Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Lamb tail beignets from Beijing

In the last post I introduced a Manchurian dish called Fried Deer Tails. Staying with this theme of of fried tails that aren’t really tails, we now go into a completely opposite direction with a gentle Beijing sweet called Fried Lamb Tails.

This was a treat that originated in Beijing’s Muslim community. One old cookbook I read said that lamb tail meat had once filled these fried pastries, but eventually they were turned from savory into sweet beignets with the substitution of red bean paste.

Another fading cookbook dedicated to Beijing Muslim cuisine lists 36 recipes for sweet dishes, a fact that delights me to no end, and this is the final one in that extensive chapter, for good reason: it is unlike any other Chinese sweet that I have encountered, and it deserves to be the ultimate recipe in that book.

A Beijing Muslim treat
I know that I’m stretching it a bit by calling these Fried Lamb Tails “beignets” because these are actually lighter than air. What looks at first glance like something heavy dissolves in the mouth with little more than a puff of air and the smooth aftertaste of the red beans.

Served as a snack with afternoon tea or even at the end of a fancy banquet, your guests may demur at the idea of consuming more than a single bite, but that one nibble will convince them to polish off whatever you have placed on the table.

Composed of only a few ingredients, this is easy to put together and actually is quite inexpensive to make. The only item that cannot be found in most Western supermarkets is canned sweet bean paste, but that is easy enough to stock up on whenever you are close enough to an East Asian grocery.

Ribbon of batter
You can assemble the ingredients and whip up the batter ahead of time, and then fry the lamb tails just before serving. The original recipes call for them to be sprinkled with regular sugar, but I prefer the almost imperceptible sweetness of a bare dusting of powdered sugar. Although the batter is not sweetened, the red bean paste stays sweet without cloying if only a decorative flutter of powdered sugar accompanies them to the table.

Double the ingredients if you are planning to serve more than 3 or 4. No need for recommendations on leftovers -- you won’t have any.

Fried lamb tails  
Zha yangwei 炸羊尾 
Beijing Muslim
Makes 12 and serves 3 or 4

2 large, organic egg whites (about 4 tablespoons), at room temperature
3 tablespoons cornstarch
¾ cup sweet, smooth red bean paste (see Tips)
2 cups fresh peanut or vegetable oil (see Tips)
Bean paste coins
1 or 2 tablespoons powdered sugar

1. Beat the egg whites until stiff and then slowly beat in the cornstarch until you have a thick batter that forms a long, sticky thread when you lift out the beater.

2. Roll the bean paste into 12 balls and then slightly flatten them with your fingers.

3. Heat the oil in a wok over medium heat until wooden chopsticks inserted in the oil barely bubble. Place a plate covered with a paper towel next to the stove.

4. Use wooden chopsticks to pick up the bean paste balls one at a time and dip into the batter until it is thoroughly covered. Carefully lay it into the oil, dabbing more batter on top if it looks at all thin. Repeat with the rest of the bean paste balls, and do this in two batches if needed.

5. Slowly fry the lamb tails until the bottoms are pale gold, and then flip them over with your chopsticks; they should not stick. Fry the other sides until they too are pale gold, and then remove the lamb tails to the paper towel to drain. Some of them may split as they fry, but that is all right.

6. Arrange the lamb tails on a serving plate (or on individual plates), sift the powdered sugar over them, and serve immediately with hot tea.
Dabbing more batter on top


Sweetened red bean paste is available in two forms: smooth and chunky, just like peanut butter. Use the smooth variety here; if you can’t read Chinese, the picture should show you whether it is smooth or not. I have had good luck with both Taiwanese and Japanese brands, as the quality has been consistent and they are not too sweet.

Use fresh oil for frying these, as any flavors in the oil will be immediately transferred to these airy puffs.

Keep the heat under the oil at a minimum, as you do not want these to brown quickly. Medium heat should give you just the right amount to cook the egg whites without burning.

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