Sunday, September 14, 2008

Chinese Weirdness

I was getting rather tired of Japanese/French semi-fusion food, which I have been doing for the last few days. I think I first realized I was getting tired of it when I plated a sanma (Pacific saury, very similar to a small mackerel or a large sardine) tartare in a perfect cylinder topped with an even layer of salmon roe, garnished with a vinaigrette sauce adorned with capers and chopped hard-boiled eggs, and thought I should probably photograph this for the blog---and then thought, "ah, what the hell, too much trouble." This despite the fact that I got this recipe from Le Bernardin's cookbook (the 4-star fish restaurant in New York), made some fairly clever substitutions based on availability in Japan at this season, and all in all made something that was perfect for blogging. Turns out, I was getting tired of this. Why?

All that protein, I guess. I mean, you've got fish, and more fish, and eggs, and then vinegared stuff to brighten the flavors... but where are the veggies? Turns out, the Japanese are on the whole kind of bad about this. They do eat some vegetable superfoods, like fresh soybeans (edamame) and various seaweeds, but they're really not great about fresh vegetables in general. They'd rather pickle them, which is fine but gets us right back to the vinegar and salt thing.

Well, since I now have a passable sense of what I can get in the local market, produce-wise, I went to my cookbook collection (which has now arrived, thank goodness). I was sort of idly turning pages, flipping through different books, but nothing seemed very appealing. And then... my eye happened on Barbara Tropp's wonderful Modern Art of Chinese Cooking. Oh yes---Chinese stir-fry! Bright flavors, handled quickly and intensely. And I should be able to get everything very easily, this being East Asia, after all, where the influence of China has been almost overwhelming for a very, very long time.

So I went on a shopping expedition and found...


Wait just a second. I'm in Japan, right? I'm in what is probably the culinary center of Japan, where every other shopfront is a restaurant and people are absolutely stark, staring bonkers about food. I'm in a place where people will pay as much at a good Chinese restaurant as they'd pay at a good French restaurant.

But I can't get cilantro. I can't get black soybeans. I can't get Chinese-style roasted sesame paste. I can't get Chinese wine. I can't get hoisin sauce. I can't get Sichuan peppercorns. What the hey?

A Little Rant
If you don't know much about Chinese cooking, or about Japanese history, you may not see why I think this is quite as bizarre as I do.

The first point is that almost everything in Japanese aesthetic history really starts with China. You constantly see all sorts of stuff about how distinctively Japanese is that stuff about empty space, simple wooden architecture, paper shoji screens and tatami mats, and so on. But all of that is very closely patterned on certain dominant aesthetic trends in China in the Tang dynasty, when the Japanese first had really extensive and intricate intellectual exchanges with China. In theory, this is when Buddhism came over to Japan; almost certainly it arrived earlier from Korea, but from the Japanese perspective it's all China. The same thing goes for the writing system: the Japanese writing system is adapted from the Chinese, using the same characters (kanji) plus a series of wildly simplified characters that serve as a syllabary (the kana).

The second point is that many of these ingredients are not only common in Chinese cuisine, but elsewhere. Cilantro is native from southwestern Asia to north Africa, but it has been spread around the globe. Wikipedia notes, correctly, that cilantro or "coriander is commonly used in Middle Eastern, Mediterranean, Indian, South Asian, Latin American, Chinese, African and Southeast Asian cuisine." Note the odd man out: Japan. Yet beyond so-called traditional Japanese food, some of the most popular kinds of restaurants in Japan are Chinese, Mediterranean, Indian, and Southeast Asian. What's more, there is the longstanding connection between Japan and Brazil, where once again cilantro is very popular (it is essential as a final garnish on feijoado, the national dish).

Beyond cilantro, let me note that Sichuan peppercorn is actually the same plant, so far as I can tell, as what the Japanese call sansho, the only difference being that the Japanese generally use the green leaves while in Sichuan you use the dried berries in their husks. If you're cultivating the plant, why isn't it available?

