Monday, January 10, 2011

When an eel is not an eel, or Buddhist slight-of-hand in the kitchen

Freshwater eels are an exciting delicacy along China's eastern seaboard, and they are particularly beloved in Jiangsu and Zhejiang provinces, which host a network of waterways and a long tradition of aquaculture. 

Freshwater eels are different from their saltwater brethern. For one thing, they are a whole lot smaller, usually little more than half an inch in diameter and around a foot long. They also have a much more delicate flavor and texture, which is probably one of the reasons why they are so beloved in the gourmet ghettos along the Yangtze.

Right now, though, we're going to look at another one of those gustatory bits of artifice that the Chinese are so well-known for. It's not only a boon for those who are too squeamish to deal with a fistful of slithering water creatures, but also for those who prefer an entirely meatless approach to dining. 

Welcome to a mushroom dish that probably started out in a Buddhist temple or a restaurant that catered to Buddhists: Crispy Vegetarian Eels. 

Temple food often relies on mushrooms for a variety of impersonations. You'll see certain types of plump white 'shrooms masquerading as shrimps, small dried shiitakes plumped up and asked to perform as snails, and long elegant strands of enoki mushrooms cavorting as crabmeat. Do they taste exactly like what they are supposed to be imitating? Not really, but that's the point. They are used to divert the mind from forbidden cravings while satisfying yearnings for delicious tidbits like Mom or that restaurant around the corner used to make. It's my very own personal suspicion that Buddhists aren't big believers in miracles perhaps because there's so much magic happening in the temple kitchens.

The culinary rabbit in the hat
Take Crispy Vegetarian Eels as an example. Based on a hugely popular eel dish from Wuxi in Jiangsu province (see the post on Wuxi Spareribs from a couple of months ago), fresh shiitake mushrooms provide a silky chewiness and a brown/tan appearance that mimics the eel perfectly, plus their lovely woodsy flavor shines through the delicately sweet and sour sauce. Bits of ginger and garlic punctuate each bite. Fresh green onions provide a beautiful contrast in color and add a nice herbal zing. And the third level of color and texture is provided by fried cellophane noodles, those wiry pieces of mung bean paste that explode into what looks like Styrofoam but taste rich and faintly nutty. It's a perfect combination. (A note to purists: wine, ginger, garlic, and onions are all forbidden in very strict Buddhist regimes, so this recipe is one for more casual vegetarians.) 

 Anyway, how do you get from mushroom to eel? The secret lies in a pair of kitchen shears and a few minutes of your time. First remove the stems from the mushrooms and save them for your stockpot. Then, cut around the cap in a quarter-inch coil, going all the way around the cap until you hit the center. It's all right if the strip breaks in parts (eels break up too, for that matter), but do your best to have at least a good number of long strips so that the deception works.

These veggie eels are great either as a starter or as one of your main courses, and are good any time of year since fresh shiitakes are grown in the dark and so have no idea of the seasons. 

Crispy vegetarian eels
Su Wuxi cui shan  素無錫脆鱔  
Serves 6 as an appetizer, 3 to 4 as part of a multicourse dinner

12 large, fresh, meaty shiitake mushrooms
1 bunch dried, thin cellophane noodles (mung bean noodles or fensi)
Fresh peanut or vegetable oil as needed
1 green onion, trimmed and chopped
2 teaspoons fresh ginger, peeled and finely chopped
1 teaspoon garlic, finely chopped
2 tablespoons regular soy sauce
1 tablespoon Shaoxing rice wine
2 tablespoons sugar
1 tablespoon ketchup
1 tablespoon dark vinegar
1 green onion, green part only, sliced in thin julienne
1 teaspoon roasted sesame oil
1 teaspoon toasted white sesame seeds
1. Clean the mushrooms and remove the stems. Use a pair of kitchen shears to cut each cap into a long strip about 1/4 inch wide, starting at the edge and going around the cap until you reach the center; it's all right if some of the strips break.

2. Place the bundle of cellophane noodles in a dry paper bag and break apart the bundle into individual noodles; this will keep them from flying around the room, and having them in separate strands will also give them a better chance to puff up evenly.

Dried cellophane noodles
3. Place a rimmed serving platter next to the stove, as well as a Chinese spider or slotted spoon, some wooden or bamboo chopsticks for frying everything, and a baking sheet covered with a few sheets of paper towels. Combine the rest of the ingredients (except for the julienned green onions, sesame oil, and sesame seeds) in a small bowl and place it next to the stove.

4. About 15 minutes before you want to serve them, heat about 3 inches of oil in your wok over medium-high heat until a chopstick inserted into the oil immediately is covered with bubbles. Add the mushrooms to the hot oil and fry them until they are slightly hard all over. Remove them to the serving platter, turn down the heat under the oil to medium-low, and gently fry the mushrooms until they are crispy. Remove them again to the serving platter and turn the heat under the wok back to medium-high.

5. Fry very small handfuls of the cellophane noodles - they will puff up quickly, so you need to work quickly, too. As soon as the bottom of that handful has puffed up, flip it over with your chopsticks and the spider or slotted spoon, and when both sides are a fluffy white and no plastic-looking pieces of uncooked noodles can be seen, remove all of the noodles to the paper towels to drain. It's all right if they tan ever so slightly, but you don't want them to turn brown or burn, so adjust the heat as needed. When all of the noodles have been fried, drain off all of the oil except for about 2 tablespoons.

6. Heat the wok back up to medium-high and add the sauce. Stir-fry it until the sauce smells great and is slightly thickened. Take a little taste and adjust it as necessary - you want a savory sweet and sour tang that isn't too heavy in either direction. Toss in the fried mushrooms and stir them into the sauce until they are well coated.

7. Immediately wipe the serving platter clean, make a nest of the fried noodles on the platter, and pour the coated mushrooms in the center. Decorate the top with the sesame seeds and then the julienned green onions, and finally sprinkle the sesame oil over the mushrooms. Serve with a flourish.

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