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My mom’s mom used to bake a persimmon cake every year for Christmas dinner. On the big day, mouthwatering aromas of spice and fruit would mingle with the scent of roasted meat and Grandpa’s pipe, semi-materializing as perfumed tendrils of steam that shimmied their way out of the windows of her little Craftsman cottage in San Jose’s Rose Garden district. They made me so ravenously hungry that I would rocket up the few short steps to her front door.
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The kitchen was Grandma’s personal fiefdom and she brooked no nonsense from anyone, shooing me in particular out of the way as she pulled the steaming confection from her ancient white Wedgeworth stove. This was one of her annual masterpieces, and I learned to watch quietly from the sidelines as she pulled together yet another perfect dinner replete with a luscious homemade dessert.
Now fast-forward a couple of decades, after living in Hawai’i and Taiwan, where the concept of a mochi cake hijacked my fantasies into a totally different direction. Slightly chewy, considerably less sweet and more texturally interesting than Western gâteaux, this dessert has become my pet project. Over the years, I have devised numerous takes on it, trying to blur the line between East and West to the nth degree.
But especially around this time of year, I never forget Grandma’s cake, and that has led to this, my latest love. It is a great hybrid of old memories and new experiences; it is also the perfect holiday treat for guests who are on gluten-free diets and a strangely familiar indulgence for Asian friends.
Dead-ripe Hachiya persimmons flavor the cake and provide a sensational moistness that is offset by crunchy toasted walnuts and plump dragon-eye fruit (also known as longans), a sweet and luscious relative of the lychee that comes from China.
The day that you make it, the cake will have a light and tender crumb, but if it is allowed to sit for a couple of days, that lovely mochi texture comes to the fore. You therefore get two cakes in one.
Easy to pull together, this is a dessert you can prepare a couple of days before your guests arrive. Really, though, you must stash it away; otherwise it will disappear way too quickly.
Persimmon mochi cake
Makes an 8-by-8-inch cake and serves 6 to 8
½ cup broken walnuts
½ cup pitted dried longans or raisins
Boiling water, as needed
3 large, very soft Hachiya persimmons (to give you around 1½ cups persimmon puree)
2 cups mochi (aka sticky, sweet or glutinous rice) flour
1½ teaspoons double-acting baking powder
¼ teaspoon sea salt
2 teaspoons ground ginger
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1 cup dark brown sugar, divided
2 large eggs
½ cup canola or other flavorless oil
1. Place the rack in the middle of the oven and heat it to 350 F. Spray an 8-by-8-inch baking pan with oil. Scatter the walnuts in a smaller baking pan and place this in the oven while it is heating up so that the walnuts can be slowly toasted; remove them before they turn too brown and pour them into a bowl to cool down.
2. While the walnuts are toasting, place the longans or raisins in a heatproof work bowl and cover them with boiling water to plump them up. Put the soft persimmons through a food mill or sieve to remove the skins and gelatinous sections; you should have around 1½ cups puree.
3. Mix the mochi flour, baking powder, salt, ginger and ⅔ cup brown sugar together in a large work bowl. In another work bowl, lightly beat the eggs and then mix in the persimmon puree, water and oil. Stir the persimmon mixture into the dry ingredients and mix well; since there is no gluten in the cake, you can beat away to your heart’s content without worry of ending up with a tough cake.
4. Then, drain the dried fruit well and toss it into the mix along with the toasted walnuts. Stir this again and scrape the batter into the prepared pan. Smooth the surface and sprinkle the remaining ⅓ cup brown sugar on top. Bake the cake for around 1 hour. It is ready when the edges start to pull away from the pan; poke the center of the cake with a toothpick, and if the batter does not taste like raw rice flour, it is done. Cool the cake completely on a rack and cut into squares as desired. Refrigerate or freeze if serving another day.
Use the big, heart-shaped Hachiya persimmons and not the flattish Fuyu or Sweet Pumpkin varieties. Make sure that they are very ripe and very soft — otherwise, the persimmons will make your teeth feel as if they were wearing socks.
