Sichuanese rice meal-coated steamed pork belly with pumpkin
If all goes according to plan, Dave and I will be back in Chengdu in a little over a month. Until then, we have mizheng rou.
"Rice-steamed meat" is the admittedly not especially appetizing translation of the Chinese characters for what is actually a quite delicious dish. At its most basic mizheng rou consists of meat tossed with ground toasted rice packed into a bowl and steamed for a good long time. It's a cool weather staple, served from giant bamboo or stainless steel steamers set out on sidewalks in front of hole-in-the-wall eateries.
Mizheng rou is probably the most delicous Sichuan dish you've never heard of.
It's deeply comforting in the way that a long-simmered stew is. Imagine it --- meat seasoned with sauces and (sometimes) chilies, then tossed with coarsely ground toasted rice, packed into a bowl, and set into a steamer. For two hours, or maybe three (it's hard to overcook mizheng rou) the meat and rice are gently coddled in swirling scented steam. The meat goes wonderfully soft, absorbing and releasing flavors that are picked up by the uneven bits of rice clinging to its surfaces. They in turn plump up, taking on a texture akin to a thin layer of lumpy mashed potatoes.
Our first encounter with mizheng rou was in 1991, on our first trip back to Chengdu since teaching English there in the mid-eighties. One evening we ate at the home of our friend Qiao's (the same Qiao who taught me how to make some pretty fantastic sauce for noodles with Sichuan preserved vegetable) parents. The weather was typically late-autumn awful -- damp, cold, and gray -- and Dave and I were both nursing sore throats and achy bones. Soon after we arrived at Qiao's parents' place they threw open the windows to let in some "fresh air". We shivered in our coats and warmed our hands on big mugs of tea.
But that dinner -- oh, the food! -- nearly cured us. If there's anything better than a meal in Chengdu it's a home-cooked meal in Chengdu. We ate dry-fried green beans sporting bits of fatty pork and salty preserved vegetable, softened stir-fried tomato slices nestled in pillows of scrambled egg, deep-fried 'sandwiches' of chopped pork held between crispy slices of lotus root, tender pea vines dotted with toasted Sichuan peppercorns and dried chilies, and cool shredded cucumber and carrot tossed with bean thread noodle, chili oil, and black vinegar.
But the highlight of the meal was Qiao's mom's mizheng niu rou, a mound of roughly chopped steamed beef mixed with chili paste, soy sauce, sesame oil, Sichuan peppercorn, chopped green onion, lots of chopped cilantro, and bits of toasted rice. It wasn't especially spicy, but every bite was so flavorful, every morsel of meat thoroughly imbued with the seasonings.
Dave and I talked about that dish for days, months even. Then on our trip to Chengdu last January it seemed that mizheng rou was everywhere. Pork belly with pumpkin, beef with green onions, pork ribs with preserved vegetable -- we couldn't get enough of it. When we returned home I set about recreating the dish, with help from Fuchsia Dunlop's Land of Plenty and a recipe book of Sichuan home-style dishes that I picked up in Chengdu, and we've eaten it many times since.
Mizheng rou's greatness was confirmed when we served it to two houseguests a few months ago, Americans who had no preconceptions of what Sichuan food should or shouldn't be. They loved it. I think you will too. (Bonus -- it is VERY easy to make. Any steamer will do -- you don't necessarily need a Chinese-style bamboo one.)
I offer two versions, one for beef and one for pork with pumpkin or winter squash (the pork is not spicy), below. Both are wonderful served with crisp cold romaine leaves dressed with black vinegar (substitute a mixture of cheap balsamic and rice vinegar) mixed with sesame oil, a bit of sugar, salt, chili oil, and just enough sesame paste to give body.
Mi Zheng La Niu Rou (Spicy Rice-Steamed Beef)
This recipe is adapted from Dunlop's Land of Plenty (a must-buy if you are at all interested in Sichuan cuisine, and especially if you're travelling to Sichuan and want to bone up on what to eat there). I sometimes top it with slices of carrot, which will soften in the steam. Feel free to play with the recipe -- add a bit of chili bean paste if you like, or chop up some cilantro stems and mix them into the meat with the green onions.
