To the uninitiated, Chinese preserved vegetables can be daunting.
First, there's the ugly factor. There they are, in any Chinese provisions shop -- row after row of jars filled with nubs and chunks and leaves in the dullest of colors, ranging from dirty white to olive green and jaundiced beige, bearing no resemblance whatsoever to anything that was ever once alive. Scarier still are the brightly-colored but invariably dirty, sometimes rusty, and almost always dented cans wrapped in amateurish illustrations of what supposedly lies within. They invoke the fear of the unknown.
Then there's the stench factor. Most Chinese preserved vegetables stink. It's the nature of preserved foods, a by-product of the fermentation process. We all know that, but it doesn't make their odoriferousness any easier to stomach.
Yet - if one can get past the ugly and the smelly, these preserved bits and pieces can be a cook's best friend. Salty and crunchy, sweet or sour or searingly spicy (even, sometimes, all three at once), they are the ingredients that can make Chinese dishes -- from the lowliest rice porridge to savory Sichuan dry-fried string beans -- sing.
My favorite specimen is Sichuan preserved vegetable. Sold in bulk in grocery stores, wet markets, and roadside kiosks all over Asia, in the U.S. it's most easily found in red and yellow cans marked "Szechuan Preserved Vegetable" (May Ling Brand). Open one up and (after wincing at the aroma) there lie two or three rubbery knobs of mustard root that's been rubbed with salt and chili powder andl eft to ferment in huge ceramic tubs.
I was introduced to this zesty almost-vegetable more years ago than I care to remember, by a Chinese university exchange student from Chengdu (Sichuan). I was a recent college grad preparing for a year at Sichuan University when I met Yu Qiao -- and all his Sichuan University graduate student friends -- at a 'school's out' gathering at my university's Asian Studies Center. Qiao, a moon-faced 28-year-old with a bowl haircut and a bone-dry, razor-sharp wit, was one of the first wave of Chinese students accepted to university on merit (as opposed to Communist Party connections or 'correct' class background) after the end of the Cultural Revolution. We became friends; I offered Qiao a glimpse of 'normal' American college student life and, through him, began to get an inkling of what I might expect to encounter in China.
One day we ran into each other at the library. I suggested lunch. He was broke, struggling on a stipend, and invited me back to his place. We walked across campus to the biggest, most run-down student co-op in town. Qiao led me to the basement kitchen. It was enormous, dark, dingy, and disgusting - a decade of grease covering every surface, a putrid stink wafting from the incomplete seal of the fridge, mountains of crusty dishes overflowing the sink.
Qiao seemed not to notice. From his cupboard (he'd magic markered his name on a piece of notebook paper and taped it to the cabinet door) he pulled a newspaper-wrapped bundle of wide Chinese dried wheat flour noodles, a moldering piece of ginger and a a handful of loose garlic cloves, a huge summer tomato that had seen better days, a couple of eggs, bottles of cooking oil and soy, a jar of chili paste, and a plastic-covered bowl containing two lumps of preserved vegetable. He rinsed two saucepans in the sink, filled one with water, covered it with a plate, and set it on a gas burner. While the water heated he used a scarred wooden-handled cleaver to roughly chop ginger, garlic, and preserved vegetable and to cut the tomato into uneven wedges. I was dispatched to find two bowls. By the time I'd washed them and shaken off the water, saucepan number two was spitting and appetizing smells were filling the kitchen, crowding out the odors of neglected food and trash long overdue for the dumpster.
When the noodles were done Qiao divided them between the bowls, then gave the contents of the other saucepan a final stir with chopsticks before unceremoniously dumping it on top. He kept the chopsticks and, without asking, dug a fork out of a drawer for me. The noodles were steaming, and I carefully ventured a taste. What I put into my mouth was nothing short of a revelation to my midwestern suburban-raised tastebuds, and I gave myself over to the dish's strong, exaggerated flavors and unfamiliar textures. I remember spicy heat so high on the Scoville scale I wanted to scream and garlic so plentiful and pungent I imagined it rushing straight to my pores. I savored the extreme saltiness of the preserved vegetable and the sweetness of overripe tomato, and marveled at the way the vegetable's crunch and toughness played off soft, slippery noodles and tender bits of egg. I'd never eaten anything like those noodles, but I knew that if this was what Sichuan tasted like I would dine well, and in great quantities, over the coming year.
I asked Qiao for the recipe. He didn't have one; it was just something he'd figured out how to throw together when his parents were sent for re-education and he took charge of his younger brother and sister.
The next day I drove out past campus to the only Asian grocery store in town, where there was always a chance of running into someone I knew -- my Taiwanese graduate assistant and her husband, kids in tow, or one of the Sichuan University graduate student posse. I bought all the ingredients for Qiao's noodles, except the tomatoes. Those I had waiting at home. That night, I took a stab at duplicating the flavors I remembered from Qiao's mangy kitchen. The noodles didn't taste right, so I made them for lunch the next day, and the next, and into the next week, until I was satisfied.
The last time I saw Qiao was about 10 years ago. He'd earned his Ph.D. in economics, and was living comfortably in Singapore - married, a new father, working a well-paying job in finance. He was considering returning to China; the Bank of China was dangling a lucrative job in Beijing. I suspect that wherever he is now, his namesake noodles are no longer part of his diet. But I still whip them up from time to time, whenever I crave a bit of Sichuan preserved vegetable, my first real taste of China.
Qiao's Noodles (1 serving)
3-inch knob of regular ginger, or 2-inch knob of young ginger
4 or 5 cloves of garlic, peeled
2 or 3-inch knob of Sichuan preserved vegetable
1 large ripe, but still somewhat firm, tomato (about 6 ounces)
1 tbsp. cooking oil
1 heaped tsp. jarred Chinese chili paste (preferably without beans, eg. Chinese chili-garlic paste -- though Chinese chili-bean paste will do)
1 tsp soy sauce
3 ounces dried Chinese wheat noodles, preferably wide
good-quality toasted sesame oil (optional)
1. Put a pan of salted water on to boil.
2. If using regular ginger, chop fine. If using young ginger, slice into matchsticks. Roughly chop garlic. Rinse the preserved vegetable to remove excess salt, pat dry, cut in half, and slice thin. Cut the tomato in half, and then each half into 5 or 6 pieces.
3. Heat the oil in a small saucepan or wok over high heat. Add ginger, garlic, and preserved vegetable and stir for a minute or so until ginger and garlic start to change color.
4. Add chili paste and stir for just 30 seconds, then add tomatoes and stir-fry for a minute or so. Add soy sauce and fry another 30 seconds. Lower the heat so that the tomatoes bubble vigorously and release their juices, but don't let them turn to mush. Stir them every minute or so to prevent sticking and burning.
5. Drop the noodles into the boiling water and stir to separate. When the noodles are about 2 minutes from done, give the tomatoes another stir and distribute them evenly over the surface of the pan. Break an egg on top. Tilt the pan to distribute the white over the surface of the tomatoes. Lower heat and place a lid on the pan.
6. Drain noodles and place in bowl. When the egg is almost set, fold it into the tomato sauce. (Don't vigorously stir the sauce -- while you want the egg to break up, you don't want it in tiny pieces. There should be discerable chunks of white in the final product.)
7. Pour sauce over noodles and drizzle a little sesame oil over the top before mixing with chopsticks.