Thursday, November 22, 2012

Pickled long beans with ground pork

One sub-cuisine in China almost never, ever gets mentioned. This is a type of cooking that is a solid part of Taiwan’s food culture, and it is so homey and delicious that there really is no good reason for it to stay in the shadows. What I am talking about is the cooking of military communities, the comfort food that people in the armed forces would come home to back in the fifties through the eighties.

Called juancun cai 眷村菜, this is often translated as the food of “military dependents,” but putting it like that makes it seem like the soldiers and sailors don’t cook it or eat it themselves, so let me suggest "military communities" instead.

So what is juancun cai? This is rustic cooking from all over China that was brought to the island of Taiwan in 1949 when Chiang Kai-shek retreated there for all time. He brought many armed personnel with him, and most did their best to evacuate their families, as well. As they settled down in the simple housing close to the military bases, people from Sichuan, Shandong, Jiangsu, Guangdong, and elsewhere started sharing recipes and cooking up a storm.
Homemade pickled beans

These folks generally did not have a whole lot of money to spend on food, so the dishes they created were inclined to use lots of vegetables rather than meat, and what meats there are tend to be cheaper cuts or ground pork. A lot was always made out of a little. Food was preserved with pickling and drying, and these added extra layers of savoriness to the final dish. (The noodle dishes of the juancun were also incredibly delicious, cheap, and well made.)

My husband grew up on one such base in southern Taiwan very near the seashore, and he counts those as some of his happiest days. The one thing that seems to summon the best memories are the flavors that remind him of that little house in Pingdong, the smells that wafted down the narrow alleyways, the tastes that he came to equate with home.

This dish uses longbeans pickled the traditional way, which turns them from rather boring and tough string bean wannabes into vegetables with a truly haunting flavor and tender texture. You can, of course, sometimes find them in Chinese grocery stores, but they are never as tasty and crisp as homemade ones.

The cowpeas in the pods
Long beans are a strange looking vegetable. Usually way over a foot long, they have a reptilian feel and appearance. However, they are nothing more sinister than immature cowpea pods, and if you look closely at the little beans inside them, you can see the white baby, which add a light nuttiness.

This dish is sometimes referred to as Sour Bean Pods with Ground Pork (酸豆角炒肉末 Suan doujiao chao roumo). It's a terrific dish to have on hand, as it's something that keeps well and tastes perfect spooned over a bowl of plain noodles, eaten with steamed rice, or used as a side dish for congee. As for its origins, I’ve heard people say it’s from Sichuan, which may be true, but I can’t find it in my encyclopedia of Sichuan foods. So, at least for the time being, I’m going to say it’s from Hunan. But in the end, who cares… it’s just plain tasty.
Homey food

Pickled long beans with ground pork 
Pào jiāngdòu chǎo ròumòu 泡豇豆炒肉末 
Taiwanese military communities, Sichuan
Serves 4 to 6 as a main dish

1 bunch pickled long beans (from the Sichuan traditional pickled vegetables recipe)
3 cloves garlic
3 dried Thai peppers
1 tablespoon finely chopped ginger
¼ cup oil, more or less
8 ounces (or so) ground pork
1 tablespoon plain rice wine (mijiu)
2 tablespoons sugar
2 tablespoons toasted sesame oil
½ green onion (white part only), finely sliced on the diagonal

1. Trim off the stem ends of the pickled long beans and rinse the beans thoroughly to remove the extra salt and sour juices. Taste a piece, and if it is too salty or sour for your taste, quickly blanch the beans in boiling water, rinse, and drain. (I usually like them unrinsed, but this is a matter of personal taste and also depends on the quality of the beans.) Chop the beans into ¼-inch lengths.

2. Peel and trim the garlic cloves and then finely chop them. Break open the chili pods and shake out most of the seeds, and then cut them on the diagonal into small pieces. Add the ginger to the garlic and chili peppers.

3. Heat a wok over high until the pan begins to smoke, and then pour in the oil. Toss in the garlic, chilies, and ginger, and quickly stir them over the heat to release their fragrance. Add the ground pork and stir-fry it until the meat is slightly browned. Add the chopped beans to the wok along with the rice wine, sugar, sesame oil, and green onion. Quickly toss these all together over high heat until the beans are barely cooked through. Taste and adjust the seasoning, and then serve while still hot.


If you need to buy pickled long beans, look for some that were made in the U.S., if at all possible. They often have an expiration date on the plastic shrink-wrap, so try to find the freshest ones you can. Although they are supposed to stay edible for a long time if the package isn’t opened, I suggest that you use them sooner rather than later.

Fresh long beans
Also, see whether there are lots of preservatives and food coloring used in their manufacture, two things which tell you it’s not the best quality.

Any kind of ground meat is fine here – even veggie meat, if you are so inclined – but I prefer both ground pork and ground turkey in this dish. Add a bit more oil if whatever meat you’re using is on the dry side.

Fresh chilies can be used instead of dried here, and they are equally good. But don’t be tempted to add Pickled Red Chilies, as that would be too much salt and sour for your palate to handle.