The Food and Pandas of Sichuan


It is a lucky person who gets to see a giant panda in the wild. One of the only ways to do so is to visit the Sichuan province in China. It will also enable you to discover one of the world’s great cuisines.

The cuddle-some image of a panda has ousted the dragon as a symbol of China. You can find panda images printed on T-shirts, through rucksacks to toys. In China the panda was one of mascots for the Beijing Olympics and nowadays it seem to pop up everywhere, except in the wild where it has become very rare.

Indeed, one of the few surveys of pandas in the wild, which was completed in 12 months spanning 2003 and 2004, estimated there were just 1,600 of this endangered species still living in the wild. That was prior to the Sichuan earthquake and predates China’s massive tourism boom so it’s safe to assume numbers have dwindled further. Of the wild pandas that remain, 80% live in northern Sichuan.

Sichuan province is in China’s south-west. It has two panda-breeding centres as well as an area of protected wilderness for wild pandas to survive. The name Sichuan translates as Four Rivers and refers to four of the rivers that weave through snow-capped mountains here.

The province’s capital is Chengdu, which is famous for its fiery cuisine. It is a five hour flight from Beijing. The Research Base at Chengdu is among the world’s largest panda reserves. It is also an artificial-insemination breeding centre.

About 50 giant pandas live in the Research Base. Their homes are protected pens set in bamboo woods and groves. If you are a tourist who wants to see pandas ‘in the wild’ this is where you will be taken. Young pandas enjoy specially constructed adventure playgrounds. Here they snooze on tree stumps, gambol and roly-poly with one another, or crunch on bamboo shoots.

The food of Sichuan is regarded as one of the world’s great cuisines. It includes classics like Mapo Tofu, and Gong Bao Chicken. It’s traditional here to have an exciting spread of cold dishes, including Green Beans in Ginger Sauce, Bang Bang Chicken, and Spiced Cucumber Salad.

The soup that is common here is Suan La Tang (Sichuan Hot & Sour Soup). It is particularly popular during the cold of winter. It was developed to feed poor people and keep them warm. Traditionally is uses lots of white pepper and chicken and pork stock.

The ingredients for an authentic Suan La Tang  are:

  • 3dried thinly sliced shiitake mushrooms soaked in hot water
  • 1/4cup dried and shredded wood ear mushrooms again soaked in hot water
  • 50g shredded pork
  • 4shredded bamboo shoots
  • 1/3shredded carrot
  • 1thumb shredded ginger
  • 3tbsp black vinegar
  • 2tsp ground white pepper
  • 5cups chicken stock
  • 50gsoft tofu
  • 1tsp dark soy sauce
  • 2tbsp light soy sauce
  • salt to taste
  • 1/2tbsp sugar
  • 1large beaten egg
  • sesame oil to drizzle
  • chopped spring onions and coriander leaves

Pork marinate

  • 1/4tsp sugar
  • 2tsp light soy sauce
  • 1tsp corn starch
  • 1/4tsp salt

Starch water

  • 3tbsp corn starch
  • 3tbsp water


  1. Prepare the pork by marinating pork shreds in the light soy sauce, with sugar, cornstarch and salt and mixing well.
  2. Heat a wok and add the carrots, the bamboo shoots, the wood ear mushrooms, shiitake mushrooms and ginger shreds then add the stock and bring to a boil before lowering the temperature and simmering for 15 minutes.
  3. Add the soy sauces along with the sugar and salt and continue to cook for another two minutes.
  4. Add the shredded tofu and the pork shreds and stir when the contents come to the boil again.
  5. Stir the cornstarch and water and pour into the soup. It will thicken as the liquid heats up.
  6. Drizzle in the beaten egg. For smaller flowers stir quickly. For larger flowers stir roughly.
  7. Add the black vinegar and the white pepper and turn off immediately.
  8. Finally add the chopped spring onions and coriander and drizzle a little sesame oil on top.


If you are short of time, Ainsley Harriott does a passable, if meat-free, instant Szechuan hot & sour cup soup with tomato, leek, carrot, and a kick of chilli that’s available in most supermarkets. To make this even more palatable I recommend adding a small amount of diced carrots and fresh tomatoes with a pinch of red pepper flakes and a few slices of fresh green or red chilli.

