At the minute I am planning a return to China.
A return because I spent half of a very happy year teaching English as a foreign language in Nanjing Number One Middle School back when I was 18.
Which is fifteen years ago.
I’m not going to lie, I’m feeling pretty old right now.
I keep having snatched memories of the streets I walked and the street food carts I squatted at (I really wanted to say restaurants I ate in, but I was earning twenty quid a week and had to feed myself. Any restaurants I ate in were on the yuan of the bank managers I taught English to as a supplement to my paltry income).
I remember train journeys that lasted for ever (36 hours without a seat in -18 will leave you delirious with cold, it turns out), I remember visiting friends in other cities, I remember being the first white person most people I met ever seeing, and them being eager to touch my pointy nose, stroke my arm hair and marvel at my ability to use chopsticks.
But that was FIFTEEN YEARS AGO.
And there is so much I only half remember, really.
Was the hot bubble tea stand on the first or second corner before the Confucius temple?
What street was it where the English bookshop was?
Where was that river that the geography teacher who fancied me took me to? And more importantly, that hotpot restaurant he took me to afterwards, where we decided that neither my Mandarin nor his English were good enough to allow anything to happen ever? That hole in the wall cafe where the locals marvelled at the laowai and force fed us baiju we all ended up singing F4 songs and laughing about the whole thing until we cried?
I was trying to remember the youth hostel I stayed in in Shanghai and I was all like ‘IT HAD A VIEW OF THE BUND AND I GOT MY BELLY BUTTON PIERCED THE NEXT STREET DOWN AND HAD THE GREATEST BOAZI OF MY LIFE’ and I just couldn’t find it.
And then I managed to waste several hours online to and remembered it had been a converted military hospital, before finding out it was not loving its reputation as a backpacker’s hangout and is now a hotel than sort wants to be snazzy, but hasn't quite made the cut.
And because it has been 15 years, I am not claiming this dish has any kind of authenticity. The harshest of critics would probably call it ‘confusion’ cooking, this mash-up of Indian cheese with Chinese-inspired sauce.
But because it has been 15 years, I don’t care.
It has those Chinese principles I learnt all those years ago, of yin and yang, of balancing the spice with sweet, the crunch with sauce.
And it tastes, really, really good.
I hope you enjoy it as much as I do.
Grab a block of paneer.
Cut it into slices.
Then cut those slices in half again, to sort of square them off.
Sprinkle the paneer with cornflour.
Heat some oil in a pan.
I am lazy and hate using two different pans, so I used a little pan that would fit my sauce so I had to do the paneer in batches so I probably actually created more work than if I’d just used two pans and had to wash them both but those are my life choices and I guess I’m just going to have to live with them.
Fry the paneer in the oil…
Until nice and brown and crispy, then drain onto some kitchen paper.
Keep the leftover cornflour for later.
Finely chop some garlic…
And some ginger.
Tip the oil out of the pan, and add a tablespoon of sesame oil.
Add the garlic and ginger, stirring well.
Add a heaped tablespoon of this stuff.
Those overhead videos you watch on Facebook but never actually cook will tell you to use sriracha.
Listen, I like sriracha as much as the next guy, but this stuff is the actual business, and possibly more addictive than crack cocaine.
You can also get it in the supermarket, or one called ‘chow chow chilli oil’, which is pretty amazeballs also.
Add some soy.
It doesn’t have to come from catering-sized vessels.
Add some black vinegar if you have been to an Asian supermarket recently, balsamic if you haven’t.
Throw in some honey.
A breakfast club guest brought this for me that she got from her own actual bees? How cool is that?
Add some Chinese cooking wine, and bring to a simmer.
Then take some of your leftover cornflour, and mix with water…
Before adding to the sauce and simmering for a minute.
Tip the paneer into your sauce…
Then stir well.
Chop a couple of spring onions…
Then sprinkle over the top.
Honey chilli paneer
Serves 2. Cooking time 15 minutes.
- 226g pack paneer
- 2 cloves garlic
- 1cm piece ginger
- 2 tablespoons cornflour
- 2 tablespoons light soy sauce
- 2 tablespoons Chinese rice cooking wine
- 1 tablespoon runny honey
- 1 tablespoon chilli oil
- 2 tablespoons black vinegar or balsamic vinegar
- 1 tablespoon sesame oil
- Vegetable oil, for frying
- Cut the paneer into slices, then these slices in half.
- Sprinkle the paneer with the cornflour.
- Fill a frying pan with vegetable oil, until it is 1cm up the side.
- Heat the oil over a medium heat.
- Add the paneer in batches, frying until brown and crispy, reserving the cornflour.
- Drain the paneer onto kitchen paper.
- Peel and finely chop the ginger and garlic.
- Add the sesame oil to the pan and place over a medium heat.
- Add the ginger and garlic to the pan, stirring well.
- Add the chilli oil, honey, soy and cooking wine to the pan and bring to the boil.
- Mix two teaspoons of the leftover cornflour with 50ml of water and add to the pan, simmering for 1 minute.
- Add the paneer strips and mix.
- Chop the spring onions and sprinkle over the finished dish.