When we Spaniards talk about our gastronomy, a feeling of pride arises in something that must be preserved and protected. Some even seem to carry a weapon -always loaded- in case it is necessary to go out and fight to prevent them from daring to corrupt that identity culture: the continuous wars that we see on social networks for the more or less curd potato omelette, the origin of authentic paella, the quality of tapas in our own cities and the discussions about whether to eat better in the south or north, are just some examples of the battlefield that gastronomic identity represents for many. Our gastronomy is rich and varied, and the fact that there is a multiculturalism in it thanks to the differences between communities enriches it even more, but what happens when we look at other countries? Are we aware that this obviously happens everywhere?
China is approximately 20 times bigger than Spain. However, when most think of Chinese gastronomy they imagine – due to ignorance, probably – a more homogeneous diet than ours. The fault of this is, without a doubt, the westernization that it underwent to adapt to our palate: there are essential elements that we associate with its culture, but what has been eaten in the West by Chinese hospitality is a modulation of what they eat there. Can you imagine how the brawls would be gastropedants if Spain had the size and geographic diversity of China, with its 34 territorial subdivisions?
Sichuan is just one of the 23 provinces of China, and it has practically the same area as Spain. It is recognized for being one of the cradles of Chinese gastronomy: the characteristic spicy flavor that permeates its dishes, accompanied by the numbing effect caused by Sichuan pepper, are some of the bases of the 24 main flavors of its cuisine. Based on this, we are going to prepare one of them: guài wèi, which means -more or less-, ‘strange taste’.
Guài wèi is a sauce made from sesame or peanut paste, chili oil, soy sauce with Sichuan pepper, sugar and black rice vinegar. It is incredibly tasty and accompanies cold dishes so typical of the region such as fu qi fei pian -offshell salad-, guài wèiji (cold chicken in sauce) or liang pi (noodle salad). Preparing it is pretty easy if you have the ingredients, but I understand that some are too specific to be available anywhere, so here is a short guide to substitutions:
- Sesame paste: much thicker than tahini, and with previously roasted sesame seeds. It is very common to substitute peanut butter and, if this option is not at hand, tahini.
- Chili oil: being a basic condiment of Sichuanese cuisine, it cannot be missing. Replacing it, as such, is not feasible. If you don’t have one on hand, the best option is to pull Lao Gan Ma, which today is even in the store where you only go to buy beer.
- Black rice vinegar: it is a strong and fruity vinegar. It is best to replace it with a 1: 2 combination of sherry vinegar and balsamic vinegar, and you also save gluten.
Once the sauce is prepared, we are going to use it by preparing a dish mentioned above: liang pi. Traditionally, this recipe is incredibly laborious: the noodle dough is prepared with wheat flour, cleaned in cold water to separate the starch from the gluten, the gluten is cooked and the water with starch is left to settle so that it precipitates and, at the same time next day, cook it on a steam iron. We are going to go easy and we will use noodles or rice noodles and, to avoid gluten, we will use fried tofu. The sauce guài wèi It will hold us perfectly in the refrigerator for a week.
Some elements can be difficult to find (but we have already offered alternatives).
For the sauce
- 1 1/2 tablespoons sesame paste or peanut butter
- 1 tablespoon tamari / soy sauce
- Half a tablespoon of sherry vinegar
- 1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar
- 2 tablespoons chili oil (or a tablespoon of Lao Gan Ma)
- 1 teaspoon ground Sichuan pepper
- 2 teaspoons of sugar
- 2 cloves of garlic
- Half a teaspoon of ginger
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 3 tablespoons of water at room temperature
For liang pi (2 people)
- 85 g of rice noodles
- 150 g firm tofu
- 2 baby cucumbers
- 6 generous tablespoons of guài wèi
- 3 coriander stalks with their leaves
- A handful of roasted and chopped peanuts
- A handful of toasted and crushed sesame seeds
- 1 tablespoon of cornstarch (Cornstarch type)
- Sunflower oil for frying
- Half a teaspoon of salt for the tofu
Crush and mince the garlic and ginger as finely as possible. If you have a grater, the better. Add them to a bowl next to the salt and stir vigorously, trying to dissolve the salt.
Add the sesame paste or peanut butter and stir as the water is added.
Add the rest of the ingredients – the order does not matter anymore – one by one, so that they are integrated into a homogeneous sauce. Reserve cold.
Dry the tofu well with kitchen paper and cut it into large cubes. Add the cornstarch, a pinch of salt and mix well.
Add enough oil so that it completely covers the bottom of the pan and a bit more. Put over medium heat and add the tofu, turning it every so often so that all sides are browned. Take out and put on kitchen paper.
Cook the rice / noodles following the manufacturer’s instructions (since it is not for a stir fry, we want them fully cooked). Finish by leaving them in cold water.
Julienne the cucumber, crush the sesame and chop the peanuts (not much, there should be pieces left).
Strain the noodles and serve on the plate. Add the fried tofu, cucumber, sesame and peanuts. Serve with the sauce on top and garnish with the coriander.
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