Monday, July 1, 2013

Magical mystery treat of the cold North

I dare you to guess what this recipe is for just from the photo on the left. It took me a long time to first figure out what they were, then to nail down where they came from, and then finally to ferret out how they were made.

But here's a hint: Few people would think of oats when they consider the foods of the cold Chinese north, but in the region between northern Hebei and Shanxi and then up north into Inner Mongolia, the flour from oat groats (youmian) is turned into some very interesting things.

Take this bread-like creation, for example. It is visually spectacular, with tiny rolls of the oat dough clustered together in a steamer basket. They look just like a honeycomb or wasp’s nest. But looks aside, these are also quite tasty.

Sweet & nutty cylinders
This area of China has historically been rather poor, and so the humble oat is sometimes called upon to lend substantial cheer to a relatively empty table. 

I was astounded, though, by how utterly delicious and satisfying a simple meal of these rolls are when accompanied by nothing more than some julienned cucumbers and a bowl of chili oil (this recipe is strongly recommended here).  

Honeycomb rolls also are the perfect accompaniment to lamb soup; simply dunk the rolls in the soup as you go or drop one into the soup before scooping it up with some meat and broth. Since there is no gluten in oat groats, they will crumble into mush if left to their own devices in the hot soup, so drop in one at a time.

Preparing oat groats this way is called “thrice cooked” (三熟 sānshóu), as they are first toasted, then blanched, and then finally steamed. The toasting brings out their sweetness, and as you dry-fry them in a wok, they will swell and gently pop, sort of like popcorn. 
Raw oat groats

The directions take longer to read than actually making the rolls, especially once you get the hang of it. I use two 6-inch wide dim sum steamer baskets made out of bamboo; the honeycomb rolls fit perfectly in there and also look gorgeous.

Oat honeycomb rolls
Yóumiàn tuīwōwō 莜麵推窩窩 or Kǎolǎolǎ栲栳栳
Shanxi, Mongolia
Serves 4 to 6

2 cups organic oat groats (see Tips)
1¾ cups boiling filtered water

1. Place the oat groats in a dry wok and toast them over medium-high heat, stirring them with a wok spatula, until they start to pop and are gently toasted. Pour the toasted groats into a mixing bowl and let them cool down to room temperature.

2. Grind the groats in a blender or food processor until very fine; do this in two or more batches if necessary. Put the groat flour into a heatproof bowl and stir in the boiling water. When a dough has formed, knead it on a smooth surface until it becomes smooth.

Toast the groats
3. Next, form the little rolls. Break off bits of dough to form balls about an inch across. Cover any dough you are not working on with a damp towel or some plastic wrap. Have two small dim sum steamer baskets ready. Working on one piece at a time, roll these balls into cigar shapes and then use a rolling pin to roll them out to an approximately 6 x 2 inch rectangle. Cut the rectangle in half lengthwise (giving you two strips about 6 x 1 inch in size). Roll each strip up into a cylinder and place them cut-side down in the steamer basket. Fit the rolls right next to each other, as they will not expand as they steam. Repeat with the rest of the dough until all of it has been shaped and packed into the steamers (see Tips).

4. Stack and cover the steamer baskets and place them on a saucepan filled with a couple inches of water. Steam the honeycomb rolls for about 15 minutes and serve immediately.

The four shaping stages

Oat groats are not the same as oatmeal. They are oat berries and can be found in health food stores or online.

The rolls can be fitted fairly tightly in the steamer baskets since there is no leavening and so the rolls will not swell up. However, these rolls will stick to each other as they cool off, so I usually serve one basket at a time and keep the other one covered and slowly steaming. 

If you have any leftover dough, form these into little “fish” that can also be steamed: cut the dough into thin 3-inch strips and then roll them so that the middle is fat and the ends are tapered. Steam these just like the honeycomb rolls.

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