Monday, April 29, 2019

Time for breakfast

Breakfast is a big deal in China. Unlike the States, the first meal of the day is a lot more than eggs, bacon, bread, and cereal. In fact, it’s a terrific reason to get out of bed any day of the week. 

In most places I’ve visited in China, little stands do nothing but prepare breakfast specialties that are ready from the wee hours of the night until lunchtime. And boy, do they have some tasty things on the menu.

One of my favorites is this, little hand pies whose Chinese name literally means “chive boxes.” Garlic chives are indeed the main attraction, but this being China, a deliciously savory edge completes the flavor range, and so there’s baby dried shrimp for a gently funky, salty layer, some tiny bits of scrambled egg for a meaty feel, and cellophane noodles to lighten up the texture. 

I changed the traditional recipe up slightly by frying the baby shrimp - which are called "shrimp skins" (xiāpí 蝦皮) in Chinese - to broadcast their flavor throughout the filling while tamping down their tendency to turn a tad soggy. And in case you are afraid that these will be overwhelmingly fishy, be assured that they instead turn into crispy bits that are barely noticed other than a suggestion of xianwei (umami) on the tongue.

In spite of all that, what I love best about this recipe is the pastry. It is simply the best one I know of, as it is light, thin, and fries up into a crisp layer that shatters in your mouth. It is easy to master, too.

A lovely coiled edge
Here's a video I made that shows you how to make an easy yet pretty coiled edge on your pastries. (A heads-up for those of you who are reading this at work: there's music on the video, so turn down the sound before clicking on the link.) 

Serve these with millet porridge 
whenever you want to start out the day with a smile on your face. 

Chive box pastries
Jiǔcài hé 韭菜盒
Makes 1 dozen

1 small bundle cellophane noodles
Warm water, as needed
Ready to fill the pastry
¼ cup | 60 ml fresh peanut or vegetable oil
¼ cup | 20 g dried baby shrimp
4 large eggs, lightly beaten
8 ounces | 225 g (or so) green garlic chives
½ to 1 teaspoon sea salt (see Tip)
½ teaspoon sugar
Freshly ground black pepper

2 cups | 300 g Chinese flour
2 tablespoons fresh peanut or vegetable oil
½ cup | 125 ml boiling water
1 tablespoon cool water
More flour, as needed
Oil for frying
Chile sauce for dipping, optional

1. An hour or two before you plan to serve these, soak the cellophane noodles in warm water until they are completely soft and silky. Drain them well and then chop the noodles into pieces ¼-inch | 5 mm long or smaller. 

Fill the pastry
2. While the noodles are soaking, make the dough: place the flour and oil in a medium work bowl. Use chopsticks to stir in the hot water until large flakes are formed. Work in the cook water, adding more flour or cool water as necessary until it does not stick to your hands or the board. Knead the dough until it is soft and supple. Cover it with a damp tea towel or plastic wrap and let it rest for at least 20 minutes. Roll the dough into an even rope 12 inches | 30 cm long, and then cut it into 12 pieces. Toss these lightly with a bit of flour and let them rest again while you prepare the filling.

3. Make the filling just before you are about to fill the pastries, as otherwise the chives will wilt from the salt. Place a wok or frying pan over medium heat, and add the oil once it is hot. Sprinkle the baby shrimp in the oil and gently fry them — adjusting the temperature as necessary — until they are a golden brown. Scrape them into a small work bowl and return as much of the oil to the wok as possible. Return the wok to the stove and fry the eggs until they are scrambled nicely. Chop the eggs up into small pieces with your spatula and add them to the shrimp. Trim, rinse, and pat the chives very dry. Cut the chives into pieces ¼-inch | 5 mm long and add them to the shrimp and eggs. Season with the salt, sugar, and pepper. Divide the filling into 12 portions.

4. Roll each piece of dough into a 5-inch | 13-cm circle, and keep the dough covered whenever you are not using it. Wet your finger with water and draw a circle around the edge, which will help seal the dough. Fill the pastries by placing one portion of the filling in the center of the dough — be sure not to get any oil on the edge, as this will prevent the dough from sealing well. Pinch the pastry into a half-moon shape, and then curl the edge with a decorative braid, if you wish. These pastries should be immediately fried or frozen. (Frozen pastries can be fried later without being defrosted first.)

Folded up and ready for crimping
5. To fry the pastries, set a flat frying pan over medium heat. Film the pan with oil once it is hot and add only as many pastries as will fit without touching each other. Cover the pan and let them slowly fry on one side until golden on the bottom, and then uncover the pan and flip them over. Cover and fry them on the other side. When the second side is a light gold, uncover the pan and fry them until crispy. Serve immediately with a side of chile sauce, if you like.


Use 1 teaspoon of salt if you are going to eat these fresh. Freezing the pastries heightens their saltiness for some reason, so it you want to make these ahead of time, use half that amount of salt. If you are eating half and freezing the rest, then use the smaller amount and dust the pastries with a sprinkling of salt as soon as they have been fried.