Monday, April 13, 2015

When is a fish not a fish?

The names of some dishes are evocative, like floating islands or red velvet cake.  Others are very straightforward and completely no frills, such as steamed rice or corn on the cob.  Still others require a leap of faith before you even think of sticking them in your mouth, which is what happened with me before I attempted spoonfuls of a scrumptious version of dirty rice.

And then there's the final category: downright weirdly named foods. Strange Flavor Bean Fish has got to have one of the top worst names ever. It's like if a potential Miss America were saddled with a moniker like Salmonella Boozer; it's just not right.  

Soy skin
But in fact, "strange flavor" is a direct translation of the name for the smooth Sichuanese sauce that's highlighted here: guaiwei.  Why it would be called "strange" is beyond me because it's nothing more than some of our wonderful Chili Oil, a few dabs of sesame paste, a sprinkling of toasted ground Sichuan peppercorns, and a good fistful of aromatics like garlic, ginger, cilantro, and green onions all bound in a savory sauce. So, it's not strange -- it's yummy.

Mung bean sprouts

And now we come to the fish part of the story. I'm guessing here, but I'd put my money on the possibility that this was originally a vegetarian version of a seafood dish that turned out to be more popular than the original. Fish filets have been known to find themselves wrapped up in soy skins and fried into crispy little packets, so the step from seafood to mung bean sprouts isn't really too bizarre, since both end up being relatively bland but juicy foils for the crunchy outside that serves as a conduit for all of that great sauce.

About the only thing I'm 100% sure of with regard to the name here is that the "bean" refers to the beansprouts!
Mung sprouts

A word about mung bean sprouts: buy them no earlier than a day before you plan to use them because they have the shelf life of a may fly. Store them in the refrigerator in a plastic container and covered with water, as this will slow down the almost instantaneous decay that seems to be in these sprouts' DNA. The soaking will also serve to crisp up the sprouts and make them even more delightful.

Soy skins, also called doufupi or yuba, can be found fresh or frozen in most Chinese grocery stores. Fresh soy skins should be used up relatively quickly, as they are prone to mold even under the best of circumstances. Frozen ones will stay in great shape for months as long as you are careful not to bend or crush them, for the skins will shatter at the least provocation. Fresh or frozen, keep them covered with damp tea towels from the moment you take them out of the package until you fry the filled soy skin rolls -- this will help them stay supple and crack free.

Have everything ready for this dish here before you start. It is best if it's eaten immediately after the rolls are filled, fried, and sauced, so the best way to keep the fuss to a minimum is to arrange all of the ingredients by the stove until about 10 minutes before serving. The sauce can be made in advance and the sprouts blanched and chilled, so that all you have to do is roll the sprouts up in the soy skins and fry them.

The only difficult thing that remains is your explanation to your guests as to how this dish got its name.

Strange flavor bean fish
Guàiwèi dòuyú  怪味豆魚 
Serves 6 to 8 as an appetizer

10 to 12 ounces mung beansprouts
1 large sheet soy skin (fǔpí 腐皮), fresh or frozen
¾ cup peanut or vegetable oil

¼ cup toasted sesame paste or tasty peanut butter
2 tablespoons soy sauce paste (jiàngyóugāo 醬油膏, see Note below)
2 teaspoons sugar
3 to 4 teaspoons flavorful vinegar
3 tablespoons toasted sesame oil
2 tablespoons chili oil, plus more for garnish
2 tablespoons boiling water
3 to 4 teaspoons finely minced ginger
1 clove garlic, finely minced
1 green onion, trimmed and finely minced
4 tablespoons finely minced cilantro
½ teaspoon finely ground chili powder, optional

½ teaspoon ground toasted Sichuan peppercorns, or to taste
Roll up the sprouts

1. Blanch the beansprouts by placing them in a saucepan and covering them by at least 1 inch with tap water. Cover the pot and bring it to a rapid boil. As soon as the water is about to go from a simmer to a full boil, check one of the sprouts: it should be crispy yet the raw edge should be cooked away. Immediately dump the sprouts into a colander in the sink and rinse the sprouts with cold tap water to stop the cooking. Drain the sprouts thoroughly.

2. Lay the soy skin sheet on a cutting board and cut it in half. Cover both sides with a damp tea cloth to soften the sheet a bit while you mix up the sauce. Pour the oil into a wok and set it on the stove.
A soy-sprout cigar

3. Combine all of the sauce ingredients in a measuring cup or bowl, taste, and adjust the seasoning as desired. It should have the consistency of heavy cream.

4. Remove one of the soy sheet halves and spread half of the blanched bean sprouts near the round edge as shown (see above). Fold both edges over the sprouts and then roll up the soy skin in a tight cigar (see the picture to the above right). Repeat with the other skin and the rest of the sprouts, and keep both rolls covered with the damp tea towel.

Test the oil
5. Heat the oil over medium-high heat until wooden chopsticks or tongs inserted into the oil immediately bubble. Carefully lower the end of one of the rolls into the hot oil; it will fry very quickly, so move it through the oil in order to lightly brown every part of the soy skin, both top and bottom. Remove the fried roll to a cutting board and fry the other roll.

6. Cut each roll into 6 or 8 pieces, depending upon the number of your guests, and arrange the rolls on one or two serving plates. Drizzle the sauce over the "fish" and squirt some more of your chili oil on them as well to add a nice red flourish. Serve while the "fish" are still hot and crispy.

Ready to eat!
Note: Soy sauce paste is a thickened savory condiment with the consistency of catsup. It's used as is as a dipping sauce or in stir-fries, or it can be added to sauces like here to provide more body as well as rounder flavor. There's many brands out there, so find one you like. If you don't have any handy, oyster sauce is a good substitute. 

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