So — have you guessed yet? The photo in the last post is pi dan — preserved duck eggs, otherwise known as thousand-year-old eggs. They’re basically duck eggs that have been left in a paste of quicklime, salt, and ash, among other things, for a few months, until their shell takes on a grayish, speckled hue and their interior starts to resemble a fossilized specimen, straight from ancient stone.
I had preserved duck eggs for the first time in Beijing, about four years ago now. It was strange, gelatinous, black, and foreign, and was one of the many appetizers the Peking University students who accompanied us ordered at one of our first meals. It was an attempt — no, a dare — to get the clueless Americans (our group of six, closeted physics nerds all) to try some of the more unique features of the local cuisine. And it was one of the few items that stuck in my mind, a symbol of how intriguingly out of place I felt in Beijing.
I was there for a month of research, and my job was to get a taste of the local culture and figure out an algorithm for predicting the stock market. I was working in econophysics — my idea of a bit of a joke, really, but the research wasn’t why I was there. Really, I wanted to see what it was like to suddenly be immersed in a culture so different from my own that I couldn’t help but figure out exactly how far out of my comfort zone I could go.
Food was a big part of that process — and one of my main memories from Beijing. The chopsticks and savory dishes for breakfast. The Peking duck, proudly carved and displayed at the table. My first persimmon, fresh, sweet, and a little bit dangerous somehow, as if the water we couldn’t drink from the tap had somehow filled it with a poisonous, delectable nectar. The first time the waiter brought the fish we ordered, alive and struggling in its net, to our table. The beautiful fruit, flower, and herb tea, refilled from kettles with spouts so long and aim so careful that I couldn’t help but hold my breath as the waiter poured, so sure was I that I’d disturb his concentration. And the waitress at the place we became locals at on campus, who laughed at us for ordering the “simple” dishes — the ones everyone made at home.
So, while others draw their inspiration from Paris markets and tiny little restaurant finds in remote parts of Europe, I see China as the trip that pushed me to think about food as more than sustenance, more than a creative little project I could take on at the end of a long day. It was there that I learned that the taste of a particular regional dish — its story, its origin, the people who were involved in its creation — could tell me far more about a particular culture than any museum ever could. Perhaps taste became the medium through which I learned, as the only thing I could really communicate to those involved in each meal’s creation was thank you, coupled with a bit of charades and some friendly misunderstandings. But the lesson has served me well everywhere I’ve been thereafter.
I’m not an expert on Chinese cuisine, and really, I’ll never claim to be. I have a long way to go before I even manage novice status, as each province has its own unique food culture. One of these days, I’d love to go back, armed with the little bits that I’ve learned, and see more of the vast country I called home for one short month. But for now, I dabble a little, here and there, seeking out new ingredients at the local Chinese market (there are a few excellent ones in the neighborhood), looking for cookbooks that allow me to travel vicariously, beyond the little swath of land I actually managed to explore.
What I hope to share today is almost directly from Revolutionary Chinese Cookbook: Recipes from Hunan Province, by Fuchsia Dunlop, with a few translations of my own for the American home cook. Truth be told, this is the first Chinese cookbook that I had a few major successes from, and is the one I eventually purchased for my home collection. It focuses on the Hunan province, which is South of Beijing, and somewhat removed from what I actually experienced, but the author does an excellent job of explaining the techniques you’ll need to master in order to make each dish, and has some fascinating stories to share about her own journey through the Hunan province. I highly recommend it, despite the slightly gimmicky Mao-focused design, and hope to give you a taste of some of the ingredients and dishes I’ve been interested in lately.
So, I’ll spare any further commentary about nostalgic, most likely overly rose-colored pictures of my time in Beijing. Instead, I present the first of three recipes (all of which are pictured directly above this paragraph). This one is the most unusual, and is probably the least likely to win universal praise. But it’s the most fascinating, mostly because I never expected the flavors to work together the way they did.
Bitter melon — the green, wrinkly thing pictured in the first and second photos above — is, to put it kindly, an acquired taste. It is bitter and raw, if improperly cooked. If properly cooked? It’s bitter, though tolerable. But paired with a small sliver of preserved duck egg? Strange, black, smelly old duck egg, tasting of gelatinous amber nothing and the most impossibly rich, yolky taste you will ever encounter? Magnificent.
