Friday, August 28, 2009

Tianshui Inspired Chinese Stir Fry with Pork, Italian Peppers & Onion

I have been reading The Romance of the Three Kingdoms since I was 27 or so and in my mid-30s, I visited China to see the birthplace of a certain general who I especially admired. He came from the north western area of China - from Tianshui - which was a gateway to the silk road in those days, and as we neared his home town - we saw restaurants sporting Halal flags.

The market stalls, unlike those we saw in Beijing or in Inner Mongolia did not have solid roofs but had rough linen awnings, and they served a smoky flavored tea with rock sugar and dried fruit in it - and you knew that the culture in this area had been touched by something from a culture further west of the Taklamakan desert.

I was more focused on history than culinary pleasures at the time, but luckily my mother and our wonderful guide who we called 'Kee' were food obsessed, and Kee found a little restaurant in the little town in Gangu County where they served this delicious stir fry of bitter melon and pork. Kee being from Xian was a snob and apologized for the 'country' cooking and said this was the best he could do, but it was wonderful country fare and more delicious then some of the food we were to have later on in Cheng Du. This was served with a bowl of freshly cooked rice and a Cilantro Salad. The Cilantro Salad was nothing more than fresh cilantro tossed in dark sesame oil and salt - but Key told us it would help restore our appetite in the sweltering hot summer weather and it did the job.

We asked him how to make this salad and Key informed us that the important thing was to toss it with your bare hands, which some of you may find appalling, but he said it was integral that you do this as the warmth from your hands would help the flavors blend properly.

Anyhow, I never got the recipe for the pork stir fry with bitter melons and have not encountered this dish outside of this area. I mean you will find pork stir fry with bitter melons in Chinese restaurants, but I have tried them and it's not the same dish as the one I had in Tianshui.

The recipe I'm going to share today is a recreation of this dish, made with Italian peppers and onions instead of bitter melon which I can't get easily in Costa del Sol. There used to be a store that would order bitter melons for me but sadly the owner had to go back to China because of family issues and with her went my supply of bitter melons.

Tianshui Inspired Chinese Stir Fry with Pork, Italian Peppers & Onion

Serves 2


3 - 4 Fatty Pork Chops (preferably pork collar)

1 Onion

1 Italian Pepper

1 Tsp Sichuan Peppercorns

3 Tbsp Extra Virgin Olive Oil or White Sesame Seed Oil or Dark Sesame Seed Oil*

For the Marinade:

1 Tbsp Soy sauce

1 Tbsp Dry Sherry or Shaoxing Wine**

Sea Salt

For the Sauce:

3 - 4 Tbsp Chili Bean Paste

1-2 Tbsp Oyster Sauce

1 Tsp Soysauce

1 Tsp Dry Sherry or Shaoxing wine**

1/2 Tsp Sweetened Soybean Paste or Black Bean Garlic Sauce

1/2 Tbsp Brown Sugar

Step 1: Dice the onion and peppers into bite sized pieces and put them into separate containers ready to throw into your Wok or frying pan that can heat-up to really high temperatures. Do not use a frying pan that won't heat-up to higher temperatures because you can't make stir fry with these kinds of pans.

Step 2: Cut the pork chops into bite sized rectangular pieces and marinate these inside a bowl with soy sauce and dry sherry/shaoxing wine. I've written approximate amounts of this above but only use enough to dampen the bits of pork. The amount of soy sauce, wine and salt you need will depend on the size of your pork chops. Sprinkle some sea salt on the pork and blend it a bit with your hands (or with a kitchen utensil) and let it sit for 30 - 60 minutes. If you don't have time to do this - 15 minutes will do. This step isn't critical so I wouldn't worry about it so much.

Step 3: Put the ingredients of the sauce into one bowl and have it ready for use. This is important as speed is integral to stir frying which is done at very high temperatures. Do not start frying the ingredients and try to put the sauce together later - because your stir fry will be ruined.

Step 4: Before you start stir frying anything make sure your rice will be ready in 15 minutes or so. Basically your rice has finished cooking already at this stage and is sitting there absorbing moisture and settling down already. I let mine sit for 30 minutes with round grain rice so this means the rice has been cooked and has been sitting there for 15 minutes already. This is when I start cooking the stir fry.

Step 5: Now put your wok or frying pan on the stove and max out the heat. Put the oil in and let it heat-up until it's smoking and then throw in the Sichuan peppercorns until the aromas have been released, then put in the pork and stir fry them until they're nicely browned. When the pork is done remove these to a bowl or plate.

