Monday, November 25, 2019

Dried orchid blossoms

The name alone of this dish is enough to make me smile. In Chinese it’s simply “dried orchid blossoms,” with no other clues as to what is involved. Does it look like an orchid? Or taste like a flower? Or even possess a single petal? Nope.

What this is is a uniquely delicious dish with the most marvelous texture, something that I’ve never found in any other bean curd creation. The secret lies in the fancy knife work, which actually is not at all fancy once you get to know the secret.

We used to buy plastic bags of this when we strolled around downtown Taipei. Certain shops were known for their braised dishes – called lŭwèi 滷味 – and this is a code for the soy sauce marinade. Just about any protein can be turned into luwei, including meats, poultry, eggs, gluten, and bean curd, and the key to making something special lies in a) how the protein is prepared and b) what goes into the marinade.
Up close you can see the beauty

Soy sauce really is the common denominator, and the other usual suspects are ginger, green onions, spices like star anise and cinnamon, rice wine, and sugar. Meats and birds tend to be blanched before they are tossed in the pot, while eggs are hardboiled and peeled, but gluten and bean curd often have unique little steps added to the procedure. This makes complete sense when you think of how many Buddhist vegetarians and vegans there are in China and how Chinese people love to eat, so something had to be done to make meals delicious even if they are meatless.
The luwei braise

Case in point: Dried Orchid Blossoms. They really are nothing more or less than pressed bean curd, those leathery little squares that honestly have little flavor on their own. But with the proper preparation – as here, of course – they turn into something amazing. Again, the key is knowing how to cut these into intricate latticework, as they become not only beautiful, but this opens up each morsel to the hot oil, which in turn puffs the bean curd up into a glorious sponge.

The marinade is open to interpretation. Use whatever spices and aromatics you like. Make it spicy, make it mild, make it how you want. If you are a strict Buddhist, leave out the wine and aromatics. Whatever you do, be sure and add a bit of sweetness to the mix, as this plays well off the slightly sour taste of the bean curd.

I heartily recommend making this a day or two ahead of time, if you can stand the wait. The flavors deepen as the squares soak up the marinade, and each bite becomes memorable. So, make more than you think you want. No matter how much you make, you will end up wanting every last bit, believe me.
Intriguing shapes, delicious all around

Dried orchid blossoms
Lánhuā gān  蘭花乾
Serves 8 to 12 as an appetizer or snack

Bean curd:
24 ounces | 680 g pressed white bean curd (dòufŭgān 豆腐乾), at least ¾ inch | 1.5 cm thick
Boiling water, as needed
Frying oil, as needed

¼ cup | 60 ml regular soy sauce
1 tablespoon dark soy sauce
¼ cup | 60 ml mild rice wine
Around 1 tablespoon rock sugar, plus more to taste
1 stick cinnamon
2 star anise
3 cloves garlic, peeled and lightly smashed
5 slices fresh ginger
4 green onions, trimmed but left whole and tied into knots
Parallel chopsticks, vertical cuts

To serve:
2 green onions, trimmed and finely shredded, optional
Chile sauce of any kind, optional

1. Cut the squares apart, if needed. Place the pressed bean curd in a pan and cover with boiling water. Bring the water to a full boil, dump everything into a colander set in the sink, and then place the squares on a clean tea towel to dry off.

2. To shape the dried orchids, first find a pair of chopsticks that are about one-third the thickness of the bean curd. Place a chopstick on either side of one of the squares. Make vertical cuts from the top down to the chopsticks about ¼ inch | 0.5 cm  apart. Turn the square over and place the two chopsticks at a right angle to each other and set the square inside. Starting from the inside corner of the angle, make diagonal cuts down to the chopsticks again about ¼ inch | 0.5 cm apart. When you reach the middle, turn the square 180° so that the uncut portion sits against the chopsticks, and then continue to cut this area on the diagonal. Once you are done, if you gently pull on either end of the square, it will open up into an accordion. This is called the “coir raincoat cut,” if you’re interested. Repeat with the rest of the squares until done.
Perpendicular sticks, diagonal cuts

3. Set a wok with about 2 inches | 5 cm of frying oil over medium-high heat. Slide 2 of the opened squares into the oil, making sure that they do not touch. Fry them on both sides until they are light brown and hard to the touch, which will take about 7 minutes. While they are frying, use your chopsticks to pull on them at each end to open them up, which will turn the squares into lacy rectangles. Remove them to a 2-quart | 2-liter saucepan. Repeat with the rest of the bean curd until all are fried.

4. Add the rest of the ingredients to the pan and add boiling water almost to cover. Bring the pot to a full boil and then lower to a slow simmer. Cook the bean curd uncovered for about 2 hours, gently tossing them now and then. Turn off the heat and let this sit covered overnight. They are best if refrigerated for a day or two so that the flavors really seep in, and they keep for at least a week in the marinade. To serve, cut the rectangles into ½ inch | 1 cm wide strips and serve with chopped green onions and chile sauce, if desired.

These are quite beautiful every step of the way. Here's a glimpse of them frying: