Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Gongbao Chickpeas

Westernized Chinese food has an unfair reputation, I think.

I concede that in the worse case, e.g. any 'Chinese' food court meal, it's an overly salty, under-flavoured, dubiously-sanitary and utterly forgettable codswallop. Every late-night-we-deliver-until-2AM food item served in a disposable foil tray, thickened with too much cornstarch and supersaturated with MSG certainly fits into this category, too.

But what about the more competent expressions of the cuisine? One could easily be forgiven for believing that Moo Shoo Pork, Egg Fu Yung and Ginger Beef come from an entirely different universe than does the tender steamed dumplings, squid in black bean sauce, and turnip cakes that you'll find at even a modest, though decent, dim sum house. This is Westernized Chinese food, certainly, and while the hipster har gow may be somewhat embarrassed by the dowdy deep-fried chicken balls, nonetheless they share DNA.

Of course foodies and ex-pats will argue that nothing made outside of China can qualify as Chinese food. Certainly anything we get in Canada is not 'authentic' in the sense that it's not made (a) with Luciferian quantities of chiles and garlic, (b) by a wizened old Chinese man standing shirtless and sweating over a wok seasoned by 40 years of 1400-degree heat,  or (c) in China, but that doesn't necessarily render the food worthless.

I have said many times that I never had a single bad meal in China, and I stand by that statement. My 18 months of living in central China was full of amazing new tastes, but one scarcity was chicken. We were there during the height of the 'bird flu' panic -- the first one, not the most recent one -- and so the Chinese government was apparently cracking down on so-called 'backyard' chickens, despite the fact that most virologists had traced the outbreaks to poorly-managed factory farms (duh). The lack of 'backyard' chickens meant that chicken was expensive or non-existent on most menus. Curiously enough, we did see a fair number of chickens wandering around the streets and yards of homes as we walked to and from work each day.  The chickens informed us that they were, in fact, front yard chickens, and hence could not be held responsible for any flu epidemic whatsoever.

Chicken dishes were thus uncommon, but when it was available we almost always ordered Gongbao Jiro, aka Gongbao Jiding, aka Kung Pao Chicken.

We first had it at a dive-y (which is saying a lot) place in Xiangfan just off a roundabout. It came to the table and at first I thought we'd mistakenly ordered something that was 48% chilies, 48% garlic and 2% green onions. I confirmed that the dish was, indeed, Gongbao Jiro, and after receiving an affirmative grunt we proceeded to try the dish.

The reason it looked like it was all Gongbao and no Jiro was because the chicken was all chopped up into little bite-sized pieces, bone and all. It was a long-ish process to eat the dish, actually, because of the necessity of spitting out the bone splinters, but the flavour was incredible and we were instantly hooked.

We ate GBJ as often as we could find it but all of our attempts to make it at home were miserable failures. I tried back in Canada, too, but I just couldn't seem to replicate the exact flavour profile. After considerable experimentation I simply gave up and consigned it to the list of foods* that I just couldn't make at home.

I recently had a small satori.

Instead of trying to replicate the exact flavour of the remembered dish -- an exercise that is usually futile anyway due to a whole whack of reasons, not the least being the non-availability of the components -- why not use the themes and conventions of the dish as a jumping-off point for a new dish?

It is this articulation that can, when exercised with diligence, craft, care and restraint, legitimatize the medium of Westernized Chinese cooking. Of course Red-cooked Chicken made by a Canadian cook with Canadian ingredients will never be the same as the dish created by a Chinese cook with Chinese ingredients, but nevertheless both dishes can be delightful and delicious.

With that lengthy preface aside, I thus present

GONGBAO CHICKPEAS (modified from a version at www.theveglife.com)

Time: 24 hrs marinating, 4 hrs to cook chickpeas (both unattended); 1 hr for final dish.

2 TBSP dark soy sauce
2 TBSP white vinegar
1 TSP sugar
1/2 TSP salt
1 TBL cornstarch
1 TSP oil
1 TBSP chile oil**
Stir well and remember to re-stir before using.

