Time's Table with Yang Liu - pan fried tofu, rice noodle stir-fry and Hainanese hot pot

15 Feb 2024

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Every now and then a meal becomes more than just a meal. It could be innovative and exciting – the kind that shapes your cooking going forward – but there’s something equally magic about the dish your mum used to cook you growing up, or even the reliable weekly staple you knock together on repeat.

In this new series, Time’s Table, we chat to people about the food that has left an impact on a time in their life – be it their past, present or future. Trust us, you can learn a lot about someone through what’s on their plate. 

Time's Table with... Yang Liu of Little Rice Noodle

Yang Liu is best known as one-half of the hugely popular food blog, Little Rice Noodle. Run alongside her partner, Kathi Pinczolits, the page has always had a simple aim, to prove that it is perfectly possible to enjoy delicious plant-based Chinese food.

Yang knows this to be true, given some of her favourite dishes from her childhood in China were plant-based, but when she went vegan later in adulthood, she immediately set out adapting the meals that weren't, in order to enjoy the flavours she held dear.

Now living in Austria, Yang's recipes are as much a means of feeding her hunger pangs as they are a nostalgic tribute to her roots - chronicling the many different areas of China she grew up within through the distinctly characteristic dishes that she ate.

Yang Liu runs food blog Little Rice Noodle (Credit: Supplied)

The food is often steeped in local tradition, but her twists are respectfully crafted and deeply personal, which is undoubtedly why they've resonated with so many.

As she and Kathi release their first cookbook, Vegan Chinese Food, we asked Yang to pick a nostalgic meal from her past, a present staple, and something she's eaten that'll inspire her going forward, to give you a better idea of the woman behind the rice noodles.

Pan-fried tofu

"The first real dish I remember cooking was a very common home dish in Hunan – pan-fried tofu with chilli pepper.

"It's typically crispy on the outside but very juicy on the inside, and it's a little bit spicy with the mix with fresh green chillies. I'd season with a little bit of salt and soy sauce...so simple, but it is so good.

"It's very easy to make, too. When I was six or seven my mum had to travel a lot for work, so that's when I started to make simple dishes like this myself. I would call my aunt and ask [for recipe tips], and that's how I learnt.

"Hunan is actually the area that has the richest variety of tofu. If you go to the markets, there are usually 20 or 30 different types, so we ate it quite a lot, in all shapes and forms.

Pan fried tofu is a home staple in Hunan (Credit: Supplied)

"At Hunan restaurants, most of the dishes are also stir-fried in fresh green chilli peppers, so those two main ingredients were very typical [of food from that period of my childhood].

"When I make this dish today, in Austria, I still struggle to find the right tofu. If it's too firm then it goes crispy but it doesn't go juicy and soak up the flavours. I get tofu from the Asian store which works but it's not the same!

"It was one of the most commonly eaten dishes on our table growing up, and it still reminds me of that time when I cook it.

"Today, it's also special to me because in Hunanese cuisine, there are a lot of dishes which are just naturally vegan and this is one of them, whereas if you're going to a Cantonese restaurant, it's very meat-heavy.

"Even now, when we visit China and we can't find a vegan restaurant in some of the smaller cities, we just go to a Hunanense restaurant, because we know there will be options like this."

Stir-fried noodle soup

"I've travelled and lived in lots of places, and I've grown to love a lot of different kinds of flavours, and you can see those [in my day-to-day cooking].

"First I lived in Hunan, then it was Guangzhou, which is a Cantonese region, and then I lived in Yunnan in Sichuan, and then Beijing for half the year.

"If I'm cooking for myself, I usually go for stir fried rice noodles. They're one of the things I love the most.

Noodle soup is Yang's day-to-day staple (Credit: Supplied)

"In Hunan, rice noodles are made fresh, so you couldn't soak them from dry in water at home. They're something everyone picks up from a restaurant for breakfast, and they're usually sold out by noon.

"I normally make the noodles with a spicy, sour soup. Yunnan is famous for sour, spicy flavours so I grew to love that when I lived there.

"You can make rice noodles with so many different toppings depending what ingredients you have – I like long green beans, which I pickle myself, as well as pickled bamboo, and I also really like peanuts and pan-fried tofu.

"You can probably tell that I love tofu [thanks to my childhood in Hunan], but I also love pickled things.

"In China, pickling has been such an important thing in all regions since ancient times, because they didn't have a fridge, they didn't have greenhouses, so they only really had fresh vegetables in summer, and people had to (and still do) eat pickled things in winter.

Yang Liu and her partner Kathi (Credit: Supplied)

"The only time we had stir-fries at home was when my aunt would go to the temple – she was a Buddhist and twice a month it would be vegan day [where she had to eat plant-based] – and there would be vegan stir-fries made by the monks and nuns.

"I wasn't vegan at the time but that was the first vegan rice noodle stir fry I had, and I remember these being very good. Now I'm vegan, it's something I make a lot."

Hainanese hot pot (Zao Po Cu 糟粕醋)

"I actually just came back from China, and whilst there we always get a lot of things that we love but also make sure to try new things.

"One of those new things was a hotpot from Hainan. When people talk about hotpot from China they think about very spicy ones from Sichuan, because that's the most famous one, but actually, in different parts of China they have different types of hotpot.

"This hotpot is made from the vinegar-like residual from the rice wine-making process. It's a little spicy, but much lighter compared to the spicy Sichuan hotpot.

Hainanese hotpot is one of Yang's recent discoveries (Credit: Supplied)

"[Typically], there's a lot of garlic in there, as well as mushrooms and tofu – and not just the white tofu, but fried tofu skins, yuba (which is the skin from boiling soy milk), and tofu puffs, as well as tofu puffs made from black beans.

"It's really, really good, and you don't have to like the Sichuan hotpot to enjoy it.

"We had it three times when we were in China, and it's one thing I really want to try to make at home.

"I'd love to make my own fermented soup base like this one. You'd have to figure out the kind of rice, how it's made, and I'd guess it needs a specific temperature, so whilst the ingredients themselves are pretty simple, [nailing the] fermentation is tricky.

"But I enjoy the process of recreating [localised dishes]. I have a lot of friends from different regions of China, so I always ask them for advice first, because their parents or relatives, or one of the people that they know, must know how to make it.

"That's [reflective of] my cookbook, too. I always try and stay as authentic as possible, even if I've veganised it.

"Then I just try to get as close to the dish as I can, and it always works out eventually."

Featured image: Supplied

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