Sunday, December 11, 2011

Crusty vegetable rice from Shanghai

One of my favorite places to eat when I worked in downtown Taipei was a steamy hole in the wall called Songjilou. Run by old soldiers, it sold Jiangsu style snack foods. Stacks of old bamboo steamers reached almost to the ceiling, filled as they were with the tiny meat and vegetable steamed buns called xiaolongbao, and covering the entire restaurant with a fog that even San Francisco could admire.

And that is what I would always order: a basket full of their juicy bao and a small, cold appetizer from the glass counter at the front.

That was, until I watched another old Shanghai denizen order a bowl of caifan and tell the ancient waiter to give him extra crust. This crust is the same guoba that is used on another Shanghainese favorite, Bombs over Tokyo. But where that is simply steamed rice that is dried into thin cakes before being deep fried, caifan (vegetable rice) is a really unique take on fried rice. What I noticed was that the happy customer became almost beside himself with joy at the bowl in front of him, and he attacked it with such gusto that I knew it had to be not only truly delicious, but also an authentic taste of home back on the Mainland.

First, unlike other fried rices, there aren't a whole lot of ingredients in here. There are only rice, oil, green onions, and salt, which you can find in just about any other version. Rounding out the list is just a vegetable, usually one of the small, dark-leaved cabbages that are so beloved in Shanghai. Bok choy (xiaobaicai or the Cantonese pak choi) in any of its incarnations works wonderfully here. It has just the perfect balance of stems to leaves, and the flavor is subtle enough to marry well with the rice.

In this recipe, I've called for the flatter variety that Joy Larkcom refers to as "rosette pak choi," but which I've usually seen labeled in Chinese as wutacai, or black prostrate vegetable. It's called "black" because the leaves are a very dark green, and it's referred to as prostrate because the leaves grow out at an angle to the ground, instead of straight up like most other bok choys.

I like lots of veggies in the rice, so you end up here with about half rice and half greens. You start out with practically a whole wok full of bok choy leaves, but these quickly melt down into a gentle puddle. The only aromatic is that old Shanghainese standby, green onions.

This is also a good place to discuss the right kind of rice for frying. Some folks like long-grained rice, but I'm a true fan of short-grained, since it is chewier and not as dry. Bags labeled as containing "sushi rice" are perfect for this, as this grain is very similar to what I used to enjoy at Songjilou. Just steam or boil the rice ahead of time, cool it to at least room temperature, and then fry it; the rice will not clump up or become mushy that way. But, use whatever type of rice you like -- even brown rice -- although it won't be authentic Shanghai caifan.

Another touch that boosts the flavor a notch is using rendered fat for the oil. I still have some from the Thanksgiving turkey, and frying with it makes the house smell like a holiday. Plus, all of that wonderful flavor gets sucked up by the rice. Use any kind of oil you prefer, though, as long as it is fresh.

Shanghai vegetable rice 
Caifan  菜飯 
Shanghai, Jiangsu
Serves 2 as a main entree, 4 as part of a multicourse meal
Rinse the leaves carefully

1 pound (or so) small Chinese bok choy of any kind
2 green onions, trimmed
4 to 6 tablespoons oil or fat (see headnote), or more as needed
1 teaspoon sea salt
4 cups cooked cold rice (see headnote)

1. Cut off the ends of the bok choy and separate the heads into leaves. Trim off any discolored leaves and wash the vegetables carefully in a pan of water; rinse the leaves and make sure that no dirt is clinging to them. Shake them dry and coarsely chop the leaves into pieces no larger than half an inch long. Cut the green onions into smallish pieces.

2. Heat 4 tablespoons of oil or fat in a wok over high heat. Add the salt, swirl the wok to melt it, and add the chopped onions and bok choy. Stir-fry the veggies until the bok choy stems become translucent. Scoot them up the side of the wok, allowing the oil to drain back into the bottom of the wok. Add the cold rice to the wok and use a metal wok spatula to break up any clumps. Toss the rice in the hot oil, adding more oil as necessary to keep the rice from sticking. Use the spatula to lift up the rice from the bottom and shake it so that even the smaller clumps fall apart. When the rice is completely heated through, toss it with the cooked veggies. 
Toss the rice with the cooked bok choy

3. Next, make a crust form on the bottom of the rice by turning the heat under the wok to medium-low; do not disturb the rice for about 5 minutes. When the rice makes a faint popping sound and smells like popcorn, lift up an edge of the rice to check. If it is a golden brown, flip the rice over so that the crust is on the top. Then, allow the rice to from another crust on the bottom, adjusting the heat as necessary to brown the rice without burning it. When you have as much crust as you like, serve up the rice and eat it while it is still very hot.