I bet you all think I live on tortillas and cookies, yearning for cheese and chocolate and fearfully snubbing the culinary options that surround me here in Shanghai.
I mean, that’s pretty much what this blog indicates in its persistent quest narrative, chasing after elusive sachets of gelatine or powdered sugar (found the sugar but not the gelatine), with long hours spent over a hot keyboard trying to figure out how to make mozzarella cheese without rennet (or citric acid or lightly pasteurized milk, for that matter).
I probably come across as a laowai so firmly jammed into her expat bubble that the thought of backing away from the toaster oven sends waves of homesickness and palpable fear coursing through her body.
This is actually more indicative of how I eat outside the flat, on a day to day basis:
See, I can get marvellous stuff like this for cheap (these were 10rmb, or $1.50) everywhere around me.
Most of my breakfasts are made up of a pot (or two) of coffee at home followed by steamed buns stuffed with tofu and greens or drippy barbecued pork, or hot and savoury tea eggs, or crispy fried rice cakes or savoury mung bean flour crepes stuffed with crispy fried wonton wrappers, chives, minced pickled veggies, cilantro and hoisin sauce en route to wherever I’m going.
I like to maintain a balance. Cheese, chocolate and tortillas on the homefront; tofu, lotus root and grated radishes outside.
We’ve tried cooking the meats in the crock pot, in the wok, fried, braised, shredded, poached, grilled. Generally, I’ve found that chicken has been most reliable here (we don’t tend to eat pork, which is the fleisch of choice in China), though it’s often pumped full of water to increase the weight and spits like mad in the wok. Ground beef is also decent, though occasionally a bit dubious and pale looking. Beef… beef is iffy. Beef here is frequently like shoe leather and really needs to be marinated in a bath of acid overnight then cooked slowly in the crock pot all day to make it edible.
Which is why, a few weeks ago, I made fajitas.
Fajitas were invented specifically to make use of crappy cuts of shoe leather beef.
I didn’t use any particular recipe, as fajitas are pretty straight forward: tortillas, strips of broken down and submissive marinated beef, lots of sizzling slices of sauteed peppers and onions, salsa, guacamole (if you have access to avocados), sour cream (or yogurt, as we do).
You want to start with the beef at least the night before, longer if you’re using crappy slabs of leather from Tesco on Zhaojiabang lu.
Marinade for the shoe leather:
- Juice of 1 lime (or more, if really tough)
- 2 Tablespoons of olive oil
- 2+ cloves garlic, peeled, minced
- 1 big, rounded teaspoon (or hell, go for a tablespoon- won’t hurt) ground cumin
- salt and pepper
I used two slabs of dreadful beef, each about the size of my palm. Rub the marinade into the leather like you’re giving it an exfoliating scrub. Stuff it all into a ziploc baggie in the fridge and go about your day. It’ll need about 24 hours.
The Xinjiang noodle dough tortillas
- 3 cups flour
- 1 cup water (I used the whey left over from the cheese making experiment, which made it lovely and tender)
- 2 tsp salt
This is the same recipe I always use. Make a dough ball and knead it for a few minutes until it feels like a baby’s bottom, then wrap it in a moist towel in a ziplog baggie and let it rest for at least an hour before making the tortillas.
Here’s one I made earlier.
The fajitas call for smaller, thinner tortillas than, say, quesadillas, so you want to pull off golf ball sized rounds to roll out.
Roll them out thin thin thin on a well floured surface. If you’re using whey instead of water, they’ll be slightly more prone to sticking.
Have your wok pre heated to medium low, ungreased. Just a hot, clean surface works fine. Fling the tortilla in, about a minute on each side, until they start puffing up like a puff adder. If they don’t puff, they’re either too thick or it isn’t hot enough. We have a gas stove and even low is quite hot. An electric range may need more pre heating at a higher heat.
See how mine are still deflating from being puffed in the wok? It’s adorable.
Wrap them up in a cozy towel to keep them warm and pliable.
I have no photos for this part of the process because, frankly, I’m still a bit squeamish about the sight of meat, even though I haven’t been a vegetarian since around 2001.
Sear the slabs of leather in a few spoonfuls of oil for about 3 minutes on each side (for medium rare) or 4 minutes on each side (for more medium done-ness). Put them aside for about 5 minutes to rest.
After resting, slice them super thinly.
The Peppers and Onions
I used a variety of peppers (both very hot and not) and about half of an enormous purple onion. This made for 2 fajitas each, for two people.
Cut everything into thin strips.
Get your wok all heated up again. If there are stuck bits from the beef, do a quick deglaze with a squeeze of lime juice. Squirt it in, stir it strongly around the stuck bits, then pour it out over the beef. It adds good flavour.
I had the wok on medium for this, as these want to sizzle. I used the gorgeous roasted chili-garlic oil as lubricant.
When they’re ready, pour them out into the most heat-retaining container you have. I used a heavy bowl covered in foil. You don’t want them to get lukewarm and gross while you’re getting the table ready.
We had some cheddar (grated finely), plain Greek yogurt, and hot salsa.
Note: my beef got cold because I was distracted by vegetable photography so I had to throw the slices back into the wok to reheat. I added a spoonful of salsa while sauteeing, just for the hell of it.
Throw everything together onto your tortilla, fold up as well as you can, eat. You know you want to.