Monday, May 22, 2017

The greatest Taiwanese sandwich of all time: guabao

Taiwan is home to many great things to eat, and its street foods are some of the best around. In fact, any of my visits to Taipei seem to always center around breakfast at a soymilk joint, snacks at a street stall as I get hungry throughout the day, and evenings spent at the night market, where mainly Taiwanese delights – but also numerous Mainland favorites – can be had on the cheap.

One of my eternal loves is the perfect sammie known as the guabao. They have everything: pickled meets fresh, salty sidles nesweet, meaty matches up with vegetal, starch balances the protein, and against this all you have a combination of steamed, braised, stir-fried, raw, and toasted all in a small package. 

And even though they rarely disappoint no matter where they’re produced, I have to say, if I have a choice between eating them in a restaurant, a street stand, or at a Taiwanese grandma’s home, I always always always pick the grandma. And second choice is my house.

Mustard pickle and chiles
This is, in fact, perfect homestyle food, the kind of thing Chinese cooks seem to master as they age. 

Perhaps it’s because we have more time to slowly braise the pork, maybe it’s because the grandkids are coming over and we want to spoil them with a delicious snack, or perhaps it’s just that home cooking is almost always the best.

As Taiwanese as this dish is, though, it originally came from Fujian’s capital city of Fuzhou. You can taste the almost Dongpo Pork-style flavors of the rich, red-cooked pork shining through. 

And then there are the soft wrappers, a variation on mantou that are almost the spitting image of the Lotus Buns we made last week. Both of these point to more northern areas than the foods of the usual ancestor for most of Taiwan’s foods: Southern Fujian, and in particular the luscious city of Quanzhou.

A guabao wrapper
But ancestry aside, these are fun to make and even more fun to eat. I highly recommend preparing a batch of these for a party (multiply the recipes a couple of times if you’re expecting a crowd) because everything can be made ahead of time, and then all you have to do is simply heat up the meat and buns right before serving. 

The only relatively difficult thing required here is the making of the buns, but honestly, if you toss the dough together in a food processor as recommended, you’ll be done faster than you could possibly imagine.

Now, a word on nomenclature. The correct Taiwanese name for this sandwich is kua-pao 刈包, which in Mandarin is pronounced yìbāo, but which everybody now pronounces as guàbao as an approximation of that Taiwanese name. That’s why you’ll sometimes see this written in Chinese as guàbāo 掛包or gēbāo 割包

The funny thing is that it’s also called “tiger biting a pig” in Taiwanese (hoo-ka-ti 虎咬豬), I guess because it looks like a big tiger’s mouth with a nice slice of pork inside.

A classic
Be that as it may, in Taiwan this sandwich is traditionally served on the sixteenth day of the twelfth lunar month. That day is called Wĕiyá 尾牙, and is the year’s final day for making offerings to the Earth God. Some say that these sandwiches are shaped like tigers’ mouths so that they devour all the bad luck of the year. And then we devour the tigers. Circle of life. Hakuna matata.

Guabao
Makes 20 sandwiches (count on at least 2 per person)
Guàbāo 刈包
Fujian and Taiwan

Meat:
Around 2 pounds (900 g) good pork belly, preferably with the skin
Water, as needed
2 inches (5 cm) fresh ginger, thinly sliced
6 whole green onions
1½ cups (350 ml) Taiwan Mijiu, or other mild Chinese cooking rice wine
12 star anise
4 tablespoons rock sugar, or sugar to taste
¼ cup (60 ml) regular soy sauce

Mustard pickle:
1 pound (or so) pickled mustard (suāncài 酸菜, preferably from Taiwan)
¼ cup (60 ml) peanut or vegetable oil
2 dried Thai chiles, seeded and chopped
2 teaspoons sugar, or to taste

Peanuts:
1 cup finely chopped toasted peanuts, either oven toasted (see All Under Heaven) or deep-fried
2 tablespoons sugar
Roll out the wrapper

½ bunch of cilantro, cleaned, dried, and chopped
1 recipe lotus leaf buns (see Tips), steamed and hot

