Manila Shawl in the V&A

This is a post about a fabulous “Spanish” or “Manila” shawl on display in the Chinese section of the V&A Museum in London.

The beautiful Spanish shawl in the V&A

The beautiful Spanish shawl in the V&A

One of the things that I love best about revisiting my favourite museums is the possibility of noticing and then focussing on an object that one has previously passed by. I know that I have walked past this shawl many times and I have even stopped to look at it, yet it was only on my last visit that the full beauty and quality of this item fully struck home.

The shawl features exquisitely embroidered flowers, insects and birds

The shawl features exquisitely embroidered flowers, insects and birds

The “Manton de Manila” has a long history in Spain. The shawls were made in South China but the name comes from the port of Manila in the Philippines. The Philippines became a Spanish colony in 1565 and was part of New Spain, administered from Mexico. This meant that Asian goods for the Spanish market were shipped on “Manila Galleons” to the west coast of Mexico, then transported overland to the port of Veracruz for shipment to Spain.

Bird detail - Possibly a pheonix?

Bird detail

The early shawls were embroidered with native Chinese motifs but the dragons, pagodas, etc., were soon replaced by colourful flowers and other images more suited to the customers taste. The other big addition the Spanish made was the long swaying fringe which provided the movement that made the shawl such a classic piece of flamenco costume.

The shading on the flower petals is meticulously executed

The shading on the flower petals is meticulously executed

This shawl is striking for the quality of the embroidery. This piece was made purely as a commercial export product, with no pretensions to being art, yet both the workmanship and the design are full of vitality. This design is also notable for the distinctly Chinese elements in the design, such as the “lion dogs”.

Unlike most shawls for the European market, this one features distinctly Chinese motifs

Unlike most shawls for the European market, this one features distinctly Chinese motifs

The shawl dates from the second half of the19th century when the “Spanish shawl” became an important fashion accessory throughout Europe and North America. In Britain they were frequently put to another use, commonly being employed as a decorative cover for grand pianos.

One of many quirky insects

One of many quirky insects

One of many finely detailed butterflies

One of many finely detailed butterflies

For some wonderful photographs of flamenco dancers and their shawls please see Ottoman Dandy’s post.

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Fantastic Fungi

As a child I was always fascinated by mysterious old Chinese medicine shops with all their weird and wonderful bits of dried and shrivelled Nature. Most interesting of all were the different dried mushrooms that, depending on type, could be used for correcting health problems, or added to an unusual and healthy-giving dish in the kitchen. I still love the look of fungi today in both their living and dried forms. (Or more accurately, as my husband tells me, the fruiting bodies of fungi.)

Lingzhi - The mushroom of immortality!

Lingzhi – The mushroom of immortality!

The last time I visited Hong Kong I photographed some fungi in a health shop which stirred up even more childhood associations. These were the mushroom known as “Lingzhi” which featured in many of the books I read in my youth. This rare fungus (Ganoderma lucidum) has been used in Chinese medicine for 2,000 years and many accounts attributed it with life extending powers. In more recent times it has found a regular place in literature as a fabled elixir of life, and featured in many of the Martial Arts novels I read in my teens. Seeing them lying in a shop, piled in an old cardboard box, rather spoiled the myth!

Lingzhi (Ganoderma lucidum)

Lingzhi (Ganoderma lucidum)

Lingzhi (Ganoderma lucidum) Legend of my youth

Lingzhi (Ganoderma lucidum) Legend of my youth

Another type of dried fungus

Another type of dried fungus

I also love fungi growing in nature, where they can suddenly appear like exotic aliens overnight. I have now tried to start photographing any new types I see, though our voracious Cornish slugs seem to attack and disfigure many before I get there.

Tang Horses

The pottery horses of the Tang dynasty are among the most iconic objects in all Chinese art. Fired to fairly low earthenware temperatures and decorated using simple lead glazes, often in three colours (san-cai); these beautiful objects were essential grave goods for anyone with pretensions to status and produced in very large numbers.

