Tuesday, February 5, is Chinese New Year. The first Chinese restaurant in Northern Ireland, called the Peacock, opened in Belfast in 1962. Since then most towns and villages in the province have a Chinese restaurant or takeaway that’s an intrinsic part of the community.
My first experience of Chinese food was in the Manley restaurant in Ballymena. It was my 17th birthday and a group of school friends took me there to celebrate. They rang ahead and ordered a Peking duck for the table. To this day it’s one of the outstanding meals of my life.
A beautifully lacquered, bronze duck arrived at the table and was deftly carved and shredded. It was accompanied by thin Mandarin pancakes, perfectly cut strips of scallion and cucumber and a hoisin sauce to dip. This was 1984 in Ballymena and I didn’t think my life would ever get more exciting! Peking duck is still one of my favourite dishes.
When I went to Johnson and Wales University in Rhode Island a couple of years later, I learnt how to make Peking duck in an Oriental Kitchen class. It involved blowing the duck up with a bicycle pump with a syringe at the end (to separate the skin from the meat), drying it in front of a fan for 24 hours, roasting it slowly and glazing it frequently.
It took days to produce, but was worth it for the sense of accomplishment and the taste took me straight back to Manley’s.
My first recipe is for a simpler roast duck recipe, but with all the taste. Boiling water with a tablespoon of vinegar is poured over the duck first which will make it crispier when roasted. After roasting for an hour it’s glazed with maltose and vinegar for a delicious sweet sour coating. Maltose is the secret ingredient the Chinese use in Peking duck. It’s available in health food shops or Asian supermarkets.
I’ve included a recipe for plum sauce – ideal if you have some in your freezer or use fresh. The zingy, gingery sauce is perfect with the crisp, rich bird.
When I first moved back to Northern Ireland in the mid 1990s one of the first things I sought out was a good Asian supermarket. Asia Market on the Ormeau Road was my go to place for everything Oriental. It was a real hub for the local Chinese community and everyone else. It has since moved to shiny new premises on the Ormeau Embankment near the Ravenhill Road, but has still retained its buzz and amazing array of ingredients. They now also have an excellent café upstairs.
When I first visited the one thing that struck me was the quality of the Chinese vegetables, pak choi and tatsoi. How did they retain their verdant sparkle having flown across the world? The answer was they’d actually been grown in a massive tunnel in the hills above Glarryford outside Ballymena.
Local farmer Robin Cherry has been growing Chinese greens for years and they’re now available in supermarkets too. They have beautifully leaves with a sparkling white, crunchy stem. They require little cooking and are nutritious to boot.
My other recipe is for pak choi, blistered in a hot pan with scallions and an oyster sauce dressing.
Happy year of the pig!