PEOPLE either embrace or disdain the idea of using fruit in cooking savory Chinese dishes. Then again, taste often provokes spirited culinary debates: sweet versus salty, northern versus southern cooking.
To most people in northern China, fruit is simply fruit. To them, it’s sweet and should be eaten only in sweet dishes, like sliced tomatoes sprinkled with sugar or hawthorn berries tossed with osmanthus and glazed with sugar. For them, the idea of a stir-fry combining pitaya fruit, beef and black pepper sauce is anathema.
But travel south, and tastes change. There, you will find many dishes that incorporate pineapple, papaya, lychee and other fruits in dishes with meats and vegetables.
“It’s tricky,” said Wang Lin, who likes to cook with fruit. “Fruit can easily be overcooked and become mushy. But I like the different tastes it can bring to regular dishes. The sweetness of fruit is very different from that of sugar. Fruits like pineapple work really well with many ingredients and at the same time keep their original flavor.”
It takes a bit of culinary imagination to choose the right fruit for specific savory dishes. The texture of various fruit is different, ranging from soft and creamy to crisp and tart. You have to take that in to consideration when arranging kitchen “marriages.”
The tropical trio
The pineapple is one of the most widely used fruits in cooking worldwide. Think of the famous Hawaiian pizza, where ham, fresh pineapple and cheese top a tomato base, or pineapple-fried rice with carrots, shrimp, sweet peas and sausage served in a hollowed-out pineapple shell.
Perhaps the most famous pineapple dish in China is Cantonese — the thick, sweet-and-sour pineapple and pork stir-fry.
It starts with cubes of pork tenderloin, marinated in salt, pepper, soy sauce and egg. Before cooking, the meat is dusted with flour, then fried in hot oil for three to five minutes.
In a separate pan, ketchup, rice vinegar, light soy sauce, sugar and water are combined to make a sauce. It is thickened with a bit of cornstarch, then the pork and chunks of green a red peppers are added.
A final quick stir-fry and the dish is ready. The acidity of the pineapple is balanced by the sweetness of the sugar. For crispier pork, fry the meat twice.
A more complex dish is pineapple with shrimp-stuffed youtiao, or deep-fried dough sticks. To make the dish, you mash fresh shrimp and season it with salt, pepper and cooking wine. The mixture is then stuffed into hollow youtiao cubes and fried in medium-hot oil until the color darkens.
The youtiao are then removed and the oil heated hotter. The bread sticks are then cooked again until crispy. When the sticks are cooled, they are tossed with fresh pineapple cubes, cooked shrimp and mayonnaise, and sprinkled with toasted black sesame seeds. This dish is often served as an appetizer.
Pineapple also works well with other meats, like chicken and duck, in simple stir-fry dishes. Sticks of pineapple can also be wrapped in bacon and baked in the oven for a simple party snack. For vegetarians, pineapple, celery and yam make a delicious light stir-fry for the summer.
On the tropical island of Hainan Province, coconut and Wenchang chicken are combined to make delicious soups.
There are two ways to make coconut chicken soup. One is to cut the chicken in chunks and stew it with copra, wolfberries (goji), ginger and jujube in coconut water over a low heat for about two hours. The soup is sweet and light, ideal for hot weather. This soup can also serve as the base of a hotpot to cook meat and vegetables. That has become a very popular trend in some restaurants since the craze of Chaoshan beef hotpot took hold last winter.
The second way has a fancier presentation using the coconut shell as the soup bowl. Take a whole coconut and remove the top with a saw. Retain the juice and clean out the shell. Place small cuts of chicken, lean pork, wolfberries and ginger in the coconut shell and fill with coconut water. Seal the top cap back on and simmer over water or in a steamer. Salt to taste before serving.
Durian is a controversial fruit. Its pungency either delights or repels people. Summer is the best time to enjoy this seasonal fruit, and its uses go beyond eating it just as fruit or dessert.
Pizza Hut in China recently added a cheese durian pizza to the menu, to mixed reviews. Priced at 74 yuan (US$11.7) for a nine-inch pizza, it features chunks of durian flesh baked in the cheese. After baking, the fruit become more “aromatic” and creamier.
Other pizzerias are also trying to entice durian lovers with combinations like durian and bacon.
The Paradise Dynasty restaurant franchise famous for innovative xiaolongbao, or steamed dumplings, has come up with a durian-filled version.
Durian fried rice is a dish similar to pineapple fried rice.
The durian is added as the last step to avoid overcooking.
Nutrient-rich durian is also used to make soups. The white part inside the spiky hard shell is a popular ingredient in chicken and pork rib soups. For vegetarians, the shell itself can be stewed with dried sea coconut and king oyster mushrooms.
Citrus like lemons, oranges and grapefruit are as tart as pineapple but their flesh is more fragile. Most cooked dishes featuring citrus use the juice instead of the fruit.
The results are tasty dishes like baked chicken wings with lemon juice or stir-fried chicken with orange juice.
Orange juice also is excellent in marinades to dispel some of the greasiness of meat.
Fresh lychee is often cooked with shrimp and chicken.
One popular steamed dish is made by removing the pits and stuffing the fruit with either seasoned shrimp paste or whole shrimp. It’s a lovely summer dish.
Papaya, usually used in desserts, can also be added to crucian carp soup for extra flavor. Pears combined with asparagus and shrimp also make a light, easy-to-cook dish that is as healthy as it is tasty.