Dried pitted longans (lóngyǎngān 龍眼乾) are sold in most Chinese grocery stores, but the best ones are found in either herbal shops or Chinese dried seafood stores, for some strange reason. Select fruits that are not too dark (as this indicates age); they should be fat, tan and still soft enough to squeeze gently. Store them in a closed container in the pantry.
I prefer Mochiko Sweet Rice Flour, which comes in one-pound boxes; you will need two-thirds of a box for this recipe.
If you use a glass baking pan, place it on top of a cookie sheet to prevent the bottom from browning too quickly.
The recipe can be easily doubled for more guests, but I then bake this in two 8-by-8-inch pans so that the center is not in the least mushy.
Top photo: A persimmon atop the author’s grandmother’s cake recipe. Credit: Carolyn Phillips
Over the years, we’ve come to enjoy our Christmas turkey feasts with more than a bit of Chinese flair. I usually glaze the bird with soy sauce and sesame oil, stuff garlic under the skin and serve sticky rice stuffing packed with black mushrooms, Chinese sausages, dried chestnuts and fried shallots. And it is invariably delicious.
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Recently I tried something even more different than a whole roast turkey: It is French in origin, but incredibly Chinese in spirit. In one of my all-time favorite cookbooks, “Julia and Jacques Cooking at Home” (Knopf, 1999), I learned from Julia Child and Jacques Pépin that deboning a turkey is not as terrifying as it sounds and ends up making this dish much like the East China specialty called “eight treasure duck.” This turkey recipe also left us with the makings of lots of good stock — if we don’t just eat the munchilicious bones.
Preparing the bird as directed in the recipe called “Julia’s Deconstructed Turkey” gave us a very moist meat stuffed with that savory rice. It is easily sliced up into beautiful servings that can be eaten with chopsticks.
Now, that makes my guests really like turkey!
‘Chinese’ Deconstructed Turkey
Serves 8 to 12
For the rice stuffing (yóufàn 油飯; makes about 3 quarts):
8 dried black mushrooms
¼ cup dried shrimp
1 cup (6 ounces) dried chestnuts
Filtered water as needed
2 cups thinly-sliced shallots
2 cups peanut or vegetable oil
4 cups long-grain sticky (aka glutinous or sticky) rice (see Notes)
6 cured Chinese sausages (lop chong and/or duck liver) (see Notes)
Giblets from turkey, optional, chopped and fried in 2 tablespoons oil until light brown
2 tablespoons regular soy sauce
¼ cup rice wine (Taiwanese Mijiu)
Fresh ground black pepper
2 teaspoons sugar
For the turkey:
2 tablespoons regular soy sauce
¼ cup rice wine (Taiwanese Mijiu)
2 tablespoons toasted sesame oil
2 or 3 cloves garlic, peeled and finely chopped
1 (12 pounds, more or less) fresh or defrosted frozen turkey pre-brined in a 6% salt solution (see Notes)
1. Start the rice stuffing at least two days and up to five days ahead of time. Place the mushrooms, shrimp and chestnuts in separate bowls, rinse, and then cover each ingredient with cool filtered water (at least 1 cup water for the mushrooms). Let them plump up overnight. Cut off the mushroom stems and save them for stock, and then strain and reserve the soaking liquid; cut the caps into small (½-inch) dice. Pick out and discard any shrimp that are discolored, cut off any sandy veins, and chop the shrimp finely. Peel off the mahogany skins on the chestnuts, especially in the folds, and cut the nuts into small dice.
2. Make fried shallots and shallot oil by separating the sliced shallots into rings so that they fry quickly and evenly. Heat the oil in a wok over medium high heat until a wooden or bamboo chopstick inserted into the oil is immediately covered with bubbles. Sprinkle in the shallots, reduce the heat to medium, and slowly fry them until they turn a golden brown, stirring often so that they do not burn or cook unevenly. Remove the fried shallots to a plate and strain the oil; reserve ¾ cup of the oil for this recipe and use the rest of this delicious oil for something else, like this incredible cilantro salad, which would be great as a side dish and look very Christmasy.
