Monday, July 25, 2016

Dandan noodles chez moi

Back when I worked at the museum in Taipei in the early 1980's, my absolute favorite place to grab a bowl of that genius dish known as Dandan Noodles was in the crazy maze of shops called Qingguang Market on Zhongshan North Road. 

Fortunately for me, this was located right near a bus stop where I could hop off and fill up before transferring to a feeder line out to the suburbs. I couldn’t have planned it better myself.

The lady who ran the little stall that I soon came to view almost as a second home would greet me with a big smile and then not even ask what I wanted, but went to work blanching the greens and dipping her noodles into boiling water, and then layering a big ladle of rich, spicy, intensely aromatic sauce over everything in the thick, wide bowl that she’d set before me.

This dish was perfect and has always stood out as my gold standard. I did try (and love) many other Sichuanese noodle places in Taipei, especially Old Zhang’s Dandan Noodles near downtown, as well as another and much tinier hole in the wall out near where I once worked as an editor on a magazine out in the western district. But that dark little cubbyhole in the market always called me back with its siren song and the promise of an amazing snack that would settle me down for the long ride home.
Spicy, delectable beef
Over the years I’ve messed around with my initial guesstimate on that particularly beloved version and have come up with a winner. It’s beefy, but in a lovely gravelly way that grounds all of the many flavors. Like Dandan Noodles everywhere, it’s spicy and numbing for sure (and you can certainly dial these down if you like a more restrained spectrum), but the nuttiness in the sauce mellows out the nerve-popping elements and soothes your mouth. You end up feeling rather slapped around while being given the most wonderful back massage, if that makes any sense.

I always make a nice pot of this, as it hangs out helpfully in the fridge for whenever we need a quick meal. The sauce keeps everything fresh for quite a few days, so there’s no worry about it immediately going bad. And, of course, you can always freeze it in smaller portions, microwave what you need, and then toss it over some fresh noodles. This is fast food, but with passion.

Dandan noodles chez moi
Huángjiā dāndān miàn 黃家擔擔麵
Serves 8

¼ cup / 60 ml peanut or vegetable oil
2 tablespoons coarsely ground dried chiles (or less, if you prefer this mild)
2 tablespoons / 30 ml finely chopped ginger (about 5 thin slices)
¼ cup / 40g raw sesame seeds
1 to 2 tablespoons Sichuan hot bean sauce (la doubanjiang)
2 teaspoons ground toasted Sichuan peppercorns
1 pound / 450g lean ground beef
½ cup / 135g peanut butter (crunchy or smooth, salted or unsalted)
½ cup / 135g toasted sesame paste
¼ cup / 60 ml regular soy sauce
3 cloves garlic, finely minced
2 tablespoons sugar
1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar
1 cup boiling water
2 tablespoons toasted chile oil, or to taste

Fresh wheat noodles, thick or thin (about ¼ pound / 110g) per person

Garnish (per bowl):
A small handful of spinach, cleaned carefully, and/or some julienned cucumbers, optional
1 teaspoon ground toasted Sichuan peppercorns
2 tablespoons finely chopped green onions
¼ cup coarsely chopped peanuts

Gravelly, nutty sauce
1. Set the wok over medium-low heat and pour in the oil. Add the chile flakes and ginger, and then slowly cook these until the ginger threatens to brown. Add the sesame seeds, continue to fry these aromatics until the sesame seeds are golden, and the scoot most of this up the sides of the wok. Add the bean paste to the oil and stir it around to fry out the raw taste, and then raise the heat to high before adding the ground Sichuan peppercorns and beef. Stir-fry the beef constantly to keep it from burning, and break apart any lumps so that you are left with fine meaty pebbles. When the meat is browned and getting a tiny bit crunchy, scoop the meat out into a medium work bowl.

2. Start boiling the noodles as per package directions. In the meantime, set the wok back on medium heat and bring the peanut butter, sesame paste, soy sauce, garlic, sugar, and vinegar to a simmer. Stir this sauce until smooth, adding a bit of the noodle water as needed to make it a little bit soupy. Adjust the seasoning with more chile oil or anything else you like.