A really irritating example here is fermented black soybeans. The Japanese love fermented soybeans--see my experimental discussion of nattō. The Chinese black beans are prepared a bit differently, but I cannot imagine that many Japanese would not like the taste. In fact, I know for certain that seafood steamed or stir-fried in black bean sauce is extremely popular in Chinese restaurants here. So why can't I get the stuff?

I could see it if I were talking about ingredients that don't keep well or something, and perhaps that is part of the problem with the cilantro, though I rather doubt it. But everything else I'm talking about keeps for years. Literally: you can buy a vacuum-sealed package of black beans and not open them for a couple of years, and they'll be just fine.

Now I'm sure I could get Chinese wine (Shaoxing wine, for example) if I wanted it, if I just scoured the local liquor stores. But this is easy to substitute: if you're not using very much, sake will be perfectly acceptable. But the other things are not something you can work around: you cannot make something steamed in black bean sauce without black beans.

I decided to say what the hell and make what I could, with some appropriate substitutions insofar as I could get away with it, and the results were pretty good. But I remain mystified.

If any reader can tell me what's going on here, why I cannot find the most basic Chinese ingredients after searching several fairly large grocery stores, I will be very grateful!

Chinese Dinner At Home
For some reason I haven't been in the Chinese-cooking mode for a while now, and I'd forgotten how much fun it is. You can do almost everything difficult well in advance, and you plan around what burners and stuff you have. At more or less the last minute you whip it together, with lots of panache and clanging and general fun--if you're stir-frying in a wok over very high heat, you can also get some nice flare-ups which are exciting to watch--and you can quickly dish up a whole bunch of different things. What's more, almost everything keeps, and can be eaten cold, or reheated, or whatever; if there's something that doesn't reheat (like clams or something, for example), you just tell your family they have to finish that one off.

My only disappointment with cooking Chinese now is that Sam won't eat things that are spicy, which puts a damper on my enthusiasm for Sichuan and Hunan cuisines--an enthusiasm shared by Tropp, which is another reason I adore her cookbook. (Tropp died tragically young in 2001, and so far as I know only completed two cookbooks: The Modern Art of Chinese Cooking and then the China Moon Cookbook. If you don't have the first one, get it!)

Still, I managed a few dishes, despite all: Don-Don Noodles, Ma-La Chicken, Wine-Explosion Vegetable Soup, and fry-steamed Jiaozi dumplings (for the latter, I used frozen premade, I'm afraid, and they turned out to be not great).

Don-Don Noodles
I love this kind of flavor: bracing, intense, and complicated, with a heady waft of spice. It's typically Sichuan, I think, and couldn't be easier to make. In fact, I made the entire shebang in advance, then nuked it, because I didn't have an extra burner to use.

There are two components: noodles with carrot shreds and peanut sauce.

I used udon noodles, which are good and plentiful here (and I had a zillion packets of really good ones in the freezer), but at home I'd go with the Chinese preference for fresh egg noodles. Whatever you use, you need it to be firm, bouncy, and preferably a little assertive, but don't worry if they turn out a bit wimpy: no self-respecting noodle is going to stand up to a sauce like this. I boiled the noodles until a bit underdone, then drained and rinsed in cold running water until quite cool, then drained again. Then I added 2 Tb toasted sesame oil (you need the Chinese or Japanese stuff, which is brown, not the "cold-pressed" or middle-Eastern stuff that is more or less clear) and tossed until all the noodles were coated. I took two medium-fat carrots, peeled them, split them down the middle, put them cut-side down on a board, and then used a vegetable peeler flat to the board to shave them into thin slices. These slices I stacked and set up more or less parallel, and with a knife cut them into fine julienne. I tossed the carrots with the noodles, covered with plastic, and refrigerated. You can leave them like this for 24 hours or more without any problems at all. To reheat, I just nuked them on medium-high power until they were warm-to-hot throughout.

