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Monday, August 25, 2014

Being a vegetarian in Xinjiang, plus tomatoes and eggs

While the areas along the lower Yangtze are home to a vibrant Buddhist food culture that combines ingenuity with a kaleidoscope of fresh ingredients, China’s desert lands pose a challenge for those who prefer meatless meals. 

At least, that was our discovery when my husband and I, then very much dedicated vegetarians, traveled there in the fall of 2001. The problem really wasn’t the lack of vegetables — we ate well, that is for sure — but everyone else in the tour group (nay, the entire Northwest, it seemed) ate little else but meat, and so whenever a restaurant had to think up something to serve just the two of us, panic ensued.

Grape/cherry tomatoes: yum
The assumption by the waitstaff and the cooks was that we were undernourished because we were not consuming enough protein, and so we were given combinations of tomatoes with eggs at breakfast, lunch, and dinner. For the first few days it was kind of funny, and it became a running joke, whether we would have tomatoes and eggs, or eggs and tomatoes, or tomato and egg soup, or egg and tomato over noodles, or some other variation on this increasingly monotonous theme.

By the second week, I had had enough and insisted that I be able to order my own food. The tour guide assumed I was going to bankrupt them with wild demands, but I pointed out that vegetarian dishes were always the cheapest things on the menu. Over the next few weeks, we ate great food while managing to completely avoid both tomatoes and eggs. 

Easy slicing: Step 1
It took me about four years before I could even face the idea of Tomatoes and Eggs again, but when I did, I fell in love all over once more. This is so good that it’s popular all over North China, as well as the Northwest.

There are a few secrets to making these two ingredients turn into something extraordinarily good: 

First, the tomatoes have to be deliciously ripe and the eggs must be fresh and free-range. 

Second, the tomatoes should be in large enough pieces that they do not mush up, as this allows them to retain their individuality. 

I mean, really easy
Third — and this is where most restaurant versions drop the ball — the tomatoes have to be fried in oil with aromatics and a touch of sugar until they almost caramelize, which makes their juices concentrate into a thick marmalade. This juice is what then coats each yellow egg curd and makes it all so luscious. 

Finally, season this with salt rather than soy sauce to keep the flavors sharp and the colors bright.

If you love jiaozi, consider using this as an especially wonderful filling, one that is often enjoyed in the Beijing area as a homey treat. Just cool the finished dish and then chop up any pieces that are larger than ½ inch all around. That’s all there is to it.

Fry with aromatics
Tomatoes and eggs
Xīhóngshì chǎo jīzĭ  西紅柿炒雞子
Serves 4 to 6

1 pound very tasty, red tomatoes of any kind (see Tip)
5 tablespoons fresh peanut or vegetable oil, divided
½ teaspoon sea salt
1 tablespoon finely chopped ginger
2 green onions, trimmed and finely chopped, with the whites in one pile and the greens in another
½ to 1 teaspoon sugar
Freshly ground black pepper
4 large eggs, lightly beaten

1. Cut the tomatoes into pieces about 1 inch wide and ½ inch thick. If you are using cherry tomatoes, cut them in half. For a cool way to easily cut a bunch of tomatoes in half (courtesy of Chef Joshua Stokes on Grill A Chef), place some of the tomatoes on a plastic rimmed lid. Cover them with another lid of the same size, and then run a sharp knife between the lids. Repeat until all have been sliced. Taste a tomato — if it is very sweet, use ½ teaspoon sugar in Step 2; otherwise, use 1 teaspoon.

2. Place a wok over high heat, and when it is hot, swirl in 3 tablespoons of the oil and all of the salt. Fry the ginger and the whites of the onions until they are golden, and then add the sliced tomatoes. Lower the heat to medium-high and fry them, shaking and turning them over every 30 seconds or so. When the juice reduces to few tablespoons, sprinkle on the sugar and toss the tomatoes. Continue to cook them until you can smell the sugar and bits of caramel have formed on your spatula. Scrape the tomatoes out onto a plate.

