friend sent me a tongue-twister which goes:


This would be pronounced as: sì shi sì, shí shi shí, shísì shi shísì, sìshí shi sìshí, and translates as:”Four is four, ten is ten, fourteen is fourteen, forty is forty”  Trying to learn it drove me nearly crazy!


There is also a famous poem called ‘The Lion-eating Poet in the Stone Den‘  which uses 92 different words which are all pronounced in the same way but with different tones.YuanShikai President RoC 1912-1915

Banning puns is one battle I don’t think the mighty State will win. It is not the first time there has been an attempt to ban punning.  Back in 1912 Yuan Shi Kai,who became President of the first Republic of China after the Qing dynasty was toppled and Pu Yi removed from his role as the Emperor, also tried to have the use of puns prohibited.

He failed.

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Fish Fragrant Aubergine – My version

Chinese auberginesThe first thing you need to know about this dish is that no fishes are involved!  It has this name because the combination of ingredients and the method of making the dish are very similar to some fish recipes.  It is a famous dish from the province of Sichuan but is now served all over China.

To be honest, aubergines have never been one of my favourite vegetables (except for Baba Ghanoush) though I have tolerated them in moussaka, ratatouille etc. It wasn’t until I came to live in Beijing that I really started to appreciate them in their own right.  Now I have become quite a fan…

Fish Fragrant Aubergine is a flavoursome vegetarian dish, and would be served with three or four other dishes to make a Chinese meal. Moreover, it fits well into western meals as it is a great vegetable side dish for grilled pork chops/sausages etc.

This is my version of the famous dish, I have adapted it as the ‘real’ version involves deep-frying which I don’t do.  If you want to try the authentic recipe I suggest you look at one of Fuchsia Dunlop’s cookbooks , I refer to them all the time and  cannot recommend them more highly. She is THE western expert on  Chinese cooking in general and Sichuan cooking in particular.


Serves 4

2 or 3 aubergines – total weight approx 600g                                                                               Salt                                                                                                                                                   Vegetable oil                                                                                                                                             1 Tablespoon finely chopped fresh ginger                                                                                          2 cloves garlic, finely chopped                                                                                                              1 Tablespoon cornflour (corn-starch) slackend with 2 Tablespoons water                          100ml vegetarian stock                                                                                                                          1 Tablespoon light soy sauce                                                                                                                 1 Tablespoon (more if you like it spicy) chilli paste/sauce -NOT sweet chilli  sauce                 1 teaspoon sugar                                                                                                                                       1 Tablespoon dark Chinese rice vinegar – eg Shanxi vinegar.                                                                                                                                                                                    1 teaspoon sesame oil                                                                                                                            2 or 3 spring onions (scallions) green part only, finely sliced for garnish

Cut the aubergines in half length-wise, and then cut each half in half again. Cut these long pieces into even-sized bits, not too big.  Sprinkle with a little salt and leave in a colander for  approx 30mins to drain.Aubergine pieces

Heat a wok or large frying pan until very hot, add two or three Tablespoons of vegetable oil, then add some of the aubergine pieces, stir-fry for 3-4 minutes until soft and golden and remove to a side dish lined with kitchen paper to absorb any excess oil; keep doing this until all aubergine is cooked, adding a little more oil as and Cooking auberginewhen necessary.

Now add 2 tablespoons of oil to the pan, and when hot add the chilli paste, garlic and ginger; Fish fragrant aubergine ingredientsstir-fry for 2-3 minutes before adding the sugar, soy sauce and stock.  Mix well and let it all cook together for a few minutes.

Return the aubergine to the pan and stir together with the sauce. Now add the slackened cornflour and stir gently as it thickens. Stir in the vinegar and spring onions and allow it to cook down for 2 minutes or so.  Finally stir in the sesame oil.

Remove from the pan to a dish and serve immediately – although this dish is also good served at room temperature.


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Divorce Lawyers – they’re a big hit here.

A week or two ago I noticed something a little odd happening at the front entrance of our building. There was a group of young people (mostly young women) all standing with their backs to the entrance doors and taking selfies on their phones. That’s strange I thought, why here?  When I went inside I asked the concierge if he’d noticed and what it was about.  He told me proudly that they were fans of the new hit TV programme ‘Divorce Lawyers’ which started being broadcast in October.

