Monday, April 20, 2015

Heaven on a plate

In this salad, the ingredients sparkle and refract colors like a stained glass window.  There's a rich combination of opaque, transparent, and solid hues that give depth and texture to its beauty.

But that's not all.

The scent of the sea imbues each bite, and yet this is not overwhelming... it's not low tide on a plate.  Rather, there's that characteristic balance that is the hallmark of any great Chinese dish.  Crunchy agar strips may taste bland, but they also lighten the flavors, and they are as clear as glass.  Thin cucumber ribbons too play a supporting role here, but they offer a freshness and almost a melon undertone to each mouthful.  A sprinkle of toasted sesame seeds provides a nutty punch, and this is probably the last flavor to remain on your palate, while the sparkling red Chili Oil punctuates the first barrage to hit your taste buds. You might be working with two of these ingredients for the first time here, so let me introduce them to you.

Agar strips
First up are the agar strips.  Agar comes in many forms - in blocks and as powder, as well as noodle-like strips - and is made out of a type of seaweed that has been processed into its present state.  So, agar (or agar-agar or yangcai or kanten) is in fact just another variety of sea vegetable that's showing up in today's mix.  Do be aware that once it's soaked, dried agar blooms into many times its original size, so don't be too enthusiastic about reconstituting the entire package.

In this recipe, you only need to cut off about a quarter of the skein, and the rest can be packaged back up and saved for another day; it will keep pretty much forever if stored in a dry and bug free place.

Agar needs minimum processing when it is used in cold dishes.  All you have to do is rinse it, soak it in cool water for a few minutes, and then in hot tap water for about another five, and then rinse it again in cold water.  What this does is wake up the agar, softening it without melting the strips, and then snapping it back into shape again.  As you do this, watch the agar turn from hard pieces that look like dried cellophane (fensi) noodles into flexible whitish strands, then into a clear soft tangle, and then into translucent lengths that are once more firm.  It's entertaining, or at least for me it is.
Agar as slithery strips

Next up are the sea vegetables.  You can use plain seaweed if you wish, but look around for mixed sea vegetables, since they offer lots more variety, whether in taste, color, or shape. You sometimes can find them fresh, but they are more commonly sold packed in salt in little bags; a health food store is a good place to find them.  Keep these packages sealed and in the refrigerator until it's time to use them.  Then, just rinse the sea vegetables under running cool tap water to wash off the salt, soak them in some cool water to reinvigorate them, and then drain the vegetables thoroughly before adding them to your salad; they shouldn't be cooked or even blanched.

This recipe could easily be from any area along China's coast, so it's hard to say where this salad originally hailed from, but it is enough of a culinary chameleon to fit in just about any cuisine.  The sprinkling of red hot Chili Oil only serves to disturb the search for its lineage, but I offer it to you anyway in the hopes that you love this jewel of a salad as much as I do.

Salted fresh seaweed mixture

Spicy sea vegetable salad 
Hóngyóu hǎicài shālā  紅油海菜沙拉 
Eastern China
Serves 6 to 8 as an appetizer

About ¼ of a (1.5 ounce) package of agar strips
8 ounces (or so) mixed sea vegetables packed in salt
1 small Persian cucumber, julienned
½ teaspoon sea salt
2 tablespoons light-colored, flavorful vinegar
2 tablespoons sugar
1 clove garlic, minced very finely
Chili Oil to taste, or roasted sesame oil to taste

Cut up the dried agar
1. Use a pair of scissors to lop off that piece of agar strips and wrap up the rest for some other time.  Place the strips in a colander and rinse under cool running water to remove any dust or debris.  Place the strips in a work bowl and cover them with cool tap water for a couple of minutes, drain, and then cover with hot tap water for another 5 minutes to fully reconstitute them.  Then, drain the strips and rinse them with more cool tap water.  Cut the strips into 1-inch lengths and drain well.

2. Rinse the sea vegetables in a colander with cool tap water and then place in a work bowl.  Cover the sea vegetables with cool tap water for a few minutes to wake them up, and then drain thoroughly in a colander.

3. Place the agar, sea vegetables, and cucumber in a clean work bowl with the salt, vinegar, sugar, and garlic.  Mix together, adjust the seasoning, and refrigerate for at least an hour.  Just before serving, taste again and add more salt, sugar, or vinegar as needed.  

4. Pile the salad on a pretty plate, sprinkle with Chili Oil or sesame oil, and dust the top with the sesame seeds.  Serve cold as an appetizer or side dish in hot weather.

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