Friday, March 30, 2012

Crepes and chili potatoes from Xi'an

I went to Xi'an to see the terracotta soldiers and stayed for the food.

Honestly, I love Xi'an. Unpretentious, beautiful, old fashioned, this former imperial capital that was once called Chang'an has become a bit of a cultural backwater, and few folks would notice it if it weren't for those soldiers from 2,000 years ago. 

That's what brought me there, but it is not what captured my imagination. In fact, I became more than a bit grumpy during our stay, as tour groups are herded into what seem to be mandatory "dumpling feasts" that have pretty but tasteless food, and it truly bothered me that I was wasting valuable stomach space and time on this endeavor.

There's just so much more to enjoy there, and much of it is the friendly people and glorious things they eat. After I got home, I wanted to learn how to re-create their street snacks and the things that families put on their tables, for it's simple, good food with haunting flavors and textures.

Take, for example, today's dish. Shaanxi (where Xi'an is located) has traditionally been a relatively impoverished area, and so the people there have learned to be frugal. However, they also love to eat, and this is the sort of meal that people on tight budgets could present to their guests with considerable pride. Everything works perfectly. Not a scrap of meat is in here, no fancy vegetables or sauces. The main ingredients are just flour and potatoes, which may sound like a carb meltdown, but it's a triumph of ingenuity over cash flow.

China's northern provinces are justly famous for their noodles and breads, but another item that doesn't get mentioned enough are its crêpes. Yes, crêpes.

Frying crepe
Again, nothing foofoo about this at all; simply flour, water, and salt fried in a barely oiled flat pan. But what you end up with are thin pancakes that are wonderfully bouncy and chewy, their edges rimmed with crunch, and they are the ideal foil for the potatoes. The people in Shaanxi province often wrap any number of items in crêpes, so this is a delicious skill to master if you like the local foods as much as I do.

You might have never tried stir-fried potatoes before, and this is a great place to start. China's north has taken to such native American foods as potatoes and chilies like a house on fire, and now they are as much a part of the local cuisine as anything else. But instead of baked or mashed or french fried potatoes, you will find stewed and braised and even stir-fried renderings of this lovely tuber.

Onion & potato matchsticks
When you stir-fry potatoes, the key is to use the right variety of potato and then cut it correctly. Yukon Golds are great, as they hold their shape and don't break down like regular baking potatoes. If you don't have them in your area, ask your grocer to recommend something similar.

Next, you'll need to cut these into thin matchsticks called julienne. Don't be tempted to grate the potatoes; you'll end up with mush rather than gently crunchy strips. See the directions below on how to do this right.

This makes a deliciously satisfying meal any time of the day. I especially enjoy this for breakfast with a bowl of hot soy milk. 

Dappled crepes
Crepes and chili potatoes 
Jianbing juan tudousi 煎餅土豆絲 
Makes 6 filled crepes and serves about 2 people

1 cup Korean noodle flour (see Tips)
½ teaspoon sea salt
1 cup plus 2 tablespoons warm filtered water
2 medium Yukon Gold potatoes, or similar variety
2 green onions, trimmed
4 tablespoons (or so) peanut or vegetable oil
1 to 3 teaspoons dried powdered chili (see Tips)
1 teaspoon sea salt
Chili Sauce (see below)

1. Place the flour in a medium work bowl. Stir the salt into the warm water until it dissolves and then mix the salt water into the flour to form a thin batter with the consistency of cream; it's quite all right if there are some lumps in the batter. Let it sit while you prepare the rest of the ingredients.

Cut into slices, then julienne
2. You may peel the potatoes or leave them unpeeled, whichever you prefer. Rinse the potatoes and pat dry. Slice off one edge of the long side of a potato so that it lies flat on your cutting board. Then, cut the potato into very thin slices before cutting the slices into very thin matchsticks. Repeat with the other potato. Cut the green onions into 2-inch pieces, flatten slightly with the side of a cleaver or heavy knife, and cut them into thin matchsticks, as well.

3. Heat the oil in a wok over medium high and add the chili powder to taste, as well as the salt. Let the chili heat up in the oil and slowly turn from red to brown. Turn the heat up to high and add the potatoes and green onions. Stir-fry quickly until the potatoes have lost their rawness but are still slightly crisp. Cover the wok, remove from the heat, and let it sit on the side while you cook the crêpes.

Make the chili oil
4. Heat a flat skillet about 8 inches in diameter over medium high. Lightly oil the pan using a piece of paper towel dipped in oil. (More than that and the crêpe will roll around in the pan, rather than stay put.) When the oil barely starts to smoke, pour in about a sixth of the batter and swirl the pan around so that the batter covers most of the bottom of the pan. Cook it, adjusting the heat as necessary, until the top has some bubbles and is fairly dry, and the edges start to curl up. Flip the crêpe over and cook for a few seconds to barely brown the other side. Remove to a plate and cover with another plate to keep the crêpe warm. Repeat with the rest of the batter until you have about 6 crêpes.

5. Make the Chili Sauce (below). Serve the crêpes and potatoes hot alongside the sauce, and have everyone fill and roll their own crêpes, dribbling a bit of the sauce inside the crêpe. Eat with chopsticks at the top of the roll and the fingers of the other hand steadying the bottom. Enjoy.

Chili Sauce

Chili Garlic Sauce
This is a sauce I like to make for just about anything, from dumplings to meats to veggies:

2 tablespoons Lee Kum Kee brand Chili Garlic Sauce (or your favorite)
1 tablespoon soy sauce
4 tablespoons roasted sesame oil

1. Heat the chili garlic sauce and soy sauce together in a pan until bubbly. Remove from the heat and pour in the sesame oil, taste, and adjust seasoning.

2. Scrape into a small bowl and serve.


Korean noodle flours
The Korean noodle flour I love has changed its packaging. Here is a picture of the new look on the left, with an equally good brand on the right. Both work really well for Chinese breads and pastas, as they have the correct amount of gluten. American flours tend to have too much gluten, and so Chinese recipes made with them come out tough.

Use as much or little chili powder in the potatoes as you like. It's hard to give an exact amount, as chilies and palates differ so much. Besides, you can always add more zip with the sauce if the filling is not hot enough.