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Snapshots from Asia: Chestnuts 'Wokking' Over an Open Fire

Editor's note: Our Grocery Ninja, Wan Yan Ling, is currently visiting Singapore, from where she's filing additional Snapshots from Asia.

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The concept of "chestnuts roasting over an open fire" is an alien one to Asians, and the notion of buying chestnuts raw and roasting them yourself even stranger—why would anyone choose to go through all that hassle when the streets are lined year-round with hawkers frying them right before you?

When I lived in Australia, I was horrified by the price of hot griddled chestnuts sold on the streets, and no wonder they were exorbitant: Each individual chestnut would be meticulously turned and cosseted as it cooked, and it would take (to my impatient mind) till the cows came home for the vendor to roast up a goodly sized paper bag full of them.

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I'm all for TLC in the kitchen and in food prep, but as these little nuggets of gold (literally, probably pricier) tasted no different from the ones I gobbled by the pound back home, I could not, for the life of me, work out why they didn't just wok the lot of them. You see, all the local hawkers do is dry-fry the chestnuts with lots of tiny pebbles that have been stained black with soot. There's no slitting with a blade or dangerous marking of X's. Just a wok, pebbles, and a trusty metal ladle (above).

Of course, since I had never encountered chestnuts with slit coats, when I eventually succumbed to cravings and bought raw chestnuts to roast at home, I wound up cleaning exploded chestnut insides off half the free world—steam had built up within the nuts and had no vent through which to escape. Boo.

Since then, I've learned that if you boil the nuts in water (with a pinch of fennel seeds for fragrance), you can skip the slitting. You do miss the wonderfully distinct aroma of roasting chestnuts, though, which seems to me to be half the experience of eating them.

I believe most of the chestnuts in Singapore used to be imported from Australia, but in the past few years, these chestnuts from Qian Xi, China, have been all the rage. Smaller than the Aussie nuts, each and every one is guaranteed sweet (I've yet to encounter a bland one) and is easily shelled with the provided "magic thumb thingy" (pictured at right and at top). These contraptions are genius! Happily blade-free and klutz-proof—you place your thumb on the indentation and press the row of spikes on the opposite side into the shell—extracting the nut whole is a breeze. Uniformed school girls, sooty lipped and black fingered, can often be seen shelling and munching on freshly roasted chestnuts as they window shop. It helps, of course, that a hundred grams of chestnuts contain just 2.7 grams of fat (for comparison, a similar amount of macadamia nuts weighs in at a hefty 76 grams of fat) and are considered diet-friendly.

It is becoming less common to see hawkers frying the nuts by hand, though. These days, you tend to spy metal drums with a rotating paddle in the middle doing the work—very similar to the electric polenta-stirrers used in restaurants.

About the author: Wan Yan Ling is an impoverished grad student and sourdough finger-crosser living in Rhode Island. She can usually be found in the kitchen procrastinating on "real work" or online tracking down obscure recipes. Ling thinks eating alone is no fun, and she still believes in hand-mixing.

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