Sichuan-style guo kui (stuffed flatbreads) browning in oil on a hot griddle
One of the Chengdu's most popular street snacks is guo kui (pronounced gwoh-kway), a thin meat-stuffed flatbread cooked in plenty of oil. (Guo kui is actually a generic term for flatbread; there are many types in Sichuan and elsewhere in China. We'll visit a few others in subsequent posts.)
In Chengdu, where in the evenings you can hardly walk 10 minutes without stumbling across a guo kui vendor, we didn't do a lot of sampling, because the flatbreads are usually deep-fried in a wok and then set in a wire basket to drain -- making them awfully greasy and thus less than tempting, especially if they've been out of the oil long enough to significantly cool.
But in Langzhong, a wonderful old town about six hours from Chengdu by bus, we came across a husband and wife making guo kui the old-fashioned way, with a combination griddle-oven.
While she kneads dough he pulls guo kui from the tandoor-like oven
As he cooked she kneaded the dough
and assembled the flatbreads.
To make the guo kui she pinched off a piece of dough, formed it into a ball between her palms, and then used her thumb to press it flat and shape it into a thin rectangle.
This she smeared -- again, using her thumb -- with a spare slick of lard and then with a meat 'paste' (the concept of a meat 'paste' will be familiar to anyone who's watched a proper Turkish lahmacun being made) seasoned with chilies, salt, and ground huajiao (Sichuan peppercorn).
Thin rectangles of dough are smeared with lard and spiced pork paste
After rolling up the rectangle from the bottom she stood the resulting fat cylinder on its end, flattened it with her palm, then rolled it out thin with a well-worn wooden rolling pin (note the pin's tapered ends, so different from the sort of rolling pin an American cook would use to roll out a pie crust).
Rolling out a meat-stuffed pinwheel of dough
What she ended up with was a pinwheeled stuffed pancake about 6 inches/15 cm in diameter, which her husband then shallow-fried on his griddle until it was well-browned.
Griddling the guokui, with finished specimens at rear
Oily, yes -- but after he finished frying a batch he pulled his griddle aside and placed the guo kui inside the charcoal-fired tandoor-like oven beneath it, before moving the griddle back over the oven (see the second photo from the top).
There in the oven, propped up their edges on a lip near the top, the guo kui simultaneously drained and crisped in its heat.
What emerged after several minutes was a mahogany-hued flatbread with a surprisingly light-on-grease exterior so crackly-crispy it shattered when I bit into it. Inside, the layered bread was chewy, almost soft, and shot through with savory bits of meat and dried chili. Each bite was different, some more doughy than porky, others punchy with spice. Sichuan peppercorn had been applied sparingly, so that it was more of a fragrance than a flavor that didn't slay me, but left a friendly little tingle on my lips and the tip of my tongue.
I have several regrets in reference to this guo kui. First, that I didn't purchase more, because after our return to Chengdu we never encountered a fried specimen anywhere near as appetizing as this one. Second, I kick myself for not trying one of this couple's tian (sweet) versions. I'd bet my life they're fantastic.
And finally, I regret that I didn't keep this guo kui all to myself, instead of sharing it with Dave and our friend J. Dave claims that that's the reason I have no proper photo of the finished product to offer you:
"You two were really going at that thing, and I didn't want teeth marks on my hand."
Note: You'll find a recipe for the deep-fried version in the beautiful, eminently readable, and recipe-reliable book Beyond the Great Wall, by J Alford and N Duguid.