By the way, predictions that China could become the world’s most visited tourist destination has  encouraged the WWF to put effort into establishing panda corridors in the wilderness areas that are diminishing like Tudiling and Wanglang.

In the absence of mates from another gene pool and their food sources becoming increasingly rare, the ability of pandas to exist in the wild is being threatened.


The Autumn is upon us, time for something cheesy, rich and satisfying


September, the ninth month of the Gregorian calendar, but the seventh in the Roman calendar from which it takes its name, is when the weather starts to cool.

Today, Meteorological Autumn is upon us. Astronomical Autumn has yet to come. But it is the month of blackberries, potatoes, courgettes, aubergines, onions, and tomatoes.

As the abundance of summer’s flowers and forage die off, milk tends to become grassier so real cheeses (rather than the mass produced versions) change in flavour. As the cold weather encroaches butterfat and proteins start to jump.

The beginning of Meteorological Autumn on September 1 also marks International Bacon Day. The celebration began in 2000 when a group of students in Massachusetts deemed the flavour so delicious that bacon deserved its own holiday. They were probably right.

The average temperature is now around 16°C and as the month progresses, temperatures will decrease even further. It’s time to start thinking about cooking some warming food, and what could be better than an unctuous bowl of Tartiflette. If you have a stomach for potatoes, bacon, and cheese then there is nothing like this dish that originated in the 18th-century but recently got a shot in its arm.

Nowadays the dish is traditionally made with Reblochon cheese because the marketers at Union Interprofessional Reblochon decided it would be a glorious way of boosting sales of this rich cow’s cheese.

I have decided, therefore, that it is no sacrilege to combine the other traditional ingredients with much easier to locate creamy tangy Brie. Mixed with the smoked bacon lardons and potatoes it makes for an unusual but no less appealing twist.


  • 2 teaspoons vegetable oil
  • 300g smoked lardons
  • 1 thinly sliced large onion
  • 5g fresh thyme leaves
  • 284ml Double Cream
  • 300ml milk
  • 3.5cl white wine
  • 1 clove crushed garlic
  • 1kg thinly sliced potatoes, such as Albert Bartlett Roosters
  • 250g thinly sliced Brie


  1. Preheat the oven to around 180°C and lightly grease an ovenproof dish of about 1.5-litre. Heat oil in a frying pan and fry the onion and lardons on a medium heat for about 5 minutes until they start browning.
  2. Prepare the thyme leaves, keeping a few back for garnish. Place the herb, cream, and milk in a large saucepan. When this starts to simmer, add the potatoes, and cover and cook for 5 minutes.
  3. Prepare the lardons by sautéing with a knob of butter, add the sliced onions and cook on a low heat for 5 minutes. Then add the white wine and crushed garlic clove and cook for 3 minutes. Then add this sauté to the potatoes and season with freshly ground black pepper.
  4. Place half the potato infusion in the base of the prepared dish, and top with half the sliced cheese. Repeat, ensuring you finish with a layer of cheese.
  5. Bake in the oven for around 45 minutes or until the potatoes are tender, and the top is golden and bubbling. Garnish with thyme and serve with a crisp green salad and chunks of Sour Dough bread.

Cook’s tips

You can assemble all of this so it’s ready for the final cooking several hours ahead of even the day before. When it’s cool, cover with clingfilm and leave in the fridge until needed. Because you are cooking straight from the fridge, when you have removed the clingfilm cook for an hour (ie an extra 15 minutes).

Celebrate Spring

The weather may have warmed up, but this is no time to put away the pot for preparing soup. This is a time when a bounty of fresh, colourful vegetables show up at the market, ready to combine with ingredients we have had in our winter store cupboards. To cheer us all up, it’s time to showcase some of these delicate and vibrant flavours of the season.

Sun-Dried Tomato Tortellini Soup

Tomato & tortellini soupIn the 1990s sun-dried tomatoes were very much considered “in”. It was almost impossible to escape them. If you recall, they were turning up everywhere from pizza shops to trendy restaurants, in everything from salads to the most ornate garnishes.

Food snobs like me turned our noses up with a stubborn flourish. We considered this product, with its sour, chewy, pungent taste, an ill-conceived food fad. It was also about the same time that shop-bought tortellini was invading the country – and we disdained these too.