At least, if you’re me. Then again, my dad and grandfather had to go out and kill the black widows when I was a kid, designated spider-killing stick in hand, afraid that I would try to put those in my mouth along with everything else (oh, I was a precocious taster, even at age three). So you be the judge. Give them a try, in small doses — if you dare. And remember, the dishes I plan on featuring next are more likely to please a crowd, so if this one’s a bit weird (which even I admit is true), all you have to do is wait.
Stir-fried bitter melon with Chinese chives
Serves 2-4, depending on how many dishes you pair with it.
Dishes are usually served family-style in Beijing. Often, we’d have so many different dishes piled up in the center of the table that we weren’t really sure where to start. I paired this one with the two dishes I will post in the coming days, but feel free to improvise. If you want a one-dish meal, add some tofu, or a bit of chicken. Actually, even a bit of bacon, sliced and crisped, would probably lend a pleasant note to the dish. Personally, though, I like it as is.
This dish supposedly originates from Mao Zedong’s nephew, Mao Amping, who apparently bears a striking resemblance to the Chairman in the right light. It features bitter melon, which, according to Fuchsia Dunlop, can cool the body during the summer, when the weather is hot, humid, and oppressive. Chinese chives, or garlic chives, are also a main feature. I found a bunch of them in my local Chinese market. They have white, edible flowers at the end of a long, green stem, and a gentle garlic taste. If you like, you can substitute garlic scapes, which have a similar flavor but somewhat firmer texture. If you use garlic scapes, you’ll probably have to add them in with the melon, in order to get them to soften prior to serving.
My recipe differs from the original in a few ways: I use soy sauce in the final stir fry, add an Italian pepper in place of one of the red chiles, and accompany the dish with brown jasmine rice and slivers of preserved duck egg. I recommend using a cast iron wok, if you have one available, but if not, a heavy frying pan will do. You will need to make sure the pan is really hot before you add any ingredients, so a wok makes things a bit faster.
- 1 small bitter melon (maybe 2″ in diameter).
- 1 dried red chile, seeded, finely chopped, and soaked in water. Fresh red chiles would be better, and the recipe called for two of them, but I was cooking for James, who doesn’t like spice, so I supplement my heat with Siracha sauce after the fact.
- 1 Italian pepper (red or green), cut into 1/2″-square segments.
- 3 oz. Chinese chives, cut in 1-1/2″ sections.
- 1 t. sesame oil. I forgot this, but think I probably shouldn’t have.
- 3 T. canola oil. Peanut oil would be better, but I didn’t have any on hand. Canola oil has a lower smoke point, I think, so my apartment was kind of hazy after the dish was finished. Supposedly, this is a good sign…
- 1-2 dashes of tamari sauce.
- 1 preserved duck egg, peeled and finely sliced into wedges.
Wash the bitter melon thoroughly. Cut both ends off, and chop into 2″-long cylindrical sections. Cut the sections in half, scrape out the seeds and the white pith surrounding them. Discard the seeds and pith. Cut each section lengthwise into thick (~1/2″) matchsticks. Toss in a bowl with a good amount of salt and set aside for ~20 minutes. This helps temper some of the bitterness of the melon. While you’re waiting, prep all the other ingredients. Stir-fry is fast, and is the one case where you absolutely have to have your mise en place sorted before you start cooking. If you don’t, you will burn everything, which really, really sucks. Take it from an expert (at burning food inadvertently, I mean).
Once the 20 minutes is up, rinse the salt off of the bitter melon. Heat the wok over high heat. After 5 minutes or so, when you see smoke emerging from the surface of the wok, add the oil. I pour it in a circular fashion, a few inches from the bottom of the well, so the surface of the wok is thoroughly coated.
Add the chiles. Toss about for a half a minute or so, until a) they start to smell good, or b) you start coughing uncontrollably (aren’t chiles wonderful?). Throw in the sliced melon and stir-fry for a few minutes. Throw in the tamari, toss a bit more, and then add the chives. Cook for another minute, then cover the wok. If it’s not hot enough, it’ll take the melon another few minutes to cook; you can tell by tasting it. If it’s done, it’ll be soft and a bit salty. The bitterness will be an aftertaste rather than a raw and unpleasant experience (you’ll know what I’m talking about if you taste it — trust me).
When the melon’s done, remove the stir-fry from the heat. Toss with sesame oil. Serve immediately, over rice, garnished with thin slices of the preserved duck egg. You probably only need 1/8th of an egg per person, but this will be entirely dependent on individual taste.