Last time I was in Beijing, about 3 years ago, I went to a morning cooking class. What stuck in my mind was the side dishes that the instructor whipped up to go with our fried dumplings and rice cakes. She bashed a cucumber and garlic in an old wooden mortar and pestle, shiny with use, and sprinkled the tiniest amount of salt over the mixture. That was it, really. It was delicious in an early September heatwave one can only have in Beijing.
The other thing she taught us was making chilli oil. Teach isn’t really the right word, since the concept and execution was so simple. Heat up some neutral flavoured vegetable oil (I usually use peanut oil) until it’s very hot, pour over dried chillies that have been placed in a heatproof vessel, like a miniature clay pot or ceramic bowl. Listen to the oil sizzle and smell the spicy aroma. After a couple of hours, you will have home made chilli oil. It was a ta-da! moment.
I’ve been using the chilli oil in all manner of things, dumplings, simple pasta sauce, omelettes, stir fries, and this chilli radish/daikon concoction.
The last week saw a last burst of glorious weather. It was, once again, a time to pick at food lazily while waiting for dinner to start. It was time for a salad that piques your appetite without sending you back to a siesta.
One of our go-to salads at the moment comes from SBS Australia, via Northern China and Fuchsia Dunlop. It is as simple as I want it to be, yet can also jazz it up for company.
The salad dressing is the real star. Punchy, hello-there-perky, irresistibly bright, like Clara Oswin Oswald in the new Dr Who series. It is a heady combination of chilli oil, gorgeous roasted sesame oil, and sugar and soy sauce. I have added a splash of black rice vinegar and fish sauce to the mix, though the dressing is already full of surprising moments when the flavours collide. The simplest version of this salad only has radishes, lightly marinaded in a chilli-sesame dressing. It’s the kind of salad that wouldn’t think twice about travelling through time/space or facing down a battalion of Daleks.
If I am organised about making this salad, I prefer to use equal amounts of daikon (white radishes) and red radishes. The daikon adds a milder note, sweeter, less peppery, especially after its “raw” taste has been removed by the dressing. On occasion, I’ve added smashed garlic or cucumbers, and topped the salad with shallots and coriander. With daikon, coriander and shallots folded through, the flavours become a little more nuanced, wistful, more a young Amelia Pond, if you will.
Either way, it is a quick way to use up home made chilli oil or a good reason to make a new batch.
We served this to a couple of people who were over for a beer and a chat. The radishes made a surprisingly good beer snack. Though I don’t think they will replace beer nuts and chips.
Radish cracking notes: The recipe asks you to crack radishes open a cleaver, or a rolling pin. I have to confess to an inability to crack radishes elegantly with a cleaver. I sent a couple of radishes flying across the counter, then tried doing this with a mortar and pestle. Then, I cut the radishes with a knife instead. Maybe Fuchsia has a steadier hand than I, or more obedient radishes.
Chilli radishes / daikons / cucumbers
(adapted from a range of sources, primarily Fuchsia Dunlop’s recipe published on SBS Australia. Recipe from Fuchsia Dunlop’s book, Recipe from Every Grain of Rice: Simple Chinese Home Cooking)
2 bunches small red radishes, or one bunch red radishes and a roughly equal chunk of daikon (white Chinese radish)
3/4 tsp salt
1 tsp castor/ granulated sugar
2 tbsp light soy sauce (use a good one; dark soy will add colour, but tends to be too salty/heavy)
2 tbsp chilli oil with their sediments
1/2 tsp toasted sesame oil
Optional dressing: 1 tablespoon black rice vinegar, 1 teaspoon fish sauce
Optional salad: diced cucumber, coriander leaves, thinly sliced shallots (spring onions)
1. If you are coordinated, lightly crack open the radishes with a kitchen tool: the side of a cleaver, mortar and pestle, a rolling pin. If not, cut the radishes in half or quarters. If using daikons and cucumbers, cut daikons into thick batons, slice cucumbers. Set cucumbers aside.
2. Put the radishes and daikons (if using) in a bowl, add salt, and toss until most pieces are coated. Set aside for 30 minutes.
3. Thinly slice the shallots, if using. Wipe, or wash and dry, the coriander leaves.
4. Stir or whisk together sugar and soy sauce in a small bowl. Add the chilli and sesame oils, and other condiments if using, stir or whisk together.
5. Drain the radishes, daikons, cucumbers, and dry them in a colander. Add dressing and toss well.
Serve: immediately, or let the flavours mingle for half an hour or so. Keep in mind the vegetables will become softer over time.