Monday, September 10, 2018

Sichuan-style mung bean sheets

As the warm weather begins to taper off, I begin to think of all the summer foods I should have talked about earlier but somehow didn’t. This is one of them.

Today’s recipe features a staple in my kitchen: mung bean sheets. Called lāpí 拉皮or fĕnpí 粉皮 in Mandarin, these are translucent rounds made from mung bean starch, dried into plate-sized circles, and sold in the same aisle as dried noodles and so forth. 

The most famous brands come from Tianjin, but they are beloved in many parts of China, particularly the north and in Sichuan. 

One thing you should remember with these mung bean sheets is that they are always a hundred times better when they have just been soaked. 

Seriously beautiful in their dried state
They are especially satiny when hot, as you will taste in this amazing casserole. And so, even though theoretically you may toss these with sesame oil and refrigerate in a plastic bag, they will never be quite as soft and silky as they once were.

So, if you are not feeding a bunch of people, cut this recipe down by half or even a third. 

Leftovers are a bit of a pain in the butt because you are faced with a dilemma: if you microwave the noodles in order to restore them to a semblance of slithery softness, the cucumbers and green onions will wither down into a weird mush.

With a floral beauty when plumped up
One way or the other, this is not going to be that pleasant. That is why you should make only what you are pretty sure you’re going to finish in one meal.

The good news is that this is delicious on so many levels, not only for its taste, but also for the lovely textural fireworks. Consider putting this on a bed of baby lettuces for a refreshing salad. Or, if you want to be more traditional, offer this as an appetizer before a Sichuanese meal. 

A note on the sauce: be sure it’s an oil-based one if you’re getting something at the store. Look at the ingredient list, which should start out with two words: chilies and oil. Fermented sauces will not work here. 

The best of all worlds is one where you make your own chile goop, like this one or this one. Trust me, these are things you should have in your arsenal at all times. 

Sichuan-style mung bean sheets
Sìchuān liángbàn lāpí 四川涼拌拉皮
What to look for
Serves 8 as an appetizer

Bean sheets:
3 sheets dried mung bean sheets (fenpi)
Boiling water to cover
1 tablespoon toasted sesame oil 

Chicken and vegetables:
12 ounces | 300 g cooked, boneless chicken
2 Persian (or other small seedless) cucumbers, or 1 large cucumber
1 or 2 green onions

½ cup | 125 ml chile goop (homemade or something that is oil-based, rather than fermented)
2 cloves garlic, minced
¼ cup | 60 ml peanut butter
2 tablespoons sesame oil or chile oil
2 tablespoons dark vinegar (like balsamic)
1 tablespoon sugar
1 tablespoon regular soy sauce

Lots of crunch
¼ cup | 30 g toasted sesame seeds
Small bunch of cilantro, optional

1. Place the dried mung bean sheets in a large work bowl and pour the boiling water over them to cover. The sheets will begin to soften in a few minutes, so if any areas are sticking above the water, use your tongs to jab them down under. Allow the sheets to soak and rehydrate for about half an hour while you prepare the rest of the meal. (If you are making this a couple hours ahead of time, soak the mung bean strips during the last hour so that they don't become an unmanageable tangle.)

2. Shred or cut the chicken into thin strips. (You can remove the skin, if you like, but I enjoy the added texture and flavor that skin can bring.) You can either chill the chicken or warm it slightly in the microwave; I prefer the latter, but it’s up to you.
Tossed and ready to eat

3. Trim the ends off of the cucumbers and split them lengthwise before cutting them in half across the middle; cut each piece into thin strips. Cut the green onions into thin shreds. 

4. Mix together the dressing ingredients and keep at room temperature.

5. Drain the mung bean sheets and pour cold water over them, but do this carefully; they will have turned completely clear at this point and are rather fragile. You probably won't have to cut them since they tend to fall apart into bite-sized pieces all by themselves. Gently toss them with the bit of sesame oil to keep them from sticking together.

5. Just before serving, layer the mung bean sheets on your serving platter, then the cucumbers, green onions, and chicken, and pour half of the dressing over the top. Garnish with the sesame seeds and optional cilantro, and have the extra dressing on the side for anyone who cares for more.

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