Why It Works
- Thoroughly washing the cut potatoes removes surface starches, reducing stickiness and yielding the dish's signature crisp potato texture.
- Blanching the vegetables prior to stir-frying ensures even cooking, consistent texture, and a shorter stir-frying time.
- Activating aromatics in the wok at a relatively lower temperature prior to stir-frying at a higher temperature layers the dish with flavor without sacrificing wok hei.
- Soaking the dried chile peppers prevents burning despite cooking at high temperatures.
- Mixing the seasoning sauce in advance minimizes the time needed to add each one to the wok during stir-frying.
- Pouring the seasoning toward the end of the stir-fry, directly on the scorching rim of the wok, quickly caramelizes the sugars in the liquids for more complex flavor.
In Chinese, there’s an idea of “kai wei,” to open up the stomach and prepare the palate for the meal. Like an amuse bouche, these dishes aim to perk interest and awaken the senses, which this Sichuan stir-fried potato does with freshness, acidity, a crisp-tender texture, and a tingle of numbing heat.
As part of a generous table filled with Sichuan dishes—bright red dry pot, mouth-numbing mapo tofu, and robust braised meats, for example—these potatoes are a perfect complement to the explosive flavors that may otherwise overwhelm. Featuring al dente, waxy potato shreds paired with scallions, garlic, and a combination of dried and fresh chile peppers, the result is a layered side dish that the entire table constantly returns to between bites of the more aggressively flavored offerings.
While potatoes are more commonly categorized as a starch in the West, Chinese cooking more often recognizes potatoes as a vegetable, like eggplants or leafy greens, to be imbued with potent flavors and eaten with plain rice. And if there’s any doubt that potatoes can and should be eaten with rice, this recipe is a great introduction to some of the wok-cooking techniques that make such a good case for it.
Because this style of wok cooking is done in such a short amount of time and at such high heat, being well prepared prior to the stir-fry is imperative:
- First, all the ingredients need to be pre-cut in a consistent shape and size for even cooking; the potatoes, peppers, scallions, and garlic are all cut so they can easily mix into each other and be picked up at once with chopsticks.
- Second, the potatoes are blanched quickly to kick-start the cooking process. It can be difficult to cook raw vegetables evenly in a wok, especially if they’re irregularly shaped, such as florets of cauliflower or broccoli. In this case, even though the vegetable strands are cut evenly, blanching still helps to ensure the essential delicate crisp-tender texture of the potatoes that the dish requires.
- Third, the seasonings should be mixed prior to cooking to minimize interruptions to the continuous tossing of the wok.
This is, it's worth noting, just one of many renditions of this dish. It can be served hot as a side or cold as an appetizer. There’s also a version called qiangchao tudousi ("blanch-fried shredded potatoes") that's seasoned more simply, with most of the peppers and vinegar taken out of the equation. And there are even iterations beyond the borders of China, from the Tibetan alu sipsip to the Korean gamja bokkeum.
- 1 large or 2 medium waxy potato (about 10 ounces; 280g), such as red bliss or round white, peeled and cut into 1/16-inch-thick matchsticks
- 4 dried Chinese chiles (about 4g total), stemmed and seeded
- Kosher salt
- 1 teaspoon (5ml) Chinkiang black vinegar
- 1/2 teaspoon light Chinese soy sauce
- 1/2 teaspoon sugar
- 1/2 teaspoon MSG or Totole Granulated Chicken Soup Mix (see note)
- 1 teaspoon dried Sichuan peppercorns
- 1 scallion (15g), ends trimmed and cut into 2-inch segments
- 2 medium garlic cloves (10g), thinly sliced
- 1 long red hot chile pepper (about 1 ounce; 30g) , stemmed, seeded, and sliced lengthwise into 2-inch matchsticks (see note)
- 1 long green hot chile pepper (about 1 ounce; 30g), stemmed, seeded, and sliced lengthwise into 2-inch matchsticks (see note)
- 1/4 cup (60ml) neutral oil, such as peanut, canola, or vegetable oil
Place shredded potatoes in a medium bowl, cover with cold water, and soak for 5 minutes. Using your hands, swish potatoes until water turns cloudy, about 30 seconds. Using a colander, drain potatoes, discarding the cloudy soaking water. Return potatoes to bowl, refill with cold water, and repeat process until water runs clear, at least 2 more times. Drain, and set aside; refill now-empty bowl with cold water and set aside as well. Using sharp kitchen shears, cut chiles lengthwise into threads. Place in small bowl, cover with cold water and soak for 5 minutes, then drain and set aside.
Fill a wok with about 4 inches water, season generously with salt, and bring to a boil over high heat. Add potatoes and cook until barely translucent, about 30 seconds. Transfer to prepared bowl of cold water, then rinse under running cold water until completely chilled. Drain well and set aside. In a small bowl, combine black vinegar, soy sauce, sugar, and MSG. Stir until well combined and sugar is dissolved; set aside.
Heat a carbon-steel wok or large carbon-steel skillet over high heat until lightly smoking. Add oil, swirling to coat wok, and heat until oil is lightly smoking. Pour half the oil into a heatproof bowl; reserve extra oil for another use. Remove wok from heat and add Sichuan peppercorns to remaining oil, swirling wok occasionally, until peppercorns are fragrant and toasted but not burnt, about 30 seconds. Using a slotted spoon or spider, strain and discard Sichuan peppercorns, leaving oil in the wok.
Increase heat to high and heat oil until just smoking. Add dried chiles, scallion, and garlic. Cook until aromatic, stirring constantly with a wok spatula and taking care not to brown the garlic, about 10 seconds.
Add reserved potatoes, and continue to cook, stirring and tossing constantly, until potatoes are barely cooked through but still retain their crisp texture, about 1 minute. Add red and green chile peppers and cook, stirring and tossing, until just barely cooked and still crisp, about 30 seconds.
Working quickly, pour the black vinegar mixture around the sides of the wok and toss until well combined, about 20 seconds. Taste and adjust seasoning with additional salt and sugar, if needed. Transfer to a serving bowl, and serve immediately as a hot dish, or allow to cool to room temperature and then refrigerate until completely chilled, and serve cold.
Carbon steel wok, spider
At home, it’s best to cook this dish at this batch size and not to increase the quantities, so as to prevent overcrowding of the wok.
If you want a less spicy version of the dish, you can substitute an equal quantity of red and green bell (or Anaheim) peppers.
To make a less aggressively seasoned version of this dish, a cleanly seasoned dish called 炝炒土豆丝, or blanch-fried potatoes, halve the amount of peppers and omit the black vinegar.
If you want to dress up the finished dish, whether served hot or cold, you can toss it with a chile oil of your choosing.
Make-Ahead and Storage
To serve this dish cold, the stir-fry can be made up to 2 days in advance and refrigerated in an airtight container.