Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Autumnal lotus root à la Guangxi and Guizhou

As autumn works its way into the year, slowly showing summer the door and painting the leaves the colors of a sunset, yet another Chinese vegetable makes its way onto the stage: the lotus root.

Nowadays, lotus roots can be found in Chinese markets most of the year, but that doesn't mean that they are at their best at any other time than fall and early winter. The reason is that the juiciest and plumpest ones are plucked when the leaves begin to wither. That is when the sugars in the lotus roots are at their highest.

They will also be fatter and heavier, as if they were little bears getting ready for hibernation. Which is exactly what is happening. Not that they are bears, of course, but they are preparing for a long winter's nap, and so food has been stored to keep the plant alive and give it that energetic burst once spring rolls around again.

Cubed lotus root...
The two relatively hidden provinces that I've been focused on recently that lie in China's south-central region -- Guizhou and Guangxi -- both have a marked fondness for lotus roots. And they treat them in ways I've never seen in other places.

One is an unusual quick pickle that uses the uniquely starchy, crunchy, refreshing nature of lotus root in a unexpected yet totally delightful way. The other is a side dish that is has fermented bean curd flavored with an ingredient that I used to think was confined only to northern Fujian province: red rice wine lees, or hongzao.

But just earlier today, as I was researching the background of Sichuan cuisine, I found a historical record that mentions hongzao being a favorite local ingredient... a thousand years ago! In Sichuan! That's like discovering that Leondardo da Vinci's mom cooked with lutefisk.

Why am I mentioning Sichuan? Because my own personal theory is that Guizhou and western Guangxi -- along with Yunnan province -- should be considered part of the Sichuan school of Chinese cooking.

and sliced
This is one big puzzle piece in the overall grand picture of Chinese food that divides it into eight broad cuisines. The main problem (for me, at least) is that it tends to be strictly drawn along borders, lumping together provinces that may have had some geopolitical relationship at one time or another, but in the end that doesn't take into account what people actually make for dinner. Also, in doing it this traditional way, many wonderful places have been left out of this patchwork, including Yunnan, Guangxi, and Guizhou to give just three important examples.

So, one of the things I'm going to start discussing here as we continue on our trip around China's cuisines is how they relate to each other historically, physically, and most importantly in their approach to food. 

One clue as to why Guizhou is part of Sichuan's general school is its love for chilies, its reliance on salt and fermented chili pastes rather than soy sauce, the main ingredients that make up the backbone of these cuisine, and their similar approaches to cooking.

Take this pickle as a good illustration. The main flavors come from lots of fresh garlic and ginger and green onions -- aromatics that color most of Sichuan's dishes -- plus the hot pickled chilies that add both tang and heat to any dish. These pickled chilies are almost always from Sichuan, and they tend to be either red or green Thai peppers preserved with salt, vinegar, and little else.

Homemade nanru
I love them. The flavors are clear in a way that the hot sauces are not. They convey a sharpness of color and aroma, too, that is unique and delicious. Called pao lajiao, or pickled chilies, they always come in glass jars, either whole or chopped. I much prefer the whole ones because the texture is so much cleaner, while the chopped ones tend to be mushy. Plus, they offer more versatility for the cook, as one can easily slice or dice them if that's what is called for in the recipe.

Pickles of all sorts are a big deal in Sichuan. Just about any Sichuan cookbook worth its salt will have page after page of pickle recipes. And those pickles with their chilies exploding against garlic and ginger look a whole lot like today's recipe from Guizhou, thus stacking even more evidence on the table in favor of my case for enveloping Guizhou (as well as Yunnan and western Guangxi) in Sichuan's loving though considerably spicy embrace.

The second recipe here is for a creamy, cheesy lotus root. This is a subtle dish with more of those echoes of trips to Guangxi by visitors in the north. Guangdong has its fair share of fermented bean curd, but they like their doufuru white and very funky there, while this mild red version called nanru is a taste of places further up China's eastern edge. Cross pollination is always at work in Chinese cuisine. Half of the fun is trying to connect the dots...

Sichuan style aromas
Pickled lotus root from Guizhou 
Guizhou paojiao lian'ou  貴州泡椒蓮藕  
Makes about 2 cups

Lotus root and aromatics:
1 plump lotus root, about 6 to 7 inches long
½ teaspoon sea salt
Filtered water as needed
3 green onions, trimmed and chopped into ¼-inch rounds
1 tablespoon peeled fresh garlic, finely chopped
10 or more pickled red chilies (I use 14)
2 plump garlic cloves, thinly sliced

2 tablespoons vinegar from the pickled chilies
¼ cup light rice vinegar or good cider vinegar
¼ cup sugar
2 teaspoons sea salt
Filtered water as needed

1. Peel the lotus root and remove both ends. Rinse the root thoroughly under running water; if there is mud in one of the holes, use a thin chopstick to scrub the inside. Cut the lotus root lengthwise in half and then into quarter-inch cubes. Place the cubed lotus root in a small saucepan, add the half teaspoon salt, and cover with water. Bring the pan to a full boil and then reduce to a simmer. Cook the root for about 5 minutes, or until it is just barely tender but still has a crunchy texture. Drain the pan in a colander and rinse the lotus root with cool water to stop the cooking.

2. Place the cooked lotus root in a 3 cup container with the green onions, ginger, pickled chilies, and cloves. Mix together the pickled chili vinegar, rice vinegar, sugar, and salt, and then pour this over the vegetables; add just enough water to almost cover them. Refrigerate the pickle for at least 24 hours. Remove whatever amount you want with a very clean slotted spoon. The pickle will stay crispy and tasty for at least 5 days.

Velvety lacy slices

Guangxi style lotus root with red bean curd chees
Guishi nanru oupian 桂式南乳藕片
Serves 4 as a side dish

1 plump lotus root, about 6 to 7 inches long
2 teaspoons roasted sesame oil
2 cloves garlic, thinly sliced  
½ cup filtered water
½ teaspoon sea salt
1 cube red fermented bean curd (aka red bean curd cheese or nanru), lightly mashed, plus a dribble of the nanru's sauce
1 teaspoon sugar

1. Peel the lotus root and remove both ends. Rinse the root thoroughly under running water; if there is mud in one of the holes, use a thin chopstick to scrub the inside. Thinly slice the lotus root crosswise into lacy rounds.

Creamy vs. crunchy
2. Heat the sesame oil in a wok over medium-high heat until it smells wonderful, and then add the lotus root. Quickly stir-fry them for a minute or two to heat them through. Then, add the rest of the ingredients. Toss the lotus roots in the sauce for a few minutes until the sauce thickens. Taste and adjust seasoning, and then serve in a pretty bowl.


Select lotus roots that are heavy for their size. Avoid any with soft spots or heavy bruises, as this also indicates that the roots might be muddy inside.

Store the roots in a plastic bag in the refrigerator. They keep best if wrapped with a damp paper towel first since they are, after all, aquatic plants.

Pickled chili peppers will be found in the condiment aisle of Chinese markets. Look for peppers that are a shiny red, which shows that they are still fresh; dull red ones have been around too long. Keep leftovers in the fridge like any other pickle.

Red fermented bean curd (red bean curd cheese or 南乳 nanru) will also be on the condiment aisle. Store an opened container in a cool place, preferably the fridge if you're not going to use it up quickly. (I will be sharing a recipe for this creamy ingredient before long... so if you don't have your Red Wine Lees made yet, get started!)

If you want, you can use regular doufuru with a teaspoon or so of the Red Wine Lees.

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