Thursday, February 7, 2013

Daliang's gift: crab stir-fried with milk

Many Chinese people have difficulty digesting milk in any form, and it is difficult to say whether lactose intolerance is the reason that dairy products never gained much of a foothold in China, or whether it was because cattle require large expanses of grass for fodder, and arable land has always been in short supply around there, and so Chinese people never developed any particular need to digest milk. Whatever the reason, milk has never been a part of most Chinese cuisines, even peripherally, which is why lard has always been favored here over butter.

But as with any hard and fast rule, there are exceptions.

In southeastern China, whole milk is boiled until a skin forms on the surface; this is then removed, stretched out, and dried to form “milk fans” (乳扇 rŭshàn) that have a texture and use similar to bean curd skins and tofu batons, which makes sense, since both the milk and the soy milk are treated the same way. 

Out in the arid regions of western China, the yogurt and kefir of Central Asia has made its way into the local cuisines; in fact, one of the most divine yogurts I ever tasted was in Xinjiang’s capital, Ürümqi – rich and creamy, this took all of my attention away from the whole roasted lamb that was the nominal guest of honor, and I told the waitresses to keep the yogurt supply coming while everyone else tore into the meat.
Use the best full-fat milk here

The most unusual devotion to dairy here, though, lies in the Pearl River Delta of Guangdong, because unlike everywhere else in China, the milk there is consumed fresh, but with that inevitable Chinese twist, of course.

Centering around the magnificent local food capital of Shunde is an area called Daliang, which boasts a culture that prizes dairy cattle like none other in China. Milk is transformed into sweet, trembling puddings there by gelatinizing them with fresh ginger juice, rather than eggs or thickeners, resulting in a monumentally tender confection. The local egg custard is a clever creation called “double-skinned milk” because the milk is boiled until a skin forms, and then the hot milk underneath is sweetened and solidified with the addition of egg whites, which keep the custard a snowy white and add only the faintest suggestion of eggs to the dessert. There's also deep-fried milk, which actually is yet another type of custard that is chilled, cut into batons, and then fried in a batter. (Yes, it's insanely good.)

Strangest by far, but also one of the most delicious, is the Daliang dish called “stir-fried milk.” As with that double-skinned custard, only egg whites are added, and this lends a certain mystery to the final creation because you really are not that sure what is going on in there until you read the recipe.

Different approaches to this dish abound in the Pearl River Delta – some feature shrimp or pork or chicken, for example – but I love this crab-studded version with tiny bits of charcuterie to wake the palate out of any reveries that threaten to take this over the edge from subtle into somnolent.

The milk beginning to curdle
One change I've made to the original recipe is the addition of toasted almonds instead of the traditional little tropical nuts called lǎnrén 欖仁, or Indian olive, because I just haven’t seen them much around here. But have no fear because they taste faintly of almonds, and so toasted shredded almonds work perfectly here as a substitute, lending a nice textural contrast and depth of flavor to these gentle pillows.

Serve this as a main dish, if you like, but I rather enjoy it as a first course in small bowls, as they lend a sense of wonder to the meal and make my guests even hungrier for the food that is to come.


Crab stir-fried with milk 
Dàliáng chǎo níunǎi 大良炒牛奶 
Guangdong
Serves 2 to 6 

Almonds:
1 tablespoon (or so) fresh peanut or vegetable oil
¼ cup sliced almonds

Milk:
½ cup whole milk
1 tablespoon cornstarch

Crab:
1 cup cooked crabmeat (fresh best, frozen second, and canned a distant third place)
3 tablespoons fresh peanut or vegetable oil, divided, plus more if needed
½ Chinese sausage (lop cheong)
5 large egg whites
Sprinkle of sea salt
¼ teaspoon mushroom seasoning or fish sauce (see Tips)

Luscious fat inside the crab shell
1. First toast the almonds by filming the bottom of a wok (see first Tip below) with a tablespoon or so of oil before adding the almonds; toss the almonds over medium heat – adjusting the heat as necessary – until they are a golden color and smell toasted. Scoop them out onto a plate covered with a paper towel.

2. Bring the milk to a boil (either in a saucepan on the stove or in a measuring cup in the microwave), let it cool down until just warm to the touch, and stir in the cornstarch.

3. Pick over the crabmeat carefully, removing any shells or cartilage, but keep the meat in pieces as large as possible. Toss in about 1 tablespoon of oil and a pinch of salt.

4. Cut the lop chong into small (⅛-inch or smaller) dice. Place them in a wok or pan without any oil and fry them until they render their fat and are lightly crispy. Remove them to a plate covered with a paper towel and wipe out the wok.

5. Lightly beat the egg whites until they are broken apart and only very slightly foamy. Stir in the milk mixture, crab, fried lop chong, and mushroom seasoning or fish sauce. Prepare your serving bowl or small individual bowls next to the stove, warming them first, if possible.

6. Heat the rest of the oil in the wok over medium heat until it starts to shimmer, and then pour in the crab mixture. Use a silicone or wood spatula to stir the crab gently around over the heat, making sure to run the spatula along the bottom of the wok to keep the milk from burning. As the liquid heats, it will start to form curds. Drizzle in a bit more oil around the edge if it starts to stick. As soon as the liquid has turned into curds, immediately scoop it out into the bowl(s); if there is extra liquid, drain it off and enjoy it yourself, since it tastes great but doesn't look very nice. Sprinkle the crab with the toasted almonds and serve with spoons.

Tips

Confession time: I like to use a small (8-inch) restaurant-style frying pan here instead of a wok because nothing sticks to it after years of using it mainly for eggs; use whatever pan or wok you like, but be sure that  your wok doesn't have any black crud in it that will flake off and mar your beautiful crabby clouds. 

If you were wondering what to do with the body from the Savory Crab and Cellophane Noodles, this is one of my favorite suggestions. This dish can easily be doubled if you have two crab bodies left over, or if you want to serve more of this dreamy dish.

One thing really nice about making this with crab that you have to shell yourself is that you get to keep all of the good stuff like the fatty tomalley. For this reason, I don't let the fishmonger clean the crab for me, as she's just washing away the best part of the crab. 

To clean a whole cooked Dungeness yourself, first pull off the legs, crack them lightly with the butt of a knife, and set them aside. Turn the crab over and pull off the thin plate. (Only male Dungeness crabs are sold – we love our fertile females! – so you'll never find one with a triangular plate around here.) Then turn the crab right-side up and pull off the top of the crab over a bowl, reserving the juices. Pull off and discard the feathery lungs on both sides of the body. 

Chinese mushroom seasoning
Everything else in there besides the cartilage and shell is edible, so reserve and enjoy what you like and add them to this dish. If there is a lot of liquid and/or fat in your crab, you might need to add more cornstarch to the dish to make it solidify correctly. But if you end up with too much liquid anyway, just do as I do and surreptitiously drain it off into a bowl for yourself to enjoy.

The savory bits in this recipe can be swapped with happy abandon. Try some roasted duck, slivers of ham, or tasty mushrooms instead of the lop chong.

The mushroom seasoning here is a great addition to your pantry, as it offers extra umami kick without all sorts of additives. It is sort of like bouillon, but is not as salty, and it should contain no MSG or meat products. See the photo on the right for the brand I use. If you can't find it, use fish sauce.

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