Monday, August 20, 2012

Guizhou's signature vegan dish

In the previous post we looked at Guizhou's cuisine for the first time, and as I've become ever-so-slightly bowled over by this region's dishes, here comes another one destined to be a classic: Gold Hooks Hanging on Jade Plaques.

Sounds fancy, doesn't it? And it does look good, but I have to tell you that it tastes even better than you can possibly imagine. The first time I made this, I scarfed down half of this recipe without missing a beat. 

The secret is in the sauce.

Despite its pretensions to glory, this is actually a very humble dish. Guizhou has traditionally been a rather poor region, and so bean curd makes its way onto most tables as the day's protein more cases than not. But that is actually a reason to rejoice, because the clever people of this remote province have found ways to turn it into something special, like today's recipe.

This particular dish actually is so easy that even if you are new to cooking or are afraid of the kitchen, you really should try it out. It's practically failsafe, it's cheap, and those little gold hooks will, well, hook you.

The balance in this dish is nothing short of perfect, with the almost cheese-like bean curd acting as a quiet foil for the crunch of the bean sprouts, but both are bland to the point of being bare whispers of their own vegetal natures. And then you dip them into the thick spicy sauce that is over the top with its riot of flavors and silky textures, and the result is spectacular. It's an inspired combination that makes me marvel at the deceptive simplicity of it all.

Just two main ingredients
I used a medium-firm bean curd here, which is just right: not too tough, and yet firm enough that it doesn't fall apart either during the cooking or the eating. All you need to do is cut it into flat little tiles that offer maximum surface for the sauce to cling to.

The other main component are the soybean sprouts. Like regular mung bean sprouts, these are common vegetables throughout China because they can be grown absolutely anywhere and cost next to nothing (see Tips). 

You can always find these sprouts at your friendly Asian grocer's. The best in my area come from the Korean markets, where people are huge fans of the sprout; they sell 5-pound bags of these, which is unheard of anywhere else around here. In spite of the size of the bags and the enormous shelf space dedicated to them, the sprouts have fast turnover, and so are always fresh and crunchy.

Soybean sprouts (dadouya or huangdouya) and mung bean sprouts (lüdouya) are used differently in Chinese cuisine because of their textures. Soybean sprouts are fairly robust, nutty in flavor, and decidedly crunchy at the seed end, so these are used in soups, braises, and stews, since they can hold up for a while before disintegrating. Mung bean sprouts are best just lightly blanched or barely stir-fried and remain crisp; they turn to mush with little encouragement, so gentle handling is recommended.

With (left) & without (right)
With soybean sprouts in particular, the hairy ends should be removed. I mean, you can be lazy and present them au naturel, but those hirsute rootlets can be disturbing distractions. There's no redeeming virtues in those ends, so just bite the bullet and pluck them off while you watch the tube or something, much like stringing snow pea pods or trimming pea shoots. 

They also look a whole lot more well-behaved and prettier, as can be seen in the photo on the right.

The only remaining factor in this recipe is the sauce. Now, this is intensely simple to throw together. Just simmer some ground chili powder and ground Sichuan peppercorns in some oil, add the rest, and you're done.

Did I mention that even vegans can enjoy this?

Gold hooks hanging on jade plaques
Jingou gua yupai 金鈎掛玉牌 
Serves 4 to 6 as part of a multicourse meal, or 2 to 3 as a main dish

5 to 6 ounces very fresh soybean sprouts (see Tips)
1 (14 ounce) block medium-firm bean curd
1 cup water
1 teaspoon sea salt

2 green onions, trimmed and very thinly sliced
1 tablespoon roasted sesame oil
4 tablespoons peanut or vegetable oil
 tablespoons fairly fine-ground dried chilies
 tablespoons ground Sichuan peppercorns
1 tablespoon regular soy sauce

1. Pluck the hairy ends off of all of the soybean sprouts, and remove any of the skins clinging to the seed ends. Rinse the sprouts and drain.

Simmer the spices in oil
2. Trim any tough edges off the the bean curd, and then cut it into even quarters, and then cut each quarter into 5 even tiles; you will have 20 pieces.

3. Place the bean sprouts in a wide pan and add the water and salt. Bring the pot to a boil, and then lower it to a simmer. Cook the sprouts for about 5 minutes, and then layer the bean curd tiles on top. Gently swish the pan (don't stir it or flip the bean curd, as it will break) for about 3 minutes, until the bean curd is cooked. Carefully drain off all of the water and arrange the sprouts and bean curd on a serving platter.

4. While the sprouts are cooking, place the sliced green onions and the sesame oil in a small (½ cup or so) bowl that will hold the sauce. Heat the peanut or vegetable oil in a wok over medium-high heat until it barely shimmers, and then turn the heat down to low, add the dried chilies and ground peppercorns, and slowly cook the spices for about 2 minutes, until their fragrance is released. Remove the wok from the heat and stir in the soy sauce, which will boil and bubble. Pour this spicy oil and all of the crumbly bits into the sauce bowl and stir. Taste and adjust seasoning.

5. Serve while both parts of the dish are still hot. To eat, pick up a square of bean curd along with a couple of sprouts and dip them in the sauce. (I tend to bathe them in the sauce, it's so good.)


The silky sauce
Be sure and buy non-GMO (genetically modified) sprouts, if you can.

When buying sprouts, try to smell them because the least bit of decay or rot will shout out at you that there's something wrong. I also look at the hairy root ends: they should be white and not yellowish or brown, which means that they are old. Likewise, the seed ends should be bright yellow and not have any brown spots or slimy skins hanging on them.

If you want to grow your own, there's lots of instructions available online, but basically it's this: soak organic (non-GMO) soybeans overnight until they plump up. Then place them in a large jar and cover the opening with a mesh or some cheesecloth to keep the moisture in and the insects out. Rinse the beans twice a day, keep the jar in a warmish place out of the light (you want the sprouts to stay as white as possible), and then when the beans have provided you with lots of long sprouts -- but haven't formed leaves yet -- simply store the sprouts in a container, cover them with the water, and place them in the fridge for a couple of days.

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