It’s a delicious mystery the way that certain food aesthetics seem to bridge space and time, uniting cultures that would seem to be light years apart. There are no reasonable explanations for this, no instances of immigration one way or the other, no record of any foreign-style restaurant setting up shop in a small country town and changing the course of comfort food for all time. But it happens.
One such instance is the way in which the most delicious foods of Chaozhou, on the north coast of Guangdong province, resonate with American soul food. The three-course menu below highlights that commonality of flavor.
A secret of Chaozhou cuisine
Tangy ribs are as popular throughout China as they are from Kansas City to North Carolina, and each region has its own take on the master recipe, but this Chaozhou version has to be up there in the ranks of the very best. Its secret? Sour plums.
These salty, dry and most definitely sour little rocks are turned from mouth-puckering tea snacks into mouth-watering jammy sauces here, the tartness hovering inside the sweetness and the fruitiness of the plums providing the necessary balance. But to transform these breakfasty flavors into something divine, garlic and ginger wake up the palate and make you start wondering whether there are any immediate direct flights to Chaozhou.
Fried Ribs With Ginger and Plum Sauce – 梅糕醬爆排骨 Sumeijiang bao paigu
Serves 4 to 6 as an entrée
For the ribs and marinade:
1 pound baby back ribs; leave the ribs whole or have your butcher cut them lengthwise in half
2 teaspoons sea salt
1½ teaspoons sugar
2 teaspoons Shaoxing rice wine
2 tablespoons grated ginger
2 cups peanut or vegetable oil
2 teaspoons chopped garlic
3 tablespoons Chaozhou-style plum sauce (meigaojiang) or Chinese plum sauce (sumeijiang)
1 tablespoon sugar
3 tablespoons water
2 green onions, chopped
- Rinse the ribs and pat dry; trim off any extra fat and discard. Place the ribs in a resealable plastic bag with the marinade ingredients, squeeze out most of the air, and then massage the marinade into the ribs. Refrigerate for at least a few hours and up to overnight.
- Drain the ribs in a colander set in the sink before frying so excess moisture won’t send the hot oil flying when you plunge in the rib. Heat the oil in a wok over high until a chopstick inserted in the oil immediately begins to bubble all over. Fry about half of the ribs at a time to keep the oil from cooling off too quickly. Stir and flip the ribs as they cook so that they brown evenly. Once they are nicely caramelized on the edges, use a slotted spoon to remove the ribs to a platter.
- Pour off most of the oil, leaving only about 2 tablespoons in the wok. Heat the oil again and add the garlic to the wok, stir-frying it for about 10 seconds to release its fragrance before adding the plum sauce, sugar, water and ribs. Quickly stir-fry everything together until the sauce thickens and becomes a nice gloss on the meat.
- Toss the ribs with the chopped green onions and serve with hot steamed rice and napkins.
Greens keep the balance
Just as in the American South, the people of Chaozhou know how to sensibly balance a rich dinner with slightly bitter greens. Below is simply a combination of the blanched leaves and a tasty broth, which gets a meaty flavor from mushrooms much like the traditional ham hock lends collard greens.
But the Chinese version has an illustrious name: The Dish That Secured the Country. The story goes that at the end of the Southern Song dynasty (roughly the year 1279), Kublai Khan’s overwhelming forces crossed the Yangtze River and forced the army of the 8-year-old emperor Duanzong to retreat from Hangzhou all the way down the coast to Chaozhou.
Taking refuge in a shrine at Chaoyang, the temple monk had little on hand to nourish these starving men, so he took the only greens he had — some sweet potato leaves — and fed them to the hungry young emperor, who ate them delightedly, regained his strength, and returned the favor by giving this dish its illustrious name.
Soupy Greens – 護國菜 Huguo cai
Serves 4 to 6 as a side dish
1 very large bunch of sweet potato leaves (see Tips)
A head of maitake mushrooms, also known as hen-of-the-woods (straw mushrooms are traditional, but any flavorful variety will do)
3 tablespoons toasted sesame oil
1 tablespoon finely chopped fresh ginger
¼ cup rice wine (mijiu rather than Shaoxing here)
4 cups chicken broth
Sea salt to taste
1. Pick off only the tender leaves and reserve; discard the stems and tougher leaves. Wash the tender leaves and shake dry. Roll the leaves up tightly like cigars and then cut them into very thin julienne strips before chopping them finely. (You should have around 4 cups minced greens, more or less.)
2. Clean the mushrooms, remove and discard any tough stems, and tear them into small pieces.
3. Heat the oil in a wok over high heat until it starts to smoke and add ginger; stir-fry this until it just begins to brown and then add the mushrooms. Stir-fry these until the mushrooms are golden all over. Drain off as much oil as possible back into the wok before placing the mushrooms in a large (4-cup) serving bowl.
4. Heat the wok again with whatever oil still remains and add the sweet potato leaves. Quickly fry them for about 10 seconds, pour in the chicken stock and bring the stock to a boil. Taste and adjust the seasoning, pour over the mushrooms and serve while very hot.
Sweet potatoes: From top to bottom
Traveling down from the leaves to the roots of a sweet potato plant is a journey that good cooks in Chaozhou and the American South make with happy frequency, so the entire vegetable is used by these two eminently practical peoples who know how to waste nothing.