Divorce Lawyers posterThat explained it.  ‘Divorce Lawyers’ 離婚律師 was filmed in our building earlier this year.  For six months we all had to put up with film crews, cables, cameramen, lighting rigs, vans, boxes of props, harassed production assistants shooing us out of the lobby, all three lifts being permanently full of production equipment so you had to wait ages to use them, noise at all hours of the day and night and so on.DivorceLawyers_Photo027 After the novelty of it wore off, the whole hoo-ha drove the residents nearly mad, and many had stand-up rows with the production team and/or complained vehemently to the manager of the building. Finally the filming was over, they all decamped and we forgot about it.

Now the series is showing on  It has become a HUGE hit, and every day fans are coming from far and wide – some from as far away as Malaysia – to stand where the stars stood and have their picture taken.

Divorce Lawyers is a romantic comedy in 46 one hour episodes.  The basic storyline is that a two lawyers who specialise in divorce (one male, one female) have both put broken relationships behind them and sworn to have nothing more to do with romance.

Yao ChenHowever, when the female lawyer Luo Li played by Yao Chen 姚晨 represents the wife in a contested divorce and the male lawyer Shi Haidong played by Wu Xiu Bo 吳秀波 represents the husband;wuxiubogq2 they get thrown together, find themselves living in adjoining apartments (in our building!)  and –  you guessed it – after a rather thorny time the inevitable happens and they find themselves falling in love. Needless to say the path of true love never does run smooth, and there are many twists and turns, and ups and downs before the inevitable happy ending.

Yao Chen and Wu Xiu Bo are megastars in the Chinese film firmament, and the series has already been downloaded 1.5 BILLION times. Everyone and their aunties all over the DivorceLawyers 4Chinese speaking world knows who they are, but we in the west have never heard of them.

Although I am not a film/TV fanatic by any means, I do know the names of most of the big stars in Hollywood and the UK and could probably put a face to them and so could many Chinese, as western movies are also watched in China.  However we in the west could not do the same for Chinese film stars despite the fact that they are watched by millions more people than any of  ‘our’ stars are. Yao Chen has more Weibo (Chinese version of Twitter/Facebook) followers than the entire population of the UK!                                            I am ashamed to say that the number of Chinese stars I know could be counted on one hand and I know them only because they have also acted in western films.

The western media rarely, if ever, covers Chinese films or Chinese TV series, they don’t get  dubbed into English, they are not distributed in our countries because the big Hollywood production companies control what is shown and they have been disinterested.  But that is changing, Tinseltown has woken up to the potential profit of selling films and film productions into China, and seem to think that they are so important that they will be given automatic entry…why do they expect that? China has a vibrant and thriving film industry of its own and has done for nearly a century, they are now using the latest technology to distribute their productions,  they are not going to fall over backwards in awe of what comes out of America and Europe.



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Salmon ‘fishing’ on the Great Wall of China

One section of the Great Wall of China runs along the peaks of the Yanshan mountains to the north of Beijing. In one of the ravines running down the southern side of the mountains, immediately below the wall, there is a fish farm which uses the pure mountain streams to keep the water in its tiers of open-air fish tanks clean and fresh.Salmon fishery

This fish hatchery is a very slick operation, started by a couple of Canadians some years ago, and aiming to provide fresh salmon for the local market and  for tourists visiting the Great Wall (when I say tourists I do not mean western visitors to China, I mean Chinese people who are exploring their own country), and there are thousands of visitors most days.

There is a cluster of buildings near the parking area, which includes several labs where the fish eggs are collected fertilised, hatched and incubated. Fish tanks 1The small fry are moved from indoor tank to tank as they grow until they are large enough to go to the outdoor area. Then the young fish move up the mountain-side from tank to tank as they increase in size/age.  Eventually they end up in pools at the upper-most level, where some people ‘fish’ for them with a crude rod and line.   Most fish in the pools are salmon, but there are also golden carp which are a very popular fish with Chinese diners.

Choosing your fish Other fish are in a tank where a chap with a pole and net will catch the fish chosen by the punter which they take away to be paid for.