3. Two days before the big dinner, rinse the rice in a strainer and then place it in a medium work bowl. Cover the rice with cool tap water and soak for around 2 hours. Drain the rice and steam it for about 40 minutes or until cooked but still chewy. Remove the rice from the steamer, spread it out in a thin layer on a baking sheet, and let it cool; chill it, if you have the time, as this makes it less likely to mush up. (If you have a rice cooker, you can skip the soaking and just cook it according to the cooker’s directions; it will be considerably softer when cooked this way.) You can also break the turkey down a day before you cook it as directed in Step 4, but do not stuff it until right before you roast it, as bacteria will breed all too happily in that environment.
4. Cut the sausage into pieces no larger than ¼-inch dice. Heat a wok over medium-high heat and then add the oil. Toss in the chopped shrimp, chestnuts and mushrooms, and then stir-fry them for a couple of minutes to release their fragrance. Add the chopped sausage and fried shallots to the wok, and then add half of the mushroom soaking liquid and cold rice. Toss these together, allowing the liquid to loosen the clumps; add the rest of the mushroom liquid when the rice becomes dry. Sprinkle on the sugar, toss some more, and taste before adjusting the seasoning. (The rice will be baked with the turkey and its glaze, meaning this stuffing will become saltier and richer from the glaze brined meat, and so should not be salted completely to taste at this point.)
5. On the morning of the feast, but before you start working on the turkey, make the glaze by simmering together the soy sauce, sesame oil, rice wine and garlic for about 2 minutes; pour it into a small bowl and have a pastry brush on standby. Place the oven rack in the lower third of your oven, heat it to 350 degrees F and put a baking sheet on that rack to protect the rice and meat from drying out.
6. Rinse the turkey with hot tap water, pat it dry with paper towels and place it on a plastic cutting board. To bone the turkey, you can either do it as Jacques Pépin shows you in this video, or you can follow Julia Child’s directions, as follows: First remove each whole leg from the carcass by cutting through the joint attached to the back, being sure to keep as much extra skin on each thigh as possible as the skin will shrink as it cooks. Cut open each thigh and remove the bone, and then use a heavy cleaver to cut off the joint at the bottom of each leg (this is important; see Step 8). Spread open the thigh meat, brush it with a bit of the glaze and then mound about ½ cup of the rice on top of each. You can then either skewer the thighs closed or use kitchen twine to wrap around them and keep things tidy. Place the thighs (top-side down) at one end of an oiled roasting pan (the bottom of a broiler pan is just the right size) and brush the tops with the glaze.
7. Next, prepare the breasts: Remove the whole breast from the carcass by first cutting out the wishbone and then using a knife to loosen the meat all around the edge of the whole breast; again, keep as much of the skin on it as possible, as it shrinks and then crisps up deliciously. Scrape the whole breast free by working up and over the breastbone. Lay the breast skin-side down on the cutting board and brush a bit of the glaze on the flesh. Now, mound the rest of the rice at the other end of the pan and place the breast on top of the rice, covering it well. Finally, remove the wings from the turkey, cut off and set aside the tip sections, and push the wing joints up against the rice so that they don’t dry out. Brush all the skin here with the glaze. (Toss the rest of the bird into a stockpot and make turkey soup or else roast it separately for a pre-feast feast.)
8. Roast the bird for about 90 minutes; start basting after about 30 minutes, using up the rest of the glaze for this until the juices start to flow. Turn the legs over after an hour of cooking. At this time, remove the wings as they will cook the fastest. (Cover all the meat on the platter loosely with foil to keep it warm.) When the skin is golden, check the thickest part of the thighs with an instant meat thermometer: they should register 175 F when they are done. Let the legs cool for about 10 minutes, and then use needle-nose pliers to pull out all of the tendons from the ends of the legs; be thorough, as these tendons can be very irritating.
9. As for the breast, it is done when the thermometer registers around 165 F in the thickest meat area near the shoulder. Use a wide spatula to carefully transfer the entire breast to the cutting board and then slice it against the grain. Use that spatula to move all of the really crispy and delicious bits of the caramelized stuffing to the platter before arranging the breast meat around it. Remove the skewers and/or twine from the legs, slice them across the thighs, and then slice off pieces of the legs before positioning them too next to the stuffing. Tuck some greens in, if you have the time, but my guests are usually reaching for the turkey before I can garnish it.
