Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Shanghai's sprouted fava appetizer

Dream beans
I am obsessed by many foods, and this is one of them. Sprouted fava beans are quite popular in traditional Shanghai-style restaurants, where they usually accompany other light appetizers plus beverages like tea and beer. These small dishes are meant to stimulate the palate and relax the diners while the main meal is being prepared.

Back in Taipei, I first enjoyed these favas in my favorite eastern-style restaurants, but the perfect recipe eluded me for years until trial and error led me to this version. 

The missing link? That peerless Shanghainese way with green onions called congkao, which means cooking them slowly in fat until they render up the flavor and dissolve into pillowy softness. (A note to all you Chinese-language students out there, the character kào is one you won't find in most dictionaries since it's local lingo.)   

Cute as a button!
Congkao, the mushroom/sherry aromas of Shaoxing rice wine and a dash of fish sauce were the flavors that turned this dish from a simple bowl of beans into the stuff of dreams.

Although rarely seen this side of the Pacific, Shanghai’s sprouted favas are so remarkably silky and the sauce so decadent that it seems a shame to keep it a secret any longer.

Sprouted fava beans Shanghai style – 蔥㸆發芽豆 Congkao fayadou
Makes 4 cups; serves 6 to 8 generously as an appetizer

2 cups dried organic unpeeled fava beans
8 green onions, trimmed
5 thin slices fresh ginger
½ cup peanut or vegetable oil
2 tablespoons Shaoxing rice wine
1 cup filtered water
2 tablespoons fish sauce (or to taste)*
Roasted sesame oil

1. Start this recipe about 5 days before you plan to serve it. Rinse the beans in a colander, place them in a medium work bowl and cover them by at least 2 inches with cool tap water. Soak the beans 24 hours to fully plump them up. 

2. Drain the beans, dump them back in the bowl and cover the bowl with a kitchen towel. Place the bowl in a slightly warm place like the kitchen counter, rinsing and draining them every 12 hours. Keep the beans covered and moistened this way until the vast majority of them have rootlets ¼- to ½-inch long sticking out of them, a process that will take about 2 to 4 days, depending upon the heat of your kitchen and the freshness of the beans. (The beans can be prepared ahead of time up to this point and stored in a resealable plastic bag in the refrigerator for around five days.) 
Beans plus congkao

3. Cut the green onions into quarter-inch lengths; you should have about 2 cups of onions. Heat the oil in a saucepan, Chinese sandpot (unglazed ceramic casserole) or wok over medium heat until it starts to shimmer, and then add the green onions. Stir the onions around and add the ginger. Lower the heat to medium-low and gently cook the green onions and ginger until they are browned, which will add a nice nuttiness to the sauce. Remove and reserve about half of the oil and green onions as garnish. 

4. Add the sprouted beans, rice wine, water, and fish sauce to the pot, bring everything to a boil over high heat, and then cover the pan tightly and lower the heat to medium-low. Simmer the beans for around 25 to 30 minutes, checking now and then to stir them and to ensure that the liquid has not been boiled off. Add some filtered water if the beans are getting too dry.

5. When the beans are perfectly done, some of them will have split their casings and the meat of the beans will be soft. If there is still liquid left in the pan, quickly boil it down until the oil starts to bubble and spit.  Pour both the beans and their sauce into a medium work bowl to cool down to room temperature. Add the reserved oil and onions and toss. Taste and adjust the seasoning. Refrigerate the beans overnight to deepen their flavor even more.

6. Serve the beans slightly chilled or at room temperature as a starter or appetizer with cocktails or beer, sprinkling a bit of roasted sesame oil on top, if you wish. The beans are traditionally picked up one-by-one with chopsticks, the diner using his teeth to ease the bean out of its inedible casing. Discard the skin by plucking it from your lips with your chopsticks, and you will look very proper.

Note: Fish sauce (Vietnamese nước mắm and Thai nam pla) varies in pungency and saltiness, so use as much or as little as you like; if you are allergic to fish, a great alternative is to use chicken stock instead of the water and fish sauce. My own favorite brand of fish sauce has a pink label and three blue crabs on it; I’ve used it for decades, and it’s always been reliable.

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