Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Eight treasure spicy jumble

Wuxi is known for its rich foods, tastes that double up and fold back on each other until they coalesce into a whole. And that is as it should be, for as it is located in the lush reaches of the Yangtze River in the eastern province of Jiangsu. With a world of ingredients to choose from, located as it is between river and sea, mountains and farmlands, Wuxi must be the kind of place that foodies think of when asked to consider heaven. 

Even the locale is exotic: the city is cut in half by Lake Tai, and the Grand Canal that links Beijing with the south runs through Wuxi. An ancient settlement that is probably thousands of years old, it has developed a culture and a sensibility that reaches out and beckons to all who hunger for something more.

Pressed bean curd
And part of that hunger, of course, centers on its foods. The most famous dish here is the obsession-worthy Wuxi Spareribs, which turns ribs from barbecue fare into something eligible for the most refined banquet. Other local pork dishes rate up there with the spareribs as the stuff of dreams, and even the Wuxi way with steamed gluten makes this vegan ingredient something that carnivores learn to covet.

There is one dish, though, that is a devious balance of textures, flavors, and colors, a concoction that the locals call "eight treasure spicy sauce" (babao lajiang). I've exchanged the "sauce" for "jumble" here, since this isn't really a sauce at all. Instead, it's a choreographed layering of different meats, vegetables, and ideas.

If you are a vegetarian, though, you can still make this dish; just substitute some of the meatless suggestions for the flesh. And if you are more adventurous than most -- and have access to some good Chinese butchers -- you can be highly traditional and incorporate duck gizzards and pork tripe, which are not there for their flavors, but to satisfy that incessant Chinese desire for interesting texture.

Whatever way you prepare this, it will be tasty. Just remember to substitute equivalent things, such as matsutake mushrooms for the chicken. That way the balance remains unchanged. And you are certainly should not feel constrained by the number "eight." Add or deduct to fit your tastes, and view the amounts of the ingredients here as merely a template. I have had some meatless versions that were quite good, and which used fried salted peanuts to add a savory note and some fresh chilies to spark up the flavors, while braised gluten rounded out the meaty textures.

Flash-fried shrimp
But what I've settled on here is very much in keeping with the way it is made in Wuxi, and the traditional grace note on this dish is what I think makes this sublime: some flash-fried shrimp. This works on so many levels that it is truly impressive: the light pink adds some necessary color, the gently sweet shellfish contrast beautifully with the dark seasonings, and they are so fresh that they spark all sorts of exciting notes on the palate.

When you prepare this dish, try to keep everything in about the same size, which are cubes about half an inch all around. The only exception would be the Chinese ham, which is very salty and hard, and so needs to be cut into tiny bits so that they can wend their way into each bite.

Two kinds of sauces are used here: bean paste and hot bean paste. The bean paste -- doubanjiang -- is a very savory condiment that is in many ways like miso. It is fermented and full of those xianwei or umami flavors that boost the taste of whatever they touch, and the soybeans in the mix add a nice bit of texture.

It is often confused with the other sauce, because their names are so similar. However, hot bean sauce -- la doubanjiang -- is mainly about chilies. It too is quite salty, but the heat it generates is the overriding characteristic. Add both of these to your dish in increments, as they can easily overpower whatever it is you are cooking, but if added in just the right amount, they tease the taste buds and satisfy all sorts of hungers.

Eight treasure spicy jumble  
Babao lajiang 八寶辣醬
Serves 4 to 6 as part of a multicourse meal

2 tablespoons Chinese ham, skin removed
1 cup fresh or frozen bamboo shoots, defrosted
2 large fresh Chinese mushrooms, stemmed
2 squares pressed, marinated bean curd (lu doufu gan, see second picture and Tips)
1 cup cooked chicken
1 cup frozen green soybeans (edamame), defrosted (see Tips)
2 tablespoons dried shrimp (see Tips)
Boiling water as needed
4 tablespoons peanut or vegetable oil
1 to 2 teaspoons bean sauce (doubanjiang, see Tips)
1 to 2 teaspoons hot bean sauce (la doubanjiang, see Tips)
3 tablespoons Shaoxing rice wine
1 teaspoon sugar
2 tablespoons fresh peanut or vegetable oil
Sprinkle of sea salt
1 cup shelled and cleaned shrimp (rock shrimp particularly good here), cut into half-inch pieces and drained (see Tips)