Tang dynasty horse in the British Museum

Tang dynasty horse in the British Museum

Head of the British Museum horse above

Head of the British Museum horse above

Examples vary greatly in quality and size and smaller, cruder examples can still be bought for modest sums by collectors today. The large examples from high status tombs are, of course, much less common and stand among the highest examples of the sculptor’s art anywhere. Two examples in the British Museum in London are astounding for the way the  “essence of horse” has been abstracted from the maker’s knowledge of real animals, especially in the modelling of the heads.

Another Tang horse in the British Museum

Another Tang horse in the British Museum

Even in the best examples, the bodies of these horses are generally very simply modelled with all the careful observation and formal invention devoted to the heads; so much so that the heads can sometimes  seem a mismatch for the bodies they are attached to.

Tang horse in the Shanghai Museum

Tang horse in the Shanghai Museum

Head of the Shanghai Museum horse

Head of the Shanghai Museum horse

Modelling horses in clay was already an ancient tradition by the Tang dynasty (618 – 906AD). It is interesting to compare them to the horses found with the Terracotta Warriors dating from 800 to 1000 years earlier.

Horses of the Terracotta Army (circa 206 BCE)

Horses of the Terracotta Army (circa 206 BCE)

I am not in any sense a horse lover but I never fail to appreciate just how sensitive the artist’s reaction to these animals was.

A fine example in the V&A Museum in London

A fine example in the V&A Museum in London

A powerful beast from the Imperial Collection in Beijing

A powerful beast from the Imperial Collection in Beijing

Sadly, the Tang horse has become a bit of a cliché, with endless modern copies, often of poor quality. Perhaps that is why Chinese today do not value them as highly as they do more modern Ming and Qing artefacts; or perhaps it is because refined surface decoration counts much more than form for Chinese connoisseurs. This is a subject that Alex and I plan to expand on in a later post.

A modern "replica" of a Tang horse in an interior design store

A modern “replica” of a Tang horse in an interior design store

Chinese-style Stuffed Peppers

This summer was a bit of a disaster for our vegetable garden including for our crop of peppers. Alex usually grows a selection of different types but only the chillies did well this year, with the the others barely providing a couple of meals. Still, we had enough from our “Hungarian Wax” variety to be worth making a batch of our favourite Chinese-style stuffed peppers, even though they were all very small.

Chinese-style stuffed peppers

Chinese-style stuffed peppers

Stuffing Ingredients

200gms minced pork or chicken
3 pieces cloud ear fungus (bought dried from a Chinese supermarket)
4 spring onions (finely chopped)
Small piece of chopped preserved vegetable (mustard green or Mu choi) – optional
Small bunch of  chopped watercress (save sprig for garnish) – optional
2 tbs soy sauce
1 tbs sherry
2 tsp sesame oil
0.5 tsp sugar
2 tsp cornflour
white pepper for seasoning

The dried cloud-ear fungus must be soaked overnight

The dried cloud-ear fungus must be soaked overnight

Soaked cloud-ear with watercress

Soaked cloud-ear with watercress

Cloud-ear and cress after chopping

Cloud-ear and cress after chopping

The stuffing ingredients with an unchopped piece of preserved vegetable

The stuffing ingredients including an unchopped piece of preserved vegetable

Chop the soaked cloud-ear and preserved vegetable, then mix all the stuffing ingredients together.
At this point it is a good idea to cook a teaspoon of the mixture in the microwave for 30 seconds or so and check the flavour. Adjust if necessary.

The prepared stuffing and the (very small) peppers I am using

The prepared stuffing and the (very small) peppers I am using

Deseed the peppers as shown in the photographs. If you have large peppers, e.g. bell peppers, then these are best cut in half.

Deseeding a pepper

Deseeding a pepper

The peppers ready for stuffing

The peppers ready for stuffing

With very small peppers such as those shown, stuffing can be a fiddly business. I use a blunt ended wooden chopstick to push the filling in but I am sure you could come up with many other suitable alternatives.

Using a chopstick to help fill the pepper

Using a chopstick to help fill the pepper

The filled peppers ready for frying

The filled peppers ready for frying

Heat two tablespoons of oil in a large frying pan or wok with a lid. Fry the peppers on a medium heat for around 10 minutes, keeping them covered with a lid except when stirring. If you are unsure about the cooking time then you can cut one pepper open to check that the meat is cooked through.

