Isol-Asian cooking: pantry staple Chinese recipes from an unemployed chef
Before the collapse of the hospitality industry, I worked for three and a half years as a senior chef at Dinner by Heston Blumenthal.
I’ve been spending my time in lockdown excessively cooking and documenting each recipe, using only the pantry staples that I’ve had available and some fresh produce. I passed some of these recipes along to a friend, Joanna Hu – a self-taught illustrator and calligrapher – who reimagined them in dreamy watercolours.
This collaboration has resulted in a collection of quirky Chinese recipes written and illustrated to the backdrop of the Centrelink hold music: The Isol(Asian) Cookbook.
Prep 20 min
Cook 10 min
Classic prawn toast is a dim sum favourite. My version takes it up several notches to a buttery, garlicky, prawny delight – with little guanciale flavour bombs scattered throughout. It sounds intense but a fresh squeeze of lemon and a little herbaceous note of dill do the job of balancing all that richness.
For the prawn paste
120g raw prawns, shelled and deveined
40g minced pork
5g ginger, grated
1 tsp cornstarch
2 tsp fish sauce
½ tsp white pepper
½ tsp salt
20g guanciale or fatty pancetta, very finely diced
20g dill, finely chopped
½ lemon zest
For the confit garlic
2 tbsp olive oil
2 cloves garlic, finely minced
4 slices white bread
2 cups vegetable oil
Warm the olive oil in a small pan and add the garlic. Cook on a low heat until the garlic is soft, and set aside to cool.
Place prawns, guanciale, pork mince, ginger, cornstarch, fish sauce, white pepper, and salt into a food processor and blitz to a paste. Stir the confit garlic, dill and lemon zest through to combine.
Cut each slice of bread into four triangles. Spread the prawn mixture thickly over each piece and set aside.
Heat vegetable oil to 180°C, and deep-fry in small batches until golden brown. Drain using a slotted spoon, and eat with a squeeze of lemon juice.
Creamy tofu noodles
Prep 10 min
Cook 5 min
In the western world, tofu is terribly misunderstood. Its appeal lies in its fragile texture; soft silky curds which give in to the gentlest pressure. Here, the smooth, blended tofu wraps the noodles in a weightlessly creamy blanket, cooling your tastebuds through the salty, spicy dressing.
400g thin dried wheat noodles
1 container firm tofu
¼ tsp salt
¼ tsp sugar
For the dressing
1 tbsp light soy
1 tbsp water
1 tsp Chinkiang vinegar
1 tsp grated ginger
1 tsp grated garlic
1 red chilli, chopped
1 green chilli, chopped
1 spring onion, chopped
2 coriander stems, chopped
½ tbsp sesame seeds
Bring a large pot of water to boil and cook the noodles as per the instructions. Drain, rinse in cool water, and set aside.
Remove the tofu from the packaging, leaving behind any water. Break it into pieces and place into a blender or food processor. Blitz with the salt and sugar, adding a tablespoon of water at a time to help it along. Blend until completely smooth, similar to the consistency of mayonnaise.
Drain the noodles thoroughly and toss them through the blended tofu. Mix all of the ingredients for the dressing together in a small bowl, and spoon it over the top of the noodles. Serve immediately, and mix thoroughly before eating.
Lazy XO sauce
Prep 30 min
Cook 1 hr
XO sauce is a Hong Kong invention. Curiously named after XO Cognac, it contains no alcohol but is a misnomer to denote the prestige and luxury of its ingredients. Making XO sauce is both expensive and incredibly time-consuming. The dried seafood must be rehydrated overnight, and the ingredients hand-chopped for perfect mouth-feel and bite.
I’ve made this sauce properly in the past in restaurants. At home I don’t have the patience, and I don’t want to use my wine money. If we can take the most important characteristics from XO sauce – spicy, oceanic, smoky and heavy with umami – the magnificence of XO sauce can be replicated with ingredients that are a little easier to come by, and for a little less effort.
30g small dried prawns
2 dried chillies
2 tsp shaoxing wine
200g vegetable oil
40g prosciutto, cut into small chunks
8 cloves garlic, finely chopped
4 shallots, finely chopped
3 red chillies, finely chopped
2 tbsp oyster sauce
2 tbsp brown sugar
Place the prawns, dried chillies and shaoxing wine in a heat-proof bowl. Fill with enough water to just cover, approximately 100ml. Microwave on high for one minute, remove from microwave and rest on the bench for 10 minutes, for the prawns and chillies to rehydrate. Strain and reserve the water.
Place the rehydrated prawns and chillies into a food processor with the prosciutto and blitz until the mixture resembles breadcrumbs.
In a large pot, heat the oil on a medium heat and gently fry the garlic, shallots and fresh chillies until fragrant. Add the ground prawn/prosciutto mix and continue to fry, stirring constantly for five or so minutes. Carefully add the reserved water with a pinch of salt.
Cook on a low heat for 25-30 minutes until the water has completely evaporated. Add the oyster sauce and brown sugar, and cook for 10 more minutes. Remove from heat, and allow to infuse overnight before use.
Active prep 20 min
Setting time 4 hrs
Cook 20 min
Fried milk? No, it’s not molecular gastronomy. It’s just the literal translation of 炸鮮奶 zha xian nai, a southern Chinese dessert of delicate milk custard encased in a crispy, golden batter.
This lovely treat is usually made by thickening milk with cornflour (hence the name). Personally, I prefer the rich flavour and texture (wobble) of a western egg custard, which I’ve chosen to use in this recipe instead. Custard is a glorious example of culinary perfection. Deep-frying takes it to a level of godliness.
Eat each batch immediately after frying. If left to sit, they will go soggy. I eat them straight out of the fryer, often burning my mouth in the process.
For the custard
4 egg yolks
50g caster sugar
For the batter
150g self-raising flour (or 150g plain flour with 2 tsp baking powder)
½ tsp salt
250ml cold sparkling water, plus more as required
Vegetable oil, for deep-frying
Plain flour, for dusting
Whisk half of the milk with the cornstarch until it is completely dissolved and free of lumps. Add in the egg yolks and whisk thoroughly to combine.
Heat the remaining milk in a medium pan and add the sugar. Stir gently to dissolve the sugar on medium heat, until the milk is just about to boil.
Gently pour the hot milk into the egg mixture, while whisking continuously with your dominant hand. Do this a little bit at a time until fully combined. Return the mixture into the pan, and bring to boil over medium heat. Use a rubber spatula to stir until the mixture thickens, about two to three minutes. Take care to keep the sides of the pot clean by scraping the sides down as you stir.
Immediately pour the mixture into a 10cm by 15cm baking pan, lightly greased with oil. Cover the surface with baking paper and smooth flat. Refrigerate for at least 4 hours to set completely.
Make the batter by combining the dry ingredients, and adding the sparkling water, a little at a time, and whisking until smooth. Fill a deep pot with oil, at least 1/3 full and heat to 180C. Gently prise the set custard away from the baking pan on to a cutting board, and cut into 10 even pieces.
Dust half the custards in plain flour, and coat evenly in the batter. Gently tap off the excess and deep fry for two to three minutes until golden. Turn the custards frequently to ensure even cooking. Remove using a slotted spoon, and drain the excess oil on a stainless steel rack. Repeat with the rest of the custards, and serve immediately.