Hot sauce in spoon and not hot in jar
1. First prep some of the ingredients. If the ham is very hard, steam it for about 10 minutes, and then chop it finely (into pieces that are about an eighth of an inch). Cut the following into half-inch dice: bamboo, mushrooms, pressed bean curd, and chicken, and place them in a bowl along with the green soybeans. Place the dried shrimp in a small bowl and pour boiling water over them; after about 10 minutes, drain and chop them coarsely. 

2. Heat the 4 tablespoons oil in a wok over high and add the ham. Quickly stir-fry the ham for a few minutes to cook it through, and then add the bowl of bamboo, mushrooms, pressed bean curd, chicken, and green soybeans. Stir-fry these over high heat until the bamboo is cooked but still crisp. Add the bean sauces to taste, as well as the rice wine and sugar, and toss to mix well. Taste and adjust the seasoning. (This dish can be prepared ahead of time up to this point.)

3. A few minutes before serving, reheat the jumble if necessary. Then, heat the remaining 2 tablespoons oil over high heat and add just a small sprinkle of salt. When the oil starts to smoke, add the shrimp and flash-fry them over the highest heat until they are pink and barely done. Pour them over the jumble and serve, with a soup spoon tucked into the dish so everyone can help themselves.


Pressed bean curd is called doufu gan 豆腐乾, or "dried bean curd." This is merely bean curd that has had most of its moisture pressed out. It is an ivory white and is sold in vacuum packs in the refrigerated section of Chinese grocery stores. Lu doufu gan 滷豆腐乾 is marinated; instead of white, the skin of these squares is brown, and they have a light soy sauce flavor. Whichever kind you buy, keep the unused squares in the package and enjoy them within a few days of opening the package.

Fresh, green soybeans are available almost exclusively in the frozen foods section. Try to locate ones that are organic, as so many soybeans are genetically modified, or GMO. Also, look inside the clear window on the package to make sure that the beans look fresh and are not either dessicated or embalmed in frost.

I like to get my dried shrimp from Taiwanese producers or at Chinese herbal shops and dry goods stores. Look for shrimp that are whole, rather than crumbly, and you don't want any that are bright orange; natural dried shrimp are a gentle peach color. One thing nice about buying them at an herbal or dry goods store is that you can smell and even squeeze them if the shopkeeper is feeling generous. They should smell sweet and slightly fishy, and the best ones have a suppleness that allows you to bend them, which means they are fresh. Store them in a closed jar or resealable bag in the fridge, and they will keep for many months.

Hot bean sauce (or paste) is a specialty of Sichuan, so I try to find jars from Pixian 郫縣 (also written 郫县), the place where the best of these sauces are made. Lots of imitators are out there now, so search around for a brand of la doubanjiang 辣豆瓣醬 that you like. One I often buy is in a half-circle shaped jar (on the left in the Ingredients photo) made by Qiao Niang Fang in Sichuan.

For regular bean sauce, or doubanjiang 豆瓣醬try some of the Taiwan products, like Master brand, which also makes other good Chinese sauces. This one is has the title "fermented bean sauce," a red lid, and yellow beans on the label (on the right in that Ingredients photo).

Wild-caught shrimp are infinitely better than farmed, since much of the farming is done in underdeveloped areas with questionable levels of cleanliness. Remember, shrimp are bottom dwellers and eat decaying things, so if your shrimp are coming from a densely populated area, you can imagine what they are dining on. Frozen shrimp are often quite good. Just defrost them and make sure that the sandy intestine along their back in removed, as well as any shells or legs.