To make the sauce, put 10-12 fat cloves of garlic (peeled) into the food processor and whiz, scraping down a couple of times, until semi-fine. Add about a bunch of mitsuba and some shiso leaves, all chopped up coarsely; in a sane world, just add a medium bunch of cilantro, coarsely chopped. Whiz on pulse again, scraping down often, until the whole thing is pretty fine. Now add half a cup of peanut butter (the organic kind that separates is infinitely superior) and whiz briefly to combine. Add half a cup of good soy sauce, a few Tb sugar, a small dash of sake (you should use Shaoxing wine, or maybe good dry sherry, but again...), and a couple Tb hot chili oil (try to get the kind that has scary red goo on the bottom of the jar, which I find tastes and mysteriously keeps better). Whiz, scrape, whiz, scrape, and continue until it's all pretty smooth, which doesn't take long. Taste: if it's intense but not exciting, add another Tb sugar and whiz again. Don't overdo the chili oil, as it will get hotter as it sits. Scrape the mix into a small bowl, cover with plastic, and let sit on the counter for a couple of hours. Refrigerated in a sealed tupperware, it'll keep for a very long time, but be sure to let it come to room temperature before serving.

To serve the dish, just plop the noodles down on a plate and top with the sauce, or have your guests add as much as they like. To eat, you sort of toss up the noodles and sauce (and carrots, obviously) with your chopsticks until it's all more or less combined, and then eat. If all has gone well, it will seem very mild-mannered for a bite or two, and then creep up and belt you one between the eyes.

My version was just fine, but lacked that high fragrance of the cilantro. I also thought the chili oil was wimpy.

Ma-La Chicken Cold chicken salad garnished with special hot-spicy-numbing oil. Came out a treat, I thought, and again, couldn't be easier. The only pain is the plating, and you don't have to go in for the silliness I did -- I just felt like it, okay?

There are four components: cold raw veg (usually cucumbers), cold blanched veg (asparagus, green beans, longbeans, whatever -- usually green, though), cold moist-poached chicken (breasts are better for this, but it really doesn't matter much), and the special oil. Then you have some dressings, for which my favorite is a sesame-paste one or the coriander dressing I used in the noodles (make extra and these two dishes are easy -- but a little repetitive).

The cold raw veg is... cold and raw. That was hard. Just slice and arrange.

The blanched veg: I used asparagus, as I say. Cut the pieces about 1-2" long, preferably at an angle, rolling a quarter-roll around between cuts so the ends are not parallel. Blanch asparagus about 1 minute in very fast-boiling water, beans maybe 90 seconds, and so on, just until barely cooked but very crunchy. Immediately shock in ice water, then drain and chill until serving time. To serve, put in a wide mound in the center.

The sesame paste sauce is a breeze with an immersion blender. Put a few Tb Chinese sesame paste (which is brown) in a small bowl. Add a Tb or so sesame oil, soy sauce, tamari (only the best brands -- check, because many are not tamari at all but rather colored pseudo-soy), sugar, and hoisin sauce, and a generous dash of hot chili oil. I replaced the sugar and hoisin sauce with a couple Tb tonkatsu sauce, which is sort of a mediocre variety of sweet hoisin -- this is kind of like replacing canned tomato sauce with ketchup, but it works. Whiz the whole works until smooth, add a tiny dash warm water and whiz again, and then taste. It should be thick but pourable. Let develop, covered, on the counter for a few hours. Keeps more or less forever in the fridge, but again, bring back to room temperature before using.

The chicken is a special Chinese trick. Get one chicken breast, on the bone, with skin. Take some slices of ginger, preferably spanking them firmly with a cleaver-side or tenderizer to open the pores, and put them in a little pot. Add some scallion chunks, spanked. Add some Sichuan peppercorn if you can get it, which I can't, as you know. Garlic doesn't work here, I'm afraid. Fill the pot up about 1" from the rim, cover, and bring to a rapid boil. Meanwhile, go over your chicken breast and remove any bloody bits or other nastiness. When the water is boiling fast, turn off the heat and immediately slide the chicken into the water. Poke it under with a fork or chopstick or something and cover the pot. Leave for at least 2 hours. When you're ready to serve, pull out the breast, peel off the skin, and peel the meat in one piece off the bone (it will come pretty easily). Put it flat on the board and slice at a steep angle against the grain into thin slices. The meat will be just cooked through and extremely moist. Mound it prettily on the asparagus or whatever.