What we have here is a close Chinese relative of the American traditional sweet potato pie. The mashed tuber most beloved in Chaozhou cuisine is tropical taro. As with the pie, the roots are mashed and sweetened with a bit of fat added for flavor. Easy to make and a huge hit even with kids, this is an updated classic sweet from the kitchens of Chaozhou.
Steamed Taro Pudding With Ginkgo Nuts – 白果芋泥 Baiguo yuni
Start this recipe at least a day before you wish to serve it.
Serves 6 to 8 as a dessert or sweet
For the ginkgo nuts:
½ cup (or so) prepared ginkgo nuts (see Tips)
Boiling filtered water
½ cup fresh peanut or vegetable oil for frying
3 tablespoons sugar
2 tablespoons Meiguilu or other white liquor, optional
1 tablespoon lard or unsalted butter
1 cup filtered water
For the taro:
1½ pound (or so) large, fresh taro root, or about 1 pound frozen and peeled (see Tips)
6 tablespoons lard or unsalted butter, softened
½ cup sugar
½ teaspoon sea salt
For the sauce (optional):
3 slices candied ginger, finely chopped
¼ cup filtered water
2 tablespoons agave nectar
1. Place the ginkgo nuts in a colander and pour a potful of boiling water over them to freshen up their flavor. Drain them well and pat the ginkgo nuts very dry with a towel. Heat the oil in a wok until it shimmers and then add the ginkgo nuts for a few minutes until they puff up and start to turn golden in places. Drain off the oil and place the nuts in a small work bowl. Toss in the 3 tablespoons sugar and optional Meiguilu, cool to room temperature and refrigerate overnight.
2. The next day, put on a pair of gloves if you are working with raw taro (see Tips). Peel the taro and cut off both ends, as well as any bruises or discolored spots. Cut the fresh or defrosted frozen taro into pieces around ½-inch thick. Steam the taro for 40 to 45 minutes over high heat until it is soft and flakes easily. Cool to room temperature. (This can be done ahead of time.)
3. Use 1 tablespoon lard or butter to grease the inside of a 3-cup heatproof bowl. Place the ginkgo nuts and their sugar in a wok along with the filtered water and quickly boil the water down until only about ¼ cup remains. Strain the syrup into one small bowl and the ginkgo nuts in another until they are very cool. Arrange the ginkgo nuts attractively in the coated bowl, as this will be the top of the pudding when you turn it out for serving.
4. Use a food processor to mash the taro root with the lard or butter, sugar, salt and ginkgo syrup until the taro is smooth and silky. Carefully scoop the taro pudding into the bowl with the ginkgo nuts. Do this by spoonfuls at first, patting a thin layer on top of the nuts so that the pattern is not disturbed. Then add the rest of the taro to the bowl and pat it down evenly. (The pudding may be prepared ahead of time up to this point, covered and either left in a cool place for up to 8 hours or refrigerated for longer.)
5. Steam the pudding (lightly covered with foil to keep out any water) over high heat until heated through, about 20 minutes if the pudding was not refrigerated and 30 minutes if it was; err on the side of steaming longer, as you want the center hot. While the pudding is steaming, make the ginger sauce, if you want, by simmering the chopped ginger with the agave syrup and water for about 5 minutes until it is lightly thickened; cool.
6. To serve, use oven mitts or dry kitchen towels to turn the bowl upside-down onto a rimmed, round serving dish, where the pudding will collapse into an attractive puddle. Pour the optional sauce over the pudding and serve hot by spooning it into bowls.
- Use only sweet potato leaves, which are shaped like arrowheads and are a glossy green. They are from the Ipomoea family and are related to morning glories. Leaves from more familiar potato varieties – such as baking or Irish potatoes – are from the nightshade, or Solanaceae family, and are poisonous.
- Hen-of-the-woods mushrooms can be found in Western and Asian markets, where they are sometimes called maitake (Japanese) or wuronggu (Chinese).
- Chinese cooking wines can generally be divided into two basic types that are easily found in most Chinese markets: the familiar brown Shaoxing that often comes in square bottles and smells like a combination of Chinese mushrooms and sherry, and the colorless and much more subtly flavored mijiu (literally “rice wine”), the best of which comes in green bottles and is made in Taiwan.
- Ginkgo nuts are most easily found in vacuum packs in the refrigerated section of Chinese groceries. Peeled and cooked, they look like little yellow or beige footballs. These keep very well if left unopened in the fridge. Once opened, though, use them up within a few days, as they will get moldy.
- If you’ve never had ginkgo nuts, you’re in for a wonderful surprise, for they possess a delicate perfume that is unlike anything else I’ve ever encountered. The nuts are also slightly bitter, which is why they are blanched, fried and then macerated in sugar overnight; this also gives the nuts a better texture, as they puff up in the hot oil and form a slightly tougher skin that softens again from the sugar.
- Taro is available either fresh or frozen. It comes in two sizes: large and small. You want the large, starchy, football-shaped tubers for dishes like this. Called lifu yu 荔甫芋 in Chaozhou and elsewhere in South China, these are the mature roots.
- If your skin is at all sensitive, be sure and wear disposable or kitchen gloves when working with raw taro, as it can cause a very irritating rash, especially between the fingers. And yes, I always wear gloves because this really itches.
Photo: Chaozhou fried spareribs. Credit: Carolyn Phillips