Sweet and sour cauliflower, and eggplant salad with mala dressing
I grew up eating sweet and sour Chinese pork. Then I went to live in Hong Kong and I never ate it in the three years I was there. I had lemon chicken once while I was there, but that’s outside the scope of this recipe.
Sweet and sour is not necessarily a Western concoction. It has a long history in China, particularly in Canton (now Guangzhou). Lots of countries have their own versions, of course. One of my favourite dishes to cook and eat is a Sicilian dish of sweet and sour onions. The sauce there is a combination of onion, garlic, a little bit of anchovy, a little tomato, sugar and vinegar. The baby onions are simmered in this sauce and served at room temperature as an antipasto.
The most basic Cantonese version of sweet and sour sauce contains rice vinegar, Chinese rock sugar, tomato sauce, Worcestershire sauce and dark soy. Quite often it is bought ready-made in a bottle, although there is no defensible reason for this. Pork is the usual protein, fried in a batter or flour coating.
I love the notion of sweet and sour – the punchy balance of flavour – but I am often fearful of ordering it in Chinese restaurants. I’ve had too many bad experiences. There is too great a risk of tinned pineapple or green capsicum or raw onions arriving in a glutinous sauce of inexplicable colour. The recipe here, however, is Korean and has a subtle kick to it. It is a remedy to every bad fluorescent country restaurant sweet and sour you’ve previously had the misfortune of eating. It is made with cauliflower instead of pork, the vegetable counterbalancing the fact we are deep-frying.
The other recipe here, for eggplant, is marinated in a Chinese-style sauce. It is quite complex in flavour and can be used to marinate other powerful vegetables, such as shiitake mushrooms. The secret is to avoid the fridge. Cook the eggplant, then marinate at room temperature for a few hours before serving.
Inadvertently, both these dishes are vegan. I like the flavours and I like the fact they are entirely vegetal. Interestingly, they are two of our most popular dishes in the restaurant.
Sweet and sour cauliflower
- 500g small cauliflower florets
- 200ml soy milk
- 250g tapioca flour
- 250g rice flour
- 250g glutinous rice flour
- chilli sauce (recipe below)
- 1 tbsp sesame seeds, toasted and coarsely crushed
- 90g Gochujang (Korean chilli paste)
- 200g castor sugar
- 4 cloves garlic, crushed
- 5 tbsp mirin
- In a large bowl, mix together the cauliflower and the buttermilk. In another large bowl, sift together the three flours.
- Working in batches, lift the cauliflower florets out of the buttermilk and toss them through the flour. Ensure the cauliflower is well coated – the pieces should be dry and not sticky. Shake the cauliflower gently in a colander to get rid of the excess flour.
- Heat a deep fryer (or a deep saucepan filled with 10 centimetres of vegetable oil) to 180ºC. Fry the cauliflower for two to three minutes until crisp and pale gold.
- Drain on paper towel for a moment then toss in a bowl with enough chilli sauce to evenly coat the cauliflower. Spoon onto a serving plate and sprinkle with the sesame seeds.
- Combine all the ingredients in a saucepan and bring to a simmer, stirring to dissolve the sugar.
- Simmer the sauce for three to five minutes then remove from the heat. Let the sauce stand for 30 minutes to infuse the garlic, then strain the sauce through a fine sieve before using. Extra sauce can be kept in the fridge.
Eggplant salad with mala dressing
Serves 4 as part of a shared meal
- 4 Lebanese eggplants
- 2 tbsp mala dressing (recipe below)
- ½ tbsp fried garlic chips
- ½ cup fresh coriander sprigs
- ½ tbsp chilli oil
- 1 pinch ground Sichuan pepper
- 2 tbsp castor sugar
- 1½ tbsp vegetable oil
- 4 tbsp black vinegar
- 2 tbsp light soy sauce
- 2 tbsp water
- 1½ tbsp chilli oil
- 2 cloves garlic, minced
- 2 tbsp fried garlic chips
- 1 pinch ground Sichuan pepper
- 1 tsp mushroom powder (ground, dried shiitake mushrooms)
- 3 tsp cornflour mixed to a paste with equal amount of cold water
- Steam the eggplants for 15 to 20 minutes until tender. When they are cool enough to handle, use a small knife to remove the skin, leaving the stem end intact. Roll the eggplants gently through the mala dressing, season lightly with salt and place on a serving dish.
- Sprinkle the fried garlic chips over the top, along with coriander leaves, chilli oil and Sichuan pepper.
- Combine the sugar and oil in a small saucepan over medium heat. Stir occasionally until the sugar has melted and turned a deep golden colour. Immediately add the vinegar, soy and water and bring the mixture back to the boil, stirring until the caramel has dissolved. Add the chilli oil, the fresh and fried garlic, Sichuan pepper and mushroom powder and bring back to the boil. Stir the cornflour slurry, add it to the sauce and simmer until thickened.
- Pour the sauce into a container and leave to cool. Stir well before using. Left over mala dressing can be covered and stored in the fridge for up to a week.
2015 Shobbrook “Beach” chenin blanc, Barossa Valley ($34) – Mark Williamson, wine buyer for Cumulus Inc, Cumulus Up and the Builders Arms Hotel
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on June 18, 2016 as "Sweet and sour cauliflower".
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