Mission Chinese in New York looks like a Chinese take-out joint at first; you pass the kitchen along the way, into a room that's packed with eaters sitting under an origami paper dragon spanning the ceiling, from one wall to another.
Does this give you any idea of the type of food here? No? Well, the menu includes such goodies as Kung Pao Pastrami and McPig Tails (read the full review here). On a friend's recommendation, I went to try their rice cakes, which are stir-fried with thrice-cooked bacon, bitter melon, and loads of chili paste. I am a fool for rice cakes. I will eat them until I feel unwell, and even then, will still go on chomping their sweet, chewy goodness.
The dish at Mission Chinese sounded like a perfect counterpart to the rice cake dishes you are likely to find in a typical Cantonese or Shanghainese restaurant: plain rice cakes, stir-fried with slivers of stir-fried pork and cabbage. Maybe a few shiitake mushrooms, here and there. Some rice cakes are left white, and some are seasoned with restraint (a bit of soy sauce, some residual wok liquor.)
The stir-fried rice cakes at Mission Chinese were every bit as spicy and flavorful as my friend said they'd be. It was as though the kitchen had decided to treat the rice cakes like they were slices of meat, so that every rice cake was covered in red chili peppers and fermented black beans. Slabs of pure fat (from the thrice-cooked bacon) were everywhere, big lard bombs you'd mistake for a rice cake.
But the dish was just so darn likeable, that I forgave its fatty/salty extremes. And it had me thinking: how would you cook an updated version of the classic stir-fried rice cakes dish?
Here's what I'd do. Keep the main seasonings, chili paste and fermented black beans, but add Sichuan peppercorns (because everything tastes better with Sichuan peppercorns). Ease up on the fatty meat component, just diced cubes of Chinese sausage (lop cheung), to give the dish a hint of meat. There'd be a vegetable of some kind: bok choy, as a nod to the classic, or bitter melon, if you like such things. Finally, and this is key: leave the rice cakes to cook in the skillet for a while, making some surfaces a little crispy and charred.
A note on choosing meats: you can use Chinese smoked bacon instead of Chinese sausage. I cooked a platter of these rice cakes for my friend, who had never tried lop cheong, but upon eating it, thought it was abhorrent to have so much sugar in a sausage. Lop cheong isn't for everyone, I guess. (Or, forgo the meat and use fried tofu or tofu skin, the latter which was, by the way, the last ingredient in the crazy-over-the-top-but-ultimately-winning rice cake dish at Mission Chinese.)
You can buy rice cakes at most any Chinese or Korean grocery store, in various sizes and shapes. The flat oval-shaped cakes come in dried form, and it was one of the great agonies of my childhood to wait for my mother to rehydrate them overnight before I could eat them the next day. The nicest thing about the fresh rice cakes is that they all appear to cook at around the rate, no matter the shape and size. So I usually mix and match the long kind with the oval, just for the fun of it.