1. Start this recipe at least a day and up to a week ahead of time. Remove any hairs in the pig skin, freeze it for around half an hour to firm it up, and then slice it into around 20 pieces about 2 inches (5 cm) wide by ⅜ inch (10 mm) thick (see Tips). Place the pork in a saucepan, cover with water, bring the water to a full boil, and then lower the heat to a simmer. After about 10 minutes, discard the water and rinse off any scum on the pork and pan. Return the pork to the pan and add 2 cups (475 ml) water and the rest of the ingredients for the meat, except for the soy sauce. Bring the pan to a full boil, lower the heat to a simmer, and cook the pork for about 2 hours, or until it is tender but not falling apart, adding more water as necessary. When the pork is done, remove the star anise, ginger, and green onions, add the soy sauce, and then quickly boil down the liquid until it is thick and syrupy. Taste and adjust the seasoning as needed. Remove the pan from the heat, cool it to room temperature, and chill overnight or longer. About a half hour before serving, skim off the solid fat and then simmer the pork slowly in the reduced sauce until it is heated through, taking care not to burn the pork. 
 
Brush with oil and fold over
2. Up to a couple of days before serving, rinse off the mustard pickle, squeeze it dry, and then cut it crosswise into thin strips. Heat the oil in a wok or pan and add the chile peppers. When they start to sizzle, add the mustard pickle. Stir-fry them just to heat them through and remove the rawness. Season with the sugar and then scrape into a serving bowl. In a separate serving bowl, mix together the peanuts and sugar. Pile the cilantro in a third bowl. Arrange these three bowls on the dining table along with your baskets of hot buns and the steaming pork in its sauce.

3. Have each diner fill his or her own sandwiches. You can fill one first to show how it’s done. My preferred way of doing this (because it seems to make them more stable) is to open up a bun and place the mustard pickle on the bottom, followed by a slice of pork, then a sprinkle of peanuts and sugar (which will glue to the sauce on the pork), and then add a mound of cilantro. Close the bun around this and then devour.
Absolutely perfect pork belly

Tips

For this dish, don’t decorate the buns, but rather simply roll the dough out into a long oval and then fold it in half.

Don’t slice the pork too thinly, as it is important to prevent it from falling apart. You want each slice to be about the same width as the buns. 

Good quality pork belly is paramount here, so find an excellent butcher.

Try saving the rendered fat from the pork and using it for a stir-fry. Or, use it to fry up a couple of sunny-side-up eggs. Or do as my mother-in-law loved: melt some, drizzle it over a bowl of hot steamed rice, and season with some soy sauce. 


Monday, May 15, 2017

Hunan's honey ham with lotus buns

Lately I’ve been writing about some great meals I've eaten during my life, and my biggest and saddest realization has been that so many of the almost iconic and classical dishes of China's greatest food cultures have completely disappeared. And I cannot for the life of me figure out why.

When I worked at the history museum and other cultural institutions in the early eighties, part of my job included interpreting at the various mainland-style restaurants the directors took foreign visitors to for lunch or dinner. 

One of the favorites was Peng’s Agora Garden (Péng yuán 彭園), a wonderful Hunan restaurant that gloried in the classics of this south-central province.

These banquets were nuanced balancing acts between the rich and subdued, the sweet and savory. One dish that knocked me for a loop was a plate of seasoned meatballs steamed in small honeydews called xiāngguā 香瓜 (“fragrant melons”) that were inevitably translated as “mushmelons.” 

Caramelization at work
Be that as it may, the crisp rinds acted as firm bowls, while the juices of their gentle jade flesh wove between the pork and aromatics into an exciting broth that turned preconceptions upside-down. Was this a fruit dish? Yes, but.

And that got me to thinking about why we never see these amazing foods anymore, even in China. It’s all about street snacks and simple restaurant cooking nowadays, or chile peppers and Sichuan peppercorns, all of which I love… don’t get me wrong. 

And yet, all of us – Chinese people included – are missing out on so much by concentrating on the dishes that are easy and accessible and overly seasoned.

Take today’s recipe, for example. This blows peoples’ minds whenever I serve it. 

