Monday, December 2, 2013

At the intersection of East and West...

Up in China’s desert northwest, East mingles with West in delicious ways. Ideas seem to have taken root here centuries ago and then cross-pollinated to form fascinating hybrids that manage to showcase the best of both worlds.

This is one such dish.

Luxurious in every way, juicy bits of chicken contrast with crisp lotus root, chilies, and crunchy walnuts in a sauce seasoned mainly with sweet wheat paste (tianmianjiang). Rich and satisfying, with each of the ingredients managing to steal the show in tandem, stir-fries don’t come much better than this.
Walnuts are probably more popular up here than any place else in China, thanks to their introduction eons ago by traders from the Middle East. As always, though, what was once Persian or Arab has been transmogrified over the years into something distinctly Chinese. It’s that sweet wheat paste and the lotus root that tip the sensory balance into China’s sphere, ensuring you that you are not further west on the trans-Asiatic superhighway called the Silk Road.

Fresh chilies are traditionally used here, but dried ones are delicious too, as they then do not conflict with the lotus root. These dried chilies seem to sidle up especially well to the toasted walnuts, their gentle warmth echoed and amplified by these nutty flavors.

Now is the time to make this dish while fresh lotus roots are at their best in good Chinese markets.

Perfect cold weather dinner
Chicken with walnuts and lotus root
Jiàngbào táorén jīdīng 醬爆桃仁雞丁
Serves 4 to 6

1 pound chicken, with or without skin, bones removed
½ teaspoon sea salt
2 tablespoons rice wine (Taiwanese Mijiu)
1 large egg white
1 teaspoon cornstarch

The rest:
4 ounces shelled walnuts in large pieces
Boiling filtered water as needed
1 lotus root (around 4 to 6 ounces)
1 teaspoon pale vinegar
1 to 3 red jalapeno chilies, or 10 or so whole dried Thai chilies
¼ cup peanut or vegetable oil
2 tablespoons minced fresh ginger
2 green onions, trimmed and chopped
2 cloves garlic, peeled and finely chopped
2 tablespoon sweet wheat paste
1 tablespoon toasted sesame oil

1. Cut up the chicken into ¾-inch cubes, place in a small work bowl, and toss with the salt, rice wine, egg white, and cornstarch. Allow the chicken to marinate while you prepare the rest of the ingredients.

Crunchy, chewy, sweet, savory
2. Pick over the walnuts to make sure there are no shells, and then place them in a small work bowl; cover them with boiling water and let them sit in there for at least 10 minutes to remove any bitterness. Drain the walnuts, rinse in a colander, and pat them dry. While the walnuts are soaking, peel the lotus root, wash it carefully inside and out, and drain. Cut the lotus root into ¾-inch cubes, place in a small work bowl, cover with water, and add the vinegar to keep the roots white. Seed the fresh chilies and coarsely chop them; or break the dried chilies in half, shake out the seeds, and cut the chilies into ¼-inch pieces.

3. Heat a wok over medium-high heat and then add the oil. Fry the walnuts in the oil, tossing the whole time, until they are toasted and smell wonderful; remove to a clean medium work bowl, but keep the oil in the wok. Fry the chilies until they are dark red, and then remove them to the work bowl with the walnuts. Drain the lotus root, rinse it under tap water, shake dry, and add them to the wok. Stir-fry the lotus root for a minute or so to barely cook them, and then remove to the work bowl. Add the chicken and marinade to the wok and stir-fry the chicken until it barely starts to brown, and then remove it to the work bowl. Drain any oil in the work bowl back into the wok.

4. Heat the wok over high heat and add the ginger, green onions, and garlic. Stir-fry these for a few seconds to release their fragrance, and then add the sweet wheat paste and about ¼ cup boiling filtered water. When the water comes to a boil again, add everything in the wok bowl back to the wok and quickly toss them over high heat until the water has evaporated. Sprinkle on the sesame oil, toss again, adjust the seasoning, and serve hot.

Top photo courtesy