Chengdu Challenge #5: Potato, Green Chili and Pork Stir-fry (Yang Yu Qing Jiao Chao Rou Si)
All-American Ingredients Make an All-Chinese Stir-fry~~
Yes, the potato is a Chinese vegetable! In fact, it is the star of this stir-fry, the main attraction, with the pork in a supporting role. In Sichuan you most often see potatoes cut in matchsticks and quickly stir-fried with a hit of vinegar. They’re just barely cooked, really, still crunchy and crisp, and as weird as that sounds to a Westerner, they are delicious. This recipe for a similarly prepared potato stiry-fry just fills it out with pork slivers and green chili peppers to make a one-wok meal.
There’s another interesting thing about this recipe besides the just-cooked potatoes: It does not require any special Sichuan ingredients (other than a smidge of Sichuan pepper, which is optional). But the cookbook I got it from— the 1976 Mrs. Chiang’s Szechwan Cookbook— assures us that it is indeed an “authentic Szechwanese dish,” despite the potatoes and its relative unspicyness.
So that got me to thinking, yet again, about the word authentic. I use it a lot in this blog as a shorthand for Chinese food the way it’s made in China. It does not mean that there’s one and only one way to make any Sichuan dish, or that Chinese food is unchanging with the times or doesn’t incorporate foreign ingredients. Both the potato and chili pepper are, after all, “foreign” ingredients from the New World. But the word is just the easiest way to convey that these recipes I’m testing are for home-cooked food the way it’s home-cooked in Sichuan, with few to no substitutions for American ingredients or preferences (i.e., no ketchup or peanut butter or dill pickles).
I realize the fact that you need made-in-Sichuan ingredients to make a lot of these dishes is a major inconvenience for some people. But the point of this blog is not Easy Chinese—there are plenty of great sites for that, such as here and here. Of course we do want the recipes to be easy, but we don’t want them dumb-downed with substitute ingredients that completely change the flavor. There was a time—including during Mrs. Chiang’s era—when it was difficult to impossible to get ingredients such as Pixian chili bean paste or even Sichuan pepper (it was banned for decades in the U.S.). Yet she still called for them, bless her soul. But now almost all Sichuan ingredients are readily available at Chinese markets in the U.S.
Yes, cooking real Chinese may require a trip every few months, or annually, depending on how often you cook it, to a Chinese grocery store. Or if that is impossible, to a Chinese grocery website. But in general, these are underpriced ingredients, so for one trip and an investment of $20-$30, you’ll get a Chinese pantry that will keep you cooking for months.
But until you do that—and I know you will!—you can try this recipe for potatoes and pork, ingredients you probably have in your kitchen right this minute. And it’s authentic Sichuan, I promise!
The key to making this dish taste right is in getting the potatoes and pork sliced thinly enough. If the potatoes are any bigger than matchstick they won’t cook enough in the allotted time, and they will taste more like underdone french fries than the crispy vegetable slivers they are meant to portray. The fastest way I’ve found to do this is to slice them thinly with a mandolin and then cut into thin strips. [I later realized the mandolin I bought on the street in Seoul has an attachment that makes matchsticks with one slice. Joy!] At first I thought his recipe must surely be calling for too many potatoes, at three medium spuds, so I cut back on them. But I was wrong! The potatoes are the highlight, so you’ll want to use three smallish russet potatoes or two medium-large ones, i.e., measuring about five cups when sliced.
Same with the pork. You want quite thin slices, the same size or not too much larger than the potatoes. The easiest way to get those is to put your pork in the freezer for about 20 minutes before you slice it.
As for the chilies, you can use a green bell pepper for a completely heat-free dish or, as we do, serrano chilies for a slightly spicy one. Either way, cut them, and the leek and scallions, about the same size as the potatoes and pork. This is one place you want conformity.
This recipe makes a big dish, what with all those potatoes. So it’s important to cook the ingredients separately, so they have enough room to cook through, before combining them all at the end. I’ve changed the cooking order somewhat so that everything gets done but not too done, since you want the crispness of the potatoes and greenness of the veggies to make it to the table.
[Thanks to tips from a reader, I’ve also increased the vinegar quite a lot to get the tang the dish has in China.]
If you’re North American, the smell of this dish may remind you of breakfast. Heck, the potatoes, chilies, onions and pork may remind you of American food in general. But the whole world loves a potato, and that includes the Chinese, who more than do it justice with this simple, homey stir-fry.
- 2 medium russet potatoes, about 5 cups cut the size of matchsticks
- ⅔ to ¾ pound lean pork (2-3 pork chops), thinly sliced about ¼ inch by 2 inches
- 3 scallions, slivered
- 3 tablespoons Chinese light soy sauce
- 1 teaspoon sesame oil
- 2 teaspoons cornstarch
- 2 to 4 tablespoons white or black rice vinegar (to taste)
- ½ teaspoon salt
- 1 large leek, slivered
- 1 green bell pepper (or for a spicy version, 5 serrano chilies), cut the same size as potatoes
- ½ teaspoon ground Sichuan pepper
- Peel and cut potatoes into the size of matchsticks. Keep slices in a bowl of water until ready to cook. Right before adding to wok, dry them off with a towel or paper towel.
- Cut pork into slivers and combine with scallion slivers, soy sauce, sesame oil and cornstarch to marinate.
- Heat wok until hot. Add 2 tablespoons peanut or canola oil and heat until first wisps of smoke appear. Add potatoes and stir-fry, flipping and tossing. Add rice wine vinegar and salt and continue stir-frying until potatoes are just cooked through, 2-3 minutes. They should still be somewhat crisp, not at all mushy. Remove from wok and set aside.
- Wipe out wok and reheat until hot. Add 2 tablespoons peanut oil and heat until wispy. Add marinated pork and scallions to wok, letting sear a minute, then stir-frying until the pork is no longer pink. Add the leek and peppers and continue flipping and tossing until they are cooked through but still green and slightly crisp.
- Add back potatoes and toss together briefly to meld the flavors. Sprinkle with ground Sichuan pepper if using. Check for salt and add some if needed. Check potatoes for doneness, but do not overcook. Remove and serve.