Monday, August 19, 2019

Taiwanese comfort food in the guise of burdock and beef

I was introduced to this earthy, comforting dish during my first year in Taiwan, and I’ve loved it ever since. This is so perfectly balanced—basically vegetable confetti seasoned with a smattering of beef—that I usually just serve it with steamed rice and consider myself well fed. 

The Taiwanese version most likely evolved out of the Japanese dish known as gyu to gobo no shigure-ni (where the two main ingredients are braised in a sweetish soy broth), and I have to say with absolutely no prejudice at all that the Taiwanese version knocks my socks off to a much greater degree. 

Part of this is due to the texture. In a stir-fry, the burdock is allowed to retain more of its firm texture, so it comes across as some sort of cousin to bamboo shoots. Plus, all of the ingredients julienned, which allows them to mingle in delightful ways and giving each mouthful a range of mouthfeels and flavors.

Burdock doesn’t get a whole lot of love here in the West—to be honest, most folks here probably haven’t even heard of it—and so it’s sometimes hard to find outside of an Asian market. Japanese and some Chinese groceries usually carry it, though, and it will be displayed in a long box filled with wood shavings or sawdust. Sometimes it will go by its Japanese name, gobo, while others will call it níubàng 牛蒡, but it’s easy to recognize, as few other vegetables are as startlingly long as a burdock root. 

They appear as slender beige to brownish tubers sprinkled with hairy little rootlets. Most are around 1 yard | meter in length and about an inch | 2 cm wide, so they’re hard to miss. When you rub your hand along one, make sure it feels firm at both ends, as this tells you it hasn’t dried out. The skin will have the texture of an elephant’s hide, if you’ve ever been fortunate enough to pet a pachyderm. Burdock roots are typically sold by the pound, and so the grocery clerk will very likely snap it in half in order to set it on the scale. Don’t get upset, as this doesn’t hurt the tuber in the least.
Rounds, slices, and julienned matchsticks

When you get home, wrap it in a plastic bag, keep it dry, and refrigerate. You will need to peel it before you cut it up, so have a work bowl filled with cool water ready to hold the slivered tuber. One thing you’ll notice is that brown spots and rings seem to immediately spring up almost magically inside the milky white interior. That’s okay. These will disappear once the prepped burdock is soaked, and by the time you dump out the water, the burdock will have turned completely white and the water will be tan. 

Do note that this dish does require you to do a whole lot of slicing. It will probably take you about a half an hour to prep all the vegetables, so try to get into a Zen state of mind before you begin. Sharpen your knife, put on some nice music, pour yourself a glass of whatever makes you smile, and consider this a good time to practice your cutting skills. The burdock should be cut into thin matchsticks, and the rest—scallions, ginger, chiles, beef—should follow suit so that the resulting dish looks well-designed and the textures mingle with aplomb. That final sprinkle of toasted sesame seeds pulls the dish together and adds a modicum of crunch, so don’t skip it. 

Burdock and beef stir-fry
Níubàng chăo níuròu  牛蒡炒牛肉
Serves 4 as a main dish
Young (top) and old ginger
Beef and marinade:
Around 8 ounces | 225 g shaved beef or steak (nothing too expensive), frozen for 30 minutes
1 tablespoon peanut or vegetable oil
2 cloves garlic, minced
¼ cup | 60 ml regular soy sauce
3 tablespoons mild rice wine (Taiwan Mijiu)

1 burdock root (about 12 ounces | 325 g)
Cool water, as needed
2 inches | 30 g young ginger (or peeled older ginger, if that’s what you have)
1 fresh red chile pepper, seeds and cap removed
4 scallions, trimmed

3 tablespoons toasted sesame oil
2 teaspoons sugar
1 tablespoon toasted sesame seeds

1. Cut the partially frozen beef into shreds and place in a small work bowl. Toss with the oil, garlic, soy sauce, and rice wine, and let it marinate while you prepare the vegetables.
A knife-skill workout
2. Remove the skin from the burdock with a potato peeler. Cut the root into lengths about 3 inches | 8 cm long. Cut off one rounded edge of each piece of root so that the burdock won’t roll around, and then slice them into thin pieces before cutting them again lengthwise into a toothpick-sized julienne. Place this julienne in the cool water to soak while you prep the rest of the burdock. Cut the ginger and chile pepper into shreds and put in one pile, and then shred the scallions and place them in a separate pile. 

3. About 10 minutes before serving, drain the burdock in a colander set in the sink, rinse it lightly, and shake off the extra water. Set your wok over high heat and swirl in the sesame oil. Toss in the beef and marinade. Toss these over the fire until the beef looks mostly cooked, and then scoop it up the side of the wok, leaving the juices on the bottom. 

Pure comfort food
4. Lower the heat to medium-high before adding the burdock, ginger, and chile pepper. Stir-fry these for a few seconds and then cover the wok, still keeping the beef away from the heat. Let the burdock cook in all that steam for a minute or two, toss, cover, and cook some more. When the burdock begins to look as if it is beginning to bend a bit, take a taste: you should be able to bite through it easily when it’s done. Toss the burdock with the beef at this point and add the sugar and scallions. Toss these for a few seconds more, and then taste and adjust the seasoning as needed. Scoop the burdock out onto a rimmed serving plate and sprinkle with the sesame seeds. If there are any leftovers, they will still be delicious a day or two later.