The utter lack of creative juice evident in that title is indicative of the low ebb at which my brain is operating at the moment. Since we returned from Turkey a little over two weeks ago I've spent an average of 10 hours a day in front of this computer. I'm fried. But articles have been emailed, I've only a couple more to do, and August is, for the most part, free and clear, and I am vowing to never again over-commit. It's time for a post.
It drives me absolutely batty when I hear someone say, or read it written that "they don't eat raw vegetables in China." Or ''Chinese people don't eat salads." Or "If you go to China be prepared to eat all your vegetables stir-fried, steamed, or boiled."
While most Chinese may not sit down to a big plate of raw herbs and leaves accompanying their main dishes as their neighbors in Vietnam might, and while somtam-ish pounded salads of sour fruits and tomatoes and snake beans are not generally a part of the Chinese diet, and while being faced with an American-style chef's salad consisting of everything but the kitchen sink thrown into a bowl large enough to swim in would probably cause many Chinese to lose their appetite .... raw vegetables are eaten in parts of China. And they are eaten in forms that do qualify as a 'salad' of some sort.
Many of you are probably familiar with liangban huanggua. In its most basic (and tastiest) form this salad -- yes, salad -- is composed of rough-cut chunks of cucumber (skin-on, preferably that has been salted and left to stand, gently squeezed of its water, and tossed with very fragrant sesame oil and chopped raw garlic. A bit of cilantro might be in there too. Some versions add vinegar, soy sauce, and sugar, but for me these ingredients overwhelm the subtle deliciousness of a good cucumber combined with great oil.
Here -- let me give you a recipe. Liangban huanggua is a great, fresh addition to any Chinese meal. It's very popular in Sichuan, where it cools mouths set on fire by chilies and Sichuan peppercorns. It's my go-to side dish when we're having a meat-heavy stir-fry and I don't want to be bothered with stir-frying a vegetable to eat alongside.
Liangban huanggua (Chinese Cold Cucumber Salad)
Take a couple dark green-skinned cucumbers (Armenian or Lebanese cucumbers, or English or whatever the smooth, jade green-skinned types are called in your neighborhood), wash them well, and cut them into rough chunks. Place the chunks in a colander and sprinkle with salt, then toss. Leave aside to drain for about half an hour, then gently squeeze the cucumber to get rid of liquid and chuck it in a bowl. Toss with a bit of (or a lot of) roughly chopped garlic and a generous amount of really good toasted sesame oil. Refrigerate until bracing.
There are other Chinese 'salads' as well, many of which, I suspect, aren't really known about because in China as in the West a salad can be anything, something made up on the spot with what's available in season.
In Chengdu a woman plucking plump bunches of lettuce from a display of greens told me that she planned to wash the lettuce and then eat it with la jiao -- chili sauce, really, the type that you make by heating an innocuous type of oil and then pouring it over a mound of dried ground chilies (both the oil and the chili 'sand' are used in China). But she said she would mix her la jiao with dark vinegar, sugar, sesame paste, sesame oil, salt, and ground Sichuan peppercorn. What she was describing is something like what sauces a dish that many of us think of as 'sesame noodles'.
I tried it when we returned from Sichuan to Kuala Lumpur, mixing black vinegar, sugar, salt, and sesame oil to taste (on the tart side, for me) first, then stirring in just enough sesame paste to give the sauce body but not enough to make it gloopy. Then I added a dash of finely ground Sichuan peppercorn (it certainly could have been omitted) and poured it over very cold, very crisp, Romaine leaves. Fantastic! And the perfect accompaniment to a hot (both in temperature and spiciness), meaty Sichuanese dish. (We ate it with spicy steamed rice meal-coated beef, recipe here.)
What would I call this 'dish'? Maybe liangban zhima lajiao shengcai (cold sesame-chili lettuce). If that's not a salad I don't know what is.
And there's laohu cai or "tiger vegetable", a dish we first encountered in Dalian, in northeast China, many, many years ago, and then ate at a dongbei (north eastern Chinese) restaurant in KL, and then were surprised to be served this last time in Chengdu.
The version at our KL dongbei haunt consists of lots of cilantro (leaves and stalks), shredded green onion and, sometimes, shredded red bell pepper dressed only with rice vinegar and salt. In Dalian, there was no cilantro but there were carrot and cucumber shreds and the dressing incorporated wasabi (for much of the first half of the 20th century Dalian was a part of the Japanese-occupied region of northern China that the Japanese named Manchuoko). In Chengdu, at a wonderful restaurant called Tian Tian, we were served a similar laohu cai, but its incendiary kick came not from wasabi but from mustard oil.
A salad, certainly.