Frying the peppers

Frying the peppers in a wok

Finally make a sauce to serve with the peppers by frying 3 or 4 crushed garlic cloves and 2 or 3 finely chopped chillies in a little oil. Add to this:
0.5 tbs dark soy sauce
1 tbs light soy sauce
2 tbs sherry
and thicken with a little cornflour mixed with water. Pour sauce over the peppers and serve.

Frying garlic and chillies to make the sauce

Frying garlic and chillies to make the sauce

Chinese-style stuffed peppers

Chinese-style stuffed peppers. The finished dish

1960’s Hong Kong

Last month, my daughter Isla spent a few days scanning old photographs so that we could store them on computer. These included pictures from an old album that came from Hong Kong, with black and white pictures that were taken in the 1960s.

A teenage version of me, posing under a bamboo

A teenage version of me, posing under a bamboo

Most of these old photographs were taken using a little box camera and are not very good but I love them for their nostalgic air of a bygone age.

Looking towards Hong Kong harbour, mid-1960s

Looking towards Hong Kong harbour, mid-1960s

While I probably took some of the landscape photographs, I do not know the origin, or the subjects of many of the others.

Portrait of an old man

Portrait of an old man

My favourite picture of all is an old wedding shot showing the bride surrounded by her female relatives and friends, where everyone is aiming for 1960’s high fashion, Hong Kong style! My mother is seated on the far right of the photo.

I love the hairstyles and the big handbags!

I love the hairstyles and the big handbags!

Deep-fried Wonton

It has been far too long since I last posted on my other passion in life, which is food.
This is a special post because it covers my family’s all time favourite snack
food – deep-fried wonton.
Deep-fried wonton are seriously tasty, and, while you have to source a few
special Chinese ingredients, making them is well worth the effort.
Learn to make these well and anyone (e.g. boyfriend, girlfriend,
unruly child, etc.) could become your willing slave!

Deep-fried wonton

Deep-fried wonton are seriously tasty!

Recipe
1 packet of wonton pastry wrappers – makes about 40 wonton – (Buy these frozen from your local Chinese supermarket)
Oil for deep frying
1 egg white for sealing wonton together (add the yolk to the filling mix)

For the filling:
300g pork or chicken(thigh, boned and skinned), coarsely minced
150g raw prawns, chopped
3-4 spring onions, chopped
2cm ginger root, grated
1/3 tin bamboo shoots, with the water squeezed out then chopped
½ tin of water chestnuts, finely chopped
6 dried Chinese mushrooms, soaked overnight then finely chopped
1 tablespoon rice wine or sherry
1 ½ tablespoons light soy sauce
1 teaspoon sugar
2 teaspoons sesame oil
2 teaspoons cornflour

For the sweet and sour sauce:
4 tablespoons tomato ketchup
1 tablespoon Chinese rice vinegar
1 teaspoon sesame oil
white pepper
dash of chilli oil (optional)
Clove of galic, crushed

Making the sauce:
Fry the garlic for a minute or two, then add the ketchup and the other ingredients and stir well. Check the taste and add a little pinch of sugar if required.

Making the filling:

Chopping Chinese mushroom

Chopping Chinese mushroom after soaking overnight

Prepare the ingredients for the filling but do not chop the ingredients too finely for a better texture.

Prepared wonton filling mixture

Prepared wonton filling mixture

Mix all the filling ingredients together in a bowl.

Painting egg-white on wrapper

Painting egg-white around one half of the wrapper

To prepare a wonton, place a single wrapper on a chopping board or similar surface. Place a heaped teaspoonful of filling in the middle of the wrapper. Do not overfill or it will burst while frying.
Brush some egg white around half of the wrapper edge, then fold over the filling.

Folding wrapper in half

Folding wonton wrapper in half

Press around the edges to seal them together. There should be no gaps.
Next apply a dab of egg white in one corner on the side with the folded edge.

Applying a dab of egg-white to the corner

Applying a dab of egg-white to the corner

Now pull the two corners of the folded edge over one another and press them so that the egg white sticks them together. The shape should twist into a sort of “boat” shape.

