When I lived in California, I ate a lot of Mexican food. I would go with friends and family to taquerias, food trucks, small shops serving Mexican soups and sand­wiches and Oaxacan restaurants that specialise in complex mole sauces with layers of flavour. When I return to Hong Kong after my annual visits to the United States, my suitcase is laden with ingredi­ents such as fresh and dried chillies, tomatillos, masa harina and dried corn husks. Some once hard-to-find ingredients have now become available in Hong Kong, so don’t be surprised to see Mexican-influenced recipes in these pages.

Chiles rellenos with chicken picadillo and warm tomato salsa
Chiles rellenos can take many forms: different types of chillies – fresh or dried – can be used, as well as various stuffings. This recipe is based on one by cook book writer Diana Kennedy, although I’ve changed it over the years. The dish has many steps but much of the cooking can be done in advance. The chillies need to be battered and fried just before serving.

I bought the poblano and jalapeno chillies from City’super, but I’ve also found them at a couple of vegetable vendors in Central Market. For the poblanos, look for straight-ish, smooth chillies; if they’re too twisted, it’s difficult to char them evenly. Try to buy the smaller poblanos.

6-8 poblano chillies (depending on size)
About 60 grams lard (or 60ml vegetable oil)
¼ medium-sized onion (about 80 grams), chopped
1-2 garlic cloves, sliced
450 grams cooked chicken (about two whole legs), shredded
200 grams fresh tomatoes, roughly chopped
A 3cm piece of cinnamon stick
2 whole cloves
50 grams raisins
30 grams slivered almonds
20ml rice vinegar
1 tsp granulated sugar
Fine sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

For the salsa:
750 grams cherry tomatoes (use the local variety sold by fruit vendors)
2 garlic cloves
1-2 jalapeno chillies, or to taste
50 grams white onion
Coriander sprigs, to garnish

For the batter and to fry:
4 eggs, at room temperature
10 grams plain (all-purpose) flour, plus extra for coating the chillies
Cooking oil

Place the chillies directly on the flame of a gas burner and cook them, turning as needed, until the skin is completely charred (this is a messy process). Put the chillies in a colander, and as soon as they are cool enough to handle, strip off the skin by rubbing it with your fingertips. Wipe the chillies with a damp paper towel to remove the lingering bits of charred skin (it’s OK if small pieces remain), then wrap each one individually in a dry paper towel before laying them on a tray. If you’re doing this in advance, refrigerate the chillies.

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Make the filling. Heat the lard (or oil) in a skillet placed over a medium flame. Add the onion and garlic and cook until soft, stirring occasionally. Mix in the chicken, tomatoes, cinnamon stick, cloves and a sprinkling of salt. Heat until simmering then lower the flame and cook for about five minutes, stirring often. If the mixture sticks to the skillet, stir in a little water. Add the raisins, almonds, vinegar and sugar then season to taste with salt. Continue to cook until the filling is moist but not liquidy; when you press on the ingredients, no excess moisture should ooze out. Season with pepper then cool to room temperature. This can be made in advance, then refrigerated.

Make the salsa. Dice the tomatoes and slice the garlic. Cut the jalapeno chilli in half lengthwise and scrape out the seeds and core. Cut each piece in half lengthwise again then thinly slice them. Chop the onion, then mix it with the tomatoes, garlic and chilli, and season to taste with salt. Set aside the salsa (in the fridge, if needed) until you’re ready to fry the chillies.

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Stuff the chillies and cook the salsa. Very carefully cut a slit into the side of each poblano. Use kitchen scissors to snip off the tight core of seeds near the top of the chilli, taking care not to cut so deep that it pierces the stem. Remove as many of the seeds as possible. Stuff each chilli with the meat mixture, packing it tightly while maintaining the shape of the chilli. Put some flour into a shallow bowl. Put the salsa ingredients in a skillet and heat until simmering, then lower the flame and cook for about two minutes. Turn off the flame.

Pour oil to a depth of about 4cm in a skillet, place it over a medium flame and heat it to about 170 degrees Celsius. While the oil is heating, separate the eggs, putting the yolks into a small bowl, and the whites into a large one. Add half a teaspoon of salt to the whites, then use an electric mixer to whip them until they form soft peaks. Whip in the yolks one by one, then whip in 10 grams of flour.

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Working quickly, lightly coat each chilli with flour, then dip it in the batter, making sure it’s completely covered. Hold the chilli by the stem and lower it into the hot oil. As soon as the batter sets on the bottom of the chilli, turn it over. Constantly ladle the hot oil over the chilli to further cook and brown the surface while the bottom of the chilli is cooking. When the chilli is medium brown, take it from the oil and drain it on paper towels. You’ll need to cook the chillies in batches; do not crowd the pan. Adjust the flame under the skillet as needed to keep the oil at the right temperature.

After frying all the chillies, put them on plates. Heat the salsa again until simmering then spoon it over the chillies. Serve immediately.

Styling: Nellie Ming Lee

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