You can find long-grain sticky rice, as well as dried black mushrooms, shrimp and chestnuts, in most Chinese markets. The dried chestnuts lend a great smoky flavor to the stuffing, but frozen or fresh ones can be substituted. Long-grain sticky rice is often from Thailand and is different from short-grain, which tends to be mushier.
Cured and slightly dried Cantonese sausages are at their best this time of year, and two of my favorites are sweet pork (làcháng 臘腸) and duck liver sausages (yāgāncháng 鴨肝腸). They can be found in most Chinese grocery stores in vacuum-sealed bags; refrigerate them after opening.
Already brined turkeys are usually available right next to all the other turkeys. An unbrined turkey can be used instead; amp up the seasoning accordingly.
Top photo: Taking a Chinese approach to a recipe from a cookbook by Julia Child and Jacques Pépin. Credit: Carolyn Phillips
Chopped liver is a staple on many a Jewish family’s Hanukkah table, but why not try something different this year? I’d like to suggest a delicious alternative borrowed from China’s Muslims.
This savory dish is a classic in northern China and usually consists of thin shreds of lamb or beef flash-fried with lots of green onions and rich soy sauce. Over the years, I have adapted this traditional Muslim dish into something my family loves with a passion, substituting lots of fresh chicken livers for the meat. The result: a meal that makes my Chinese brother-in-law’s eyes roll back into his head with ecstasy.
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And pretty much the same thing happens to me, truth be told, because this is one of those perfect Chinese dishes in which flavors and textures bounce off one another like magic. A savory, lightly garlicky sauce binds the sweetness and silkiness of the scallions with the livers’ gentle bitterness and sublime softness. In fact, this is why I use the livers instead of lamb or beef: That extra depth and tangy undertone make the complex flavors even more intriguing. Plus, whenever my brother-in-law shows up, I know that I’ll have to put Chinese liver ‘n’ onions on the menu if I want to keep peace in the house and a smile on the face of our houseguest.
I’ll let you in on a few secrets that will guarantee you tender, juicy chunks of liver peeking out between the silky strands of green onion. First and foremost, the livers and the green onions have to be very fresh and of excellent quality, as they are the undisputed stars of this show.
Second, the livers have to be prepped correctly to remove both the stringy fibers that connect them to the chicken’s structure, and the bile and blood that can so easily overwhelm the livers’ delicate flavor. And finally, the proper application of the traditional Chinese principle of “fire and timing” (huŏhòu 火候) determines how much heat is applied at what stage and for how long, so that you too will be able to revel in this delectable classic.
Chicken Livers With Green Onions
Cōngbào jīgān 蔥暴雞肝
Serves 4 to 6
1 pound very fresh organic chicken livers
Plain rice wine (Taiwanese Mijiu recommended), as needed for marinade, plus two tablespoons
3 or more tablespoons cornstarch
12 or so very fresh green onions, cleaned well and trimmed
2 to 3 cloves fresh garlic
½ cup fresh peanut or vegetable oil
1½ tablespoons regular soy sauce
2 tablespoons sugar
1. Rinse the chicken livers in a colander under cool tap water and shake off most of the water. Working on one set of livers at a time, place the set on a cutting board and remove any surface fat. Gently grasp the cleaner of the two lobes and use a sharp knife to lightly scrape against the fibers connecting it to the other lobe or lobes, to separate them and to remove as much of the tough strings as possible. Then, gently scrape the fibers on the other end and discard the connective tissues. Cut the liver into even pieces, anywhere from 4 to 6 petals per set, and place them in a medium work bowl. Repeat with the rest of the livers until all of them have been cleaned.
2. Pour just enough rice wine over the livers to barely cover them, and then gently swirl the bowl around to distribute the wine. Allow the livers to marinate for about an hour to leach out the bile and blood, and then place the livers back in the colander and rinse them once more under cool tap water. Lightly pat them dry with a paper towel, place them in a clean work bowl, and toss them with just enough cornstarch so that they are all coated with a powdery surface, as this will protect the tender flesh from the searing heat of the wok.
3. While the livers are marinating, slice the green onions into 1-inch lengths, and then cut the white ends vertically in half so that they will be able to cook evenly and quickly. Peel the garlic cloves, remove the hard ends and any green shoots, and then chop them coarsely.
