Gan bian si ji dou—Sichuan-style dry-fried green beans with chilies and pickles—are one of the best and most mistranslated vegetable dishes in the world. The real version should be bright and light, featuring beans with blistered skins and snappy interiors and tossed with chili-flavored oil, Sichuan peppercorns, scallions, garlic, ginger, and chopped preserved mustard root. It's a pretty far cry from the oily, drab, pork-smothered versions you find in Chinese take-out joints. While a bit of minced pork is not totally out of the question, it's hardly a required ingredient.
Having spent a great deal of time traveling and attempting to understand (or at the very least taste) the foods of other cultures, I strive for authenticity when working on a recipe that holds a hallowed position in the canon of a particular society, whether it's Southern fried chicken or Italian ragù Bolognese.
But my definition of "authentic" may be a little different from most. I'm firmly of the opinion that it's the spirit and flavor of a dish that define its authenticity as opposed to any sort of prescriptivist method or set of ingredients. Altering recipes or techniques to suit your tools, your cooking style, and your ingredients is no mark against authenticity.
Keep this in mind as you read this article, because today gan bian si ji dou and I are on a road trip back to authenticity, and we're going to be driving that minibus over some uncharted territory.
The most common issues that arose when translating a recipe for an audience that lives on the other side of the world used to be making sure that flavor profiles were adjusted appropriately to suit the palate of home cooks who are accustomed to a different set of textures and flavors. These days, thanks in no small part to the wonders of the internet and inexpensive worldwide shipping, our palates have become far, far more cosmopolitan. The questions here are not those of flavor—I want my beans to taste like they did in Sichuan—but of technique.
The real culprit here is the dry-frying stage. See, Sichuan-style beans are cooked via a two-step process. First they're fried in a reasonably large amount of really, really hot oil in the wok. This causes their skins to blister, split, and lightly brown while letting them retain some crunch and moisture at their core. After this, the fat is drained and the beans are very briefly stir-fried with a mixture of aromatics to give them flavor.
While it's perfectly possible to dry-fry green beans at home just as cooks do in Sichuan, it's a largely impractical process given that, unlike in Sichuan, we don't have too many uses for a wok-ful of hot oil once our beans are done. Even a ridiculously obsessive and frequent cook like me thinks twice before deciding to heat up a few cups of oil just for the sake of one dish—oil that then has to be strained, cooled, transferred to a sealed container, and stored for next time.
Wouldn't it be great if there were a method that gave you similar results without the need for all that excess fat?
To this end, I tried a half dozen different techniques, starting with the two most common hacks: blanching in water and shallow-frying. The former method, touted by the always-incredible Fuchsia Dunlop, produces a dish that's very tasty, with bright, fresh flavors and nice snappy beans, but it's not quite what I was looking for.
Shallow-frying beans by using a relatively small amount of oil (say, half a cup or so) before draining and re-stir-frying them is another common technique. The problem is that with just half a cup of oil, the temperature drops far too rapidly when you add the beans. Instead of blistering and browning, they shrivel and turn mushy.
Instead, I turned my attention to the oven. I figured that if I were to preheat my oven enough, I might be able to get a similar effect by tossing my beans in a little oil and throwing them in for a few moments. The regular oven, even when heated to its maximum temperature of 550°F didn't cook quite fast enough—the beans still turned soft by the time they were blistered—but the broiler-cooked beans were fantastic. By letting the broiler heat up to inferno-levels, then placing the beans as close as possible underneath, I was able to get them to blister and brown in record time.
Not only that, but by cooking so close to the heat source, I could see little jets of vaporized oil and bean juices spurting up and igniting under the heat of the element, lending the beans some of that coveted wok hei, the smoky essence of wok cooking that is so essential to many great Chinese dishes. Completely inadvertently, I'd managed to create wok hei without even using a wok!
The idea of making this dish 100% wok-free was an appealing one. Don't get me wrong. I love my wok and use it all the time, but if I could make this dish convincingly with nothing more than a rimmed baking sheet and a skillet, it'd open it up to many more home cooks who don't necessarily have a wok in their arsenal.
I decided to see what I could do about the sauce.
A quick run-down on the traditional version: Heat oil in a wok, add some whole dried chilies and Sichuan peppercorns (for that classic ma-la Sichuan flavor combination), stir-fry until the dried spices sputter and add their flavor to the oil. Next, add more aromatics: garlic, ginger, and scallion bottoms. Finally, stir in some chopped ya cai (Sichuan spicy pickled mustard root, more on that in a minute) or Tianjin-style preserved vegetables, season it all to taste, then toss it with your fried green beans. That's it. It's not a particularly hard process, but it does involve high heat, rapid action, and a wok.
Or does it?
When I was working on my recipe for General Tso's Chicken, I discovered much to my surprise and delight that for dishes where stir-frying is not 100% essential for the main ingredients, making your sauce via a lower heat method in a skillet can actually lead to tastier, more balanced results. Could the same be true here?
I made two batches of aromatics side by side. The first I made with the traditional high heat, rapid-fire method in the wok before tossing with my broiled beans. The second I made by heating my oil, peppercorns, and chiles in a skillet over moderate heat until sizzling, then stirring in my garlic, ginger, scallions, and pickled mustard root and cooking them gently until aromatic before tossing it all with my broiled beans.
There was no question: the version that was cooked more gently had a better balanced flavor and, more importantly, a flavor that spread itself over the green beans in a much more intense way, presumably because slow cooking gives more time for flavorful compounds to infuse and disperse in the oil.
It was a win-win situation: Not only did I come up with a technique that is easier and less messy in a Western kitchen, but it also produced better flavor. That's a rare and lucky combination in recipe development.
The only question remaining goes back to the issue of ingredient availability. I've lived in Boston, New York, and San Francisco over the last decade or so, and in every location, I've been lucky enough to find a good source for imported Chinese ingredients. Ya cai is mustard root that has been heavily salted and preserved with a number of spicy aromatics. It has a salty flavor and crunchy-but-tender texture. It can be found in bulk refrigerated bins in a good market like New York Mart in Manhattan's Chinatown or one of the large Asian markets in Boston. You can also order it online from Amazon. In San Francisco, I haven't found the large bulbs, but the May Wah supermarket in the Richmond district sells jars of chopped mustard stems and roots preserved with Sichuan peppercorn oil. If anything, it's almost tastier than the whole preserved roots.
But I get it; not everyone lives on the coast or wants to order their ingredients online, so I did some experimenting to see if I could come up with a reasonable substitute, testing everything from American-style pickles (too acidic) to sauerkraut (too cabbage-y) to olives (they tasted great, but they taste like olives). The best substitute? A mixture of finely minced kimchi (the milder the better) cut with just a few rinsed capers comes pretty darn close—certainly close enough to convince anyone who hasn't had the real deal, at least, and that's good enough for me.
So there it is: One of my favorite dishes made in a way that is entirely non-traditional, though I dare say that the true measure of authenticity is not about how something is made, but about how it tastes. On that measure, my broiled, low-temperature, kimchi-and-caper gan bian si ji dou are about as authentic a recipe as I've seen on this side of the Pacific.