Ring-shaped pasta stuffed with meat, cheese, vegetables, or a combination of all three, were supposed be made by hand, not formed by a machine rolling and slicing dough into flat squares and then filling and folding these into perfectly symmetrical rings.

How wrong I was!?!? Age and time are great levellers, and as we get on in years – and slow down ourselves – we realise how damn important speed and efficiency can be.

These products were never for spurning. I should have been much more willing to applaud. Used in the right way they can contribute to making the every day seem much more interesting without too much as an ounce of effort.

After all, tomatoes were first salted and dried by the Aztecs in 700BC, but we have to thank the Italians for turning sun-dried tomato production into an art form on an industrial scale. Typically, the fruit spends up to 10 days in the sun. The cherry type loses 88% of its fresh weight, while larger ones shed up to 93% during the process. One kilogramme of sun-dried tomatoes is derived from around 10kg of fresh ones – but the nutritional value remains the same.

As June to October is the tomato season, spring is the perfect time to pull out a jar of the sun-dried variety, especially if you are minded to make this easy soup. It beats the basic version every single time.

  • 170g (6 oz) chopped sun-dried tomatoes, packed in oil (reserve oil as well)
  • 1 tbsp. tomato paste
  • 1 garlic clove, smashed
  • 170g (6 oz) chopped onion
  • 1 carrot, chopped
  • 1 tsp. sugar
  • 900ml (32 oz). vegetable or chicken stock, low-sodium
  • 340g (12 oz). crushed tomatoes
  • 1 tsp. salt
  • 1/2 tsp. freshly ground black pepper
  • 225g (8 oz). cheese tortellini
  • 2 tbsp. cold, unsalted butter
  • 170g (6 oz) heavy cream
  • 141g (5 oz). baby spinach
  • freshly grated Parmesan
  • 85g (3 oz) chopped parsley
  1. In a large pot over medium heat, add the sun-dried tomatoes and some of its oil, tomato paste, garlic, onion, and carrots.
  2. Sauté for about 3 minutes until tender. Add sugar, stock, crushed tomatoes, 1 teaspoon salt, and 1/2 teaspoon black pepper.
  3. Bring to a boil and simmer for 15 minutes.
  4. Purée soup using a hand blender or carefully pour into a kitchen-top blender and process in batches if necessary.
  5. Meanwhile, in a large pot cook the tortellini according to package instructions.
  6. When ready add tortellini, cold butter and stir until creamy. Then add the heavy cream, and spinach and mix until the spinach leaves are wilted and the tortellini is warmed through.
  7. Garnish with grated parsley and Parmesan and serve immediately.

Nutraceuticals: can food-in-a-pill really cure common illnesses?

fresh-garlicGinseng, garlic, and glucosamine are extracts from common foods that have come to be known as “nutraceuticals” and can supposedly be used to prevent or relieve some illnesses that are all too common.

The medical definition of a nutraceutical is any foodstuff – either food that has been fortified or developed as a dietary supplement – that is considered to provide medical or health benefits on top of its basic nutritional value. Nutraceuticals are also sometimes referred to as functional food.

In many countries nutraceuticals, minerals and vitamins come in the category of natural health products, but health professionals are aware that nutraceuticals can produce medicinal effects that go beyond basic nutrition.

While it’s obviously convenient to be able to take a pill with a particular food’s health benefits, being “natural” doesn’t always equate to being harmless. Natural substances can become very complicated when they are processed. And because the final products can vary greatly from brand to brand it’s tough for a health care professional to recommend how much and how often to take a particular nutraceutical.

It’s early days for a lot of nutraceutical research and what is being discovered is that while certain types may be good for one person, they can adverse effects in others, and the advice from health professionals is it’s good to talk to your doctor about possible interactions with other medicines and potential side effects.

I wanted to put some of the most popular under the microscope and this is what I found:


Conjugated linoleic acid (CLA)

Conjugated linoleic acid (CLA) is present in beef, dairy products, poultry and eggs. It’s a fatty acid that is usually bought as either a tablet or a capsule.


The claim is that it encourages weight loss by reducing body fat and halting weight gain.


One analysis published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition back in 2007 found that CLA did lead to very modest fat reduction  – of about 0.2 lbs a week – when compared to a placebo group. In a year taking CLA could lead to someone losing more than 10 lbs in a year.

