Monday, August 27, 2012

Cool, calm & delicious: Guizhou's spicy mung bean jelly shreds

Throughout south-central China, there is a common thread of deliciousness that weaves in and out of the local cuisines. Much of it has to do with the heady seasonings -- garlic, green onions, vinegar, and chilies in all their various manifestations -- but there are also themes that repeat and reappear under various guises.

One of these is mung bean jelly. Now, its English name is not one that would inspire drooling in even the most hardened foodie... that is, unless that person knew mung bean jelly by its Chinese name: liangfen

Is it good? Well, to put it bluntly, if I were planning my last meal on Earth, chances are very good that liangfen would be heading up the menu. 
Naked liangfen

What liangfen does is act as a cool, smooth, silky vehicle for an array of fireworks. When you put a bit of perfectly sauced liangfen in your mouth, the jelly provides chilly bland counterpoints and quiet pauses between all of the excitement in the sauce and garnishes. 

You find this in other great dishes, so it's a principle that runs through all great cuisines, an idea that is certainly worthy of contemplation:

Consider what a bowl of Bolognese sauce would be like without some pasta to back it up... delicious as that ragu might be, it would be simply overwhelming on the palate. The most refined vinaigrette loses its sparkle if there are no salad greens to offer cool respite. A bowl of hot fudge sauce without a scoop of vanilla or (my favorite) homemade ginger ice cream to soften the heavy blows of the chocolate's one-note sweetness quickly becomes cloying.

So, the liangfen acts as the neutral color in this palette. But just as a painting looks to white to give calm to a sea of colors, so does liangfen ground the dish and offer equilibrium.

I am going off the deep end with this. I am fully aware that this is becoming an paean to a weird square of jiggly bean glue. However, this passion will become understandable once you take a taste.
Korean mung bean powder

It's close to impossible to buy liangfen in the market, although some Korean and Chinese delis have started offering it around here. The problem is that the liangfen can't sit around too long before it loses its delicate texture and turns hard. What you want are gentle pillows on your tongue. So how to remedy this aching desire? 

What else? Make it yourself.

Don't worry; this is a super simple thing to do. Mung bean powder is just mixed with water and boiled for a minute, and then the translucent paste is cooled until it turns opaque. And voila, liangfen. The sauce will take -- at the most -- 5 minutes of actual work. The optional garnish of fried soybeans offers crunch and requires some soaking and frying, but if time is limited, that's okay, the liangfen will still be stunning. 
Pour slurry into boiling water

Restaurants usually pour lots of sauce over the dish, and you can, too, if you want to make a spicy statement. It's quite pretty when there is a luscious red pool of chili oil surrounding the pure white liangfen, but it's certainly not mandatory. This all depends on what you like and how hot your chili oil is. The amount given in this recipe is just enough to gently coat each strand and provide a nice kick, but adjust, add, or subtract to your heart's content so that you end up with something that makes your mouth sing.

One thing especially nice about this particular recipe for liangfen is the texture: it is exactly soft enough to provide sensuous mouth feel, yet solid enough that it doesn't break apart easily. Cut it into ribbons as thick or as thin as you like. I prefer them on the thin side so that there is more contact with the sauce, but this is a personal preference.

A note about Fried Soybeans: do try these. They are delicious all on their own, but can easily be tarted up with some sea salt, chili powder, ground roasted Sichuan peppercorns, or whatever makes you happy. Offer them as bar snacks or cocktail nibbles, with a little spoon for your guests to scoop them up. Or use them to top bowls of noodles or add a bit of variety to texturally bland dishes; these little guys are always ready to add pizzazz. 
Immediate translucence

By the by, the gentle cuisine of Beijing also has a liangfen draped with a subtle sesame paste sauce instead of being lashed with chilies. Both are delicious, and both the northern and the southern versions are perfect for hot weather, stimulating weary appetites and making a meal much more of a sensuous experience that you might have thought possible.

Guizhou-style mung bean jelly 
Guizhou liangfen 貴州涼粉 
Serves 4 to 6 generously as an appetizer

½ cup mung (green) bean powder
3 cups filtered water

1 tablespoon fermented black beans (douchi)
1 tablespoon filtered water
2 teaspoons finely chopped ginger
2 teaspoons finely chopped garlic
Chilled block of liangfen
½ cup (or more) Chili Oil (including the crumbly bits)
1½ teaspoons regular soy sauce
1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar
2 to 3 tablespoon roasted sesame oil
1 green onion (green part only), finely sliced
A few tablespoons Fried Soybeans, optional (recipe below), or coarsely chopped Fried Peanuts

1. Prepare a square 4-cup pan by rinsing it out and setting it next to the stove along with a silicone spatula; also prepare a shallow bowl of cold water that is large enough to hold the pan, as this will be used to quickly cool down the jelly. 