Chewy, fresh noodles
3. When the noodles are done to your liking, scoop them out into your noodle bowls (reserve the hot water). If you’re using it, blanch the spinach and nestle it next to the mound of noodles. Arrange some cucumbers on the other side of the noodles, if you want. Ladle as much of the sauce on top as desired, add about ¼ cup / 60 ml of the pasta water into the bowl around the edges, and have a small bowl of the hot pasta water ready for each diner, as the noodles might soak up the sauce and become tacky as you work your way happily down to the bottom of the bowl. (This all depends upon the type of noodles you use – some are like little sponges, while others stay aloof.) Sprinkle the ground peppercorns, green onions, and peanuts on top in an attractive manner, and serve hot. Let each diner toss the noodles before digging in, and dribble in more pasta water as needed.

Monday, July 18, 2016

Boozy pork ribs - you need this recipe

Just a quick note to my lovely readers before we get going on this week's recipe:
- There is a quick story by me on the program called "The World" on Public Radio International.
- The summer grilling issue of Saveur features a big article on the Uyghur cuisine of Xinjiang with my recipes and features some friends of ours in Ürümqi. It's not online yet, but is on newsstands as we speak...
- The new Ghostbusters reboot by Paul Feig features a Chinatown design my husband and I helped with as cultural advisors, including the GB headquarters and surrounding buildings. 

Now, back to eating!

This is heavenly stuff. Easy to make, these ribs are downright aromatic just about every step of the way. 

First you marinate the pork in nothing but soy sauce, but when you fry it, the soy sauce caramelizes and turns your kitchen into a sweet-smelling chamber. 

I would cheerfully wear this scent instead of Chanel No. 5 because everyone would love me for it and I could forego any attempts at a fashioning some sort of personality. I am not proud of this fact, but want to be honest here.

The sauce is just as delicious-smelling. Wafts of fermented wine mix with ginger and green onions to form an alcoholic cloud, and when the pork is added, the perfumes seem to magnify.

Caramelization is the best
And when the meat has been cooked to absolute perfection, it transforms into tender pillows held together by those terribly convenient bones, which allow for relaxed snacking. The caramelized pork juices will have married perfectly with the wine and sugar, giving you a lovely balance of sweet and savory.

Boozy Pork Ribs is a great dish for any time of year. It’s also insanely easy to master the first time around. I’d serve this with either warm Shaoxing rice wine or a really cold stout.

Boozy pork ribs
Xiāngzāo lăozĭpái 香糟老子排
Serves 4 as an appetizer, bar snack, or entree 

1 pound / 450g pork ribs, cut in half by your butcher
2 tablespoons regular soy sauce (see Tips)
1 cup frying oil
2 green onions, trimmed and finely chopped (keep most of the green leaves separate for the final step)
¼ cup / 30g finely chopped ginger
Stir-fry the aromatics
¾ cup / 180ml fermented rice (homemade or store-bought), both solids and liquid
1 tablespoon rock sugar, or more as needed (see Tips)
¾ cup / 180ml boiling water

1. Cut between the bones of the ribs so that each bone is surrounded by meat. Toss the ribs in a work bowl with the soy sauce and marinate for a couple of hours (or even a couple of days) so that the meat absorbs the soy sauce. Drain the ribs and discard any leftover marinade.

2. Pour the frying oil in the wok and set it over medium-high heat. When the oil starts to shimmer, add a handful of the ribs and fry them until they are lightly caramelized on all sides, about 10 minutes. Remove to a work bowl. Repeat with the rest of the ribs. Pour out all but about a tablespoon of oil.

Add the green onions leaves
3. Set the wok back over high heat. Add the whiter parts of the green onions as well as the ginger, and then stir-fry them to release their fragrance. (The soy sauce will have caramelized at the bottom of the wok, so take care that the aromatics don’t burn – do this by stirring constantly and removing the wok from the heat once they are golden.) Add the fermented rice, sugar, and water, bring this to a boil, and then slide in the ribs. 

4. Stir these around a bit and then reduce the heat to medium-low, or to maintain a gentle simmer. Cook the ribs for about 30 minutes, or until tender. Toss in the reserved green onions. Arrange the ribs on a serving plate. Reduce the sauce until thick and pour over the ribs. Serve hot or warm.


Every soy sauce and fermented rice is different, respectively, in terms of saltiness and sweetness. So, err on the side of less when you toss in condiments and seasonings like these, as you can easily add more. 

In this case, the fermented rice in particular can be everything from sour to highly alcoholic to saccharine – it all depends on what you have. Take a taste of it before you use it (a good idea with any seasoning, to be honest), and then adjust the sugar accordingly.