There is another chap on duty who kills the fishKilling the fish by whacking it hard with a metal cudgel and then weighing it and charging accordingly.  Few people take the fresh fish home with them. The usual thing is to hand the fish over to the staff at one of the roadside diners where the fish is Weighing the fishfilleted, soaked in  various sauces and then grilled over hot coals.  Ten minutes at the most between the fish being netted and sitting down to eat it!

Cooking the fishFor many Chinese families no trip to the Great Wall would be complete without a fish lunch or supper washed down with bottles of local beer.

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Bodysnatchers in China

In Scotland during the early 1800s, there was a problem with ‘Bodysnatchers‘ or, as they were also called, ‘Resurrection Men’.  These people would remove recently buried corpses from graves by night, and sell them to surgeons at the medical schools in Edinburgh and Aberdeen for use in anatomy lectures. Resurrection-Men The need for cadavers was so great that two infamous chaps called Burke & Hare stopped merely robbing graves and started killing people in order to meet the demand. They were eventually caught and tried. Burke was excecuted in front of a crowd of 25,000 and his body was sent to be anatomised!  The case received a huge amount of publicity; Sir Walter Scott mentions it in one of his novels, and the author Robert Louis Stevenson wrote a short story inspired by it.

Here in China there has been a spate of ‘bodysnatching’ recently,  but for very different reasons to those in Georgian Scotland.

In China approximately 9 million bodies are interred in graves every year, and these huge numbers are now beginning to use up land available for agriculture and other purposes.


Being buried has always been of great cultural and religious significance in China.  In rural areas many people purchase their own coffins and grave clothes years in advance, and keep them in their homes ready for the day they will be needed.

Coffin stored in classroom of rural primary school.

Coffin stored in classroom of rural primary school.

89yr old Hunan woman has her coffin ready in her kitchen.

89yr old Hunan woman has her coffin ready in her kitchen.

Because it had become obvious that the country could not sustain this volume of land being used for graveyards, the powers-that-be have tried, right from the formation of the People’s Republic of China in 1949, to persuade the population to accept cremation as an alternative.

Indeed Mao Zedong himself committed to being cremated – in writing, way back in 1956 – however when he did eventually die, his followers completely ignored his wishes and had him embalmed and put on display, but that’s another story.

Last year in Henan province, local government caused consternation and outrage by flattening some 400,00 graves to make more agricultural land available.  Early this year, Anhui province in eastern China passed a local law making cremation compulsory after 1st June.  As a result six elderly people committed suicide in May so that they could be buried before the new law took effect. A fairly drastic un-intended consequence of the legislation.  But that was merely the start of things…

To ensure the policy was working, a government quota for the number of cremations was set  for each area – and this is where the bodysnatching comes in.  Local officials have been buying corpses from bodysnatchers and having them cremated in order to meet their target requirements!  Bodies have been snatched from other provinces and brought in to meet the demand.

But that is not all. There is another ancient reason for  bodysnatching in China.                    In two words:  Ghost Wives (cue spooky music..)  This is when a dead female body is ‘married’ to a man who may be alive, but may have pre-deceased her.                                        Despite the best efforts of the Chinese Communist Party government since 1949, the tradition of ‘Ghost Marriages has never died out completely.  In fact Ghost Marriages are illegal and carry a penalty of 3 years imprisonment. In 2007 ten men were sentenced for having sold female corpses for these rituals, and one man (shades of Burke & Hare) killed no fewer than 16 women in order to sell their bodies!

Despite its illegality, ancient beliefs die hard (excuse the pun).  The idea that a man who never marries and is buried alone will bring bad luck to his family for generations to come is a powerful incentive to break the law.   So a family may consider buying the corpse of a recently deceased woman (if the corpse is rotting it won’t do) and conducting a marriage ceremony before interring her with the dead bachelor to avoid bad luck, and they hope that the authorities will not find out.Ghost wife

Furthermore, it was always the way that a younger son could not marry until his older brother had been married. Sometimes, in order to make the marriage possible, the older bachelor brother will have a ‘Ghost Marriage’ with a corpse so that his younger brother is able to marry.

I do  hope you have been paying attention and got to grips with the complexities of marrying a cadaver – these things are never straightforward.

There is an old English expression that comes to mind:    ‘There’s nowt so queer as folk’

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