Monday, May 2, 2016

Meaty cloud soup

This is, when all is said and done, a meatball soup. But then again, we’re talking about Shanghainese cuisine, so it is also a whole lot more than that. As seems to be the rule everywhere at the mouth of the Yangtze River, ingredients are tweaked in ways that absolutely no other place on the planet seems to have heard about, much less enjoyed.

Not too many people outside of the Shanghai area are fans of this soup simply because they haven’t tried it, and so this is a beloved secret of my Shanghainese friends. Once again, I think this all has to do with the name. In both Chinese and English, stuffed gluten puff soup does not have a whole lot of pizazz to it. Perhaps so much creativity went into the creating of dishes like this that by the time the chef was asked what it was called, he or she simply gave a description of the main ingredients.
Fried gluten puffs
Here’s a much better name: Meaty Cloud Soup. That pretty much encapsulates the textural experience you are in for with this dish, for surrounding each tiny meatball is a thin layer of fried gluten that turns soft and silky in the soup, and this ends up cossetting your mouth, caressing your tongue, and then bursting open at first bite, so that the juices scramble all over your taste buds and almost startle you with their liveliness.

Fried gluten probably was invented upstream on the Yangtze at one or another of the Buddhist temples or restaurants that dot the area. Or, at least, that is what seems to have happened. Gluten is a popular meat substitute throughout the vegetarian eastern region of China, where it is used in simple preparations such as this – fried into balls – and also turned into excellent replacements for things like pork and chicken.

Gluten is made by kneading wheat flour with water into a dough, and then the starch is rinsed out, leaving behind only the sticky gray gluten. Tiny balls of this gluten mass are then quickly deep fried into golden balloons about 2 inches/5cm in diameter. You can find these in most Chinese markets that cater to new arrivals from China, rather than in traditional Cantonese stores. The come in plastic bags and keep for a very long time if refrigerated and not opened. They crush easily, though, so treat them with care.
Poke a hole in the softened gluten

If you are not in the mood for soup, these stuffed balls are just as delicious when red-cooked, which means that they are braised in a deeply colored sauce seasoned with rice wine, rock sugar, and soy sauce. Add plumped up black mushrooms for even more xianwei deliciousness and perch some blanched bok choy around the edge of the dish for contrast. Absolutely yummy with nothing more than rice on the side.

Stuffed gluten puff soup
Yóumiànjīn sāi ròu tāng 油麵筋塞肉湯
Serves 4 to 6

1 quart/1l unsalted or lightly salted chicken stock
¼ cup/60ml Shaoxing rice wine
1 tablespoon finely chopped ginger
4 ounces/65g baby bok choy

Stuffed puffs:
2 tablespoons dried shrimp
Boiling water
3 to 4 ounces/85 to 110g Indian asters or arugula
8 ounces/225g ground pork
1 large egg, lightly beaten
3 tablespoons ginger oil or green onion oil
1 tablespoon oyster sauce
1 tablespoon regular soy sauce
Freshly ground black pepper
1 (1.76 ounces/50g) bag of large fried gluten puffs (about 11 – 13 puffs total)

Filled to bursting
1. First prepare the soup by mixing the stock, rice wine, and ginger in a wide saucepan. Bring this to a boil and then lower the heat to a bare simmer. Let the stock slowly cook while you prepare the rest of the ingredients. If the stock boils down, add boiling water as needed. Cut the bok choy in half or quarters, soak it in warm water to remove any grit hiding in the leaves, and then drain it well in a colander.

2. Place the dried shrimp in a small, heatproof bowl and cover with boiling water. Let them soak while you prepare the rest of the ingredients. When they are soft, drain and clean the shrimp, and then chop them finely.

3. Defrost the Indian asters, if needed. Rinse them or the arugula in a colander, and then either squeeze the excess water out of the asters or shake the arugula dry. Finely chop the vegetables and place them in a medium work bowl. Add the chopped shrimp, pork, egg, oil, oyster sauce, soy sauce, and pepper, and then mix these together until even.
Juicy stuffing

4. Pour a couple tablespoons boiling water into a bowl. Working on one gluten ball at a time, let the ball float on the hot water for around 5 to 10 seconds until that one spot of crispy gluten has softened. Work a finger into the hole from that soft spot and then gently press down on the interior of the ball, which will feel like Styrofoam webbing. You should end up with a hollow balloon. Repeat with the rest of the balls until all have been hollowed out, replacing the water with fresh boiling water as needed.

5. Fill each gluten ball with as much of the meat mixture as it will hold; there is no need to seal the holes, as the meat will immediately cook as soon as it is in the hot soup. (If you have extra forcemeat left over, use this for something else. It’s great fried up with beaten eggs or mixed into braised bean curd.)

6. Slide the stuffed gluten balls into the simmering soup and continue to simmer it very gently for at least 30 minutes. If you are not ready to serve it after this time, turn off the heat and then reheat it to a boil about 5 minutes before dinner; it is even better the second or third day. Taste and adjust the seasoning, and then toss in the bok choy. Bring the soup to a boil and then immediately remove it from the heat. Serve very hot.


Complete meal in a bowl
Do not boil the soup for more than a few seconds after you have added the meatballs, as that violent action might very well break them up. Keep the soup at a low simmer, though, to give the meatballs time to soak up the chicken stock and also return some of their own seasonings to the soup.

Likewise, do not overcook the bok choy. It should just be barely blanched so that it remains crisp and sweet.