My recent trip to China has given me a deeper insight into, and appreciation of, authentic Chinese food. I promise to do a post full of pictures from my trip soon, but for the time being, I’d like to share with you the first Chinese dish that I’ve tried to recreate since my trip. I’m not going to lie, I have no idea what the name of this salad is (I am guiltily illiterate when it comes to Chinese, which proved to be interesting during my travels), so for the sake of this post, I will dub thee “Sichuan Style Cilantro Salad.” It’s a dish I had not heard of before this trip, and I think it’s a neat fusion of Cantonese ingredients with a Sichuan flare.
First off, let me admit that I rarely ever make Chinese food, ever. This is for a few reasons, the first being that you often have to have a whole different set of cookware, sauces and ingredients to do it right. You need a wok, you need heavy stoneware, and you need really high heat, you need the right kind of vinegar, or chili oil or soy sauce (no, not the 1 kind they offer at the grocery store). The second reason is that I’m so spoiled by my mother’s cooking, that I don’t really see why I should even attempt to make dishes that she has more than mastered over her lifetime. I know that’s silly, but it’s true. Don’t worry, I’ve started to learn her ways in recent past and hope to get better…
I grew up eating real Cantonese food. Mostly stir-fried leafy vegetables, steamed whole fish with sweet soy sauce, scallions and ginger, and various dishes you will never see at your local Chinese take-out joint. To generalize, Cantonese cooking is done quickly, stir-fried over high heat and utilizes the abundance of fresh vegetables available in Southern China. Sauces are light and preparation simple, which allows the freshness of the ingredients to do most of the work. For the most part of the 3 weeks we spent in Guangzhou my mom and I ate Cantonese food. However, with the rapid development and expansion within China over the past several decades, there is an increasing presence of of other regional cuisines in major cities in China; including Guangzhou, the capital of Canton and also my mom’s hometown. Even ten years ago, you could rarely find Hunan or Sichuan places in Guangzhou. But now, with more rural workers flocking to Guangzhou (city of roughly 13 million) from many different regions for jobs, restaurants devoted to other regional Chinese cuisines are becoming more ubiquitous. So for a smaller part of our time in Guangzhou, we were able to try other types of Chinese food. This is how I came to love this bizarre Sichuan style salad.
The salad is made of a few ingredients that are not easy to find in the States, unless you have a good Chinese supermarket near you. It’s worth the trip though, trust me. The two perhaps less familiar ingredients in the salad are black wood ear mushroom and bean curd sheets. Both lend a great, springy toothsome texture to the salad. The cilantro adds freshness and the red onion some good crunch. The mixture of these ingredients is very Cantonese: fresh, simple, clean. If you stir-fried this and added some soy sauce, it could probably be a Cantonese entree. It’s the dressing that tips the salad towards Sichuan. It’s made of garlic, mature black vinegar, soy sauce, Sichuan style chili oil and sesame oil. There is a complexity and intensity in these flavors that characterizes Sichuan food. Sichuan food is generally heavier, extremely spicy and simply more intense than Cantonese food. The region is colder, so more oil and hot flavors are used when compared to Cantonese. Sesame oil and cilantro are usually introduced to create a cool balance to the hot chili oil and Sichuan peppercorns (which make your tongue numb and tingly… it’s quite an addictive sensation, ask people who love Sichuan).
I love this salad because it’s an amalgamation of Cantonese and Sichuan… not an easy thing to do since the two cuisines are fundamentally different. I think it deliciously symbolizes the changing times in China.
Sichuan Style Cilantro Salad
serves about 4
If you can’t find Sichuan chili oil, any hot chili oil will do. You can even use red pepper flakes. Same goes for the mature black vinegar! Try using red wine vinegar if you can’t get your hands on the real stuff.
For the salad
1 cup of dried black wood ear mushroom
6 sheets of dried bean curd sheets
1 bunch of cilantro, just the leaves
1/4 of a medium red onion, thinly sliced
For the dressing
1/4 cup of mature black vinegar
1 teaspoon of Sichuan style chili oil, or to taste depending on your tolerance
2 cloves of garlic, minced
1/2 teaspoon of aged soy sauce
1 scant drizzle of toasted sesame oil
1. Separately, soak mushrooms and bean curd sheets in water for a few hours, of until soft.
2. Meanwhile, whisk together vinegar, hot oil, garlic, soy sauce and sesame oil and set aside.
3. Bring a cup of water to boil in a large pot. Add bean curd sheets and cook for about 5 minutes, until soft but still springy. Add mushrooms and cook for an additional 2 minutes. Drain and rinse with cold water immediately.
4. In a large bowl, combine mushrooms, bean curd sheets, cilantro and red onion. Toss with the dressing and enjoy!