Cooking Sauce:
Into 1/2 cup water mix:
2 TBSP regular soy sauce
1 TBSP balsamic vinegar (you may substitute rice vinegar for this, but in that case don't use the sugar and salt in the cooking sauce unless you taste it and they still need it, in which case do; but balsamic is awesome here)
1 TBSP white vinegar
1 TSP sugar
1/4 TSP salt
1 TSP pepper powder (I used pilli-pilli, which is about as hot as dried birds eye chiles; you could use cayenne or another hot chile powder, or alternately chile flakes, in which case increase to 2 TSP).
Good honking dash white pepper (I just use powdered but you can always use freshly-ground if you like, Martha, though most grinders don't actually create the right texture with white peppercorns)

1c dried chickpeas, rinsed and picked over for stones (alternately use 1x19oz can of chickpeas but they won't taste as good or hold texture as well)
1 penis-sized carrot, oblique cut
I onion-sized onion, quartered and sliced down the grain
5 cloves garlic, crushed
2" piece fresh ginger, peeled and crushed
1/2 cup peanuts (salted or plain doesn't matter but best to avoid the honey-roasted or chocolate-covered varietals)


In a small saucepan cover 1 cup dried chickpeas with water. Bring to a boil, hold for 2 minutes, then turn off burner, cover, and rest 2 hours. Taste a chickpea for doneness. If it's ready -- which, honestly, it likely won't be -- add salt and drain. In the rather more likely event that the chickpea is sorta but not totally done then cook over medium heat for the needed time. Honestly, you're probably an adult, and you can probably figure this out. While you're waiting, check Facebook, read the latest xkcd post, and/or prep other dishes.

Make marinade, and cooking sauce if desired, and add the chickpeas to the marinade (which you've cunningly placed in a plastic container) and refrigerate for at least 19.2 hours but preferably 24 hours.  Go do something else.

To cook:

Sauté onions and carrots until softened slightly, then add chickpeas. If you've forgotten to shake/stir these before you try to dump them into the pan then you'll have an unsightly mess from the cornstarch. You should have read the instructions first.

Use a rubber spatula to move the chickpeas around the pan and watch the sauce slowly thicken and darken. The addition of occasional 2oz splashes of water will not go unrewarded. The idea is to have a lava-esque cooking fluid which finishes the carrots and thoroughly heats the chickpeas. This part can be a bit fiddly because the cornstarch wants to thicken everything and then rather annoyingly burn.

Add the garlic, ginger, and another spludge of chile oil. Cook two minutes or so. Add the cooking sauce, stir well, and let cook until reduced by half.

When the carrots are cooked and the chickpeas hot, taste and correct seasonings***. Add in peanuts, stir briefly, and serve with rice.  I advocate adding a heaping helping of chopped green onions but my lovely wife dislikes them and so I refrain from putting them in recipes. Still, if you added them and then served it to me I wouldn't complain.

*tofu; kimchee; fermented pepper mash (though I've recently been experimenting and may figure that one out yet...); anything at all involving canning. Note that I'm not saying you can't make these at home; I have made them all, with varying degrees of success. It's of my opinion, though, that you can just as easily, and perhaps more easily, purchase a pleasing, consistent and wholesome product.

**I use my own homemade chile oil, the recipe to which is forthcoming. You can use any purchased variety you like, or just make your own. 

***It amazes me how often this is overlooked.  In cooking school we were drilled constantly to remember to taste and correct seasoning, and it's amazing how much of a difference it makes. Here's the basic way to do it:
Taste. If it's not in balance, add salt until you can taste the salt.
Add sugar until you can taste  the sugar, and then
Finish it off with just a dash more salt.

Note that you have to do this just before you serve the dish because if you cook it much longer then the dish can become overly salty (likely) or sweet (less likely but possible). Also please realize that we're talking about a (generous or not) pinch of salt or sugar here -- not a lot.

This is the basic, most easiest way to correct seasoning.  You can also add a splash of an acidic ingredient if the dish needs it, but this particular dish has enough acidity that you usually won't need it.

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