Thursday, April 18, 2013

And you thought chicken was boring

The Yellow River begins in China's northwest province of Gansu, and so this vital source of fresh water makes the foods of this province quite a bit different from that of its neighbors to the west, where the desert swallows up whatever little rainfall hits the ground.

This is also an area – at least along the banks of the river in southern Gansu – where Han Chinese congregate and enjoy foods that show more eastern influences and ingredients than is usual around here. Chicken, pork, green vegetables… these are all part of the local cuisine, but they still possess a bit of western flair.

Take this dish, for example. Chicken is steamed and served over spinach. Right there you have three things that are rather unusual for a nominally desert area: chicken, steaming, and spinach. It’s just too hot in most of the Arid Regions for poultry to be raised easily, steaming requires that valuable commodity – water – to be used merely for cooking, and spinach needs lots of water and a cool growing season.

And yet, this definitely is a different take on chicken. Moist, deeply satisfying, and a complete meal all by itself, it is flavored by two things that set it apart: Sichuan peppercorns and the dried bamboo shoots pictured above called yùlánpiàn 玉蘭片, or “magnolia petals,” because they often are small, white chips.

Dried bamboo shoots are one of those Chinese ingredients that add underlayers of rich savoriness, a flavor the Chinese call xiān and the Japanese, umami. Much like the huge array of dried mushrooms cooks employ all over the country, this vegetable takes on a different character depending upon what variety of vegetable is used, how it is prepared, and how it is stored.
Over the years, I have come to enjoy many different kinds of dried bamboo shoots, each one having very different flavors and textures depending upon where they were made, what kind of shoots were used, whether the shoots were fermented or dried, crushed or shredded, salted or not. 

The Taiwanese and Hakkanese, for example, revel in a sour, fermented bamboo shoot that is terrific with pork and dried squid. I particularly like the salted little shreds called, sensibly enough, xiánsŭngān 鹹筍乾 (salty dried bamboo shoot) that usually come from the Yangtze River area. 

You can find these in attractive bamboo baskets that will lure you in by their beauty, which is a good thing, as one container will probably last you most of your adult life.

Steamed chicken southern Gansu style  
Lŏngnán qīngzhēng jī 隴南清蒸雞 
Serves 3 to 4

Ready for the steamer
¼ cup dried wood ear mushrooms
¼ cup dried bamboo shoots of any variety
Boiling water, as needed
1½ pounds chicken wings (see Tips)
3 green onions, trimmed
1 inch fresh ginger, thinly sliced
1 teaspoon ground toasted Sichuan peppercorns or whole Sichuan peppercorns
½ teaspoon salt (if unsalted shoots are used)

4 packed cups spinach leaves, washed carefully
Small bunch of cilantro, cleaned and trimmed
2 tablespoons rice wine
1 tablespoon cornstarch
1 tablespoon mingyou or toasted sesame oil

1. Place the dried bamboo shoots and the wood ear mushrooms in two small work bowls and cover with boiling water. After about 15 minutes, empty out the water and use fresh boiling water to cover the shoots and mushrooms. Let them soak until they are fully plumped up.

2. While the bamboo shoots and mushrooms are soaking, rinse the chicken and pat it dry. Cut the wings into three segments; you can keep the wing tips and use them in this dish or reserve them for stock. Place the chicken in a medium heatproof bowl. Drain the shoots and mushrooms. If they are in large pieces, cut them into thin julienne before adding them to the chicken. Add the whole green onions to the bowl along with the ginger, ground peppercorns, and optional salt. Place the bowl in a steamer (see Tips) and steam the chicken for around an hour, adding more water to the steamer as necessary.
Plumped shoots & 'shrooms
3. Remove the chicken from the steamer; pick out and discard both the green onions and ginger. Drain the juices into a wok and boil the juices down over high heat until you have about ½ cup left. Add the spinach and quickly toss the leaves in the hot juices until they wilt. Use a slotted spoon to remove the spinach to a rimmed serving plate or bowl and form a ring or nest, and then place the chicken inside of this ring. Top the chicken with the cilantro. Mix the rice wine with the cornstarch and stir into the wok to thicken the juices. Add the mingyou and pour the hot sauce over the dish. Serve hot.


If you prefer to use a whole chicken, cut it into smallish pieces and double the rest of the ingredients.

When steaming the chicken, make sure that there is at least 1 inch clearance between the bowl and the steamer cover so that the steam can circulate.

Store dried bamboo shoots in a pantry in an airtight container or bag.

Use either ground or whole Sichuan peppercorns here. Whole is traditional, but if you don't like biting down on them, used finely ground ones instead.

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