Thin slices of lovely cured pork are steamed with slab sugar and lotus seeds, and then served as little sammies with the caramelized sauce. It’s the perfect finale for a meal. And it’s ridiculously easy: assemble and steam. Perfection achieved.

Secret weapon revealed
Why this isn’t known and beloved by every devotee of good cooking is beyond me. Perhaps it’s because Chinese ham can’t be imported. But then again, other types of cured pork can be used instead with great results. 

I’ve tried the gamut – prosciutto and Smithfield ham were obvious subs – but in the end I returned to Hunan and its long-term love affair with charcuterie for the perfect meat.

Smoked Hunan-style cured pork (Húnán làròu 湖南臘肉) works like a dream here. Unlike prosciutto or Smithfield ham, it is not too salty, and the flavor is subtle enough to offer the requisite balance of savory and the sweet in this dish. 

Two wonderful things about this cured pork is that a) it’s made in the U.S., and b) it’s available all year around in Chinese markets, where it is vacuum-packed in plastic. You don’t even need to refrigerate it until it’s opened, and so I tend to stock up on this whenever I find a great batch.

What do you look for? Glad you asked. The commercial offerings of this type of charcuterie are generally taken from what appears to be the lower part of the ham, so that you get is basically lean meat with a nice fat layer under the skin. 

However, the meat often becomes chopped up in order to meet the package’s stated weight of 14 to 16 ounces, so you need to paw around to find one that fits the bill.
You want lean AND fat

I try to find whole pieces that are at least 3 inches (7.5 cm) wide and an inch (2.5 cm) thick. Make sure that they have a wide ribbon of fat on one end that is topped by the skin. You won’t be able to eat that skin, but it will contain lots of flavor, so don’t toss it out. The same goes for the fat: it will help to make this dish divine.

Lotus seeds are the traditional accompaniment to the ham, as is the rock sugar. But I have messed around with this a whole lot during the ensuing decades, trying to achieve some of that intense flavor and, yes, even sensuousness of the original dish. 

And I think I’ve succeeded here. You find a whole range of flavors popping up, other than the usual sweet and salty: Shaoxing rice wine, the gentle heat of ginger juice, and the caramel edge of the slab sugar combine to make this dish truly magical.

Sandwich the meat inside some lotus leaf buns, drizzle on some of the sauce, and settle in for a luxurious meal.  

By the way, if you have a copy of All Under Heaven lying around the house, you already possess a recipe for honey ham. However, I’ve tweaked it a bit (I really can’t stop doing that – occupational hazard, I guess) so that it comes out even more luscious. Let me know if you agree!
A meaty flower

Honey ham
Mìzhī huŏtuĭ 蜜汁火腿
Hunan
Serves 6 to 8

6 tablespoons dried lotus seeds
Boiling water, as needed
Around 1 pound Hunan-style cured pork (see headnotes)
2 whole pieces Chinese brown slab sugar, or 2 walnut-sized pieces of rock sugar
2 tablespoons Shaoxing rice wine
2 tablespoons ginger juice
20 lotus leaf buns, steamed and kept hot

Slab sugar and skin
1. For best results, start this recipe the day before you serve it so that the meat and lotus seeds have time to absorb the flavors of the sauce. This also makes your feast a whole lot more carefree.

2. Soak the lotus seeds in boiling water and then clean.

3. Remove the skin from the smoked pork and set it aside for later on in the recipe. Slice the meat against the grain into thin pieces, keeping as much fat on as possible, but removing any tough membranes.

4. Arrange the meat slices in an overlapping pattern in the center of a 4-cup (500 ml) heatproof bowl so they look like flower petals. Keep arranging the slices in the bowl in a flower pattern, and tossing any irregular scraps in the center, where they will be nicely hidden. Pile the cleaned lotus seeds on top. Arrange the 2 pieces of slab sugar on top of the ham, as well as the pork skin, and then pour the rice wine and ginger juice over everything.

5. Prepare a steamer and bring the water in it to a full boil. Place the plate in the steamer and steam for about 1 hour, until the meat is very tender and the lotus seeds are soft. Taste a lotus seed to ensure that it is cooked through.

