Sunday, May 15, 2011

Yunnan's crispy bean sauce

Crispy bean sauce over steamed cod is such a popular dish in Taiwan that many think that it's Taiwanese. 

But there's really nothing in this sauce that even suggests that it was born somewhere in Taiwan, as the flavors speak of the province called South of the Clouds, or Yunnan. (By the way, has there ever been a prettier place name?)

Located in south-central China below Sichuan and just to the north of that great triumvirate of Southeast Asian chili cultures -- Myanmar (Burma), Laos, and Vietnam -- Yunnan may be excused if its dishes tend toward the red end of the spectrum. 

The foods here are highly flavored, but deliciously so.  And although chili here is a mainstay, the local milder dishes, like the silky Steampot Chicken, are nothing short of incredible, and you can also find tropical hints in the funky shrimp sauces that deepen the flavors of various vegetable and meat dishes. 

Jarred (left) & dried (right)
The first place I ever tried crispy bean sauce, in fact, was in Taiwan at a terrific restaurant called Yunnan Renheyuan.  It was such an authentic Yunnan-style that it even served fried dried milk "fans" (rushan), which doesn't sound all that great in English, but in fact tastes mildly cheesy and is decidedly crunchy. In fact, I think that is the only crunchy milk that I've ever eaten, and I long for the day that this is a common supermarket item, too.

Today, though, the focus is on Yunnan's crispy bean sauce. The basic material for this are the smashed, dried, salted beans that are sold as dousu, or crispy beans. 

When I lived in Taiwan, I could occasionally buy them formed into hard clusters about the size of tennis balls, and except for the times when I hauled back a stash to the States, I never could find them here no matter how I tried, and any restaurant that served Crispy Bean Sauce over Steamed Cod charged a ridiculous amount of money for a small portion. I have to admit, though, that many was the time that I broke down and ordered this extravagance out of pure desire and more than a little bit of homesickness for Taiwan's incredible restaurant food. 

Pound with handle
All that changed recently. Nowadays you can often find the dried beans already crushed into a powder, and there is even a bottled version that only asks you to fry it up before serving. It's pretty good, so try it if you can find it. But I like to make the sauce myself, as I prefer to add more chili and ginger and garlic than the bottled variety. You too should feel free to adjust the flavorings to fit your tastes, as this is a very forgiving sauce and will taste good no matter what you do, as long as you don't burn it.

The most common way of serving this sauce is over steamed cod, for the soft blandness of the fish is a nice counterpoint to the assertive sauce. But don't let that stop you if you either love the sauce or don't want to eat fish. This is downright terrific over a plain omelet or steamed soft bean curd. 

For the omelet, simply cook four beaten eggs into a regular old omelet (preferably round), and then pour half of the sauce over the eggs. For the bean curd, cut it into large cubes and either steam or microwave it until it is heated through; pour off as much water as you can before piling half of the sauce on top.

This recipe makes a lot of sauce, but it's easy to scoop out half just after you have added the ground beans and then save this portion for later; besides, there still will be plenty to adorn the fish. Folks in my family tend to strong-arm each other while scooping up as much of the sauce as they can on their rice, leaving the fish as an afterthought, which is a good reason to have lots more sauce than fish!

Crispy bean sauce over steamed cod
Dousu xueyu  豆酥雪魚 
Serves 4 to 6 as part of a multicourse meal

24 ounces cod fillets or steaks, skin removed
1 teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon rice wine
Fry the garlic and chili first
Sauce and garnish:
7 ounces (200 grams) dried crispy soybeans (dousu, see above)
¾ cup vegetable or peanut oil
1 tablespoon finely chopped ginger
1 tablespoon coarsely chopped dried chili, or to taste
2 cloves fresh garlic, finely chopped, optional
2 tablespoon sugar2 green onions, chopped 
1. Rinse the fish and pat dry. Place it on a heatproof plate and rub it all over with the salt, and then sprinkle the wine over the fish; this will help to season the fish and also remove excess moisture. Allow the fish to marinate for 10 to 20 minutes while you prepare the rest of the ingredients. Steam the fish while you prepare the sauce, allowing 10 to 20 minutes for the fish to cook, depending upon the thickness of the fish and how hot your steamer is. If the fish gets done before the sauce is ready, cover it lightly to keep it warm.

2. Crush the dried crispy soybeans by first making a small slit in the plastic bag so that the vacuum is released, and then break up the soybean brick into smaller parts. Then, use the handle of your cleaver to crush the soybeans into a powder; it is all right if there are clumps left, as these will fall apart as they are fried.

The beans turning into crispy perfection
3. About 10 minutes before you wish to serve this dish, put the oil in a cold wok and add the ginger and chili. Slowly heat the oil over medium heat so that the ginger and chili can season the oil without burning. As soon as the ginger has fried to a pale tan and the chili is not yet browned, add the dried crispy soybeans and garlic. (If you want, remove half of the sauce as soon as the beans absorb the oil and set it aside for another day; it will keep will refrigerated in a covered jar.)

4. Raise the heat to medium-high and fry everything until the beans are brown and crispy. Sprinkle the sugar over the beans and stir in. Taste the sauce and adjust the seasoning. Pour the hot sauce over the fish, which should cause a delectable popping sound. Sprinkle the green onions over the sauce and serve immediately with a spoon so that the sauce can be scooped up. Have lots of hot steamed rice ready, as the sauce will be the star of the show.

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