4. Heat a wok over high heat until hot and then pour in all of the oil; this step will help prevent the livers from sticking to the hot iron of the wok. When the oil starts to shimmer, add a handful of the coated livers to the hot oil and fry them on one side until golden, then flip them over and fry the other side. Remove the fried livers to a serving platter and repeat with the rest of the livers until all have been fried. If you have a lot of oil left in the wok, pour off all but about 2 tablespoons.
5. Add the whites of the green onions and the garlic to the hot oil and fry them for a few seconds to release their fragrance. Toss in the fried chicken livers, soy sauce, 2 tablespoons rice wine and the sugar, and keep tossing them until most of the liquid has been evaporated and the livers are cooked through; taste and adjust the seasoning as desired. Add the onion greens and toss again. When the greens are just barely cooked and still a bit crunchy, scoop everything out onto a serving platter and serve hot.
Top photo: Chinese Muslim-style chicken livers and green onions. Credit: Carolyn Phillips
Not too long ago, I was treated to an authentic Shanghainese dinner by the great cookbook author Florence Lin. We dined at a restaurant in the eastern San Francisco Bay Area, a place that shall remain unnamed for reasons that will soon become obvious.
After we sat down, Mrs. Lin chatted quietly with the chef, and in a few moments we had Nanjing saltwater duck, braised gluten and a warm and perfectly balanced smoked fish appetizer arrayed in front of us. We were soon diving into a tender and flavorful braised pork shank with its creamy skin, fish with pine nuts and flash-fried pea sprouts that were bathed in nothing but fresh oil, a sprinkle of salt and fat bulbs of browned garlic. Dainty desserts followed, an assortment of little handmade gifts presented to us with smiles and hot tea.
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It was a revelation. But contrast this with the dinner I was served there a few months back without a famous person beside me to impress the chef: a lukewarm and decidedly inauthentic bowl of hot-and-sour soup, fatty and flavorless pork in aspic and an insipid plate of poached tilapia coated with a gummy sauce. After this sorry repast in the near-empty restaurant, the understandably idle chef came by to complain about how tough business was.
In a way, I understood. After all, it used to be that Americans were satisfied with pseudo Chinese food. But our growing population of wealthy Asian immigrants, coupled with the heightened sophistication of American diners, has changed up the game. Pseudo just doesn’t cut it anymore. As famed restaurateur and author Cecilia Chiang noted recently to me, there is simply no good place (meaning Chinese, of course) to eat around here – meaning that if these retrograde places wish to survive, they will have to step up to the challenge.
Chinese restaurants shouldn’t be all over the map
China’s culinary traditions are the best in the world, but you would never know it from what passes for the lion’s share of American “Chinese food.” Part of the problems is that too many restaurants serve dishes that are literally all over the map of China, as can be seen in the enormous menus they often foist on their customers; sometimes even Japanese and Thai dishes get thrown into the mix for no good reason. As a result, everything is available and little of it is worth eating, and the kitchen therefore has to depend upon canned foods and an enormous stockpile of ingredients that eventually spoils, even if stashed in the deep freeze. The owner then tries to cut even more corners to mitigate his losses, and an already ugly cycle gets even uglier.
Contrast this with the way you get to eat in Taiwan, China and Hong Kong: Almost every place, from palatial restaurants to the tiniest mom-and-pop stalls, focuses on a distinct provincial cuisine — and sometimes even a single dish — and because of that, the foods are fresh, tasty, honest and absolutely authentic.
On the off chance that some hometown specialties or seasonal delights are offered here in the States, they are often hidden in the Chinese menu or scribbled as afterthoughts on the wall with no English translations. After all, the thinking goes, why bother with customers who won’t be interested anyway?
But the truth is that on eGullet, Chow and other online epicurean gatherings, as well as in knowledgeable restaurant reviews and on Yelp, whoops of delight are heard and long lines suddenly form whenever a terrific Chinese place opens up, while mediocre eateries are treated with the contempt they deserve. There is therefore no longer any room in this urbane digital age for laziness or condescension.