A thing of beauty
6. For best results, let the bowl come to room temperature, cover, and chill overnight. About half an hour before serving, steam the bowl once more to heat it through, about 20 minutes. Remove the plate from the steamer and carefully pour the sauce off into a wok or pan. Bring the sauce to a boil and reduce it until it is thick and caramelized and bubbly.

7. Invert the pork onto a rimmed plate, arrange the lotus seeds around the edge, and then pour the sauce over the meat and lotus seeds. Serve with the hot steamed lotus buns. Have each diner open up a bun and insert a slice or two of the meat. These are to be eaten like tiny sandwiches; the lotus seeds can be picked up with chopsticks and eaten as a garnish.

Sunday, May 7, 2017

What's in a name? The delightful mystery that is celtuce

Vice Munchies just celebrated Chinese Food Week while we were in New York, which I call auspicious timing. 

Countless great articles make their appearance here, but I particularly liked Clarissa Wei’s editorial (read it and you’ll understand why!).

My own contributions included an article called "Dividing and Conquering the Cuisines of China" on why the concept of the “eight great cuisines” just doesn’t work.

You’ll also find a really delicious lettuce recipe from China's arid regions included here that comes straight out of All Under Heaven. Enjoy!

While we were in the Big Apple, we went out with Munchies senior editor Matt Zuras to a great Henan restaurant in the Elmhurst part of Queens. 

video

Called Uncle Zhou, we were really impressed by how well everything was prepared, from the Daokou chicken to the sweet-and-sour fish topped with intensely thin and crispy fried pulled noodles to the fennel boiled jiaozi


Why can't we have our own great Henan restaurant in the Bay Area, I ask you? Henan was home to the ancient capital of the Chinese empire a couple of thousand years ago. By any measure of history and common sense, this should be a go-to place for delicious food. And it is, if you know about it. 

Now I know what I want from Santa Claus this year...

*  *  *

Celtuce, or stem lettuce, is a particularly Chinese vegetable, one of those strange ingredients that inhabits only one part of the world for some reason, but nevertheless is so delicious that you have to wonder why no one else has yet caught on to this delightful fact. The only problem with this vegetable – aside from its limited availability in Chinese markets – seems to be that no one ever knows what to call it, either in Chinese or in English.

Celtuce is a combination of CELery and letTUCE, which makes a bit of sense, I guess. In Chinese, the proper name is generally wōsŭn 萵筍, although some areas prefer to call it wōjù 萵苣.

The leaves do indeed look a bit like lettuce, and no one really eats them with any passion other than the Taiwanese, where they call the leafy bits literally "A vegetable" (A , or A cài), and stir-fry them with lots of garlic and a dash of salt to create one of my personal favorite greens. 

Some folks say that the Taiwanese name A cài (a weird cross-pollination between English and Chinese) came about because the leaves were once used mainly as duck food, hence yācài 鴨菜 ("duck vegetable"), while other say that the name originally was wōzĭcài 窩仔菜, which more or less means “nest vegetable.” And as if that wasn’t confusing enough, I’ve seen this also referred to in English as the unhelpful “Chinese lettuce,” the odd “asparagus lettuce,” and the I-give-up “celery lettuce.”
Peel down to the jade center

But I stick with celtuce or stem lettuce, mainly these names make more sense. And this vegetable is, when you come right down to it, all about those luscious stalks (yup, in a perfect world this would be called stalk lettuce, since no stems are involved), which are phenomenally beautiful once they are peeled.

Cooks and diners love this oddly delicious vegetable mainly in Taiwan and Sichuan, which makes me think that celtuce probably was introduced to the island during the massive migrations surrounding 1949. In both places, celtuce winds up in stir-fries or blanched for quick pickles, and the flavor is both delicate and unique. It’s really hard to describe… sort of like a cross between romaine lettuce and broccoli stems and stringless celery. In short, it’s crisp and clean.

Summer is the best time to find celtuce in a Chinese market. Look for heavy stalks with their springy green leaves still attached, since they are telling you they are very fresh; older ones will have the wilted leaves trimmed off, and these can still be good, but you have to be a little more circumspect when you shop.

