Regular readers will know I love my greens, and as far as I'm concerned these are some of the most wonderful greens on earth. Dou miao (pea shoots) are the immature tips of snow pea and sugar pea plants, which are plucked as the plant keeps maturing. They have a delicate "green" flavor, with just a hint of pea-ness. (Pea greens, the leaves and tender stems of English pea plants, are much sturdier and more strongly -- but still delightfully -- flavored.)
If you've ever eaten dou miao in a Chinese restaurant they've probably been stir-fried with garlic and perhaps a drop or two of oyster sauce. But these little shoots are also delicious raw, tossed with an Asian-style dressing (1 Tbsp each of soy sauce, sugar, rice vinegar mixed with 1 tsp sesame oil, black pepper, and shredded ginger), or lightly steamed and simply dressed with sesame oil and salt. Or, chop them roughly and add at the last minute to a pasta with prawns, fava beans or peas, and a dash of white wine.
I first tasted pea shoots and greens years ago in Chengdu, where they usually appeared in spicy noodle dishes, blanched quickly in the same water used to boil the noodles. The attraction of that unlikely combo has stuck with me; something about the duo of almost-fresh greens and bland, slippery noodless facing off against an assertive, chili-based sauce just seems so right on the tongue.
[Note: a vigilant reader has pointed out that what I have pictured is actually pea sprouts, along the lines of radish or alfalfa sprouts. Pea shoots are the tips of the pea plant. And pea greens are the vining plant and its tendrils that support the pea pods. The problem -- "dou miao" , which means pea shoots, or the "tip" of the pea plant, is used all over Asia to mean any of these three pea plant products. In fact, my package of pea sprouts is incorrectly labelled "dou miao". For my purposes, you can use any of the three in the following recipe. Just adjust cooking time accordingly. Pea shoots are so tender they need barely thirty seconds in the boiling water. Sprouts a couple of minutes, and greens perhaps a minute more.]
Pea shoots (but not greens, alas) are sold here in KL at supermarkets and wet markets; an 8-ounce bag costs about 3 ringit (less than a dollar), and the contents are always springy with life (pea shoots sold in the States are often too far into their 3-day good-eating lifespan). I pined for them in Saigon -- there really is no substitute when you're jonesing for their flavor and texture -- so I've been taking advantage of their ready availability here, especially at lunchtime. My favorite way with them is a simple, light (no meat), and spicy noodle dish that comes together in just a few minutes longer than it takes to boil a pan of water.
This noodle needs a good-quality la jiao (chili flakes in oil) -- it's the backbone of the sauce and a lively-flavored one makes all the difference. I've been pretty much in love with this la jiao ever since we lived in Shanghai; our ayi's daughter, a stewardress with Shanghai Airlines, used to cart jars of the stuff home for us whenever she worked the Shanghai-Guiyang (Guilin province) route. We took 6 jars with us when we moved back to the States, but it soon appeared on San Francisco Bay Area shelves. Our current (and nearly depleted) jar was sourced in Saigon in a provisions shop on Ham Nghi Street a few months ago. Lau Gan Ma (the brand name) seems to have become a worldwide phenomenon in the last 10 years.
If you're beyond the reach of Lau Gan Ma, make your own la jiao with this recipe adapted from Barbara Tropp's China Moon Cookbook:
Combine 1/2 cup dried red chili flakes (use any kind of chili you like -- if you have a low tolerance for heat, seeded New Mexico chilies will give a pleasant roasted flavor, without the burn), 3 Tbsp chopped Chinese black beans, 1/2 to 1 heaped Tbsp. szechwan peppercorns (optional), a couple or a few peeled and smashed garlic cloves, 1 cup peanut oil, and 1/4 cup roasted sesame oil in a pan. Heat on top of the stove to about 250 degrees on a deep-fry thermometer and then simmer for 15 minutes. Stored in the fridge (bring to room temperature before using), this oil will keep nearly forever.
Hot and Spicy Noodles with Pea Shoots
This is a dry noodle (no soup). The recipe is geared to tinkering; consider the proportions a starting point. I like my noodles very spicy and assertively sour from vinegar -- feel free to adjust to your taste (for that matter, use rice vinegar if you find the taste of Chinkiang vinegar too strong). Also note that water clinging to noodles and shoots will dilute the sauce a fair amount; keep that in mind as you are mixing and tasting.
One Serving (easily doubled or quadrupled)
4 ounces pea shoots
4 ounces dried Chinese wheat noodles -- thin mixes best with the shoots, but thick work OK too
a peeled garlic clove
1 Tbsp sugar
2 Tbsp Chinese black vinegar (Chinkiang vinegar)
1 Tbsp soy sauce
2 heaped tablespoons la jiao, with plenty of oil
1 Tbsp grated ginger
a fistful of coriander, chopped (optional)
1. Pick through the pea shoots and remove any brown or black pieces. Wash and drain (don't need to spin dry). Bring a pot of salted water large enough to hold the noodles and shoots to the boil.
2. Be sure to note how long the noodles need to boil for -- drop them into the boiling water and keep track of their doneness (with a watch or by taste-testing).
3. Cut the garlic clove in half and rub the sides and bottom of the bowl the noodles will be served in(or eaten from) with it. Discard the garlic. Mix soy, sugar, la jiao, vinegar, and ginger in the bowl with a fork or whisk till sugar is dissolved. Taste and adjust for sourness, spiciness, saltiness. The sauce should be very strong -- it will be diluted once noodles and greens are added.
4. About 2 minutes before the noodles are done, add the pea shoots to the water, and stir to make sure all spend some time submerged. What you're looking for is a shoot that's more boiled than blanched, but not completely limp. The shoots should retain a tiny bit of crunch.
5. Drain noodles and pea shoots into a colander and immediately add to the sauce. Toss and enjoy. Kinda nice with a flurry of chopped coriander on top.