As is true for so many Chinese braises, try to hunt down rock sugar, preferably yellow rock sugar, which has not been bleached. This sort of sugar will make a world of difference in your dishes, for sauces and sweet soups will not have the slightly sour that white sugar can impart, and it lends an amazing sheen to porky or chicken creations like this. I mean look at these ribs. They shine like a rock diva. 

Monday, July 11, 2016

A light summer chowder from Zhejiang's West Lake

If you have ever looked at an old Chinese blue-and-white porcelain dish covered with willow trees and fanciful rocks and elegant pagodas and moon bridges, you are probably looking at a picture of West Lake, or somewhere thereabouts. This ancient vacation spot has been beloved by poets and literati for ages, for it is one of those ideal landscapes that manage to insert mankind into nature in some indefinably perfect way.

West Lake probably got its name because it is located to the west of Zhejiang Province’s capital city of Hangzhou. Like the idyllic gardens surrounding this body of water, the lake itself is a mixture of the artificial and the natural, since it actually is a Tang dynasty reservoir – meaning it is over 1,200 years old – an engineering feat of no small accomplishment. One of the possible byproducts of this new and vast supply of freshwater to the good folks of Hangzhou was that city turned into the country’s new imperial  for a couple of succeeding dynasties, and in the process transforming West Lake into a cultural, as well as an aquatic, conduit.
Chinese blue-and-white landscape

This is one of the many reasons why Zhejiang possesses one of my favorites of all of China’s cuisines. I probably can count on one hand the few places where I would happily dine for the rest of my life, and Zhejiang always makes the cut. One of the reasons for this is that tastes from all over China manage to work their way into the local pantries, so excellent dried and cured things add depth to the dishes.

But perhaps even more importantly, fresh ingredients are practically a way of life there. Classic Zhejiang dishes rely on stellar vegetables and the flesh of animals that were living and breathing just moments ago. Life therefore vibrates in these foods, like the scent of bamboo shoots still warm from the sun or the spectrum that flashes off a fish when it is so fresh that rainbows dance up and down its skin. In most of these dishes, great soy sauce, mellow rice wines, rock sugar, and ginger – either in concert or just one or two at a time – cavort in the background and turn each dish into a celebration.

One of my all-time favorites is this, a summertime soup that is just as easy to make as it is to polish off with a happy sigh. As always, get your hands on the best ingredients you can find, since there are no heavy sauces or strong flavors to mask apathetic offerings from the supermarket. Good stock is a must, and if you don’t have homemade, locate some fine quality commercial brand, preferably organic and as lightly salted as possible, since many are so saline that they can easily tip the balance of the seasonings in here. That’s how delicate West Lake Beef Chowder is.
Soft, soft ivory cubes

Most traditional recipes for this call for cilantro as the main green, but my husband once suggested watercress, and it turned out to be an inspired idea. Cilantro, while beautiful and tasty here, can tend to overwhelm, especially if you are not a huge fan. But watercress plays nice with others. There’s a gentle peppery bite in there that keeps the mouth awake while it is being otherwise soothed by the creamy broth, wisps of egg white and beef, and tiny cubes of custardy bean curd and black mushrooms. Perfect balance is what you always aim for in any classic Chinese dish, but in Zhejiang it is even more important, as you will find in this amazing summer chowder.

West Lake beef chowder
Xīhú níuròu gēng  西湖牛肉羹
Serves 4 to 6

1 quart / 1l unsalted or lightly salted beef stock
1 quart / 1l boiling water
2 tablespoons / 15g finely chopped fresh ginger (about 5 thin slices)
1 teaspoon sugar
Freshly ground black pepper to taste
Aromatic mushroomy cubes

The rest:
7 ounces / 200g soft bean curd (half a block)
2 ounces / 110g fresh black mushrooms (around 3 large), or dried and plumped up (see Tips)
¼ to ½ bunch very fresh watercress or cilantro
8 ounces / 235g thinly sliced flank steak (see Tips)
2 teaspoons cornstarch mixed with 1 tablespoon water
1 egg white lightly beaten with 1 tablespoon water
2 to 3 tablespoons toasted sesame oil

1. First put the beef stock and water on to simmer in a 3-quart / 3-liter pan. Add the ginger, sugar, and black pepper. Lower the heat to a gentle simmer and let it cook in the background while you prepare the rest of the ingredients.

