Thursday, November 10, 2011

Stir-fried Ningbo rice cakes

Many years ago, I lived by myself in an apartment near the Taipei municipal airport. I really enjoyed being by myself for the first time in a foreign country, and heartily recommend this sort of freedom as something that should be experienced. 

Not having any roommates or a Chinese family to contend with meant that I could eat whatever I wanted whenever I wanted, and in Taiwan this was nirvana, for something tasty was always was no more than five minutes away. I was never at a loss for dinner because tiny one-man and one-woman shops were set up all over the neighborhood. 

Around the corner from my building, for example, was a little place where I first became acquainted with the unique cuisine of Ningbo, a Zhejiang town just south of Shanghai that is famous for its unique take on eastern Chinese cuisine. The chef was also the cashier and dishwasher and waiter and busboy at this hole-in-the-wall, but Mr. Liu did it all with such grace and aplomb that I could swear he had clones.

Almost everything had rice in it, with a couple of appetizers and fish entrees to round out the menu. The chef offered crabs in season, beautiful shrimp that were always sweet and fresh, and a selection of whatever fish looked good that day.

Sliced rice cakes
And that makes sense, because Ningbo is renowned for its seafood. To me, though, the one ingredient that always makes me think of Mr. Liu and that symbolizes this gentle cuisine in my mind is its sliced rice cakes. 

The English name "rice cakes" really doesn't do justice to what the Chinese call niangaopian. Ground rice is mixed with water and steamed into logs with a consistency just a bit harder than that of Japanese mochi. But then the good folks of Ningbo take this one step further by slicing the logs on the diagonal into thin tiles that can be tossed into soup or, my favorite, stir-fried into a savory pile of gently chewy goodness.

There is a secret to stir-frying rice cakes, one that eluded me for years until someone set me straight. In the past, I had simply fried whatever else was going in the pot - meat, ginger, green onions, mushrooms - and then added the rice cakes and a whole lot of moisture in the form of soy sauce, wine, stock, and water. The results were delicious but a bit mushy, for my rice cakes never had that elusive "Q" quality, that slight bit of tooth-resistance that restaurant versions always have.

And then I found out that I should have soaked the rice cakes to plump them up first.

Looking back, this seems pretty obvious, but that is hindsight speaking. Now, when I want to serve stir-fried rice cakes, all I have to do is plan ahead by a couple of hours, and then they have the perfect texture. In China, stir-fried rice cakes are usually eaten as a snack, but you can serve them as the starch component of any meal or even by themselves if you add enough veggies. They are delicious for breakfast or a late night snack, by the way, if you use bacon and eggs instead of pork and salted mustard greens. But I digress.

Rice cakes (L) and salted mustard greens
Today's version also includes an East China element that goes perfectly with pork: xuelihong, a type of salted mustard. This is often written incorrectly in Chinese as 雪裡紅, literally "red-in-snow," but if you want to show off your smarts, remember that its true name is 雪裡蕻, the last character pronounced the same as 紅 here and meaning "exuberant." (This is another one of those cases where I haven't a clue as to where the name came from.) If you want to avoid the conflict altogether, you could just simply call it by its other name, 雪菜 xuecai, or "snow vegetable."

I've used a piece of smoked pork loin in this recipe, which plays off nicely against the sourness of the salted mustard and the bite of the ginger; however, use whatever meat you like or have handy. Simple shredded pork is the traditional meat, but chicken, turkey, and just about everything else can be used. Sliced mushrooms are a good meatless alternative; they add a delicious earthiness to the dish and make it feel even more appropriate for this cold autumn weather. 

Neither sliced rice cakes nor salted mustard greens keep very well once their packaging is opened, so plan on using them up within a week; both are available vacuum-packed, and they will stay fresh a very long time if they are not opened.

A local Zhejiang specialty
Rice cakes stir-fried with pork and snow vegetable - Xuecai rousi chao niangao 雪菜肉絲炒年糕 
Shanghai, Jiangsu
Serves 2 as a snack, 4 as a side dish

12 ounces (2½ cups) sliced rice cakes (niangaopian; see note above)
Filtered water
6 to 8 ounces smoked pork loin, fresh pork, or other meat (or a large handful of Chinese black mushrooms)
6 ounces (½ cup) salted mustard greens (xuelihong; see note above)
4 to 5 tablespoons peanut or vegetable oil
2 tablespoons finely shredded fresh ginger
3 green onions, trimmed and chopped
2 tablespoons Shaoxing rice wine
3 or 4 tablespoons filtered water
Sea salt and freshly-ground pepper to taste
1. Start this recipe at least 2½ hours before you want to serve it. Cover the sliced rice cakes in cool filtered water for 2 to 4 hours to plump them up. (Do not use warm or hot water, as this will make the rice cakes mushy.) 

Dry on left, plumped on right
2. Drain the rice cakes thoroughly. Slice the meat against the grain and into either long shreds (the traditional way) or thin tiles. If you are using mushrooms, remove the stems and slice the caps into thin pieces. Rinse the salted mustard greens under running water in a sieve or colander. Squeeze the salted mustard greens dry and taste a piece; they should be slightly salty and have absolutely no sand or grit. If they are not already finely chopped, do so now.

3. Heat the oil in a wok on high until the oil begins to shimmer. Add the ginger and mushrooms to the wok and stir-fry them for a few seconds to release their fragrance, and then add the meat or mushrooms. Stir-fry these until they are almost done. Toss in the salted mustard greens and stir them around quickly to heat them through.

4. Add the rice cakes, rice wine, and water to wok, and quickly stir-fry them with the rest of the ingredients so that the rice cakes become very hot; they are already cooked, so this is just a matter of heating them well. Some of the rice cakes will stick to the bottom of the wok, but that is all right; just scrape them off as well as you can with your spatula. Taste and add salt as needed, as well as some ground pepper. Serve immediately. (The wok will probably need to soak for a while, so let it do that while you enjoy this Ningbo speciality!)