Thursday, April 28, 2011

The five flavors, plus two more, plus a pumpkin soup

The traditional Chinese view on foods is that there are five flavors: salty, sour, sweet, bitter, and spicy. That pretty much covers all of the flavors... or does it? 

Recently there has been a lot of print about a sixth flavor that the Japanese call umami, a sort of meaty and savory taste that good mushrooms impart. But I would like to offer two others that also have quite a following among Chinese foodies, and these are xian (freshness) and chou (funky).

Xianwei is the flavor of, say, a fresh snow pea just plucked from the vine. Imagine biting into it and savoring that explosion of life upon your tongue. The closest flavor would be "sweet," but this is a different taste altogether, one that the Chinese simply call "fresh." (Note: xianwei is the noun and xian is the adjective.)

In fact, a sought-after response to a refined dish is to hear a gourmet exclaim either  "Hao xian!" (so fresh!)  or "Hao xianmei!" (so fresh and delicious!). What that happy sigh means is that the innate flavors of the chicken or fish or vegetable were honored and allowed to shine. 

In a xian dish you can really taste the ingredients, and the ingredients are of such high quality that nothing but the barest seasoning is needed. For example, if you have just picked an ear of sweet corn, the best way to enjoy it is to run into the house, plunge it into a pot of boiling water to just barely take the raw edge off, and then slather it with the best butter and good salt before devouring it on the spot. 
Baby dried shrimp, or xiapi

Chou is the aroma of ripe cheese, anchovies and sardines, and things like that, and although it is usually translated as "stinky," that is a pejorative that warns people to stay away when there really is a whole lot to love. Funk is not a flavor that is sufficiently appreciated in the United States, but that is no reason to avoid learning to savor the world of funky foods, especially the Chinese take on this seventh flavor. 

Chinese cuisine abounds with funk: there are salted fish, dried oysters and shrimp, and fish sauce, as well as China's vegan version of cheese, which we know as bean curd or tofu. Some tofu is fermented and brined to become doufuru, a particularly cheesy condiment that the Shanghainese in particular have learned to use with sweet abandon, as well as other kinds of bean curd that are allowed to mold and take on funky flavors of their own.

Anhui has a beloved tofu called mao doufu, or hairy bean curd, because the bean curd is allowed to grow long strands of a pale gray, hair-like mold that lends its own brand of funk to the bean, much like blue molds are injected into certain cheeses to form Roquefort. And, just like the French adore their ripe cheeses, connoisseurs in China delve into funky dishes with delight. There is a firm appreciation of both xian and chou especially in this province's cuisine, as can be seen in today's dish, fresh pumpkin soup with crispy dried baby shrimp.
The shrimp fried to a golden brown

This is a delectable study in contrasts. The bright orange winter squash is sweet and fresh and meaty. The stock is bursting with warm layers of ginger and green onions and a dash of fish sauce for an almost imperceptible suggestion of the sea, but the soup is barely seasoned because a good hit of salt is provided by the final garnish: baby dried shrimp that are fried until crunchy, golden, and delicious.

Dried shrimp are a terrific way to add meaty layers of flavor to your cooking, and most Chinese stores will have them in a huge variety of quality and sizes. This recipe calls for the pale baby shrimp that the Chinese call xiapi, or shrimp skin. The skins are extremely thin - almost nonexistent, really - but when fried they become crispy and fragrant.  They are also intensely salty, which is why the soup should not be salted beyond that restrained dash of fish sauce. The fried shrimp are added to the soup just before serving, and they will keep their delicate crunch for about 5 minutes after they are added to the soup, giving diners plenty of time to savor all the textures and flavors in this soup.

If you are not inclined to use dried shrimp and fish sauce here, you can turn to fried green onions as the garnish the soup and a dash of light soy sauce to add a savory level to the stock.

Fresh pumpkin soup with crispy dried baby shrimp 
Xiapi nangua tang  蝦皮南瓜湯 
Serves 4 as part of a multicourse meal, or 2 as a main dish

Dried shrimp:
¼ cup baby dried shrimp
1 cup vegetable or peanut oil

Cook the squash until tender
1 pound winter squash (pumpkin, butternut, or other orange-fleshed squash), peeled and seeded
2 tablespoons sliced fresh ginger
2 green onions, white parts only, sliced
¼ cup Shaoxing rice wine
6 cups filtered water
1 tablespoon fish sauce
2 teaspoons sugar
2 green onions, green parts only, thinly sliced
2 teaspoons roasted sesame oil
1. Heat the oil in a wok over medium high heat until the oil shimmers; drop a shrimp in the hot oil, and if it immediately begins to sizzle, add about half of the shrimp to the oil and toss gently until the shrimp are a golden color. Be sure not to overcook them, since they are like nuts and will continue to brown and crisp up as they cool. Use a slotted spoon to remove the fried shrimp to a small plate and repeat with the rest of the shrimp.

Sprinkle on shrimp before serving
2. Cut the squash into cubes about an inch square. Pour out all but 1 tablespoon of the oil in the wok. Heat the oil over high heat, add the ginger and the white parts of the green onions, and stir until you can smell their fragrance. Toss in the rice wine and let it explode in the oil before adding the water, fish sauce, and sugar. Bring it to a boil, add the squash cubes, and then reduce the heat to a gentle simmer. Cook the soup until the squash is tender. Taste the soup and adjust the seasoning as needed, but don't add any more salt or fish sauce.

3. Serve the soup with the fried shrimp and green onions on top, along with a drizzle of sesame oil.  

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