Wednesday, September 15, 2010

What's better than basil? Crispy crunchy basil!

This omelet is the sort of food that Hakka people serve very often: easy, cheap, and nothing short of delicious. It’s one of those great dishes that can be relied on in a pinch because all of the ingredients tend to be on hand or easily bought at the market. 

What makes this dish extraordinary is the quality that the basil takes on once it's been fried to a golden crisp. This transports what we usually think of as basil to a new dimension, one where the peppery notes get slightly toned down, the texture turns from leafy to that of baked phyllo dough, and every mouthful of omelet brings a comforting contrast of soft against brittle.

In the traditional recipe, the raw basil is traditionally just chopped up and added to the eggs, but I found that deep-frying the basil ahead of time turns the soggy leaves into crispy bits that contrast wonderfully with the soft, pillowy eggs. Try this omelet with rice porridge for breakfast, as well as alongside other dishes for a satisfying lunch or dinner.  

If you're wondering who the Hakka are, well those are the folks that make up my father-in-law's ancestors. (As you can tell from my repeated mention of him, Gonggong was the cook in my husband's family, and the pleasures that he took in both dining and cooking were contagious.)

Starting as early as 1,700 years ago, the people who end up being called the Hakka moved south – probably as refugees from war or famine from the Yellow River area – and were therefore latecomers to their new homes, as the name Hakka (Kejia, or guest families) suggests. They made their way to such areas as the hills of Guangdong, Fujian, and Jiangxi provinces (and later on to Taiwan) where no one else had laid any firm claim to the land, and so they had to make do with rockier soils, less hospitable climates, and tougher ways to make a living. 
This is how hot the oil should be

As a result, the Hakka people tend to be frugal, and their foods make use of every last scrap of meat or vegetable. As one elderly man described it to me, they use “everything from a chicken except the beak and everything from a pig except the squeal.” 

But as the Hakkanese settled their lands and grew in wealth, their cuisine evolved with them. So yes, these people tend to be careful with their money and ingredients, but what has happened is that their foods were allowed to blossom with flavor and turn meltingly tender through a tradition that calls for long periods of steaming, baking, and braising. 

The seasonings are often salty and full-bodied, and the Hakka adeptness at handling even the cheapest cuts of meat and the most basic of ingredients with mastery has resulted in an utterly ambrosial cuisine, such as this wonderfully simple omelet.

Crispy basil omelet 
Jiucengta hongdan 九層塔烘蛋
Serves 4 as a part of a multicourse meal, or 2 for breakfast, or (to be honest) 1 if you're really hungry

1 bunch basil (any sort is great here)
1 cup vegetable or peanut oil
3 large eggs
1 good pinch sea salt

1. Rinse the basil and pick the leaves off of the stems. Dry the leaves in a towel. Prepare a plate and a slotted spoon. 

Your finished omelet
2. Heat the oil in a wok over medium-high heat until a bamboo chopstick inserted in the hot oil immediately bubbles all over. Add a handful of the basil leaves to the hot oil and quickly stir them around until they stop bubbling. Immediately use the slotted spoon to scoop out the fried leaves; let them sit on the plate while you fry the rest of the basil leaves in the same fashion.

3. Beat the eggs in a medium work bowl only until lightly mixed and toss in the salt. Pour off all but a few tablespoons of the oil in the wok, and then heat it over high heat until the oil starts to shimmer. 

4. Reserve a few of the fried basil leaves as a garnish. Toss the rest of the fried basil into the raw eggs and then pour the egg mixture into the hot oil. Fry the omelet on the bottom, moving the eggs around with your chopsticks and turning the wok this way and that so that the eggs cook all over, and finally lift the omelet a bit so that the raw egg can ooze down and cook. 

5. When the bottom of the omelet is a golden brown, carefully flip it over and fry until the other side is brown as well. Remove to a plate, garnish with the reserved fried basil leaves, and serve immediately.

1 comment:

  1. I'll have to try this. Our basil plant is growing robustly. I didn't think to put it in eggs.