My mother tells me that when I was teething, I used to run about with a scallion hanging from my mouth, and I would gum it furiously, until green dribbles would stain my lips and chin. She said it looked ghastly and smelled worse, but it kept me from fretting and screetching over my aching gums.
I am not surprised by her tale; to this day zweiback and arrowroot crackers give me the creeps. I remember giving them to my cousins when they teethed and being utterly repulsed by the gummy slime they turned into.
I detest bland, boring twaddle foods–give me bold, untamed flavors that paint the tastebuds in swaths of tingling delight.
Garlic is probably my favorite ingredient.
I swear, I would put it in oatmeal if I thought it would be good.
The heady scent of a fresh head of garlic can make me swoon, arousing a nearly unsatiable hunger that swirls from my belly in voluptous waves that make my senses sing, and my tongue dance.
And then, there is ginger.
Oh, ginger–she is sweet, and she is fiery. She is a wicked lady, full of secrets and delights. She kisses citrus and turns sour into sweet, then minces demurely along, holding hands with sugar and lending her fragrance to scones, cookies and cakes. And then she tosses her head and leaps into the wok, flinging herself into a wild tarantella that releases her sultry fury.
Oh, they can try and hide their wiles, but I know their tricksy ways. A judicious hand can tame them with the quick work of a knife, and the sweetness that lays hidden in their hearts can be wheedled out by roasting, but they are unapologetic elemental children of fire.
And I would have them no other way.
White peppercorns are so unassuming in form, are they not? Pale, perfectly round, like tiny stones worn smooth on a riverbed. No water shaped them, however, and once crushed, their aroma is as clear and piercing as the call of a hawk swooping on its prey in a flame-blue sky.
Fagara, otherwise known as Sichuan peppercorn, is a flowerbud of a prickly ash tree. Ice hides her wintery essence in the heart of fagara, and tickling pixy fingers follow her laughing floral breath when the wok exhales, and the ash tree blooms again.
And one cook mad enough to marry them together into one dish.
How did it come about?
I cannot say. I don’t remember, really, except that I had just started using fagara and wanted to create a dish to feature it, a dish that was new and different, and special.
I had some exceptionally tender beef, full of dark richness and yang energy that I knew could withstand the onslaught of Sichuan peppercorn.
I also had fresh water chestnuts whose brittle, sugary quality and moonlike yin color would contrast perfectly with the beef. I wed the two together with a third component–baby bok choi–whose deep green leaves and pale stems played upon the velvet caress of the meat and the crisp snap of the water chestnuts.
I sliced the garlic into narrow ivory chips, then plucked up a knob of ginger, and after peeling it with the edge of a teaspoon, sliced it into paper-thin ovals of gold. Four Thai chiles, green, yellow and red, were cut with flicks of my wrist into feathery, hollow wisps.
I cast caution to the four winds and left their seeds intact.
It is to be a stir-fry, of course. All flash and fire, a dance of perfect timing choreographed by Bob Fosse to music by Tan Dun.
The black iron wok begins the dance alone, partnered only by the fire in her belly. Her color changes slightly, going almost ashen and dull, before the sign appears: a thin wraith of smoke uncurls tendrils and the wok exhales, and I breathe the dark scent of her mysteries.
The oil shimmies like a belly-dancer’s veil, and it is time.
My hand flicks, and a bowl is upended, and into the cavern of iron and oil falls ivory and gold, followed by the flutter of green, yellow and red feathers.
They hiss and steam billows, and the shining wok shovel flashes like silvery lightning, pouncing, scooping, tossing and turning. Into the mortar my fingers blindly seek, and scoop and from the air, a snow of dark powder rains down, causing the oil to foam and sputter.
Five fires twirl and spin in the wok, thier power blossoming as they are wed one to the other. The garlic kisses his old favorite, ginger, and she laughs and catches hold of the parrot-bright chiles and pulls them into the complex interlacing steps of the dance. The two peppercorns spin together as twins, then unfurl their scent as they fling themselves into the fray, then dissolve upon their brethren.
Into this cacophony, the beef, already bathed in sugar, wine and soy, is slipped, and I pat it down so that it covers the entire bottom of the wok, so that the dragon’s siblings can permeate its every fiber. I let it be still, until the scent of browned meat tugs my nostrils, then I turn it, and flip it and turn it again and again, watching the crimson flesh darken to the exact umber shade of the fructifying earth of my garden.
When most of the crimson is gone, in go the water chestnuts, pale as slivers of moonbeam, crisp as bamboo leaves, and sweeter than a mother’s love. They do not stay still–I do not want them to burn or fall into lassitude in the heat, so they leap and whirl, until they are joined by an avalanche of green and silver like verdant rain from above.
Scrape and turn and scrape; the rhythym of the wok is a steady heartbeat in the still air of the kitchen as steam wreathes my head.
A flash of wine, a sprinkle of soy, and the leaves shrink upon themselves, the greens going soft and slippery as a secret, the white veins as crisp as newly fallen snow. All is coated with a sauce gone dark with mystery and dripping with mischief.
A hail of peanuts rings against the iron, and a drop of sesame oil giggles as it swirls into the sauce, melting into the darkness, hiding like a salamander among the emerald leaves.
With a heave, the wok is raised, and the dancers move as one, as they are poured into the warm embrace of the platter.
Chopsticks hover, waiting to pierce the writhing veil that cloaks the dish.
It is done.
Five Fires Beef
3/4 pound piece London Broil, partially thawed and sliced against the grain into paper thin slices, then cut crossways into half, making 1″ x 1 1/2″ rectangular slices
1 tablespoon thin soy sauce
1 teaspoon dark soy sauce
1 tablespoon Shao hsing wine
1/2 tsp. raw sugar
1 tbsp. cornstarch
1 1/2 tablespoons peanut oil for stir frying
3″ cube fresh ginger, sliced very thinly lengthwise with the grain
3 fat garlic cloves, peeled and sliced thinly
4 thai chilis, sliced thinly on the bias (Or to taste)
1 teaspoon Sichuan peppercorns, toasted, then finely ground
1/2 teaspoon white peppercorns, finely ground
5 fresh water chestnuts, peeled and cut into thin slices
1 1/2 cups baby bok choy, washed, bottoms trimmed
2 tablespoons thin soy sauce
1 teaspoon Shao Hsing wine
1/4 cup dry roasted unsaltd peanuts
1/8 teaspoon sesame oil
Toss beef with next five ingredients. Marinate while you prepare vegetables–at least twenty minutes.
Heat wok until it smokes. Add oil and when it shimmers, add garlic, ginger and chile, and stir fry for thirty seconds, until quite fragrant. Add Sichuan peppercorns and white pepper and continue stir frying for another thiry seconds.
Add beef, and spread it out over the bottom of the wok in a single layer, pressing it down. Leave it alone for about forty-sixty seconds, allowing it to brown deeply on the bottom. Then, stir fry vigorously until nearly all of the red is gone.
Add the water chestnuts and stir fry until all of the red is gone from the beef. Add bok choi and continue stir frying until greens begin to wilt. Add thin soy sauce and wine, stir, then add peanuts.
Remove from heat and add sesame oil, stirring one last time before pouring onto a warmed platter. Serve immediately with steamed rice.
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