Over the course of many fruitful sojourns, food writer and cookbook author Fuschia Dunlop has tasted her way throughout China’s many provinces to learn its varied regional cuisines. Tasting her way from one street stall to the next, her epicurean pursuits have led her into the restaurant and home kitchens of farmers and wealthy merchants alike to document their local ingredients, flavors and culinary techniques. In her most recent book, “Land of Fish and Rice,” she travels to the “culinary heart” of China in the Lower Yangtze River region. With each recipe, Dunlop chronicles her adventures fishing on lakes or foraging with chefs for bamboo shoots and wild vegetables in the countryside. This Nanjing New Year’s salad is just one of the many delightful recipes she collected during her travels.
“In Nanjing, the capital of Jiangsu province, a colorful cooked salad like this is an essential part of the New Year’s Eve feast, and makes a pleasing contrast to the lavish ‘big fish, big meat’ (da yu da rou) character of the other celebratory dishes. It is traditionally made in large quantities so that it can be eaten gradually over the lazy first few days of the year. The salad should include at least ten different vegetables; some restaurants make it with eighteen, which is why another name for the dish is ‘Eighteen Fresh Ingredients,’ or shi ba xian.
“Some of the vegetables typically included have an auspicious symbolism, like ‘golden’ lily flowers, ‘silver’ bamboo shoot and soybean sprouts, which resemble the archaic ruyi scepter, an ornamental backscratcher made from precious materials. In Shanghai restaurants, red and green bell peppers and cucumber are often added. Celtuce, lotus root, arrowhead, winter bamboo shoot, tofu skin, snow peas and fresh mushrooms all make fine additions.
“I’ve tasted many different versions of this dish in Nanjing and Shanghai; the following recipe is my own amalgam. Feel free to tweak it as you see fit, and compose your own salad like a symphony of color. What you want is a pretty mix of hues, made harmonious by the strandy cut of all the ingredients; a hint of sweetness shot through with pickle pungency; and a gentle toastiness from the sesame oil. Double the quantities if you want a salad to tide you through the New Year holiday.”
NANJING’S NEW YEAR’S SALAD (金陵素什锦)
A few dried wood ear mushrooms
3 dried shiitake mushrooms
¾ oz dried lily flowers (optional)
2 celery sticks (about 5 ounces)
4 oz carrots
A bunch of spinach (about 4 ounces), washed thoroughly
¼ red bell pepper
1½ oz fresh ginger
4 oz soybean or mung bean sprouts
4 oz snow vegetable or Chinese black pickled cucumber, chopped
1 tbsp caster’s (or superfine) sugar
½ tbsp sesame oil
Cooking oil, as needed
Salt, as needed
Soak the mushrooms: Combine the wood ear and shiitake mushrooms in a bowl. Add the lily flowers, if using, and soak with plenty of boiling water for at least half an hour. (You can also skip this step if using fresh wood ear and shiitake mushrooms.)
Prepare the vegetables: Meanwhile, trim the ends and de-string the celery. Cut the stalks into 2¾-inch sections, then slice the sections into ