Donal Skehan: Go retro with Chinese restaurant favourites
Prawn toast, sweet and sour chicken and deep-fried ice cream balls are classics for a reason
Prawn toast has become popular again lately and not just on Chinese takeaway menus.
Sweet and sour chicken was one of the first dishes Donal Skehan tried in a Chinese restaurant.
Chinese New Year is one of the world’s biggest events with celebrations running from January 28th right through the next two weeks. It falls on a different date each year depending on the traditional Chinese lunar calendar.
This is the Chinese year of the rooster, and it’s said that people born this year will display key personality traits such as motivation and confidence. The closest I have come to celebrating an authentic Chinese new year was in Bangkok. After watching the parade of lights, dragon dancers and music we wandered deep into the back streets of the city. There we sat down on plastic stools, elbow to elbow at a sweaty seafood restaurant teeming with people celebrating.
Despite the language barrier, we managed to order by pointing at the dishes on our fellow diners’ tables and ended up with a feast of barbecued crabs and prawns, which we were encouraged to suck clean from their shells. You can imagine the noise from the place.
Although I haven’t experienced the celebrations in China, I am fan of Chinese cuisine and I’ve chosen some of my favourite retro Chinese restaurant dishes to form a menu easily recreated at home if you have plans to celebrate this year. All three recipes, like much of modern Chinese cuisine as we know it, are influenced by Western tastes and so will be instantly recognisable.
Prawn toast makes a regular appearance on take-away menus and more recently has seen a small revival, even featuring in high-end Asian restaurants with a smear of foie gras to push up the price tag. In its simpler form, cooked correctly, an aromatic paste of fresh prawns, ginger and garlic is seasoned with white pepper, soy sauce and sesame oil. It is then spread on white bread before being coated in sesame seeds and immersed in fizzing hot oil until golden brown. It makes for a simple, aromatic, savoury and altogether addictive appetiser.
Sweet and sour chicken was one of the first dishes I ever tried in a Chinese restaurant. This heady, sweet and sticky sauce, balanced with the acidity of white rice vinegar, coating crisp, fried chicken pieces was a lot to take in for young taste buds but it fired an early enthusiasm for Chinese cuisine, traditional or otherwise.
My final offering is a dessert that still brings delight and magic whenever it’s served. Balls of ice cream which defy science by holding their shape when encased in a hot, deep-fried golden crust. They are brilliantly retro and drizzled with honey and sprinkled with toasted sesame seeds are a sweet end to your homemade Chinese New Year feast.