So, what do you look for? Try to locate stalks that are not too thick – just a little over an inch wide is ideal – and yet are the heaviest of the lot. The reason why you do this is that thicker stalks will often be hollow in the center from growing too big, and instead of pure green jade flesh there will be a pithy white gully running through the thickest part. Heavy means juicy, which means fresh, which means delicious. While you're at it, check the stalks over for gouges or other damage.
Chinese peeler

To prepare them, trim off the tops and bottoms. Those bottom ends can be rather obstinate at times, so use care when you lop them off. The skin there will often be really fibrous, too, and so you will have to use either a paring knife or a heavy-duty Chinese peeler (which has a handy knife edge), as shown on the right, to cut through the tough webbing.

As you peel off the skin, be sure to remove any of the white webbing you see, since all you want are the lovely emerald cores. And as you do this, you probably will find the stalk breaking of its own accord – that’s perfectly fine, since you will have to cut it up anyway later on. Do note that the celtuce will lose some of that intense green (okay, almost all of it) when it soaks in the pickling liquid, but will retain it during stir-fries.

This recipe is dead simple and a great introduction to the wonders of stem lettuce. If you find you love it, too, toss it into stir-fries, like the one here. Also, check out this blog post for the dried form, which is weirdly good in a totally different way.

Quick celtuce pickle
Pào wōsŭn 泡萵筍
Sichuan
Serves 6 to 8 as a side

Celtuce:
4 stalks celtuce (around 2 pounds or 900 g)
Water, as needed

Pickling liquid:
½ cup (120 ml) pale rice vinegar
½ cup (120 ml) water
¼ cup (50 g) sugar
1 teaspoon sea salt, or to taste

Garnish:

The gorgeous cores
1. Peel the stalks as directed above. Slice them into wedges of approximately the same width and length, as this will allow them all to cook to the same degree of doneness at the same time. (Most stalks can be quartered lengthwise, except for at the very top and bottom, so you can use that as your guide.) Place the celtuce in a medium saucepan, add about an inch (2 cm) water, cover the pot, place it on high heat, and quickly bring it to a full boil, tossing the vegetables often as the water heats up. As soon as the rawness is barely gone, the celtuce will still have a light crispness, sort of like barely cooked asparagus – don’t cook it beyond this point. Immediately pour out the water and rinse the celtuce under cool running water until it is at room temperature. Drain in a colander.

2. Make the pickling liquid by boiling together the vinegar, water, sugar, and salt. Once the sugar has dissolved, taste it and adjust the seasoning as desired. Cool the pickling liquid completely. Place the celtuce in a resealable container and pour the cooled liquid over the top, which should more or less submerge all of it. Refrigerate this for at least a few hours and preferably overnight.

3. Just before serving, arrange the drained celtuce on serving plates as desired and drizzle with chile oil. Serve chilled.

Monday, May 1, 2017

Mango pudding for adults

Every decent dim sum teahouse tends to offer little bowls of mango pudding on the dessert menu, but I almost never order it. The problem is, the pale orange stuff generally referred to as “mango pudding” nowadays rarely turns out to be a celebration of one of Mother Nature’s all-time greatest hits. 

I mean, when made correctly this is little more than an inspired combination of dead-ripe mangoes and fresh light cream. So, what you should be reveling in at the end of a dim sum meal or Cantonese banquet should be nothing less than divine, and when you look at the ingredients you'll realize that by all rights mango pudding ought to be awfully hard to mess up. 

Part of the problem is that most restaurants expect to serve this to the kids or to people who just want something on the order of ice cream for dessert. And so, the mango pudding we all get served will be cold, it will be sweet, and it will most likely be made from some mix with canned mangoes added and maybe a maraschino cherry on top, if the place really is trying hard. But that doesn't come near to the required simple perfection of this dish, which will transport devotees like me into a state of shivering ecstasy.

No, for that I have to make a batch of mango pudding by myself. And I’m here to tell you how. And the good news is that it’s not at all that difficult a task, especially when you consider how much gratification is at stake, how short life is, and how few perfectly ripe mangoes we manage to enjoy in various iterations before we shuffle off this mortal coil.