In Chengdu we also fell in love with a vegetable called zhuergen -- I never noted the characters, but it could translate as "pig's ear root" -- deep green and red sort of heart-shaped leaves attacked to a thick stem with a root at the base, with a peppery and astringent flavor. (It's also known as "fish mint" and is eaten raw in northern Thailand and Vietnam.)
We tried zhuergen stir-fried, but didn't care for the sliminess it developed over heat. Instead we ordered it again and again and again liangban, salad-style, and it always came dressed with black vinegar and la jiao. So, again -- a salad, in China.
And then I learned of a salad in Yunnan dressed the same way, but composed entirely of mint leaves. Imagine that -- mint, used not as an herb but as a vegetable, served in a big pile to be eaten as a salad! It sounded like the sort of dish that's so far from what you know it's either love or hate at first bite.
For us it was love. There is something about the combination of full-on fresh mint, tart (and slightly sweet, in a balsamic vinegar sort of way) black vinegar, Sichuan-style chili paste/oil, sugar and salt that just works. I might even say it rocked our culinary world.
And it's even better eaten with fish grilled (or roasted) in a way that Naomi Duguid identifies as Dai, with garlic and chilies and Sichuan peppercorns and ... wait for it ... pork fat! Many times now we've eaten whole fresh mackerel, the fish's sides slashed and stuffed with a fragrant, spicy, porky paste, alongside mint salad Sichuan-style.
I tell you, it is a winning combination. And it makes the perfect summer supper.
Sichuan or Yunnan-ish Mint Salad
I can hardly call this a recipe. No amounts -- it's a salad after all. But we can easily manage 4 large handfuls of mint leaves between the two of us, with grilled fish. You'll have to experiment with the dressing, depending on how strong your mint is. And for this dish larger leaves are fine, because they'll be dressed.
Mint leaves, picked from the stem (for the leaves at the tip, just pinch them all off together along with some of the tender stem)
Chinese black vinegar
Chinese chili oil (la jiao)
Wash and dry the mint leaves and place them in a bowl. In another bowl mix vinegar, chili oil, sugar, and salt. Taste -- it shouldn't be too sweet and if, like me, you enjoy tartness then definately lean in that direction. The mint holds up well to spiciness, so add extra chili oil if you can handle it. Or not. Stir in enough sesame oil to give it body, but not as much as you would if you were making a Western-style salad dressing. This should not be oily or it will weigh down the mint.
Right before serving, pour not too much dressing over the leaves and toss (hands are best). Better to err on the side of too little dressing. You can always add more.
Serve with grilled fish!
Fragrant Grilled (or Roasted) Fish
Another non-recipe. I have tweaked the original one, in the fabulous Hot Sour Salty Sweet. (I am always exasperated when people tell me this book is too beautiful to cook from -- you don't know what you are missing because every recipe simply works.) We usually don't grill this actually, but roast it at very high heat (say 400-425F). Again, feel free to play with ingredients, amounts, etc. You might substitute a bit of Aleppo pepper for the bird's-eye chilies, even. (I have used oiled and roasted ground chilies that I brought back from Chengdu.) For the fat, I have used straight pork fat, bacon grease and -- heavenly! -- the fat cut from Sichuanese la rou (Sichuan 'bacon' -- pork smoked over pine boughs and air-dried) , which lent an incredible smoky essence to the fish. If you can't do pork fat you could substitute roasted sesame oil or regular cooking oil -- just a bit, maybe a teaspoon.
A very thick piece of strong-ish fish, preferably skin-on (mackerel, salmon, etc.) -- or a small whole fish or part of a whole fish. Or two skin-on fillets that you can make a 'sandwich' with. Say about 1-1.5 lbs / 500-750 grams.
2 bird's-eye chilies, IF you wish (or omit)
a clove or two of garlic
Optional, but nice: a small knob of coriander root, chopped
3 green onions, white and green part, cut into pieces
1-2 tsp of pork fat, or bacon grease
A few Sichuan peppercorns, up to a teaspoon depending on how strong yours are
Wash and dry the fish, make a few slashes in it, and place it on a double thickness of tin foil that's been oiled.
Place chilies, garlic, and salt in a mortar and pound to a paste. Add the coriander root and pound to break up. Add the onions and pound until they're somewhat pasty -- this doesn't have to be a smooth puree. Add in the pork fat, pound to blend, and then stir in the whole Sichuan pepper.
(This could all be done in a blender as well, you'll just end up with a more homogenous paste.)
Stuff the paste into the slashes, or if you're using two fillets, spread it on both fillets (not skin side) then lay one on top of each, paste-side in.
Place the fish on the foil and wrap well but not super-tight. You want to leave room for the foil to puff.
Throw it on the grill or in a hot oven. How long you cook it will depend on what you're using and the type of a fish. For a small whole mackerel (about 400 grams) we usually go about 20 mins.