Water spinach

It appears that someone doesn’t like my writing about Cheetos. In the past I would have ID’d the IP address and written a reply which would have ended with “… and the horse you rode in on”, but I’m above that now, so I’ve only deleted the narrow-minded comment and will stick with saying “I know you are, but what am I?”

So with the trolling issues dealt with and set aside, back to “food”.

One of the reasons for the recent spate of (Chinese) food posts is that my friend Amy wanted to run through a couple of recipes from Cathy Erway’s The Food of Taiwan, to better know what to expect in terms of flavor profiles.

[aside: Erway is more or less accurate but she heavily over-salts pretty much every recipe presented. any seasoning instructions in her book need to be addressed with caution]

The one recipe which particularly piqued her interest was water spinach (Ipomoea aquatica; 蕹菜, “ong choy” for the Cantonese set) with sha cha beef (沙茶牛肉; Erway recipe page 192, photo pages 190-191).

Sha cha beef of course requires sha cha sauce (沙茶醬), and unfortunately, there was a minor bump on that path forward because I was unable to locate a can of Bull Head “Original” Barbecue Sauce (owned and still produced by Haw-Di-I Foods of Taiwan, but several unscrupulous trademark infringers south of the 49th claim to be the source of this tinned deliciousness).

This was surprisingly difficult to find locally in the Bay Area, which is the reason I made sautéed water spinach a couple of days ago in the first place, figuring that I could look further afield (well, no).

The sauce, I have discovered, is available online to American consumers, but with a catch.

The 737 g (737 mL. 26 oz) can goes for about CAD$ 9.99 at local shops on the Big Croissant (CAD$7.99 when on sale), so Bezos is definitely overcharging on his site. By a LOT. Like double the price, factoring the exchange rate, and that’s before the usurious shipping because the minimum is $25 before local state taxes on any given order. The catch is that Bezos is relatively *inexpensive* as Haw-Di-I’s flagship product is also incredibly expensive online from others due to order minimums, so better identification of potential local brick-and-mortar storefronts is a must. And there are counterfeiters from the mainland, so read the labels to make sure it reads Haw-Di-I Foods of Tainan City, and look for the cartoon cow.

While I was fretting over the lack of barbecue sauce, I got distracted because after splitting a bottle of Bollinger Spécial Cuvée, Amy pulled the cork on this:

She had purchased this at the auction itself, and it’s journeyed along with her from France to New York to the Left Coast without too much wear and tear. Aged Bourgogne is a rarity for me: this one is garnet, has jammy notes and still carries a little bit of spice on the palate. Really delicious.

So after a little bit of tasting, this was the first plate I put out:

Yes, it’s a horrific looking plate of crudités and タコになる タコさんウインナー, or tako ni naru tako-san uin’nā (Pazuzu…). My handwriting is still pretty bad (even in ketchup) and the traditional potato salad and shredded cabbage are missing, but no deformed skanky octopi.

Actually this is the first dish that came out: three-cup chicken (三杯雞), one of the defining dishes of Taiwanese cuisine.

Terrible photo again; my hands were shaking a little and that doesn’t help in low light.

It’s blonder than other versions of this dish, primarily as I did not have any dark shōyu, but it’s primarily based on sesame oil, the shōyu, and sake, in addition to a whack-load of aromatics and basil. Also boneless skinless chicken marylands, though that was primarily for ease of eating and not necessarily for authenticity. Tasted okay, but I’d recommend to serve it immediately rather than cook/hold/finish with basil to maintain a less-soft texture.

As for the barbecue sauce conundrum, this isn’t the first time I’ve run into menu problems. It’s not as bad as that one adventure at the Granville Market when I was unable to find a single ingredient for two separate multicourse dinners, and the exercise was on a stir-fry with vegetables, so I ultimately used some chili paste to make a spicy beef to accompany the water spinach.

So go back a couple of posts to revisit the sautéed water spinach I already made. Pay particularly close attention to the *stalks*.

They’re “around” 5 cm in length. “Around”, because I was doing my basic choppy-chop and wasn’t really thinking about it.

I bring this up because the really surreal part of the entire session was that Amy did some of the mise en place, including the water spinach. I didn’t take a photo of how she processed the leaves but they were all quickly pinched off at the stems, individually washed and neatly overlaid with no bruised stem bits or leaves in the entire pile.

And the stalks? This is her knife work after asking for *one* piece to see how long she should cut them.

Every single piece was identical in length. Every single one. Yes, some of the stalks are bent (because you know, they’re vegetables and have organic form) but they’re all identical in length; there is a little pile of trim that offers proof without the need of a ruler. That’s some really swish soignée mise en place, and it was all done pretty effortlessly, quietly and with great humility which speaks volumes about the haute cuisine background she draws from.

Me, I think I need to up my soignée. My knife skills are pretty good (me saying + all 10 fingertips still there) but there’s always room for continuous improvement and after seeing that prep demo, I can make the effort. I have a closer understanding of the ethos of the MOFs and the shokunin (職人).

The finished spicy chili beef with water spinach plate.

Tasty – I very much enjoyed eating it and I’m fairly certain Amy and Mr. R may have managed to get a little too. And it was much better than planned because there was more soignée.


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