2. Slice the bean curd horizontally into 5 or so thin wafers and then lengthwise into strips, and then finally crosswise to form a bunch of tiny white cubes. They don’t have to be exact, but the more uniform they are, the prettier your chowder will be. Just saying.
A touch of bite to the mix

3. Remove the stems from the mushrooms and slice the caps horizontally so that they are around the same thickness as your bean curd cubes. Then, slice these into cubes. Rinse the watercress, trim off any tough ends, and chop this coarsely so that they will look complementary to the rest of the ingredients. Do the same with the beef. (This recipe can be done ahead up to this point and all these elements refrigerated. About 30 minutes before serving, bring the stock to a boil again and then proceed.)

4. Add the bean curd and mushrooms to the stock and bring to a full boil before reducing the heat to a simmer. Allow the mushrooms about 15 minutes to release their flavors into the soup, and also to give the bean curd a chance to absorb them. About 5 minutes before serving, bring the soup to a boil and stir in the beef and the cornstarch mixture. Gently stir the soup as it thickens up into a chowder, and as soon as the meat has turned from red to gray, remove the pan from the heat, adjust the seasoning, and stir in the watercress or cilantro. Drizzle the egg white over the soup in a thin ribbon, and let it set up and turn opaque before gently stirring it into the chowder. Sprinkle the sesame oil on top and serve.
Lovely flank steak


Fresh black mushrooms (sometimes sold as fresh shiitake) are ideal here, as they have a soft texture that bounces admirably off the pillowy bean curd. If you don’t have these, soak some dried black mushrooms overnight in cool water, which will give them a better texture; strain the soaking liquid into the stock in Step 1.

Any good quality boneless and relatively lean beef is good here. I like to buy it already thinly sliced, as for a hot pot, since this makes it even more tender. Whatever you get, stash the meat in the freezer for 20 to 30 minutes before you slice it, as this will allow you to control it better and get thinner pieces.

Monday, July 4, 2016

Wenzhou style caramelized pork ribs

Zhejiang’s cuisine is one of the lushest in China. Why we don’t have temples dedicated to nothing but their outrageously delicious dishes is completely beyond my comprehension. 

Its creations are not that hard most of the time, but simply require excellent ingredients and a generous hand with the alcohol and/or soy sauce and/or rock sugar and/or maltose. I mean, wouldn’t you want to eat sexy foods all the time if you had your druthers?

This province is located to the west of Shanghai and is Jiangsu’s southern cousin. All three cuisines are tightly interwoven in interesting ways. Chinese folks will generally tell you, though, that Zhejiang’s dishes tend to be on the sweet side, while Jiangsu’s are savorier, and Shanghai’s is a delicious mash-up of influences, mainly from China’s gorgeous seacoast and the wealth of the Yangtze River. And yes, Zhejiang does have a way with caramelization that leads to fabulous renditions of pork, shellfish, poultry, and even vegetables. I mean, use the search button on the right to find some decadent examples.
Mmmm, maltose
Today, though, you have one already in front of you. Wenzhou Style Caramelized Pork Ribs is all about pork and sugar blasted by hot fat and then turning into a sublime dish unlike anything you will find in the rest of China. It’s from Wenzhou, which is a fishing village on the coast renowned for its stellar way with ingredients.

Really simple, really delicious – this is a recipe to keep on hand when you need a good boost of flavor in your life. The caramelization in these ribs screams out for Shaoxing rice wine as the beverage of choice, with cold beer (go with something dark and rich, like chocolate stout) as an excellent alternative.

The only secret you need to know about this dish is that you must keep the pork moist. I do that by first marinating the ribs and then frying them quickly for the absolute minimum of time – you don’t want to overcook these guys. Once the meat is cooked through and the edges have blackened, serve them toot sweet. You will have lots of this slightly tart and very savory sauce hanging around afterward – use this to season other dishes. Just give it a taste, and you'll know what to do.