1/2 cup white or brown rice
2 star anise
a 1-inch piece of cinammon stick
1 lb of beef (Dunlop recommends flank steak, but I've used tough Malaysian beef to good effect -- any stewing beef will work)
2 Tbsp soy sauce
1 Tbsp each chopped ginger and garlic
2 green onions, white and green parts, chopped
Anywhere from 1/2 tsp to 1 Tbsp dried red chili flakes (if you're a chili head -- OPTIONAL)
2 Tbsp dry sherry or rice wine
3 Tbsp sesame oil
water or meat broth
Ground Sichuan peppercorns
sesame oil or chili oi
cilantro leaves, a large handful
- Rice meal: Put the rice, star anise, and cinammon stick into a pan and toast over low-to-medium heat, stirring fairly constanty, till the rice turns opaque. Remove the rice from the heat and set aside to cool. Then, remove the star anise and cinnamon (set them aside) and pound the rice in a mortar or grind it in a spice grinder to make ROUGH, UNEVEN pieces. (You do not want a powder).
- Cut the beef into thin slices or approx. 1/2-inch chunks. Put it in a bow and add the soy sauce, ginger and garlic, green onions, chili flakes if using, dry sherry or rice wine, and sesame oil and mix. Set the meat aside to marinate for 15 minutes.
- Add the rice meal to the meat and mix. If the mixture is completely dry add water or broth by the tablespoon full. You want just a small pool of liquid at the bottom of the bowl.
- Pack the meat snugly (and any liquid) into a heat-proof bowl (I use a stainless steel bowl). Tuck in the reserved star anise and cinnamon. Lay thin slices of carrot on top, if you like.
- Place the meat into a steamer and cook for 1.5-2 hours. (It's hard to overcook this dish and how long it takes will depend on the cut of meat you use. Test for tenderness after an hour and 15 mins.)
- When the meat is done, remove the bowl from the steamer. Place a large plate over the top of the bowl and turn it upside down. Remove the bowl and scrape any bits clinging to its sides onto the meat.
- Drizzle with sesame or chili oil, sprinkle with ground Sichuan peppercorns, garnish with a flurry of cilantro leaves, and serve.
Mi Zheng Zhu Rou Nan Gua (Rice-Steamed Pork with Pumpkin/Winter Squash)
Note that there are no chilies in this dish (though you could certainly add some if the spirit moved you.)Use soft pork ribs or a fatty cut (belly perhaps, or shoulder). Pumpkin, butternut, acorn, kabocha squashes all work well here. I like to serve this with a simple stir-fried leafy green like spinach, mustard, or baby bok choy.
1/2 cup white rice
3/4# boneless pork cut into 1/2-1 inch chunks, or 1# soft pork ribs
2 Tbsp taucu (bean paste)
3 Tbsp soy sauce
2 Tbsp rice wine or dry sherry
2 Tbsp sesame oil
1 1/2-inch piece ginger, finely chopped
2 garlic cloves finely chopped
2-4 tablespoons meat or vegetable stock
1/2# pumpkin or winter squash cut into 1.2-inch chunks.
Sesame oil for drizzling
Handful of cilantro leaves
- Toast the rice in a pan till opaque (don't burn it!), let cool, then roughly grind in a spice grinder (or pound in a mortar).
- In a bowl, mix the pork, taucu/bean paste, soy sauce, rice wine or sherry, sesame oil, ginger, and garlic, then set aside to marinate for 10 minutes.
- Add the rice meal to the pork and mix, then add stock and water a tablespoon at a time until the meat is thoroughly moistened and there's perhaps 1-2 tbsp of liquid at the bottom of the mixing bowl.
- Pack the meat and its juices snugly into a heatproof bowl. Cover the meat's surface with squash or pumpkin cubes, pressing them down into the meat.
- Steam the pork and pumpkin for up to 2 hours. Check after 1 hr 15 mins for tenderness.
- When the meat is done remove it from the steamer, place a large plate over the top, and turn the bowl upside down onto the plate. Scrape any pieces sticking to the bowl onto the meat. Drizzle 1/2 a tablespoon or so of sesame oil over the top, garnish with cilantro leaves (if using), and serve.