Step 6: In the same pan (and add more oil if needed - but if you do this let the oil heat-up again before frying the onions) stir fry the onions first until they are a bit brown or a bit caramelized on the outside layer. If you are using the right kind of frying pan and do this at max heat, the onions will still be crisp even though they are a bit browned and this is what you're aiming for.

Step 7: Throw in the diced peppers and stir fry this until they are coated in oil. These don't really have to cook so as soon as they are glistening with oil and you can put the pork back into the pan. Quickly put the 'sauce' we have prepared into the pan.

Step 8: Now stir fry this until the aroma of the raw sauce changes to a more pleasant aroma and all the bits of vegetables and pork are glistening in the caramelized sugar (which was inside the sauce).

Serve immediately.

Let me reiterate here that your stove should be at max heat the whole time and that you should prepare all your ingredients before you start stir frying anything. The key to making a good stir fry is speed. If your ingredients stay in the pan too long the vegetables will wilt and lose their crunchy texture and the pork will become dry.


*In Japan I used to use a mixture of white sesame seed oil with a touch of dark sesame seed oil for flavor. Again, I'm using extra virgin olive oil here which isn't something one uses in Chinese cooking frankly, but I live in olive oil country and the quality of olive oil is exceptional - so I use this rather than the inferior varieties of sesame seed oil I can get here.

**The quality of dry sherry in Southern Spain is exceptional and has an aroma similar to good quality Shaoxing wine which is why I opt for this instead of the real thing. Use which ever is easier to procure in your area. Don't use a sweet sherry for this.


Anncoo said...

Oh really? You read this ~ 三国演义?
Very interesting isn't?
Good creation on this dish :)

Murasaki Shikibu said...

Anncoo: Yes, that's the one. I also read the chronicles written by 陳寿 and have a few books and magazines on the subject. :) Very useful when you end-up sitting next to Chinese military officers on the plane and you need to make small talk. ;)

Palidor said...

A delicious bitter melon stir-fry? Now that I have to try! My mom likes to stir-fry bitter melon with black bean sauce and pork ribs. I don't like it 'cause it's... well... bitter! :-P

Your Tianshui-inspired stir-fry with peppers instead of bitter melon is something I would definitely like!

Natashya KitchenPuppies said...

Mmm, stir-fry pork goodness!
I have trouble with bitter melon too, I love your peppers version. Haven't come across Sweetened Soybean Paste before, sounds like a really interesting ingredient to have on hand.

Elra said...

Sounds wonderful, I always like stir fry anything.

Anonymous said...

I love the feel of crisp vegetables when stir fried the way you have MS. Totally agree with you on the high heat thing, soggy vege's in a stir fry is just a shame.

♥peachkins♥ said...

looks like this would be good with steamed rice..

Murasaki Shikibu said...

Palidor: Never liked bitter melon until I ate it in Tianshui. It not only helped me recover from summer fatigue but it restored my appetite. ;)

Natashya: Yes those crispy bits of fried pork are so yummy. Haven't run into a guy who didn't like this dish so far...

Elra: I love stir fry too even though my kitchen ends up looking like a war zone... ;)

mommythecook: Soggy stir fry is the kind they make in Regensburg. =P

Peachkins: Rice is a must with this. :D

Trish said...

I love tossing salad with my hands....weird? No..grin. Often you need to get right in there and for delicate fruit laden salads the hands just go right in there! for the sound very very tempting indeed. What a great recreation...and not having ever had bitter melon...I am thinking your substitution is just fine!

Lori said...

This sounds absolutely tastey Murasaki.

Trish said...

Oh I am so glad to hear from you...beginning to be worried about you but now you explained about the heat.....sigh. Today it started to rain, as if on cue...grin...first day of 'school' for the son as we drive him to the City for University and moving into residence. Love that rain....with all sincerity...but just not for moving day. Oh well. Take DO know I am dreadfully envious of where you live....grass is always greener right?! ta...take care.

Murasaki Shikibu said...

Lori: :)

Trish: It's the weather and having to renew my residency permit which is always a nightmare. It's kind of drained the desire out of me to do innovative cooking. As for where I live - well, yes - it has some high points and low points just like any other place. ;)

Marta said...

What a great dish, perfect blend of influences and absolutely inspiring! Thanks for sharing it with us!!
I just got back from Japan... wow, what can I say? I want to move there!!! I loved everything about it and took all of your recommendations. the deep-fried tofu was sublime. I loved udon and soba so much! And the mochi... oh God, the mochi!!!!

Murasaki Shikibu said...

Marta: liked Mochi? Well, then you really should be living in Asia at least. ;)

pigpigscorner said...

This sounds really tasty..yummy with rice!

Taste of Beirut said...

I was fascinated with your story!