The omelet setting up
3. Return the wok to medium-high heat and swirl in the rest of the oil. Stir the onion greens into the eggs and pour the eggs into the wok. Flip the eggs over as they solidify and brown until they have formed a golden omelet. Chop the omelet up with your spatula and then toss in the cooked tomatoes. Serve hot.


-      Cherry and plum tomatoes are my favorites for this since they keep their shape well.

Variation: Some people like to make a creamier dish, where the eggs turn custardy, rather than form large curds. To do this, keep the tomatoes in the wok at the end of Step 2 and stir the beaten eggs and onion greens into the tomatoes. Lightly toss these together until the eggs have cooked through.

Monday, August 18, 2014

Chilled boozy winter melon

One restaurant in the heart of Taipei was home to a couple of dishes I loved, but I always was very reluctant to go there. It certainly wasn’t the food that gave me pause. 

Granted, I didn’t go there for the atmosphere, which was more like a giant 1950s-era Rotary Club rec room than anything else: ceilings high enough to play basketball, old beige walls, echoes bouncing across the room, and the feeling that an impromptu bingo game could materialize at any second.

Cut up the melon
There were not many Westerners in Taipei at that time, and I’m sure that I was the only one that ever made it to this restaurant. The reason for this is that it was run by Taiwan’s armed forces as a dining hall for its officers. 

Fortunately for me, the public could also drop in and enjoy the many Yangtze-region delights on its menu. Unfortunately for me, few people seemed to know about the place, and so the waiters had lots of time on their hands.

And so, what always bothered me was not the décor, but one particular waiter, a middle-aged guy from Zhejiang or somewhere in that neighborhood who apparently thought of me as his personal television set. 
Steamed melon

I can still see him in my mind decades later, with his buzz cut and white rayon shirt, because he always planted himself directly in my field of vision and stared at me through the entire meal while smoking his way through a pack of local cigarettes. It was unnerving. And so I’d get up once he had settle in, move my seat so that my back was to him or position my husband between the waiter and me as a sort of visual blockade, and then finally focus on my dinner, which usually started with this fantastic wine-soaked dish.

It’s nothing much, just winter melon steamed until soft and then bathed in a heady marinade seasoned mainly with ginger and Shaoxing wine. The genius part is that it is then chilled. It’s a stunning way to start a summer dinner.

Chilled winter melon with wine and ginger
Jĭuxiāng liáng dōngguā 酒香涼冬瓜
This is what fresh looks like
Serves 4 to 6 as an appetizer

1 square piece of winter melon (about 1 pound, as flat as possible)
2 teaspoons mushroom seasoning, plus more as needed
2 tablespoons Shaoxing rice wine, plus more as needed
1 tablespoon fresh ginger juice
1 lemon
2 tablespoons julienned young ginger

1. Make this the day before you plan to serve it. Rinse the winter melon and pat dry. Remove the seeds and membrane, and then cut off any corners that stick up too high. Slash the flesh down the length of the melon into strips about 1 inch apart, cutting down all the way (but not through) the skin. Turn the melon 90 degrees and cut crosswise 1 inch apart. This will allow the melon to cook quickly and evenly, and also help the flesh easily absorb the seasonings.
A nice sized melon wedge

2. Place the melon on a rimmed, heatproof plate and sprinkle on the mushroom seasoning and rice wine. Steam the melon until the flesh is tender; to check, insert a chopstick in the center of the melon at the bottom of a cut—the chopstick should slide in easily. Remove the melon from the steamer and let it cool down a bit until you can handle it easily.

3. When it has cooled down enough for you to handle it easily, put the melon flesh-side down in a container along with any liquid from the steamer. Taste it, while you’re at it, and add more mushroom seasoning and rice wine as needed. Pour in the ginger juice. Zest the lemon and sprinkle it in, as well as about a teaspoon of the lemon juice. Cover the container and refrigerate the melon overnight.

