Chengdu Challenge #16: Dry-Fried Green Beans (Gan Bian Si Ji Dou)

Old-School vs. New~~

Yes, I know it seems wrong to deep-fry green vegetables, but oh, it tastes so right. Gan bian si ji dou actually means dry-fried green beans, but almost everyone nowadays quickly deep-fries them. That’s how the Sichuan Higher Institute of Cuisine teaches the dish, and that’s how I’ve always done it.

But when I was researching the dish, I found that the recipe for gan bian si ji dou in Mrs. Chiang’s Szechwan Cookbook calls for dry-frying the green beans the old-school way, for more than two hours, until they are “quite shriveled, limp and dry.” Two hours! The authors promise that despite their “unattractive condition”…”they are one of the more unusual and delicious specialties of Szechwan.”

Mrs. Chiang grew up in Sichuan in the years before the Communist revolution, and this is how dry-fried green beans was made in her home. In the ensuing decades, Mao dictated that food be purely utilitarian, so, while Mrs. Chiang had fled to Taiwan, the average mainland Chinese would not have been inclined—or even allowed—to cook a two-hour green bean dish. One can assume that by the time eating for pleasure was allowed again, most people didn’t have the luxury of time and deep-frying became the norm.

But I was intrigued. Gan bian si ji dou is one of my two or three absolute favorite Sichuan dishes. Could it be even better made the traditional way? On further thought, it didn’t sound that strange. I live in the American South, where our tasty green beans are always cooked to death and always include pork—just like gan bian si ji dou. So I decided to do a head-to-head green bean challenge. Old-school vs. new. Long and slow dry-fry vs. quick and easy deep-fry.

Mrs. Chiang’s Recipe

Though I’m intrigued by Mrs. Chiang’s cooking method, I’m less enamored of some of her ingredients. The recipe calls for 1/2 cup dried shrimp as part of the seasoning. I left these out because a) I’ve never seen dried shrimp in gan bian si ji dou in Sichuan, and b) I personally dislike the taste of dried shrimp. I substituted ground pork, because that’s how the dish is made nowadays. If you want to use the dried shrimp instead, soak them in hot water for two hours, then clean them thoroughly (including deveining) and chop very finely, to “the consistency of coarse bread crumbs.”

I also substituted yacai for the Szechwan preserved vegetable, or zha cai, that she calls for. I am guessing that she called for zha cai because yacai wasn’t available in the U.S. in the 1970s, when she wrote this book. Contemporary cooks use yacai, and there’s no way to improve on the perfect combo of yacai and crispy pork, in my opinion.

dry-fried green beans

The secret ingredient is yacai, preserved mustard green stems

 The Sichuan Higher Institute of Cuisine’s Recipe

The Institute’s recipe is more representative of what is served in Chengdu’s restaurants today. I tweaked this one quite a bit too, adding soy sauce and wine to flavor the pork as well as ginger, scallions and dried chili peppers for color. (Leave the chilies whole, as this dish is not meant to be hot.) The dish traditionally includes pork, but it is almost as good without pork as it is with, since it features yacai, which is the true flavor bomb. Leave out the pork if you like, but do not leave out the yacai. I usually increase the amount of yacai and aromatics if I’m not using pork.

dry-fried green beans

In the quick method, the green beans are deep-fried for about four minutes

dry-fried green beans

Remove the beans when most of them have puckered skin

dry-fried green beans

Crisp the pork, yacai and aromatics before adding back the green beans

The Winner

I used basically the same ingredients for both versions, so the difference was all about the cooking method. (I did omit the chili peppers from the dry-fried version.)

Deep-frying leaves the green beans crisper, greener and more visually appealing than dry-frying. If you take the green beans out of the deep-frying oil when their skins are about half-puckered they will still have a good bite to them; if you leave them in until almost all of them have puckered skin, they will have just a slight bite and be like they are in Chengdu.

dry-fried green beans

In the dry-fried version, green beans cooked for two hours are deeply flavored and slightly caramelized

I had my doubts as I was dry-frying, stirring the wok every 10 to 15 minutes as the beans got darker and darker, making sure the pork didn’t burn. When making dry-fried beef, one of Chengdu’s most delicious cold dishes/appetizers, you definitely can’t rush the cooking process, which produces an almost-beef-jerkyish, chewy treat. But with green beans, I wasn’t sure the trade-off in my time and energy (not to mention gas energy) was worth it. Call me a modern gal, but I like my green beans to resemble green beans.

But in the end, I realized that these are no longer really green beans. Dry-frying produces a whole different beast, with no bite, but with its own interesting texture and, indeed, a deeper taste, a true mingling of the bean, pork and yacai. The green beans begin to caramelize, like a long-cooked onion, and are undeniably delicious. Interestingly, Mrs. Chiang recommended eating them wrapped in a thin Mandarin pancake, like a moo shu pork wrapper. Too bad I didn’t have any. Though one could use those two hours to whip up a batch, I suppose.

