Stem lettuce is a Chinese original, found most often in the north and west. It has a quite unusual if not bizarre form, which is why it is also called “celtuce” or “asparagus lettuce.” The top is in the shape of a thin oval, with wilted-looking lettuce-like leaves, while the stem is thick and crunchy, like asparagus or celery. Because raw greens are rarely eaten in China because of hygiene as well as taste, the leaves are generally eaten in soup. The stem is often pickled. I have enjoyed it this way as well as fresh and stir-fried. It can be found seasonally in Chinese food markets, though fresh broccoli stems are an acceptable substitute.
In their Sichuan country kitchen, the Huangs peeled the fresh lettuce stems, then sliced and stir-fried them with cloud ear mushrooms. The contrasts in taste and texture were memorable, and the flavour was enhanced by the touch of roasted ground Sichuan peppercorns tossed in at the last moment of cooking. This is a unique vegetable treat and a fine accompaniment to any meat dish.
Peel the stem lettuce or broccoli stems and cut the stems into thin slices diagonally.
Soak the cloud ear fungi in warm water for at least 15 minutes. Rinse them several times in cold running water to remove any sand. Drain thoroughly and set aside.
Heat a wok or large frying pan until hot and add the oil. Add the ginger, garlic, and onions and stir-fry for 30 seconds. Put in the cloud ears and stem lettuce and stir-fry for 1 minute. Now add the chilli bean sauce, rice wine or sherry, soy sauces, sugar, and salt. Stir-fry for 1 minute, and then pour in the water. Continue to cook over high heat, uncovered, until the vegetables are tender, about 3 minutes. Add the peppercorns, mix well, and serve at once.
© 1990 Ken Hom. All rights reserved.