Follow this 12-point guide
As a dedicated worshiper of great Chinese cuisine, I hereby nail the following 12-point thesis on the front door of that hopeless East Bay restaurant in hopes of an epicurean Reformation:
- For the love of Buddha, cook with pride from a specific area of China.
- List these dishes in English with no excuses.
- Do not assume that Americans will not like certain ingredients. Just like Chinese diners, some of us will and some of us won’t, but offer them anyway.
- Use good-quality peanut or vegetable oil in your cooking, and always use fresh oil for stir-fries. That means that instead of sneaking old oil into your dishes to save a few pennies, you should sell the gunk in your deep-fat fryers to recyclers. Honestly, this stuff tastes disgusting and is very unhealthy.
- No more MSG or “chicken essence” bouillon in the food. We can taste that too and it reeks of apathy. Instead, use good stock to amp up the flavor.
- Give us fresh or frozen bamboo shoots and water chestnuts, not canned. Toss out the tinned mushrooms, baby corn and other cheapo garbage, and stop clogging every dish with cornstarch. You don’t cook that way in China, so why do it here?
- Buy good quality meats and seafood; if cost is a problem, put a little less in a dish or increase your prices a bit, but please feed us well.
- Offer meatless dishes that are just as tasty as the other items; China has a rich tradition of vegetarian cuisines, so there is no reason not to make them available.
- Please explain things to your customers. Tell us what is in each dish if we ask. If your waitstaff does not speak English, have the ingredients and description on a list you can show us.
- Become obsessive about cleaning up the kitchen, bathrooms, dining areas and around the perimeter.
- While you are at it, put in ambient lighting, consider redecorating, get rid of the cardboard boxes everywhere and invest in some nice background music. This shows pride of place and makes your customers feel welcome.
- Treat non-Chinese and Chinese customers with equal respect. Courtesy means as much to us as good food, and you will see our happy (and hungry) faces again and again.
Top photo: Author Carolyn Phillips. Credit: J.H. Huang
Custard is treated with special respect in South China. Sweet or savory, steamed or baked, simple or fancy: This is the place where eggs ascend to culinary heaven. I don’t know what it is about that place and chicken ova, but the Cantonese have a knack for bringing out the best in one of the most basic of foods.
Take this dish, for example. On the surface it looks, I admit, rather boring. This is little more than eggs mixed with broth and steamed. It is then cut into squares and fried, and a sauce is dumped on top. I know. Yawn.
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But whenever I prepare this dish for guests, it completely disappears, no matter how many times I multiply the recipe. Not only that, but if I have to leave the table before the dish reaches my place, I won’t get a taste. I will see lots of happy faces when I return, but that’s about it.
Why is this so good? Well, the custard is lightly seasoned and then fried in a simple coating of cornstarch. That cornstarch is a touch of genius, because it allows the outside to crunch up and the eggs to billow out, turning the little yellow squares into golden balloons. Then, I make a lovely mix of at least three kinds of mushrooms seasoned with lots of fresh ginger, rice wine, soy sauce, rock sugar and green onions. All of that flavor is the perfect complement to the crunchy yet understated custard.
These powerful tastes and chewy textures bounce against the custard in a culinary marriage made in heaven. Finally, a pretty ring of crispy bok choy forms a wreath around the edge of the platter. Truth be told, my guests sometimes allow me a bite or two of the boy choy’s leftover leaves as a consolation prize.
