We asked a panel of chefs on how to choose common pen cai ingredients like dried scallops, fish maw and lap cheong.
Ku Keung, Executive Chinese Chef, Golden Peony, Conrad Centennial Singapore
Chung Yiu Ming, Executive Chinese Chef, Li Bai, Sheraton Towers Singapore
Cheng Hon Chau, Executive Chinese Chef, Cherry Garden, Mandarin Oriental Singapore
1 LAP CHEONG
These are made by stuffing minced pork seasoned with rice wine and soya sauce into sausage skins, which are then dried. The dark brown ones contain a mix of pork and pig's or duck's liver.
How to choose: Ku Keung, Executive Chinese Chef of Golden Peony at Conrad Centennial Singapore says the best come from the city of Dongguan in Guangdong, China. The strong winds and sunny conditions there create drier sausages that last longer. The Dongguan variety, short and meaty with visible fat, is also more fragrant.
Before buying, smell them. "They should have a natural smoked meat fragrance. Avoid those that smell oily - an indication that they've been stored for too long," says Chef Ku.
Next, touch them to see that they're dry; damp sausages can mean they were not dried well enough or are going bad. Look at the colour, too. "They should have a more natural reddish hue," says Chef Ku. "Bright red usually means they contain a lot of red food colouring."
2 DRIED SCALLOPS
These are like gourmet stock cubes and are commonly added to congee, soups, stews, and sauces to give them a sweet, rich umami flavour. Also called conpoy, most of those sold here come from Japan or China.
"Japanese scallops are harvested from the sea and have sharper edges. The highest quality come from Hokkaido and start at about $140 per kilo. They are usually caramel in colour and have a stronger fragrance. You can also taste the sea in them.
"China exports the rounder river scallops that star t at $70 per kilo. They tend to be pale yellow, smaller and milder in flavour," explains Chung Yiu Ming, Executive Chinese Chef of Li Bai at Sheraton Towers Singapore.
How to choose: "Good ones should have a fragrant seafood aroma and should be dry all over when you touch them," adds Chef Chung. Go for smaller scallops if you're using them in soup or for stir-frying with vegetables. Dishes like pen cai need medium-sized ones as they are more presentable and have a stronger umami flavour. An added benefit of using dried scallops is that you don't need to add much salt as they contain salt and produce enough flavour.
3 CANNED ABALONE
Abalones come from all over the world. The premium ones, mostly from Mexico and light beige, are prized for their springy texture, thickness and rich taste, and are usually eaten straight out of the can. They also have a definitive outline.
The next grade is from Australia and South Africa. Canned Australian abalones - pale and smooth - are best for soups. South African ones have a crunchy texture and a strong oceanic taste. They're best served steamed or braised.
The ones from New Zealand, which are usually a dark brown, and China - almost white, as if they've been bleached - are not as strong-flavoured. They're better sliced and then added to braised dishes so the gravy can boost their flavours.
How to choose: "To check the origin of the abalones, look at the indelible red or black ink stamp on the cans, instead of the main label," says Chef Ku.
4 DRIED SHIITAKE MUSHROOMS
The ones here come mostly from Japan and China. Japanese shiitakes are said to be superior in taste, fragrance and appearance. They are less bitter, lighter in colour and thicker. They also cost a lot more - from $120 a kilo! Chinese ones usually start at $30 per kilo.
How to choose: There are three categories of Chinese shiitakes: hua gu (fl ower mushroom), xiang gu (fragrant mushroom) and dong gu (winter mushroom). Hua gu is the best with a deep, intense and earthy aroma as well as a meaty flavour. Unlike the other two varieties, it has deep white fi ssures that make it look like a fl ower, hence its name.
Xiang gu is slightly fl atter, much darker, and doesn't have patterns. "Smell the mushrooms," suggests Chef Chung. "Look for a deep, earthy aroma to give the best flavour. For a better bite, pick thicker caps. Avoid those that are damp or smell sour or musty. And always select whole mushrooms instead of pre-sliced ones, which can be of questionable quality.
Use hua gu to enjoy the bite of a whole mushroom. Reconstituted in water and briefly fried in oil before you add them to dishes, they have a satisfying texture and a deep umami flavour. If you are slicing or just want a hint of flavour, use xiang gu and dong gu. What's more, the liquid you soak your mushrooms in is particularly good if you need to boost umami in vegetarian dishes.
5 DRIED SEA CUCUMBER
While rehydrated, ready-to-cook sea cucumbers from the wet market are easily available, all three chefs recommend buying the dried variety for better taste and texture. Rehydrated sea cucumbers can sometimes also be soaked for too long, resulting in a too-soft, mushy texture.
There are a number of sea cucumber varieties. The most premium ones are spiky sea cucumbers, which can cost up to $1,000 per kilo if they're from Japan; you pay around $350 a kilo for those from China.
"The prickly Japanese sea cucumbers are smaller and cook faster. They also have a crunchier texture as compared to the Chinese ones, which are softer," says Cheng Hon Chau, Executive Chinese Chef of Cherry Garden at Mandarin Oriental Singapore
For non-spiky sea cucumbers, the best is the zhu po shen from Indonesia. Unlike the prickly sea cucumbers, it can become huge after rehydration, and has a really smooth, tender texture when cooked. Also just as good are the sea cucumbers with white teats, also from Indonesia. Compared with zhu po shen, they are fi rmer and have a crunchier bite, says Chef Ku.
How to choose: When buying dried sea cucumbers, they must be complete and whole - and absolutely dry. Pick ones that are large and plump. If you are short on time and are going for rehydrated sea cucumbers, smell them to check that they don't have a fishy odour.
6 FISH MAW
This is the swim or air bladder of fish. It's rich in collagen and there are two main types: dried fish maw from larger fish such as cod that is more premium and hard with a dark golden hue, and fried fish maw from smaller fish, like yellow croaker or eel that's usually long, cylindrical and light yellow.
How to choose: Chef Cheng warns that some shops may try to pass off fried pig skin as fried fish maw. Here's how to tell the difference: "Fried pig skin looks really oily and is flat, shapeless, and bigger in size.
"Good fish maw, fried or dried, should be an even golden yellow, fairly thick for more bite, and whole. Avoid those that are broken in any way as well as those with a greyish tinge, which means they have probably been displayed for too long."
Of course, the type to buy depends on what you want to cook it with. "Dried fish maw is good for soups, stews, and braised dishes or recipes that require a longer time to cook. Its texture is soft and tender, and the flesh is thick with a good springy bite," says Chef Cheng.
Dried fish maw from male fish is also usually longer, firmer and more flavourful while the female ones are round, flat and melt easily in stews and soups. Fried fish maw, on the other hand, has a crunchier and crispier bite, and is recommended for stir-fries. As it is reconstituted quickly, it is also used as a wrap for meat stuffing.
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