Inspired by the arrival of spring, these recipes from Tony Tan speak to a lighter style of cooking with a twist on classic dishes from China, Taiwan and Vietnam.
As a Malaysian-born Chinese person, I didn’t really grasp the whole four seasons thing until I came to Australia; growing up, we had hot and wet and hot and wetter. But over the years of living here, I have acclimatised, and my understanding has deepened greatly since I moved to closer to the bush. Now the songs of the magpies and currawongs say to me that spring is upon us.
When the broad beans, asparagus and peas in my veggie patch are ready for picking, I can’t help but be excited by the possibilities they create. Shall I stir-fry the broad beans with lup yuk, the cured belly pork flavoured with soy sauce? Or mash them like the cooks do in Shanghai? Or toss them with steamed eggplant? And the asparagus – believed to be introduced by the French to Indo-China and now beloved across Asia – shall I cook it with morels, as I had it in Yunnan province years ago, stir-fried with lard and spring onion? It was fantastic – I’ve adapted that dish to make it with shiitake mushrooms and it’s just as delectable.
On days when the sun only just peeps through the clouds and a cool southerly blast is a reminder that winter is not quite over, I draw inspiration from our local seafood. A trip to the fishmonger yields crab, calamari and mussels from our Southern Ocean, and my mind turns to three-cup calamari, a take on the famed three-cup chicken from Taiwan. Or shall I tap on a dish I’ve inherited from my mother, the rustic and full-flavoured crab soup? Simple to prepare, it comprises pickled Chinese mustard greens, with chillies, tomato, ginger and a handful of coriander.
Then there’s my all-time favourite – slow-cooked beef brisket. Soulful and earthy, this much-loved dish is made with star anise, cinnamon, bay leaves, Sichuan pepper and some dried tangerine peel I’ve made when tangerines are in season.
It is usually enjoyed on its own but with some chilli sauce, it goes perfectly with rice, noodles or even pasta.
On the days when spring feels like summer, noodles served chilled or at room temperature are great options. I still thrill to the memory of tucking into a bowl of thin wheat noodles on a terrace in the French Concession in Shanghai. Simple and immensely delicious with soft and crunchy textures, this refreshing noodle salad combined cucumber, spring onion and ginger with a tangy dressing made with Chinkiang vinegar, roasted sesame paste and soy sauce.
This modest collection of dishes are some favourites I love eating in spring. Some of them are more involved, and some are a snap. But all of them, I hope, capture the scents and sensations of the flavours of Asia and the pleasure of seasonal cooking.