4. Just before serving, use a thin blade to cut the flesh loose from the skin without disrupting its natural shape. Place the melon on a rimmed serving plate. Taste the sauce again and adjust the seasoning as needed. Sprinkle sauce and the optional ginger over the melon. Serve chilled or just above room temperature as an appetizer or side dish.

Monday, August 11, 2014

One of Shaoxing's most divine dishes, and that's saying a lot

Getting this one dish right took me decades, but in the end it was worth it. When done right — like here — a perfect balance is struck between sweet and savory, meat and vegetable, fresh and preserved, tender and chewy. 

A specialty of the Shaoxing area of Zhejiang, it relies upon a seasoned dried mustard called meicai, which literally means “plum vegetable.” This always struck me as strange until I one day realized that the original name was méicài 霉菜, or “moldy vegetable,” since the mustard is allowed to ferment much like soy sauce, another specialty of the region.

The key seasoning
The Hakka have a dish with the same name and similar ingredients, the main difference being the type of preserved vegetable being used (the Hakkas prefer a fatter mustard with crunchy stems, rather than the shriveled leaves of Shaoxing) and the way in which the pork belly is prepared, as the meat is kept in one piece rather than sliced, as it is here. Some have surmised that this dish was brought by the Hakka when they moved south from the Yangtze area into Guangdong hill country.

This is without doubt the best recipe for this dish I’ve ever tasted. Deep winey flavors combine with lots of ginger and green onions to season the pork and vegetable. I love this for a cool weather dinner, and the first days of autumn have convinced me to make it again. It’s easy enough for just the family and delicious enough to please the finickiest guest. It’s also a great make-ahead dish that can be stashed in the fridge or freezer, making dinner parties a breeze.
Shaoxing style meicai

Molded pork with preserved vegetables
Méicài kòuròu 梅菜扣肉
Serves 4 to 6
1 pound nicely-striped pork belly with the skin on
Supporting cast
1 tablespoon dark soy sauce
¼ cup oil for frying
Water as needed

Vegetables and the rest:
6 ounces Shaoxing style meicai
¼ cup Shaoxing rice wine
¼ cup thinly sliced ginger
3 green onions, trimmed but left whole  
1 piece of rock sugar (about the size of a large cherry), or more as needed
1½ teaspoons white liquor

1. Rinse the pork and pat it dry. Pluck out any hairs on the skin and trim off any nipples. Pour the soy sauce into a medium work bowl and place the pork skin-side down into the soy sauce to marinate while you prepare the rest of the ingredients. Have a wok ready, as well as the oil and a pot of cool tap water.
Fry the skin, then soak

2. Place the meicai in a sieve (not a colander, as the holes are often too big) and rinse it with very warm tap water. As soon as it has softened up a bit, squeeze the meicai dry and place it on a chopping board. Work apart the clumps and use kitchen shears to chop any largish pieces. Place the meicai in a small work bowl and toss it with the rice wine.

3. Place the wok over medium-high heat, and when it is hot, add the oil. Wipe the pork skin dry and fry only the skin of the pork. Cover the wok with a spatter screen, and when the pork can be easily shaken loose and the skin is a nice brown, remove the pork from the wok and place it in the pan of cool water. As soon as it can be handled easily, slice the pork crosswise into pieces about ¼-inch thick.

4. Scatter the pork slices over the meicai and then sprinkle on the ginger slices. Lay the whole green onions on top, and finally add the rock sugar.

Ready for 1st steaming
5. Prepare a steamer and place the bowl in there. If the steamer cover will drip water down into the bowl, cover the bowl with a saucer; otherwise, it’s all right to leave it uncovered. Steam the pork for around 2 hours, remove it from the steamer, and let it come to room temperature. Remove the green onions (they are very tasty, so keep them as a cook’s treat) and reserve the ginger slices. Drain the sauce out into a measuring cup. If the sauce has a layer of fat, refrigerate it until the fat hardens and can be easily removed.

