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.
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.
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.
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.