Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Chaozhou's silk gourd crepes

Chaozhou is not one of the Great Cuisines of China, and for the life of me I can't figure out why. It's also relatively unknown, which I find even more insane, considering how this is probably the home of some of the best seafood in the world. 

It is so good that even though Hong Kong's cuisine is nothing short of spectacular, back when I was still a student and would head for Hong Kong for my vacations, I would always hunt out their best Chaozhou restaurants in order to devour some of the most perfectly fried oysters and steamed fish that have ever left a chef's kitchen.

Chaozhou (aka Teochew or Chiuchow) is located in the northeastern reaches of Guangdong province, just a stone or two's throw from Fujian, and bordering the areas where the Hakka people call home. One bite of this food and you'll taste all of these influences... or it could be that you are tasting Chaozhou's remarkable flavors in the dishes of its neighbors. I could easily wax ecstatic for hours over the food of this area that is so dominated by the sea that its Chinese name means "land of the tides" 潮州. 

It is understandable, then, that most Chinese folks think of seafood when Chaozhou is mentioned, and we certainly will stroll through some of their more delicious fish and crustacean dishes before long, but today I wanted to introduce a vegetable that seems to have received more serious attention in Chaozhou than anyplace else: silk gourds.

Perfect silk gourd with no visible seeds
One variety of the silk gourds is most commonly known in the West in its dried form, where only the fibrous interior remains: loofah (or luffa) sponges.  But when these squashes are still tender, they are absolutely delicious and are wonderful simply stir-fried with little more than a bit of garlic, salt, and rice wine to bring out their natural sweetness.   (By the way, they’re not really gourds, but the Chinese character gua got translated into “melon,” “squash,” or “gourd” pretty much on some translator’s whim many, many years ago, so don’t take any of these three translations too seriously. And someone else got into the act and started calling silk gourds "Chinese okra," which just makes a confusing situation even more of a mess.)

These squashes come in two forms: smooth and ridged.  The smooth ones, or loofah, seem to have a shorter growing period around here and are most usually found in summer.  The ridged ones, sometimes called shenggua in Chinese and "angled gourds" in English, are often displayed in Chinese groceries pretty much year around.  These two varieties taste identical as far as I’m concerned, and they receive the same treatment: just before cooking them, they are peeled, the ends are cut off, and the meat is cut into whatever shape required.  However, the squash does turn dark very quickly in the same way that eggplant does, so prepare them only a few minutes before they’re to be thrown into the pan, or else steam or microwave or parboil them in order to keep them white. 

In Chaozhou, silk gourds are given a special treatment that I haven’t seen anywhere else, which is that they are fried into crepes with a handful of tasty condiments that play havoc with your taste buds.  Fried peanuts and dried salted turnip bits are tossed with thin slices of the squash and then mixed into a simple crepe batter that is then fried until golden.  This is terrific as is, but if you don’t have access to silk gourds, peeled zucchini or other summer squash will yield almost as good a dish as the original.

The frying of the sliced squash is rather tedious since there is so much of it that you need to do it in many batches, so use the largest frying pan that you have (or two, if you can juggle it), and work on prepping the rest of your ingredients while the squash is frying away.  Then, use a smaller pan - about 7 inches in diameter - to fry the crepes.

Crispy silk gourd crepes 
Cuizha sigua jian  脆炸絲瓜煎 
Fried squash slices
Serves 6 to 8 as part of a multicourse meal

4 small or 2 large silk gourds (between 2½ and 3 pounds total), or about 20 ounces summer squash
Peanut or vegetable oil for frying
¼ cup salted, dried turnip (caipu), preferably already chopped
½ cup fried peanuts
½ cup sweet potato flour (best), or cornstarch if you absolutely can't find sweet potato flour
2 large eggs
½ cup cool filtered water, or as needed
6 Chinese chives or 2 green onions, sliced thinly
2 teaspoons fish sauce, or light soy sauce if you want this to be vegetarian
4 teaspoons sugar
4 teaspoons roasted sesame oil
Freshly ground pepper
A small sprinkle of salt
Small amount of cilantro, chopped, for garnish
    All your main ingredients
1. Peel the silk gourd and remove the seeds if they are at all tough, as well as the stem and flower ends.  Pour about 3 tablespoons of the oil in the largest flat frying pan you have and heat it over medium-high heat.  Slice the squash thinly, and place one layer of the slices into the hot oil.  Fry both sides of the squash until golden (adding more oil as needed) and remove to a small work bowl; repeat with the rest of the squash until all of it has been fried.  You should end up with about 2 cups cooked squash.

2. Rinse the salted turnip in a sieve and shake it dry.  Chop the peanuts until they are in small pieces (less than ¼ inch across), which should be about the same size as the chopped salted turnip.  Mix the sweet potato flour with the egg and the water to form a batter with the consistency of heavy cream.  Add the peanuts, turnips, and fried squash to the batter, as well as the green onion, fish sauce, sugar, roasted sesame oil, and pepper. 

3. Heat about 3 tablespoons of the oil in a 7-inch flat frying pan over medium-high heat until a couple drops of the batter immediately sizzle and start to brown. Ladle a quarter of the batter into the pan so that it completely covers the bottom. Shake the pan after about 20 seconds to loosen the crepe, and then turn it over when the underside is a golden brown; if you are a bit nervous about flipping the crepe, slide it onto a plate with the raw side up and then flip the plate over onto the frying pan.  

Crispy and juicy at the same time
4. Brown the other side and remove the cooked crepe to a clean cutting board. (If you are like me and prefer the crepe to have more crisp exterior, feel free to fry both sides until they are a dark brown; the texture will be most noticeable once the crepes cool off a bit.) Repeat this with the rest of the batter until all of it has been fried.  (The crepes can be made ahead of time up to this point and reheated in a 325 degree F oven until crispy right before serving.)

5. Slice the crepes into 4 to 6 wedges each and serve garnished with the cilantro. 

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