Thursday, March 8, 2012

Cool salad for a hot spring day

Jicama is an odd tuber. It seems rather unsure what it is: too sweet to be a regular old root vegetable and too subterranean to be a fruit, it comes across as a strange interloper in the plant community.

But I do like it. That sweet crispness more than makes up for its weirdness, and although I often fail to see jicamas in the market -- stored as they are with the other root vegetables, I'm always making a beeline for the garlic and ginger, I guess -- they never fail to please me once I decide to work with them.

This is definitely one root veggie that is better raw than cooked. In fact, I don't think I've ever been even tempted to apply heat to a jicama because in their raw state they are just so delicious. Peeled and cut into sticks, jicama is a perfect snack combining all the sweet juiciness of a pear with the healthy appeal of a vegetable.

Shanghai has a lovely take on jicama that does justice to its character, and as the days heat up, this is a nice dish to have stashed in the fridge as a quick and refreshing side.

The brilliance of this dish has to do with the textures. In addition to the crunch of the jicamas, there's also the slithery appeal of the agar. This appetizer is sometimes made with thick green bean noodles (dongfen), but they are no match for the gentle resilience of the agar. Besides, agar is just so pretty, standing out like crystalline strands against the opaque white.

Softened agar strips
No cooking or even hot water is required here, merely some slicing and dicing. Plan on marinating the salad for at least a couple of hours so that the dressing and the veggies get a chance to meet and greet. I like to put this together in the morning, as it will be just perfect for dinnertime. Leftovers will keep another day or so if refrigerated, but always add the cilantro at the last minute, as it will just wilt and lose its startling green color if exposed to acid (i.e., vinegar) and salt.

Jicama has a couple of different names in Chinese. Digua (ground squash) is the most common, but it occasionally is referred to as yangdigua (foreign ground squash), since the majority of vegetables that migrated into China have yang (literally "ocean," meaning that it came overseas, like yangcai or agar), or hu (literally the name of the non-Han nationalities in the Chinese northwest, so something that is introduced over land, like hujiao or black pepper), or fan (foreign, like fanqie or tomato).

Lots of history in a name!

Sweet and sour jicama salad 
Tangcu digua 糖醋地瓜  
Marinate the veggies
Serves 6 to 8 generously as an appetizer, 4 to 6 as a side dish

0.5 ounce dried agar strips (a bunch about 1 inch thick and 12 inches long)
Filtered cool water as needed1 small (12 ounce) jicama (see Tips)
2 red jalapeno peppers (or to taste)
1 tablespoon sugar, or to taste
5 tablespoons white rice vinegar, or to taste
½ teaspoon sea salt, or to taste
10 or so sprigs of cilantro, stems removed

1.  Place the agar strips in a large work bowl and cover with the cool tap water while you prepare the rest of the ingredients.

2. Peel the jicama with a potato peeler, and be sure to remove any tough webbing underneath the brown skin. Trim off the ends of the jicama and cut the tuber in half. Cut it into ¼-inch slices, and then across into ¼-inch strips. Place the jicama strips in a work bowl.

Soft and beautiful agar
3. Remove the caps, seeds, and interior ribs from the jalapenos before cutting them into very thin strips. Add the jalapenos to the jicama.

4. When the agar is soft and transparent, drain it thoroughly before cutting it into lengths that are about the same size as the jicama. Add to the bowl with the jicama.

5. Sprinkle the sugar, vinegar, and salt over the salad and toss well. Cover and refrigerate for at least a few hours. Just before serving, carefully rinse and dry the cilantro, and then chop it coarsely. Toss it into the salad, and then taste and adjust the salad's seasoning. Serve chilled or just slightly cold.


Choose jicamas that are hard and feel heavy for their size. Avoid any with mushy spots or shriveled stem ends. 

Refrigerate any jicama that you do not use right away, and keep them very dry, as water can cause rotting.

Feel free to use any kind of chili pepper that you enjoy. If you are serving children or people with no tolerance for heat, try substituting red bell peppers or fresh pimentos.  

Agar strips can be found in most East Asian groceries, as well as in some health food stores. It keeps practically forever if sealed in an air-tight bag.

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