Monday, June 22, 2009

Ma La

It's a term in Chinese, meaning "numbing". In food terms, it's the effect on your tongue when you eat a food with enough Szechwan peppercorns in it.

I've been looking for the little guys for a while. It was one of my many food geek projects that I sort of bury into a little composition book that I tote around. An idea here, an idea there. I may not be thinking about anything in particular but I'll just put it on paper, and maybe it'll turn up when I least expect it. It's a great little part of my creative process, because otherwise I just couldn't be bothered to keep up.

At any rate, I finally crossed it off my list a week ago during an extended shopping trip to Whole Foods in Birmingham. Just happened to remember it and be looking in the right place at the right time. Boom, Szechwan peppercorns. What did I do when I bought them? Immediately tore open the little safety seal and popped about five in my mouth and chewed. At first, a little lemony taste. Then...

Numbing really isn't quite what I'd call it. More like buzzing. The closest analogy I can think of is if you take a nine volt battery, and touch your tongue to both tips. The little bit of electricity going into your tongue gives it a weird buzzy feeling. It's completely surreal.

At any rate, I knew I wanted to use the peppercorns (they're actually not peppercorns at all, but little dried flower things) in something, but wasn't exactly sure. When I got my recent CSA shipment, I figured out what I wanted to do. I wanted to make fried rice.

Now, I've blogged about fried rice before. It's damn frustrating stuff. Yes, you can make rice and fry it with things, but if you've ever had fried rice done correctly, you'll know that it's really hard to replicate the experience yourself. Japanese fried rice is just about as tricky as nuclear fusion, and I've kind of put my aspirations on hold of getting it down correctly. Then again, I don't know if what I put together would be considered Chinese, either. Suffice to say I will consider it Mutt-a-nese, or in the spirit of my great nation's storied history of cultural assimilation, "American".

Here's what I used for my fried rice:
  • 2 cups rice, uncooked (I like jasmine, any long grain white would be fine, save for maybe basmati)
  • 4 cups water
  • oil for pan frying
  • sesame seeds (black and white or whatever)
  • 1 pound pork tenderloin, cut into bite-sized pieces
  • 2 eggs
  • 1/4 cup honey
  • About 1/2 cup soy sauce
  • 2 tbsp Sriracha or similar hot sauce
  • 1 tbsp fish sauce (optional)
  • 2 tsp red pepper flakes
  • 1 tbsp szechwan peppercorns
  • 1 tbsp sugar
  • 1 tbsp ginger paste, or minced ginger
  • 4 cloves garlic, crushed and finely minced
  • 2 cups broccoli, roughly chopped
  • 2 cups cabbage, chopped
  • 1 cup pole beans, chopped
  • 1 cup carrots, chopped
Begin by heating a tablespoon of oil in a sauce pot. Bring the heat nearly to high. Add some sesame seeds, then your rice. Stir it around. You want to get the oil evenly coated on all the rice grains. As they heat, they'll go from translucent to fully opaque white. I stop when I smell a little bit of toastiness from the rice. You can either add your water, bring to a boil, drop to low and cover for about 20 minutes, or do what I do and transfer it to a rice cooker and do it in there. Once cooked, take off heat, uncover, and let cool a little, fluffing periodically to release heat.

With that going, combine your pork, honey, and 1/4 cup of soy sauce. Oil a fry pan a bit and turn to medium high. Pour your pork into the pan, and let it cook. You want to keep it on the heat and let the water cook out of it. The cooking liquid will reduce, thicken, then finally turn to a syrup and start binding to the pork pieces. When the pan is starting to get dry, add your red chili flakes and szechwan peppercorns. When the pork looks crispy and dry, take it off the heat and reserve.

Oil a non-stick fry pan lightly, just to cover, and scramble a pair of eggs. Rather than scrambling first and pouring into the pan, crack the eggs directly into the pan, let them start to set for about 30 seconds, then smash them up. When done, take off heat and reserve.

Whisk together sugar, remaining soy, ginger, fish sauce, sriracha and garlic. Set aside.

Get a wok or at least a five quart saute pan. Add a couple of tablespoons of oil, and get it to nearly high heat. Drop in your carrots, cook about 5 minutes, then cabbage. Cook five minutes longer, then add pole beans for another five minutes, and at last your broccoli and eggs. Stir constantly, then add your rice, and your sugar/soy/ginger/etc mixture. You've got to move like your butt is on fire, or else your rice will be! Well maybe not on fire, but you might burn the rice or veg or both if you don't keep the contents of the pan in motion.

When you're nearly done, add the pork, toss thoroughly then immediately remove from the heat.

It's not really that photogenic, but it's more than a meal, that's for sure. Be warned, the ma la sensation isn't really for everybody. I love it, but other people don't care for it. My wife ate it, but said that she'd like it without the peppercorns next time. Either way, it's something you should try once, and even if you think its not for you, this fried rice is pretty solid for a mutt concoction.

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