However, some studies have uncovered impaired blood vessel function and increased blood inflammation markers.

One 2008 study, published in the Journal of Lipid Research,  discovered accumulations of fat in the liver, which can have a part to play in insulin resistance and diabetes.


So while CLA may encourage a small amount of weight loss, it’s no substitute for cutting down food intake and increasing exercise.



Dehydrated or aged garlic can be bought as a pill, oil or powder.


Cholesterol and blood pressure can be reduced.


It has long been believed that garlic has the power to reduce cholesterol, but one 2007 study in the Archives of Internal Medicine, which gave a garlic supplement, raw garlic or a placebo to 192 people diagnosed with moderately high cholesterol levels over six months, found that everyone’s cholesterol levels stayed exactly the same.

When it comes to blood pressure, an investigation reported in BMC Cardiovascular Disorders (2008) discovered that people with high blood pressure who took a garlic supplement saw an average of 8.4 mm Hg reduction in their systolic pressure and a 7.3 mm Hg reduction in diastolic pressure, which is not dissimilar to the levels that can be achieved with medication designed to reduce blood pressure.

Garlic thins the blood, so for anyone taking blood-thinning medication or approaching an operation, it would be sensible to seek medical advice. It has also been found that garlic pills can reduce the birth control pill effectiveness as well as medicine prescribed to treat HIV.


If garlic pills are able to lower cholesterol it is by a very modest amount and the pills should be taken with other medications like statins and changes in exercise and diet. For them to have effects on blood pressure the daily dose needs to be between around 600 and 900mg.



Ginseng comes from drying the root of the plant that shares its name. There are two types:  Asian (Panax ginseng) & North American (Panax quinqu- folium) and they are generally sold as capsules.


Ginseng is supposed to reduce blood sugar levels.


University of Toronto researchers found in 2008 that participants who had their type 2 diabetes well under control and ingested a ginseng supplement over a 12-weeks period did report improved blood glucose levels, compared to their fellow diabetics who took just a placebo.

Diabetics and people who use blood thinners are advised to talk to their doctor before starting to take ginseng, especially as different brands have different effects


Diabetics who are able to control their blood sugar levels with diet and medication and diet can consider adding ginseng 1gm three times a day as part of their meal-covering regime.



Glucosamine is an amino sugar – derived from the outer shells of lobsters, crabs and shrimps (chitin) – that is a constituent of the cartilage that protects joints. It is most commonly is sold as a capsule or tablet.


Glucosamine relieves stiffness and pain and slows progression in cases of osteoarthritis.


Research has found that people with moderate to severe pain enjoyed increased pain relief taking a glucosamine supplement over a six month period but people with only mild pain barely noticed a difference. This large study was revealed in The New England Journal of Medicine in 2006. These results were supported by another 25 studies between 1980 and 2004, published by The Cochrane Library.


Try glucosamine for about three months and stick with it if you think it’s benefitting you. Otherwise, save your money.


Think again: tasty ways with chicken that you may be tempted to throw away

With people reckoned to be throwing out the equivalent of 86 million chickens every year I thought we could all do with a little reminder of all the tasty things we can do with those leftovers that are too easy to put in the bin.

The research into our household food and waste – who would want a job looking at that? – estimates that UK households like ours are chucking out as much as 4.2 million tonnes of food and drink annually.

That’s equivalent to six meals every week for the average home.

To help us all cut down on this wasteful behavior, here are some chicken recipes for our leftovers. They are as fail safe as I can make them:


Soup with herbs, chicken & butter beans

This uses inexpensive ingredients to enhance your left overs


1 leftover chicken carcass, plus 225g meat, plus 1½ litres chicken stock

2 tbsp olive oil

2 onions, chopped

6 carrot, chopped

3-4 sprigs rosemary, leaves picked and chopped

3-4 sprigs sage, leaves picked and chopped

3-4 sprigs thyme, leaves picked and chopped

2 tsp ground cumin

2 tsp ground coriander

1 tsp turmeric

1 tbsp plain flour

400g can butter bean, drained

crusty bread, to serve


Place leftover chicken carcass in a large saucepan, Cover with two litres of water. Bring to the boil, then cover and simmer for 20 minutes. While waiting, heat oil in another large pan and  add the onions.