2. Mix the mung bean powder with ½ cup water to form a smooth, thin slurry. Bring the rest of the water to a boil over medium heat in a wide saucepan or very clean wok. Stir the water with a whisk while you pour the bean mixture into the water. Continue to stir the mixture as it quickly thickens and bubbles; regulate the heat to maintain a gentle bubbling. Cook the mixture for a minute or two until it is glossy and translucent. Use the silicone spatula to scrape the mixture into the square pan. Shake the pan to settle the paste and then set the pan in the shallow bowl of cold water. When the mixture has cooled down to room temperature, remove the pan from the water and place the pan in the refrigerator for about an hour, or until it turns into an opaque jelly.

3. Turn the pan upside down on a very clean cutting board and slice the jelly into thin pieces; you can use a wavy-bladed knife to make it fancy, if you want, as in the picture at the very top and to the right. (If the top surface of the jelly is at all tough, cut it off and discard it.) Then, cut these pieces into thin ribbons. Arrange the ribbons on a rimmed serving platter or wide bowl; keep the jelly cool.
"Serving suggestion"

4. Coarsely chop the fermented black beans and place them in a clean wok with the tablespoon of water. Bring the water to a boil and stir the beans around in it to form a thin sauce. Then, add the ginger and garlic to the beans, mix them up quickly, and then add the chili oil, soy sauce, vinegar, and sesame oil. Quickly bring the sauce to a boil, taste, and adjust seasoning; feel free to make it saltier with more soy sauce or sweeter with a dash of sugar or or tarter with more vinegar or spicier with a whole lot more chili oil. Pour the hot sauce over the cool jelly ribbons, garnish with the green onions and optional Fried Soybeans, and serve as an appetizer or first course. To eat, toss the liangfen with the toppings and sauce.

Fried soybeans 
Zha huangdou  炸黃豆
All over China
Makes 1 cup

1 cup organic dried soybeans
Peanut or vegetable oil as needed (used okay if there's no smell to the oil)

1. Soak the soybeans overnight until they are plump. Drain and rinse them thoroughly, and then pat the beans very dry with a towel.

2. Place the beans in a medium to large saucepan and cover with cool oil. Bring the oil to a simmer over medium heat,  reduce the flame to low, and mix the beans now and then as they slowly cook. You will need to keep a close eye on the beans as they cook, since the oil will foam up as the water evaporates from the beans. As soon as the foaming begins to settle down, keep an even closer eye on the beans, because they are finally beginning to brown. Once the beans are a light golden brown, drain the beans in a sieve over a heatproof bowl. 
Wonderfully crunchy

3. Return the oil to the saucepan and turn the heat up to medium-high. When the oil starts to shimmer, carefully pour the beans back into the oil and fry for a minute or so until the beans are a nut brown and actually taste nutty. Drain the beans once again and let them cool before eating. (If serving them as a snack, salt them while they are hot. If using as a topping, no salt is needed.) They will crisp up as they cool. Store in an airtight container.


The best mung bean powder that I've found is sold in Korean grocery stores. It is labeled either "green bean starch" of "green bean powder" or "mung bean powder" or a variation on one of these. Most of the brands seem comparable insofar as quality and price is concerned.

Use a very clean wok (or pan) when making liangfen, as any blackened bits in the wok will be scraped up and mar the perfect beauty of the jelly.

A wire whisk of any kind is great for quickly mixing the paste, as it cuts down on lumping. The silicone spatula is perfect for scraping out the jelly and getting every bit.

Store any leftover jelly in plastic, refrigerate, and use by the next day.

The best soybeans are found in good health stores with a fast turnover. Old soybeans get hard and musty, so buy them at a busy place.
Foaming beans in oil

The beans are fried twice (refried beans!): the first time to evaporate the water and then cook the beans, and the second time to crisp them up. As you fry them the second time, you'll hear lovely popping noises that tell you that the beans are exploding and becoming almost popcorn-y.

Soybeans are the traditional garnish for this dish in both Guizhou and Sichuan, but Fried Peanuts are delicious, too. Just chop the peanuts coarsely so that they cling to the liangfen and sauce, instead of rolling around at the bottom of the dish.


  1. This looks great! I've been looking a long time for a good recipe for liang fen and have experimented on my own but something was missing from the sauce. Do you happen to know of a recipe for CHUAN BEI liang fen?

    1. The recipe here is pretty close northern Sichuan style, as all you would have to do is add some shredded cucumbers cilantro, and substitute chopped peanuts for the soybeans. Would that be about it?