Fried custard with mushrooms
Xiānggū dàndòufŭ 香菇蛋豆腐
Serves 4 to 6
For the custard:
8 large eggs
1¾ cup cool seasoned mushroom or chicken broth
½ cup cornstarch
Frying oil, as needed
For the bok choy:
2 tablespoons fresh peanut or vegetable oil
1 teaspoon sea salt
1 pound baby bok choy, trimmed, cut into halves or quarters, and washed carefully
For the mushrooms and sauce:
2 tablespoons fresh peanut or vegetable oil
2 tablespoons julienned fresh ginger
3 green onions, trimmed and finely chopped
2 garlic cloves, finely chopped, optional
8 ounces mixed trimmed mushrooms (such as black, oyster, king, enoki, gold, porcini or whatever looks good in the market) cut into 1-inch (or so) pieces
¼ cup rice wine (Taiwanese Mijiu recommended)
2 tablespoons regular soy sauce
2 teaspoons rock sugar
½ cup unsalted stock
1 green onion, trimmed and chopped, for garnish
1. The custard can be steamed a day or two ahead of time: First, lightly beat the eggs with the stock. Prepare an 8-by-8-inch square or 8-inch round pan (depending upon the size of your steamer) by spraying it with oil. Pour the egg mixture through a strainer into the pan. Set the pan into a steamer over medium-low heat, cover and steam the custard for 15 to 20 minutes, or until the custard is set in the center. Remove the custard from the steamer, let it cool to room temperature, cover and refrigerate until chilled. Cut the custard into 1-inch squares. If you are using a round pan, don’t worry about the strange-shaped pieces; they can be fried first and placed in the bottom of the serving dish, where no one will notice them.
2. About 20 minutes before serving, prepare the bok choy by heating a wok over high heat until it starts to smoke. Add the oil and salt and swirl them around together. Add the bok choy and toss until the vegetables are just barely cooked and still crunchy. Remove them to a serving platter and shape them into a nest around the edge.
3. Toss the cubed custard in the cornstarch. Shake off the excess. Heat a large, flat frying pan over medium-high heat. Add the oil to a depth of about ¼ inch. When a speck of cornstarch added to the oil immediately bubbles up and disappears, start with the less pretty pieces of custard and add just enough pieces of the custard to the pan so that they are not crowded. Fry them on one side until golden, turn over, and when completely golden, remove from the pan and place them in the center of the bok choy nest. Repeat with the rest of the custard until done.
4. While the custard is frying, make the mushroom sauce: Clean the wok and heat it over high heat. Add the oil and then the ginger, green onions and garlic, and toss these together for about 10 seconds to release their fragrance. Add the mushrooms and toss them all to coat the mushrooms with the oil. As the mushrooms start to brown, add the rice wine, soy sauce and sugar. Toss more, taste and adjust the seasoning. Toss in the stock and keep the wok moving until the sauce has thickened. Pour this on top of the custard. Serve immediately.
Top photo: Cantonese fried custard with mushrooms. Credit: Carolyn Phillips
One of the most classic dishes in the Hakka repertoire, salt-baked chicken is also incredibly delicious. Rarely available anywhere outside of the homes of good Hakka cooks (read: grandmas), this is a dish to master and enjoy.
Like so many other recipes from this ethnic group in South China’s hill country, it is both clever and startlingly flavorful. But despite the fact that the bird is packed solidly in a thick layer of rock salt as it cooks, it doesn’t get unbearably salty because the salt doesn’t penetrate the wrapping. Instead, a tight cocoon of lotus leaf and parchment paper seals in all of the juices, so you are left with what can only be described as the essence of chicken. As you unwrap layer after layer, tendrils of steam curl out, greeting you with the scent of nothing less than a perfect roast bird dusted with a few aromatics and the haunting aroma of lotus.
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Truth be told, there is little reason why restaurants should be so lazy about this dish because it really isn’t that difficult. Yes, it does require lots of rock salt, but that can be used over and over and over. Yes, the chicken needs to be wrapped, but that is pretty much the extent of the labor required. And yes, it does mean that a great-quality bird is called for, but charge a little more, I say, and let diners order the dish ahead of time.
Or, you can just give up on ever finding a properly made salt-baked chicken and make it at home.
Long ago, this dish was served by wealthy Hakka salt merchants, whose cooks would actually bury the chickens in hot salt without any wrappers, rinse them off before serving, and offer a sauce on the side for dipping. About 200 years ago, someone came up with the idea of shrouding the bird in layers of paper to keep the salt out and the juices in.
Hakka Salt-Baked Chicken
Yánjú jī 鹽焗雞
Serves 4 to 6
For the chicken:
6 pounds coarse salt (ice cream salt is perfect)
1 smallish chicken (no larger than 4½ pounds)
For the dry rub:
1 teaspoon dry-fried salt and pepper (see recipe below)
½ teaspoon five-spice powder
½ teaspoon ground sand ginger (see Tips)
¼ cup thinly-sliced fresh ginger (unpeeled OK)
3 green onions, trimmed
1 large dried lotus leaf, soaked in hot water until pliable, optional
For the sauce (optional):
¼ cup rendered lard
1 teaspoon dry-fried salt and pepper
½ teaspoon ground sand ginger
1. Before you start prepping the chicken, place the coarse salt in a rimmed baking tray and heat it in a 550 F oven (or as high as it will go); it should be red hot by the time you are ready to use it.