Before you actually start slicing anything, though, put a few Tb each plain cooking oil and roasted sesame oil in a very small pan. In a small prep bowl, put a few coins of fresh ginger, a tablespoon or so of scallion rings, a dash of Sichuan peppercorns (I used powdered sansho), and some dried chili flakes or a couple of whole dried chilies. Swirl the oils to mix, add one ring of scallion to the oils, and place over medium heat. When the scallion starts to sizzle pretty well, remove the pan from heat and add the contents of the prep bowl. Shake-swirl to mix it up, and then put the bowl off heat somewhere to develop flavor. When the salad is all plated up, the oil should still be warm but not broiling hot. Remove the ginger coins with chopsticks, add a small dash of soy sauce and swirl to mix, and then immediately pour the whole mixture gently over the top of the chicken, making sure most of the various chunky things in the oil remain on the chicken.

My version was pretty decent, but the chili flavor didn't develop well. I think I didn't really heat the oil enough, for one thing, and next time I'll also break open those whole chilies and shake out the seeds, to see if that works. The special Sichuan peppercorn flavor wasn't there, but that's the fault of Japan. The sesame sauce was pretty decent, I thought, but there wasn't enough of it. I didn't like the mustard sauce I made, so I won't give a recipe.

Was soup. Good soup, but soup. Basically what you do is you prep all your vegetables, and divide them into those requiring more cooking and those requiring less. You have good chicken stock on hand, and you whisk up 4 Tb cornstarch in 6 Tb cold stock or water for every 6 cups of stock in the soup; that is, for each cup soup stock, mix 1 Tb stock and 2 tsp cornstarch. Leave the spoon in the mix, as it will quickly settle out again. Whisk an egg white, whole egg, or two egg whites (up to you: it depends how much egg thread you like) in a small bowl, just until more or less smooth, not frothy.

Heat a big pot quite hot over medium-high heat. Add 1 Tb or so oil and swirl to glaze. Add a few Tb rice wine (I had to use sake, which is much too mild for this, but what the hey), which will immediately flash into a boil. Instantly add all the plain stock: I used about 6 cups. When it boils, add the veg for long cooking, bring back to a boil, lower heat, and simmer a minute or two, stirring occasionally. Add the veg for shorter cooking, stir, and cook a few minutes more. Turn the heat very low. Taste for seasoning, and add salt as needed. Add sugar too: if the flavor seems flat, add sugar to brighten mediocre vegetables. Whisk up the cornstarch mix again and add it, then stir constantly and gently for a couple of minutes until the soup turns glossy and just a bit thick -- it won't really clarify, but you'll notice its texture changing dramatically. Now pour in half the egg in a gentle circle, wait a second, stir gently, then pour in the rest the same way, wait a second more, and stir again gently. You should now have floating threads of barely-cooked egg. Serve the soup immediately, garnished maybe with a little finely-cubed ham.

Personally, I think this soup was a little blah -- the blurry photo does it justice, I guess. Maybe I didn't add enough sugar, but I think it just wasn't cool enough to hold its own against the noodles and chicken. I think it maybe needed something with a little brightness, or maybe just a dash of soy, or... maybe decent Chinese rice wine instead of Japanese sake? Could be: the sake just seemed insipid and bland, whereas nobody ever called Shaoxing wine, even the really cheap stuff, bland. I do think a generous sprinkling of white pepper might have lifted it, but Sam wouldn't have touched it. To be fair to the soup, he did eat quite a fair helping of it, so I guess maybe it's a matter of taste.

Concluding Request
In any event, this is a serious cry for help, as Bernie the Agent said to Kermit the Frog. Can somebody please explain to me why the hell I can't get basic Chinese ingredients in Kyoto?

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