Monday, July 22, 2013

Chinese olives?!

Chinese olives are a completely different species from the Mediterranean olive. The problem is that in China and Southeast Asia and all the way down to India, the fruits of the Canarium album tree do look an awful lot like olives, hence the name.

The people of South China use them as a seasoning, with the flesh of the halved and pitted fruits squashed flat into what are called “olive corners,” or lǎnjiǎo 欖角

These are fantastic additions to simple steamed fish, but I like to cook the olives first in oil and sugar to tame their slight astringency. (More on that later.)

Salted olives and olive paste
Chaozhou, it seems, is the capital of olive love here in China. The whole olives are even cooked in sugar water until their flesh has candied, turning them into oddly flavored tea treats that can be quite delicious once you get used to them. 

Another unique way with them is to stew the olives with mustard greens, oil, and seasonings to form a black paste that is perfect for seafood dishes such as this one, since each tiny strand of the sauce packs a wallop of flavor. (See the photo on the right.)

Head-on, unshelled shrimp are the best candidates for this dish, but use whatever’s available. The recipe that follows assumes you have Chinese-style shrimp with everything attached; if your shrimp are already shelled, simply flash-fry them in the oil until pink and opaque, and then proceed to Step 3.
This recipe is courtesy of the Chinese cookbook Wàipójiā de Cháozhōu cài.[1] I usually change the recipes I encounter, but this one was so perfect that not a single thing needed alteration.

Cut off the pointy bits
Whole shrimp with preserved olive vegetable
Lǎncài jú xiā  欖菜焗蝦
Serves 4 to 6

1½ pounds medium shrimp (about 4 inches long with the heads), fresh or frozen
2 cups rice bran oil or other frying oil
2 tablespoons fresh peanut or vegetable oil
6 tablespoons preserved olive vegetable
2 tablespoons sugar
1 tablespoon fish sauce

1. Trim off the feelers, eyeballs, and pointy beaks on the shrimp, cut the backs open through the shell, and then devein the shrimp. Rinse them thoroughly, toss dry, and then pat them even drier with paper towels.

2. Heat a wok over medium-high heat and then add the 2 cups oil. Have 1 medium and 1 small work bowls ready along with a Chinese spider or slotted spoon and a pair of wooden chopsticks. When the oil is hot, add about 5 or 6 of the shrimp to the oil and quickly toss them until barely pick. Remove the shrimp to the small work bowl, heat the oil up again until it smokes, and add the shrimp again. Fry and remove the shrimp 3 times so that the shrimp meat cooks evenly and the shells don’t burn. After the third time, dump the cooked shrimp into the medium work bowl and proceed to the next batch; repeat until all are cooked.
Fried to crispy perfection

3. Pour out the frying oil and wipe out the wok with a paper towel. Heat the wok again over medium-high and add the 2 tablespoons fresh oil. Then, return the shrimp to the wok along with the sugar; toss the shrimp with the sugar to lightly caramelize them, and then toss in the preserved olive vegetable and fish sauce. Toss to combine, taste and adjust seasoning, and serve very hot.

[1] 外婆家的潮州菜 , by Fāng Xiǎolán 方曉嵐 and Chén Jìlín 陳紀臨.

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