Cook for 10 mins until the onions start to caramelise. Add the chopped herbs, carrots, spices and flour, and stir for a couple of minutes. This will toast the spices.

Strain the carcass’s cooking liquid into the vegetables. Stir, cover and simmer for 30 minutes.

Add the meat back into the soup, along with the butter beans, season and cook for a further couple of minutes.

Use a hand-held blender or food processor to blitz the soup to your favoured consistency.  Season with extra pepper, and serve with good crusty bread.


Chicken noodle salad

This is such a simple way of making your chicken go so much further


4 cooked chicken legs

400g soba noodles

½ tsp wasabi paste

1½ tbsp soy sauce

3 tbsp sesame oil

juice 1 lemon

good pinch of sugar

1 red chilli, finely chopped

6 spring onions, sliced diagonally

large pack coriander, leaves only


Shred the chicken leg meat, discarding the bones (the skin can be placed on baking parchment and roasted in the oven until crisp). Boil a pan of water  and cook the noodles as per the packet instructions. Drain the noodles and cool under cold running water.

Mix the wasabi, soy sauce, sesame oil, lemon juice and sugar until the sugar dissolves.

Toss the noodles with the dressing and arrange on a serving plate. Top with the chicken, chilli, spring onions and coriander.


Chicken with olives and tomatoes

This is such an impressive one-pot dish for summer – and so easy!


20g pack basil

2 tbsp oil

2 garlic clove, sliced

2 x 400g or 14oz cans cherry tomatoes

1 tsp sugar

handful of your favourite olives

sliced meat from a cooked chicken, plus any juices

crusty bread, to serve


Chop the basil stalks and shred most of the leaves. Heat two tablespoons of oil in a frying pan, and soften two thinly sliced garlic cloves with the basil stalks for three minutes or so.

Tip in the two  400g cans of cherry tomatoes, with one teaspoon of sugar and the basil shreds.

Bring this to a boil, and simmer for 15 minutes until it’s educed but still saucy. Season to your taste and add a handful of the olives with the sliced chicken and any juices. Gently stir. Simmer for a further two minutes, scatter with any remaining basil leaves, and serve with crusty bread.

Superchef with a Supermarket Trolley

This is an occasional blog post with simple ideas for enhancing the everyday stuff you can buy into something special.

When Drinking Cider Do As The Romans Do


When the Romans arrived in England in 55 BC, they apparently discovered Kentish villagers drinking a boozy beverage made from apples. The records show that these Romans and their leader, Julius Caesar, embraced the activity with enthusiasm. More recently it was established that pouring cider over ice makes the drink much more refreshing. Well here’s another twist that’s worth a try. If you like your cider to taste of fresh apples – just add a handful of diced apple to your glass. It really makes a welcome difference to the plain old brew.

London: the Capital of Con-Fusion food?

What has happened to the food served in an increasing number of restaurants in London?

It was bad enough when Fusion cuisine began its infiltration of the capital’s kitchens back in the 1970s, combining elements of different culinary traditions. For the 20 years that followed it was, although queer in some cases and an acquired taste in others (Italian Thai cooked by an Austrian chef anyone?), describable in a couple of geographic terms.

Regional fusion combined different cuisines of a region or sub-region into a single eating experience.   Asian fusion restaurants combining the various cuisines of different Asian countries became a mainstay on many UK high streets.

Tex-Mex took southwest United States cuisine and mixed it with Mexican. Pacific Rim smashed together the different cuisines of the various island nations that surround that ocean.


Confused dot com?

But my wife Louise came back from an evening with friends in Soho earlier this week and tried to explain what was on offer at Aurora, the restaurant where they all met up in Lexington Street.

Purporting to offer “a seasonal Modern European menu”, Lou looked distinctly puzzled when I asked her what she had had.

“Warm Salt Beef with Sun-Blush Cherry Tomatoes, Grilled Artichokes, Black Olives, Red Peppers and Rocket Salad with Basil Pesto” had been her starter.

One of the others had, for some reason, chosen as a main course “Pan-fried Fillet of Trout on New Potatoes, Sauté Fennel and Tenderstem Broccoli with Coriander, Lime, Chilli and Coconut Dressing and Toasted Almonds”.

The feeling was that they were all pleased the place was where it was, and not too badly priced for that part of town, but this menu was less an appropriate fusion  and more of a cacophony of con-fusion food.