In any case, once you try them I think you’ll make the deep-fried version often. But I also urge you to add the dry-fried version to your repertoire; nothing else tastes quite like a pre-revolutionary green bean.

dry-fried green beans

In a head-to-head contest…they were both gobbled up

Updated March 2017

Chengdu Challenge #16: Dry-Fried Green Beans (Gan Bian Si Ji Dou)
Deep-fried version inspired by Sichuan (China) Cuisine in Both Chinese and English. Dry-fried version inspired by Mrs. Chiang's Szechwan Cookbook.
  • 1 pound (450 grams) green beans, trimmed
  • 3 ounces ground pork (traditional but optional)
  • 10 whole dried red Sichuan chili peppers; omit from dry-fried version
  • 3 tablespoons Yibin yacai preserved vegetable
  • 2 tablespoons finely chopped scallions
  • 1 tablespoon finely chopped ginger
  • 1 tablespoon finely chopped garlic
  • 1 tablespoon Shaoxing wine
  • 1 tablespoon Chinese light soy sauce
  • ½ teaspoon sugar
  • ½ teaspoon sesame oil
Deep-Fried Method:
  1. Heat wok over a high flame until wisps of heat start to rise and add enough canola or peanut oil to deep-fry. Bring oil temperature to about 350°F (175°C) and deep-fry green beans until most of them have puckered skin. Do not brown them. Remove and drain on paper towel.
  2. Remove all but 2 tablespoons oil from the wok. Reheat until hot and add pork, breaking it up into crumbles and cooking until it starts to brown. Add dried chili peppers, yacai, scallions, ginger and garlic and continue stir-frying. Add Shaoxing wine, soy sauce and sugar and cook until the pork bits are crispy.
  3. Add back the green beans and stir-fry until well-mixed and hot. Add the sesame oil, give a stir, and plate.
Dry-Fried Method:
  1. Heat wok over a high flame until wisps of heat start to rise, then add 2 tablespoons oil. When hot, add green beans, stir-frying vigorously for about 2 minutes. Lower heat to medium and cook, stirring occasionally, for about 6 minutes. Remove and drain on paper towel.
  2. Reheat wok until hot and add 2 tablespoons more oil. Add pork, breaking it up into crumbles and cooking just until pink disappears. Add yacai, scallions, ginger and garlic and continue stir-frying. Add Shaoxing wine, soy sauce and sugar and cook briefly. Do not brown.
  3. Add back green beans, mix well, and lower heat to very low setting. You should hear a slight sizzle as the mixture cooks over the next couple of hours. Stir every 10 to 15 minutes to make sure pork isn't burning. Cook for about two hours. Add the sesame oil, give a stir, and plate.

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22 Responses

  1. Michael Heit says:

    Just heads up
    I was looking for this recipe all last week and came upon the site
    “Serious Eats” and Kenji has a different take on this.
    He broils the green beans they are wrinkled and charred.
    Interesting, I have not tried any of the methods but I will try them all.

    • Taylor Holliday says:

      Interesting. The Sichuanese wouldn’t broil anything, since most of them don’t have ovens. But that sounds like yet another great option. Thanks for the heads-up!

  2. Ana says:

    So which one did you prefer? 😀

    • Taylor Holliday says:

      They were pretty equal. The cooking methods are so different that they’re really like two different dishes.

  3. sub says:

    Hi Taylor,

    I like them deep fried (same goes for the eggplant) but I’ll try the dry-Fried version next time , thanks !

  4. polisciprof says:

    One of my Chinese students told me that her dad puts green beans in the microwave first to speed up the dry frying.

    • Taylor Holliday says:

      I wonder what Mrs. Chiang would think of that? 🙂 Could definitely save some time, though might lose some of the depth of flavor from slow-cooking in the seasonings… Worth a try!

  5. Gabriella says:

    This was definitely one of our favourite dishes in Sichuan! Can’t wait to try this myself when we have a proper kitchen and a well-seasoned wok again… Looking forward to checking out more of your recipes. Voted for you in the Saveur awards, love the idea behind your blog!

  6. Gabriella says:

    Thanks Taylor! We don’t know about NYC yet, but we would love to 🙂

  7. Alex Kaufman says:

    You do not list it, but would you consider trying the recipe for boiled fish with green pepper sauce (from Chengdu Taste)? By the way, in case you have not heard about it, Gu’s Bistro is providing Atlanta with first rate Sichuan fare.

  8. John says:

    I just discovered your MaLa Project and can’t wait to try some of the recipes. I find it interesting that you reference the beloved Mrs. Chaing. I bought her cookbook in 1979 (or was it 1978?), and I still routinely go back to those stained, well-used pages. I especially like her Mapo Doufu, and her Fried noodles are great for those who don’t go the spicy route like I do.

    • Taylor Holliday says:

      Welcome to The Mala Project! It’s amazing how many fans Mrs. Chiang still has. She was the trailblazer.

  9. Christopher says:

    Hi, Taylor!

    I remembered this recipe when I was at my Asian Market and bought some of the suimiyacai in a pouch. I’ll try this recipe soon, as it looks delicious and I enjoyed this dish last time I was in China. My question is a simple one. You show a picture above of the yacai in a jar. Do you store the leftovers in the jar after you open the pouch?

    Thank you, and keep up the good work!

    • Taylor Holliday says:

      Hi Christopher,
      I’m glad to hear you found some Suimiyacai, because it is becoming increasingly hard to find. I’ve always heard not to store stuff in metal or foil packaging, so I do transfer this to a jar or even a plastic baggie for keeping in the refrigerator. Enjoy!

  10. Richard says:

    Taylor are you still in Chengdu? If you are there is a little restaurant across the river from the Shangri la hotel that has what I believe is the best gan bian si Ji dou in Chengdu!

  1. April 1, 2015

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