A great mango pudding should be a cool and fragrant bath for the senses. When made correctly, this luscious dessert offers a delicious cosseting for the tongue in between pillowy cubes of fresh, fragrant mangoes.

This is, in short, heaven in a bowl.
A wrinkly ripe Ataulfo (aka Manila) mango

Like just about every other great dessert that I love, mango pudding was not designed with the kiddies in mind. Rather, this can and should be a dish of great sophistication, full of flavor, not too sweet, capable of surprise, and immensely satisfying, especially after a long and filling dinner.

The one really important thing you have to do if you want success is get ahold of some very tasty, perfectly ripe, and not at all fibrous mangoes.

Right now is a good time in the Bay Area for Ataulfo or Manila mangoes, which are very aromatic, creamy, and relatively small. But any good mango will do. Learn to discern the varieties that you like (my other go-to mangoes are Kent and Haden, but that’s not at all a complete list) and keep an eye out for them, because this dessert requires careful planning.

What you have to remember is that you almost never can get perfectly ripe mangoes in the market, as they bruise and squish so easily. Instead, hunt down delicious specimens that show great promise (I tend to lug home a whole case of the fruit in greedy anticipation of meals to come) and let them ripen away in the kitchen. When they start to smell fabulous and the skins are a bit wrinkled, give the stem end the very gentlest of squeezes to confirm that the mangoes are ready to be celebrated in style.

Mango pudding was probably descended from India’s mango phirni and was possibly introduced to Guangzhou (Canton) by the British, who had lots of fingers in a whole lot of colonial pies. Nevertheless, this has managed to become inarguably Chinese over the past hundred-plus years.

And yet, in spite of this illustrious history, I really couldn’t leave well enough alone, now, could I?

Diced mangoes
So, you get your half-and-half here instead of condensed or evaporated milk. You have a touch of sweetener instead of lots of sugar. You have way more mango in there than probably is legal in many states. And… I’ve slipped in some rum. You of course don’t need to include it if you’re serving this to children or other teetotalers. But it’s great with this little extra dash of fun.

By the way, this is a fantastic dessert to serve after a fancy dinner at home because it can be made well ahead of time. All you need to do is add the garnishes and serve.

Mango pudding chez Huang
Huángjiā māngguŏ bùdīng 黃家芒果布丁
Guangdong cuisine
Serves 4

Pudding:
1 packet (6 g) unflavored gelatin
¼ cup (60 mL) cool water
Around 1½ pounds (750 g) ripe mangoes, which would be about 3 Manilas or Ataulfos (see headnote)
1 cup (240 mL) half-and-half
¼ cup (60 mL) mango rum, passion fruit rum, or dark rum, or you may add agave syrup or sugar to taste

To serve:
¼ cup (60 mL) half-and-half
Mint sprigs

Easy but delicious
1. In a medium work bowl, sprinkle the gelatin over the cool water and let it soften while you prepare the rest of the ingredients.

2. Peel and pit the mangoes. Puree enough of the mangoes (about 2½ Alphonsos) in a blender or food processor to give you approximately 1½ cups (360 mL). Cut the rest of the mangoes into small (½ inch | 1 cm) cubes.

3. Pour the half-and-half into a 1 quart (1 L) heatproof measuring cup. Microwave the half-and-half for a minute, stir, and then microwave again in short bursts until the liquid is very hot but not boiling over. Stir the softened gelatin into the hot liquid and swish things around gently with a small whisk until the gelatin is dissolved. Then, stir in the mango puree and either the rum or the agave syrup.

4. Divide the pudding among 4 (1 cup | 240 mL) dessert bowls and chill for about an hour, by which time the pudding will have thickened a bit. Reserve a couple tablespoons of the cubed mango for garnish, if you wish, and then divide the rest among the bowls, stir very gently to mix in the fruit, and refrigerate the pudding for at least 2 more hours and up to 3 days. Serve chilled with a small puddle of half-and-half on top, as well as a couple of mango cubes and a small mint sprig stuck into the edge to snazz things up.