Pulling two corners together to form a boat shape

Pulling two corners together to form a boat shape

This “boat”  (or hat) shape is a traditional lucky shape for Chinese. It resembles the shape traditionally used for precious metal ingots.

Forming the finished boat shape

Forming the finished boat shape

Continue filling wonton until you have run out of filling or wrappers. You are then ready to fry them but first you should mix the sauce ingredients if they are going to be served hot.

A batch of wonton ready to fry

A batch of wonton ready to fry

Deep fry in small batches in moderately hot oil. The filling should be cooked by the time the wrapper is golden and just darkening on the edges.

Deep fry in small batches

Deep fry in small batches

Using bamboo chopsticks to remove the cooked wonton

I find bamboo chopsticks the best tools to remove the cooked wonton

Wonton are best eaten hot but are also an excellent cold snack.

Wonton packed ready for a picnic

Wonton packed to be eaten cold on a picnic

A Simple Chinese Meal

Steamed Chicken with Ginger and Spring Onion accompanied by Stir-Fried Broccoli

Here is a very straightforward meal for everyday eating that is always a big favourite in our house. It can be prepared quickly for a family meal, though these two dishes would also be excellent when combined with others as part of a larger, more formal Chinese banquet.

The two finished dishes

The two finished dishes

Chicken with Ginger and Spring Onion

  • 2 chicken breasts
  • 5 cm ginger (grated)
  • A bunch of spring onions (around 6), finely sliced
  • A few coriander sprigs
  • Half teaspoon ginger powder
  • One and a half tablespoons sunflower oil

Put around 300ml water into a pan (the water should reach just half the depth of the chicken.)

The water should be half the chicken depth

The water should be half the chicken depth

Bring the water to the boil and add the chicken. Simmer on a low heat for 3 or 4 minutes then turn the meat over and continue to simmer until the meat is cooked, probably around another 5 minutes. It is very important to cook the chicken on a very low heat. Otherwise the meat will be dry.

Let the meat has cool slightly, then slice neatly.

Slice the meat into neat bite-size pieces

Slice the meat into neat bite-size pieces

Heat the oil in a pan until it is very hot, add the ginger powder then the grated ginger and stir for 20 seconds. Then add the spring onion and cook for just another 10 seconds or so before turning off the heat.

Transfer the ginger and spring onion sauce to a bowl, and then add salt and a little juice from the steamed chicken.

Serve the sliced chicken with a generous portion of the sauce spooned on top. This dish can be served at room temperature.

Serve the chicken with a generous covering of sauce

Serve the chicken with a generous covering of sauce

Stir-fried Broccoli

  • 500g broccoli / one head
  • 1 small carrot
  • 2cm piece ginger
  • 2 tablespoons of sherry or Chinese rice wine
  • 2 tablespoons sunflower oil
Cut up the broccoli and slice the carrots

Cut up the broccoli and slice the carrots

Separate the broccoli into small florets and thinly slice the stalk. Slice the carrot diagonally (for a decorative effect you can cut each slice into a leaf shape.)

Carrots can be cut in decorative leaf shapes

Carrots can be cut in decorative leaf shapes

Crush the ginger and chop finely.

Crush then chop the ginger

Crush then chop the ginger

While it is possible to put the uncooked broccoli directly into the wok, many people may find they get better results by lightly steaming the broccoli before stir frying. Restaurants often use this method.  Place the broccoli in a pan and add just 3 or 4 tablespoons of water and a pinch of salt. Put the lid on the pan and steam for around 3 minutes. Make sure that the pan does not dry up. Drain the vegetables well. This short steaming should leave the broccoli looking a nice bright green.

Heat the oil in a wok or deep frying pan, add the ginger and carrot then fry for a minute or two. Then add the broccoli and stir fry for another 2 minutes or so.  Next add the sherry or rice wine. Cook until the vegetables are tender. If the pan seems a bit too dry during cooking then add a dash of water.

Fry the ginger and carrot before adding the steamed broccoli

Fry the ginger and carrot before adding the steamed broccoli

Make the broccoli the last dish you cook and serve immediately. Serve with steamed rice and you have a wonderful Chinese meal!

Time your cooking so that the broccoli is served immediately

Time your cooking so that the broccoli is served immediately