Chinese Cabbage and Dried Shrimp

Dabaicai Shao Xiami

Flavor: Unique

There was a tradition of rustic elegance in Chinese haute cuisine. Gourmets, tired of the contrived artifice of most banquet dishes, would seek variety in the food of peasants, claiming that the honest, earthy flavor of cooked cabbage was more exquisite than that of the most expensive texture food. Of course, these simple peasant dishes were often more sophisticated than their cultivated admirers liked to admit.

According to Mrs. Chiang, this is such a dish. Its unusual character comes from the juxtaposition of cabbage, the most ordinary of vegetables, with dried shrimp, an ingredient noted for its pronounced and complicated salty-pungent flavor. The characteristic flavor of each of the main ingredients comes through, as well as the new and intricate one produced by combining them. Like all banquet dishes, this one also plays upon texture and visual appearance. The cabbage is soft, the shrimps hard, almost leathery. In addition, Mrs. Chiang considers the pale colors of the dish — the light green of the cabbage and the light orange of the shrimps — to be especially beautiful.

Since this dish is simmered for a while after it is stir-fried, it can be made partially in advance — not too much though, or the cabbage will become soggy rather than soft. It is an unusual dish and one that we particularly love.

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Method

Preparation

cup dried shrimps

1 cup boiling water, approximately

Put the shrimps in a small bowl and pour the boiling water over them. Let soak for at least 30 minutes.

Drain the shrimps and rinse them thoroughly. Pull off the tails or any tiny legs that may still be attached to them. (You can, if you want to, remove the tiny black vein that runs up the back of each shrimp. Mrs. Chiang uses a toothpick to do this. It is tedious work, and is really a question of aesthetics.)

1 large head Chinese cabbage (1-½ pounds) Pull off the tough outer leaves of the cabbage and discard them. Separate the inner leaves and wash them carefully, then drain them well. (If there is too much water clinging to the cabbage leaves when they are cooked, the dish may turn out too watery.) Chop the cabbage into pieces approximately 1 inch wide.
1-½ -inch piece fresh ginger Peel the ginger, then cut it into 4 or 5 thin slices.

1-½ tablespoons cornstarch

3 tablespoons water

Combine the cornstarch and water in a small bowl and set aside.

Cooking

½ cup peanut oil Heat your wok or pan over a high flame for 15 seconds, then pour in the oil. It should be hot enough to cook with when the first tiny bubbles form and a few small wisps of smoke appear.
(dried shrimps and ginger) When the oil is ready, toss in the dried shrimps and the ginger slices. Stir-fry them together for about 30 seconds over a high heat, using your cooking shovel or spoon to scoop the ingredients off the sides of the pan and then stir them around in the middle.
(cabbage) Now add the Chinese cabbage. This presents a real challenge, for you will probably have more chopped cabbage than the pan can hold. As all cabbage does, it will shrink in volume once it is cooked, so begin by putting in only as much cabbage as the pan will accommodate comfortably and cook it over a high heat, gingerly scooping up the cooked pieces from the bottom and sides of the pan and adding new pieces as the older ones shrink.
1 tablespoon salt After the cabbage has cooked for about 3 minutes and has reached a manageable volume, add the salt. Continue to cook the cabbage over a high flame for another 2 or 3 minutes, stirring occasionally.
cup water Pour in the water, wait for it to boil, cover the pan, and let cook over the same high heat for 15 minutes.
(cornstarch and water) Stir the cornstarch and water to make sure they are well combined, then add the mixture to the boiling cabbage. Stir-fry the cabbage gently for about 2 minutes, until the sauce has turned clear and thickened slightly.

Salt, if necessary

½ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

Taste the sauce before you remove the cabbage from the pan (it may need additional salt to bring out the pungent flavor of the dried shrimps), then put the cabbage in a serving dish and sprinkle the pepper on top of it. Although black pepper is not a commonly used spice in Chinese cooking, it is sometimes added to an unusual dish like this one to give piquancy to its special flavor.

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