2. Clean the chicken thoroughly, rinsing it out under cool tap water and wiping it dry (inside and out) with paper towels. If you are using the giblets, rinse and pat them dry. Cut 2-inch-long incisions under each wing and then poke the outer two segments of the wings into the body so that the wing drumsticks lie flush against the body and protect them from burning. Place the chicken breast-side up on a work surface and press down firmly on the breast to flatten it so that the chicken is as compact as possible. Mix the salt and pepper, five spice powder and sand ginger together in a small bowl. Sprinkle half into the chicken carcass and rub it around; add the optional giblets to the chicken and then tie the ends of the legs together with butcher twine. Rub the outside of the chicken with the rest of the spices too.
3. Prepare a 30-inch wide sheet of parchment paper, spray it with oil and also have two 30-inch-wide sheets of foil ready. First, dry the lotus leaf, if using, and wrap the chicken in it. Then turn it upside-down on the oiled parchment paper and wrap the chicken up tightly. Turn this again right-side up and wrap it in a sheet of foil — sealing the edges as much as possible — before turning upside-down on the last sheet of foil and again sealing the edges to keep all of the juices in and the salt out.
4. Select a large sandpot or covered casserole that easily holds the chicken with room to spare for the salt. Place a trivet in the bottom of the sandpot and very carefully pour about a quarter of the very hot salt into the bottom. Arrange the wrapped chicken in the center (breast-side up) and very carefully cover it completely with the remaining hot salt. Cover the sandpot and place the pot on the stove; the heat under it should be between low and medium-low so that the salt stays hot and the chicken slowly bakes. Cook the chicken for 90 minutes this way, remove the pot from the burner and let it cool down until you can touch the pot and bird without being burned. When you open the pot up, pour off at least half of the salt and then lift out the chicken to a rimmed plate. Unwrap the chicken layer by layer, discarding any salt that is sticking to the wrappings. When you get to the parchment paper, carefully dust off any salt before opening up the lotus leaf; there will be lots of juices in there, so be sure and keep them all in the plate. Check the chicken’s doneness by piercing the thickest part of the thigh with a chopstick; the juices should run very clear. (Any meat that is still stubbornly pink can be cooked quickly in the last step with the sauce.)
5. To make the optional sauce, melt the lard in a wok and add the salt-and-pepper and the sand ginger. Drizzle in any juices from the chicken and bring the sauce to a boil. The traditional way to serve this chicken is to cut off and hand-shred the meat and skin; if you like to chew on the bones, pile them in the center of your serving plate so that they won’t be seen. Toss the meat and skin with the hot sauce until every piece is coated, and then arrange these on the serving plate. Serve hot or very warm with steamed rice and a simple vegetable dish or maybe a soup.
Dry-fried salt and pepper: Coarsely grind about 2 tablespoons of black pepper and place it in a dry wok (this means no oil). Add about 2 tablespoons coarse sea salt. Mix these together over medium heat, tossing often, until the pepper starts to smoke a bit and the salt is gray. Scoop it out into a bowl, cool to room temperature, and store in a covered jar. This can be used as a simple dip for things like fried chicken or sprinkled on popcorn or any other place where a bit of salt and spice would make life better.
- Sand ginger is a member of the ginger family; its English name is a direct translation of the Chinese name, shājiāng 沙薑. Rarely sold fresh, the sliced dried roots are often available in Chinese grocery stores in the spice aisle or in Chinese herbal medicine shops.
- Lotus leaves are also sold dried here in Chinese grocery stores; the leaf here is my own addition, as it adds nice flavor to the chicken, but can be left out for traditionalists and those who don’t have a Chinese market nearby.
Top photo: The bird, with its seasonings for Hakka chicken. Credit: Carolyn Phillips