Stir Fried Lotus Root and Snow Peas
Like so many Canadians, I didn’t grow up with great Chinese food. My exposure was by-and-large relegated to the typical westernized Chinese fare – sickly sweet lemon chicken, doughy egg rolls, and fluorescent orange ginger beef were really all I knew for a long time. As I grew older (and married a good Canadian-Taiwanese girl) my exposure to the depth and breadth of Chinese cooking expanded enormously, and today it’s probably my go-to cuisine in the kitchen. The sweet-and-fried Western-style dishes became little more than distant and somewhat embarassing memories. But I’ve been doing some reading over the past year on the culture and food of the Chinese emigrants (including this wonderful book about Hakka cooking), and it’s really changed how I look at the Chinese food we so often dismiss as ‘inauthentic.’ Thanks to prohibitive laws and immigration policies, many Chinese immigrants had little access to work outside of a few specific industries, and for many, opening a small restaurant was the only feasible road to prosperity (or even survival). Many of the dishes that evolved in these North American Chinese restaurants departed so far from traditional Chinese cuisine that they bore only a passing resemblance. Indeed, the Chinese who worked in or visited these restaurants were seldom interested in this food – it was merely a way to keep Western palates happy. But the restaurants and home kitchens of Chinese immigrants were also home to a different kind of experimentation. Many of the staples of the Chinese kitchen were difficult or impossible to find in North America, leaving inventive cooks to experiment and explore in order to recreate the tastes of home.
Case in point – peas. Now, snow peas have always been popular in China, but peas in their many forms are probably more common in North American Chinese food than they are back in China. Peas were easy to obtain, and snow peas were easy to grow in a small home garden. The Chinese in Canada and America had little interest in the heavily sweetened deep-fried fare that their new neighbours seemed to prefer, but they embraced Western vegetables, even if only out of necessity. Carrots, white onions, and broccoli were little-known in Southern Chinese cooking, but all grew to prominence among the Chinese in North America and elsewhere.
Today, the growth of the Asian diaspora in North America coupled with the increase in global food trade has made a huge diversity of previously rare foods easy to come by. This has made it easier and easier for everyone, regardless of their cultural background, to experience Chinese foods prepared in a manner that markedly differs from the buffets that once dominated the North-American-Chinese culinary landscape. I balk at using the word ‘authentic,’ but the idea it conveys in this case is clear – food prepared the way that the original Chinese immigrants would have preferred, rather than what suited other palates.
Lotus root stir fried with snow peas is a classic Chinese preparation, and one that nicely highlights how Western tastes and interests have started to shift. The snow peas are instantly recognizable – a ‘classic Asian ingredient’ (and token vegetable in the frighteningly meat-centric Chinese buffet). But lotus root was unimaginably exotic to many people only a few decades ago, and is still unfamilar to many home cooks. Where I live (admittedly a part of Canada with a very large Chinese population), lotus root can now be found in the big box grocery stores all the way down to the little corner market near my house. Fortunately, it’s not only easy to cook, but easy to love. In addition to being incredibly visually striking, it has a mild, nutty taste that compliments the mild snow peas without overpowering them. Pairing crunchy lotus root with crisp snow peas also demonstrates the importance of texture in Chinese cooking – the two ingredients make for a stir-fry that’s a world away from the broccoli goop that languishes under a buffet heat lamp.
I’ve featured a lot of Chinese food on Diversivore since starting out a couple of months ago, and I’m almost certainly going to be featuring a lot more in the future. I hope that simple and surprising dishes like this will encourage more and more people to pick up an unfamiliar ingredient and explore a new cuisine. But I also hope that my readers will grow more confident and adventurous with ingredients like this – after all, there’s no reason that snow peas, lotus root, or any other ingredient should be confined to a wok. Likewise, there’s no reason that the absence of an ingredient from a particular culinary tradition should prevent you from experimenting with it. A group of intrepid people left everything they knew far behind and made a home in a country that did not always welcome them with open arms. Those people experimented endlessly in order to capture the tastes and aromas they had left behind. Now, we can all benefit from their ingenuity, and experiment not because we are forced to, but because we can. Don’t let the notion of authenticity put you in a box. Instead, let tradition guide you, and let your creativity drive you.
This is a pretty easy stir fry to put together, but you will want to focus on one key points: make sure you’re cooking with extremely high heat. If the heat is too low, the vegetables will steam and they won’t develop any caramelization. Make sure that you thoroughly drain the blanched vegetables, as this will make it easier to stir fry them properly and help keep excess water from thinning out the sauce.
This recipe is pescetarian if you use oyster sauce, but there are wonderful mushroom-based ‘oyster’ sauces that can be used to make this dish vegan instead.
The nutritional information reflects a main-dish sizes portion (i.e. 2 servings), rather than a side-dish portion (i.e. 4 servings).
No pantry pages have been written yet for any of the ingredients in this recipe. Like to see one? Let me know in the comments below or by email.
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