If you are looking at these photos and do not have a clue as to what this vegetable is, join the club, as that was my first reaction when I ran across a healthy mound of the stuff at a dry grocer’s in Oakland Chinatown. At first I thought it was dried long beans, but no. Then I thought, seaweed? A quick sniff disproved that. Flummoxed, I asked the Hunanese owner.
“It’s gongcai,” he answered. “What’s it made out of?” “Gongcai,” was the answer. “I understand that, but what is gongcai?” He looked at me with an expression of exasperation and said in a quieter voice, “A dried vegetable.” After a few minutes, a couple of gears in my brain started to slowly turn and I sort of realized what it was I was looking at in those bins, as I had read of this thing called “tribute vegetable,” but had never eaten or even seen it before.
The shop owner reassured me that it was very tasty, very crunchy, and very easy to make. No cooking required, even. And they were beautiful arrayed with red ribbons around their bases, like dried-out bouquets. He told me how he made them, and so I took them home and found yet another thing to love about China’s dried ingredients.
|Dried & plumped up|
But one thing still puzzled me: what vegetable had been dried to make this? Googling did not help much, nor did all sorts of Chinese dictionaries. I soaked them, stared at the long, plump lengths, had an inkling of what it actually was, but nothing to confirm it.
And then one day as I was reading through the classic Chinese cookbook Suiyuan shidan 隨園食單, I found the following entry for a veggie known in the West as stem lettuce or celtuce: “There are two ways to eat stem lettuce: fresh with a sauce, which is light, crisp, and delightful, or cured as a dried ingredient, and which when sliced before eating is quite delicious. This must be mild for it to be good, as it has a disgusting flavor if heavily salted.” And that sealed it as far as I was concerned.
|Celtuce (from Wikipedia)|
When fresh, it is called either wōsŭn 萵筍 or wōjù 萵苣 and has the taste of romaine lettuce without the bitterness; both the stems and leaves are edible, but when dried only the stems are used. However, these stems, when peeled into strips and dried, are known as “tribute vegetable.”
As the Suiyuan author, Yuan Mei, points out, this should be salted with a gentle touch, as the heavy flavors of soy sauce would drown the fresh taste of this veggie. Too much salt would also pull the moisture out and leave you with a soggy pile. So, use only a smidgen of soy, but balance out the flavors with a bit of sesame oil, ginger juice, and sugar, as well as a nice dollop of black vinegar. This is fantastic with any sort of congee or as a cold appetizer.
|Ready to eat|
Tossed tribute vegetable
Liángbàn gòngcài 涼拌貢菜
Serves 6 to 8
1 bunch dried tribute vegetable (gongcai)
Cool tap water, as needed
1 tablespoon good soy sauce
1 tablespoon fresh ginger juice
1 tablespoon sugar
2 tablespoons good black vinegar
Optional garnish: cilantro and toasted sesame seeds
1. Start this in the morning so that it has time to marinate and chill for a couple of hours. Keep the stem ends of the tribute vegetable bundled, if at all possible, as this makes their trimming go much faster.
|Making ginger juice|
2. Soak the dried vegetable in a pan of warm water, changing it a couple of times until the water no longer takes on any brownish color; this may take a couple of hours before the stems become a rather uniform pale green. Rinse the vegetable under running water, gently wring it dry, and then chop off all of the tough ends, as well as any raggedy leaves. Remove the tie at the stem end, if there is one, and then carefully pick over the vegetables, removing any less-than-perfect bits and detritus.
3. Rinse the vegetable again, if needed, and shake dry. Cut across the leaves to make 1-inch lengths. Place these in a medium work bowl.
4. Toss the vegetable with the rest of the ingredients. Taste and adjust the seasoning. Cover the bowl and refrigerate for a couple of hours. Toss before serving as an appetizer or side dish.
You can find tribute vegetable in some Chinese grocery and dry goods stores. In grocery stores, it will be packed in a plastic bag, but in dry goods stores it usually is stacked in bins.
Stronger aromatics like garlic and green onions can be added, as well as chili oil, but do this only at the last minute, as you want these tastes to remain on the surface of the vegetable and provide contrast to the sweet centers. Also, chopped garlic and green onions will take on an off flavor if allowed to sit too long.
Celtuce photo courtesy Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Celtuce