Monday, August 25, 2014

Being a vegetarian in Xinjiang, plus tomatoes and eggs

While the areas along the lower Yangtze are home to a vibrant Buddhist food culture that combines ingenuity with a kaleidoscope of fresh ingredients, China’s desert lands pose a challenge for those who prefer meatless meals. 

At least, that was our discovery when my husband and I, then very much dedicated vegetarians, traveled there in the fall of 2001. The problem really wasn’t the lack of vegetables — we ate well, that is for sure — but everyone else in the tour group (nay, the entire Northwest, it seemed) ate little else but meat, and so whenever a restaurant had to think up something to serve just the two of us, panic ensued.

Grape/cherry tomatoes: yum
The assumption by the waitstaff and the cooks was that we were undernourished because we were not consuming enough protein, and so we were given combinations of tomatoes with eggs at breakfast, lunch, and dinner. For the first few days it was kind of funny, and it became a running joke, whether we would have tomatoes and eggs, or eggs and tomatoes, or tomato and egg soup, or egg and tomato over noodles, or some other variation on this increasingly monotonous theme.

By the second week, I had had enough and insisted that I be able to order my own food. The tour guide assumed I was going to bankrupt them with wild demands, but I pointed out that vegetarian dishes were always the cheapest things on the menu. Over the next few weeks, we ate great food while managing to completely avoid both tomatoes and eggs. 

Easy slicing: Step 1
It took me about four years before I could even face the idea of Tomatoes and Eggs again, but when I did, I fell in love all over once more. This is so good that it’s popular all over North China, as well as the Northwest.

There are a few secrets to making these two ingredients turn into something extraordinarily good: 

First, the tomatoes have to be deliciously ripe and the eggs must be fresh and free-range. 

Second, the tomatoes should be in large enough pieces that they do not mush up, as this allows them to retain their individuality. 

I mean, really easy
Third — and this is where most restaurant versions drop the ball — the tomatoes have to be fried in oil with aromatics and a touch of sugar until they almost caramelize, which makes their juices concentrate into a thick marmalade. This juice is what then coats each yellow egg curd and makes it all so luscious. 

Finally, season this with salt rather than soy sauce to keep the flavors sharp and the colors bright.

If you love jiaozi, consider using this as an especially wonderful filling, one that is often enjoyed in the Beijing area as a homey treat. Just cool the finished dish and then chop up any pieces that are larger than ½ inch all around. That’s all there is to it.

Fry with aromatics
Tomatoes and eggs
Xīhóngshì chǎo jīzĭ  西紅柿炒雞子
Serves 4 to 6

1 pound very tasty, red tomatoes of any kind (see Tip)
5 tablespoons fresh peanut or vegetable oil, divided
½ teaspoon sea salt
1 tablespoon finely chopped ginger
2 green onions, trimmed and finely chopped, with the whites in one pile and the greens in another
½ to 1 teaspoon sugar
Freshly ground black pepper
4 large eggs, lightly beaten

1. Cut the tomatoes into pieces about 1 inch wide and ½ inch thick. If you are using cherry tomatoes, cut them in half. For a cool way to easily cut a bunch of tomatoes in half (courtesy of Chef Joshua Stokes on Grill A Chef), place some of the tomatoes on a plastic rimmed lid. Cover them with another lid of the same size, and then run a sharp knife between the lids. Repeat until all have been sliced. Taste a tomato — if it is very sweet, use ½ teaspoon sugar in Step 2; otherwise, use 1 teaspoon.

2. Place a wok over high heat, and when it is hot, swirl in 3 tablespoons of the oil and all of the salt. Fry the ginger and the whites of the onions until they are golden, and then add the sliced tomatoes. Lower the heat to medium-high and fry them, shaking and turning them over every 30 seconds or so. When the juice reduces to few tablespoons, sprinkle on the sugar and toss the tomatoes. Continue to cook them until you can smell the sugar and bits of caramel have formed on your spatula. Scrape the tomatoes out onto a plate.

The omelet setting up
3. Return the wok to medium-high heat and swirl in the rest of the oil. Stir the onion greens into the eggs and pour the eggs into the wok. Flip the eggs over as they solidify and brown until they have formed a golden omelet. Chop the omelet up with your spatula and then toss in the cooked tomatoes. Serve hot.


-      Cherry and plum tomatoes are my favorites for this since they keep their shape well.

Variation: Some people like to make a creamier dish, where the eggs turn custardy, rather than form large curds. To do this, keep the tomatoes in the wok at the end of Step 2 and stir the beaten eggs and onion greens into the tomatoes. Lightly toss these together until the eggs have cooked through.

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