6. Line the inside of a heatproof 6-cup bowl with the pork slices by first placing 1 or 2 of the prettiest slices at the very bottom and then covering the sides by overlapping them in an attractive pattern. Mound the meicai in the middle and lightly pack it down. Sprinkle on the white liquor, pour in the sauce, and arrange the ginger slices back over the top.
2nd steaming

7. Steam the bowl as in Step 5 for another 4 hours or so. This can be done ahead of time, and then this dish can be cooled down before being refrigerated or frozen. Just before serving, steam the pork until it is heated through.

8. To serve, pour off the sauce into a measuring cup. Place a rimmed plate over the bowl and flip it over onto the plate. Pour the sauce around the molded pork and serve.

Monday, August 4, 2014

Sesame + fish = one very amazing dinner

Sesame is beloved throughout China. Foods in the north probably could not exist without either their toasted seeds or creamy paste. A close second for this devotion would be the cuisines along the lower Yangtze.

I developed this dish in order to combine my own delight in these little seeds with mild fish filets, chunks of fresh garlic, and the rich piquance of black vinegar. The results are — if I may be so immodest as to say myself — stellar.

A particularly delicious discovery was that using nothing other than sesame seeds as the breading works perfectly, and, unlike any other breading I can think of, they do not get soggy. Sauces can therefore drizzled over them with impunity, and the sesame will still stay crunchy.
Nirvana for sesame lovers

This is a great dish for family meals or even the fanciest dinner, as most of it can be prepared ahead of time. Only a quick turn in some hot oil is needed at the last minute.

Sesame fish
Zhīmá yúpiàn 芝麻魚片
Jiangsu (in style)
Serves 4 to 6

Fish and marinade:
1 pound mild-flavored fish filets (skinned and boneless)
1 large egg white
½ teaspoon sea salt
Freshly ground black pepper
2 cloves garlic, finely minced
White half of a green onion, finely minced
2 tablespoons cornstarch

2 tablespoons toasted sesame oil
3 tablespoons peanut or vegetable oil
½ cup coarsely chopped garlic
½ cup Shaoxing rice wine
¼ cup black vinegar
2 tablespoons light soy sauce
2 teaspoons or more sugar

10 tablespoons (or more) raw white or unhulled sesame seeds
Oil for frying
Green half of a green onion, thinly sliced
Easily prep

1. Start this dish at least 2 hours before it is to be served. To prepare the fish, rinse it and, if necessary, cut it into pieces around ¼ inch thick. Then, trim the filets into pieces between 2 and 3 inches long. Run your fingertips over both sides of the fish and use tweezers to pull out any bones you find. Pat the filets dry.

2. Place the egg white into a sealable container and lightly beat the white until it is foamy. Mix in the rest of the marinade ingredients. Add the filets to the marinade, toss them around so that they all become coated, cover the container, and chill the fish for at least 2 hours and up to 8 hours before cooking them.

3. Next, prepare the sauce by placing a wok over medium heat. When it is hot, pour in the oil and add the garlic. Gently fry the garlic until it is lightly browned, and then stir in the rest of the ingredients. Bring the sauce to a boil over high heat, taste and adjust the seasoning, and reduce the sauce until it is thick and bubbly.

4. Pour the sesame seeds into a rimmed plate. Have a clean baking sheet for the coated fish ready. Dip one slice of fish at a time into the sesame seeds, turn it over, and pat the seeds all over. Place the coated fish slice on the baking sheet and repeat with the rest of the fish until all of them have been coated. Discard any leftover marinade and sesame seeds.

5. Just before serving, have a rimmed platter next to the stove and place a skillet over medium heat. When the skillet is hot, pour in about ¼ inch of oil. As soon as a chopstick inserted in the oil bubbles all over, add the coated fish slices one piece at a time. Do this in a couple of batches so that the fish pieces are not crowded. Fry the fish on one side until it is a golden brown, gently flip it over to fry the other side until it too is golden, and arrange the cooked fish on the platter. Repeat with the rest of the fish until all of it has been fried.

6. Bring the sauce to a boil again, immediately pour it over the fish, sprinkle on the green onion slices, and serve.