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


  1. Looks delicious, do you think it would work with dried lotus root? The window for fresh lotus root is very small where I live.


    1. You could certainly try, but lotus roots are very starchy after they dry, and so this is best as a seasonal dish. If the trend in Australia is anything like what we have here, you should soon have fresh lotus roots in your Chinese markets through much of the year.

      In the meantime, I would use some other crunchy, sweet, fresh item in its place so that you preserve the balance: maybe water chestnuts, a good jicama, or even a firm pear -- cook things like those very, very briefly, basically to just warm them through. As with most Chinese recipes, the ideal is to use whatever is freshest in your market and make the dish a celebration of flavors, colors, and textures.

  2. I didn't realise that the nature of the root changed so much with drying. I've seen fresh only very occasionally, and only for a very few weeks, though I'm sure it is available for longer in more populous areas.

    Thank you for the suggestions on alternatives. Jicama was being sold by one shop as Yam Bean a few years back, but I haven't seen it recently.

    It sounds like Yacon would be a good replacement. It stays crispy when cooked and has a sweet, unassertive flavour. It isn't in the shops, but I've got it growing in my garden. Unfortunately it too is very seasonal, and won't be ready for another six or seven months. This recipe looks like one of the more interesting ways to use it.

    Possibly young, small, white Japanese turnip would also work. They are readily available this time of year (very early spring).

    Any suggestions on interesting things to make with dried lotus root? I was given a package and most of the recipes I've found are for veggie soups; a bit too 'wholesome' looking.


    1. Hi Peggy. I don't really use dried lotus root since we have so many Chinese people around here that I am utterly spoiled by the fresh roots in the market. However, from what I understand, dried lotus root is used mainly in Guangdong (Cantonese) style soups. Like dried bok choy and other desiccated vegetables, it is more old-fashioned in flavor and hearkens back to when folks lived on much less money. However, those kinds of soups can be fantastic and full-flavored when done right.

      What you need to do with the lotus root is soak it in cool water for at least 48 hours, as it needs to be fully plumped up. Change the water once a day while you're at it. Then, place it in fresh water and simmer it until it is tender. (You might even find at this point that it is close enough to fresh that you might want to try it in the above recipe. It never hurts to try!)

      This is best in a simple pork broth. Get cheap, flavor things like pork neck, whack it up, brown it in some oil with shredded ginger (don't add salt at this point), and then simmer it until it too is tender. You can add other aromatics if you like, like garlic or green onions, or even a glug of mild rice wine. Simmer the pork and lotus root together for another few minutes, and it's done. As with most soups, this will be better the next day, since this gives the lotus time to absorb the flavors of the pork, and vice versa. (Vegetarians could use a soup made out of soaked black mushrooms to arrive at similar depth.)

      Hope this helps.