Wenzhou style caramelized pork ribs
Wēnzhōu zhá páigŭ 溫州炸排骨
Serves 2 to 4 (2 as a main dish, 4 if there are other things on the table)
Marinating ribs

1 pound / 450g pork ribs, cut in half by your butcher
2 tablespoons regular soy sauce
1 tablespoon (or more) finely chopped ginger
1 tablespoon / 12ml Shaoxing rice wine
1½ tablespoons maltose
1 cup / 240ml frying oil
1 green onion, trimmed and sliced into thin round

Dipping sauce:
¼ cup / 60ml regular soy sauce
¼ cup / 60 ml balsamic vinegar
1 teaspoon toasted sesame oil

1. Cut between the bones of the ribs so that each bone is surrounded by meat. Toss the ribs in a work bowl with the soy sauce and ginger. Heat the rice wine and maltose together to melt the maltose, and then mix this into the ribs, too. Give the meat time to absorb all these flavors – at least an hour and up to 3 days.

2. Have a plate, chopsticks, and either a Chinese spider or a slotted spoon set next to the stove. Drain any remaining meat marinade into a small saucepan. Pour about the frying oil into a wok and set it over medium heat. When the oil starts to shimmer, add the pork to the oil. Fry it on all sides until golden (about 10 minutes total), and then scoop it out and place it on the clean plate. This can be done ahead of time and the pork refrigerated.
Simmer down the sauce

3. Add the soy sauce and vinegar to the saucepan and simmer them together in a small saucepan until the liquid is reduced and it has the consistency of warm honey. Pour this into a shallow bowl.

4. Just before serving, raise the heat under the wok to medium-high and fry the ribs are until caramelized all over. Sprinkle on the green onions and serve immediately with the dipping sauce. Serve hot.

Monday, June 27, 2016

Feel better soup from Shanghai

If I were asked to think of another country where something sweet was considered therapeutic, I’d be hard pressed to come up with an answer. But China does this on a regular basis. Case in point: this marvelous concoction.

In many ways, this is very similar to a regular old fermented rice soup. Shanghai, though, manages to ratchet the flavors and textures and colors up a whole lot, creating something that is quite unique all the way around. Corn is in there to round out the nutrition and add wonderful bits for the teeth to play with, and wolfberries add a dash of scarlet and light sourness to the mix. Did I happen to mention that this is delicious, too?

Chinese moms whip up soups like this whenever someone doesn’t feel well, has had a baby, or is otherwise miserable. One reason for this is that the fermented rice gets the circulation going, which warms up the toes and makes life seem just a tad more livable. Second is that it just tastes so darned good. And third is, it’s a snap to pull together.
Shave off the kernels

Fermented rice, wolfberry, and corn soup
Gŏuqĭ jīróng yùmĭ gēng  枸杞雞蓉玉米羹
Serves 8

¼ cup / 30g wolfberries
Boiling water, as needed
2 ears fresh corn, or around 1½ cups / 300g frozen tender corn kernels
2 cups / 450ml fermented rice, both solids and liquid
Rock sugar, to taste
1 tablespoon cornstarch dissolved in 2 tablespoons cool water
2 large eggs, lightly beaten

1. Rinse the wolfberries, place them in a small heatproof bowl, and cover with boiling water while you prepare the rest of the ingredients.

2. Cut the corn off of the cobs and use your knife to scrape off any pulp and juice. Or, measure out the frozen corn.
Totally luscious

3. About 10 minutes before you serve this, bring 3 cups of water to a full boil in a medium saucepan. Add the wolfberries, their soaking liquid, and the corn. Allow the soup to come to a boil again, and then use a whisk to stir in the fermented rice so that it breaks apart into grains. Add about 1 tablespoon rock sugar, or to taste. When it comes to a boil the third time, stir in the cornstarch mixture until the soup has thickened.

4. Remove the pan from the heat and drizzle the eggs on top in a thin ribbon, back and forth. Wait for about a minute, and then gently stir to make the eggs form gentle wisps. Serve immediately.


This can be made ahead of time up through Step 3. But don’t add the eggs until the last minute, as you want them to be silky and soft. Reheating the soup just turns them leathery.

Consider this for breakfast, too
The secret to these velvety eggs is the way in which they are poached: the pan is taken off the heat, the eggs are dribbled across the top (never poured into the pan in a vast puddle), and then they are left alone to set up. This way they won’t turn into nasty little tough threads. Instead, they will be sensuous and calming. A simple trick, but incredibly useful.

If you don't want to serve this all at once, reserve half (or so) of the soup after you’ve finished with Step 3 and add the eggs to whatever you’re eating at the time.