Monday, January 6, 2014

No birds were harmed in these braised sparrows

About a block from the Taiwan Provincial Museum in downtown Taipei was a Buddhist restaurant where we often dropped in for a snack. 

Not that we were particularly welcome. In fact, we were generally met with either a roll of the eyes or a scowl because we always ordered the same thing: vegetarian sparrows and some steamed buns stuffed with things like blanched green cabbage, sesame seeds, and xuelihong. Nothing else on their extensive menu could ever tempt us because we never made it to the menu. 

We only went to that restaurant when we had a serious jones for these two dishes. And we always left happy, sated, and only a few dollars poorer, much to the dismay of the owner.

Vegetarian sparrows are fat little parcels of lightly seasoned vegetables and bean curd that are wrapped in bean curd sheets, fried, and then quickly braised in a delicate sauce. They get their name from the little “wings” that the wrappers form when they’re tied into knots, but the wings become velvety, soft sheets once they are braised, so you don’t see the sparrows unless you’re doing the cooking.

Worth the wrath
Chinese Buddhist who eat su 素, or Buddhist vegetarian cuisine, not only do away with all meat, poultry, eggs, and seafood, but also never use alcohol, garlic, onions, chives, chili peppers, garlic, or anything else that could be considered “addictive” or draw attention away from the pure nature of the food that is being prepared. I don’t think that I could ever go that route. But, in the spirit of authenticity, I have noted here that all those addictive seasonings can be optional.

One thing I now almost invariably do is fry these sparrows, which is completely nontraditional but extremely good. You see, what happens is that I let the sparrows sit overnight in their sauce, which further seasons their innards. Then, I pan-fry them in a bit of oil the next day, which not only warms them up just right, but turns their skins delectably crunchy. The contrast between the thin skins shattering into your mouth is perfect against the pillowy filling, which also has all sorts of interesting textures going on. 

Not being a Buddhist, I have come to love these slathered with any one of my chili concoctions. as you can see in the lower left corner of the second photo next to the rice. It makes me feel like a comfortable cross between saint and sinner.
These are cheap, easy, nutritious, healthy, and delicious, either with some steamed buns or lots of steamed rice to soak up all the tasty sauce. 

It’s no wonder that we tempted the wrath of that restaurant. It was always worth it.

Eggs are optional
Braised (and fried) vegetarian sparrows
Shāo sùhuángquè  燒素黃雀
Serves 6 to 8 as part of a multicourse meal

4 black mushrooms, fresh or dried and soaked
Salted water for blanching
4 heads of baby bok choy (about 3 inches in length)
1 carrot, peeled and cut into a small dice
1 tablespoon peanut oil
3 eggs, beaten, optional
1 square firm bean curd
¼ cup shelled green soybeans, rinsed in warm water and drained
1 green onion, cut into small slices, optional
1 tablespoon light soy sauce
1 teaspoon sesame oil
½ teaspoon sugar
8 soy sheets, fresh or dried
1 cup peanut oil, or as needed
1½ cups unsalted mushroom stock or mushroom soaking liquid or filtered water
1 tablespoons Shaoxing rice wine, optional
3 tablespoons light soy sauce
5 thin slices ginger, optional
2 teaspoons sugar
Toasted sesame oil
Shredded green onion or chopped cilantro for garnish, optional

For frying:
Fresh peanut or vegetable oil, as needed
Light soy sauce to taste

1. If you’re using dried mushrooms, cover them with boiling water, cover, and let them plump up while you’re preparing the rest of the ingredients.

See the birdie?
2. Bring a medium-sized pot of salted water to a boil while you cut off and discard the stems of either the fresh or plumped-up mushrooms, and then cut the caps into a small dice, toss into a large bowl, and set aside. Split the baby bok choy into quarters lengthwise, rinse them carefully to remove any grit, shake dry, and cut into a small dice. Toss the chopped bok choy into the water and let it blanch for no more than 20 seconds, or until it turns a brilliant green. Scoop them out of the water, run some cold water over the bok choy to stop the cooking, let it drain, and then squeeze any excess water out; add to the mushrooms. Toss the diced carrots into the boiling water and let them blanch for about a minute, and then rinse them under cold water, drain, and add them to the mushrooms, too.

3. If you want to use the eggs, heat the peanut oil in a wok until it starts to shimmer, and then add the eggs and stir-fry them until they are cooked through. Cut them up into small pieces with your spatula and then add them to the mushrooms. Remove any hard edges from the block of bean curd, and then cut it up into a fine paste before adding it to the mushrooms along with the drained, defrosted soybeans. Add the optional chopped green onion, 1 tablespoon soy sauce, sesame oil, and ½ teaspoon sugar to the bowl and toss the ingredients well to mix. Divide the filling into 16 portions (no need to be really exact here).

4. If you are using dried soybean skins, remove them one at a time, rinse them under warm water, gently shake dry, and cut in half. If you are using fresh skins, just remove one sheet at a time and cut it in half. (Keep all the other skins well covered so that they don’t dry and crack.) Lay the halved sheets on a flat surface and place a portion of the filling in the center of each, and then roll the skins up lengthwise like a cigar; tie the ends of each cigar like a loose knot. Cover the filled skins with a barely moist tea towel while you prepare the rest. This will make 16 knots.

5. Heat about 4 tablespoons oil in a wok until it shimmers, and then add the knots a few at a time so that they all are in the hot oil and aren’t crowding each other. Fry them on all sides until they are golden and remove to a plate as they get done. Repeat with the rest of the knots until all have been fried, adding more oil as necessary. (This dish can be made ahead of time up to this point and refrigerated.)

Filling on the soy skin
6. Drain the oil out of the wok and lightly wipe it with a paper towel. Pour the stock, rice wine, 2 tablespoons soy sauce, optional ginger, and sugar into the wok and bring the sauce to a boil. Add the fried knots, toss them gently, and let them cook for about 10 to 15 minutes, gently tossing them about halfway through so that all get bathed in the sauce. When most of the sauce has been absorbed, sprinkle on a bit of sesame oil, remove them to a serving platter, and sprinkle with the optional green onion or cilantro. Serve hot or even just slightly warm.

7. If you want to go the frying route (and you really, really should), chill the sparrows overnight. Heat a frying pan until very hot and then film the bottom with some oil. Shake the sauce off of one sparrow and carefully add it to the pan: you want it to crisp up evenly and brown nicely, but not cook so quickly that it burns or so slowly that it stews, so adjust the heat as needed. Add only enough sparrows to the pan so that they barely touch each other, and flip them over to brown the other side. Squirt a bit of light soy sauce on them, which will caramelize in the heat and add a bit of savoriness to the skins. Serve hot.

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