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Saturday, March 12, 2011

At last!

A few years ago, when my now friend Dave and I were dating, he took me to a genuine Sichuan restaurant in Vancouver called Sha Lin. On our first date, he ordered a dish in Chinese (which I didn't know he could speak and made me think for a minute that I was hallucinating) and once it arrived, asked me to guess what vegetable it was. It was white, cut into thin strips, crunchy, hot and aromatic. I guessed it was flash-fried turnip, but I was wrong, it was hot and sour potato. Easily one of the best things I've ever eaten. After this, I searched high and low to find a recipe, and found several imitations, but not the original. I had a few bungled attempts, with rice vinegar and rusty, dirty looking potatoes cut too thick and overcooked. So it makes me even more excited to inform you that after combining three recipes I found, while keeping the memory of the dish at Sha Lin as alive in my memory as I could, I have found it:

Sichuan Hot and Sour Potatoes

serves 6

2 large russet potatoes
1 green pepper
1 tsp white peppercorns (whole)
2 dried chilies (1 for every potato)
1 clove garlic, pressed
vegetable or sesame oil, to taste
1 tsp salt
4 tbsps white vinegar

For starters, in order to prepare this dish properly, you need a mandoline, and you do not have to pay hundreds of dollars for one. A handheld one works great and will set you back about $20. Otherwise, you cannot get the potato slices quite thin enough, and they will not be uniform. Plus, it will take years.

First, peel the potatoes so they are completely free of skin, no dark spots. Chop in half and slice on your mandoline. Place on a plate next to your work area. In small batches, take the slices, stack them on top of each other, and slice into matchsticks. The thinner, the better:

Once all are chopped, place in a bowl of lukewarm water and table salt (2 tsps for every 4 cups). The water should cover the matchsticks completely. Leave to soak for 15 minutes. THIS IS KEY. If you do not complete this step, not only will your potatoes look like wet cardboard strips, but the crispness which makes the texture of this dish incomparable will not exist.

Heat a few good glugs of oil in a stir fry pan or wok, into which is placed two chilies, the peppercorns, and the clove of garlic, pressed directly into the oil. Heat to medium, allowing the group of seasonings to bubble for a few minutes. Drain the potatoes and add to the oil, along with the roughly chopped green pepper. Stir almost continuously.

The time this dish takes is a matter of taste and some debate. The best advice I can give is to cook until the potato matchsticks are translucent and limp. But suit yourself: Taste before you take them off the heat. Once translucent but not quite limp, add the vinegar and the salt, and allow to burn off somewhat, stirring constantly again until the potatoes become limp, then remove from heat. Serve immediately.

The lion's share of the advice on how to (finally) achieve this dish came from this fantastic Chinese food cooking blog I happened to stumble upon called "Lj's Food Party". This woman LJ's use of English is downright creative, and pretty much how I'm going to try to speak English from now on. Passages of note:

"cut the garlic into pelletizing"
"delete the starch"
"put the peppercorns in them, blow out flavor"
"After plastic, a sour, crunchy potates can be severed for tonight dinner."

After reading her blog I have to say I have fallen a little bit in love with Lin Jun Jun. Her ESL interpretation of English has made something better than English, it's SuperEnglish. If there is a land that speaks LJ, I want to move there. Her blog can be found here

I was so happy when I bit into this and realized it was exactly what I was trying for all this time. Talk about satisfying, particularly when cooking is your drug of choice and an elusive recipe is your dealer. I recommend this as a side dish, or a full meal over rice. Enjoy.

And may your Sunday BLOW OUT FLAVOR!!!!!!


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