Thursday, May 16, 2013

Lamb & the Dowager Empress & a puzzle

Whenever I come across a name for a Chinese dish that has a strange explanation, I get curious. 

This happened with sachima—Rice Krispies Treats as seen through a Chinese lens—and although there were all sorts of twisted explanations that tried to shoehorn this word into an acceptable story, look what I came up with: the word means “dog nipples dipped in syrup” in Manchurian.

The same feeling that all was not right hit me every time I read about this dish. The roundabout tale went invariably as follows: The Dowager Empress Cixi was presented with this new preparation for lamb, and she was so impressed that she asked the chef what it was called; flummoxed at this unusual attention, the chef could not find the words to answer. The Dowager Empress mused over the dish and commented, “It’s like honey” (ta si mi).

Now first off, just about every story about a Beijing dish’s beginnings winds up in the Dowager Empress’s fancily embroidered lap for some reason. I’m not quite sure why, but there you have it. 

And second, this lamb does have a touch of sweetness, but it’s not overt. And so, confused as ever, I started digging.

My first guess was that this might be another Manchurian word, but that didn’t yield anything. Then, I looked more closely at the dish and realized that this was a riff on Muslim-style cooking. Hmm, I thought, I bet this is a Turkic word. 

And although I couldn’t find a Uyghur dictionary, that language is related to Turkish. A quick search through a Turkish one prompted a delighted shout from my desk, for tașim means “to bring to a boil.”

At last, an explanation that at least makes a bit of sense...
Simple yet divine

Tāsìmì 它似蜜 
Serves 4 to 6 

1 pound lamb loin, or other tender cut of lamb
4 teaspoons ginger juice (see Tips)
4 teaspoons corn starch
2 teaspoons regular soy sauce
4 teaspoons Shaoxing rice wine
1 tablespoon dark vinegar
5 tablespoons toasted sesame oil (or so)
1 tablespoon sugar
2 tablespoons sweet wheat paste

1. Rinse the meat and pat it dry. Cut in across the grain into thin slices, and then place the lamb in a medium work bowl. Stir in the ginger juice, cornstarch, soy sauce, rice wine, and vinegar. Cover the bowl and marinate the lamb for at least 20 minutes and up to 3 hours.

2. Heat a wok over high, and when it starts to smoke, add the sesame oil. Swirl the oil around to coat the lower half and add the lamb, as well as any marinade. Break up any big clumps and then lightly brown the meat. When all of the lamb is just barely done, add the sugar and sweet wheat paste, toss the meat well, and serve. 


To make ginger juice, coarsely grate some fresh ginger; you don't have to peel it first. Then, wad it up in your fist before squeezing the juice out over a bowl. This is a lot easier than it sounds, as fresh ginger is very juicy.

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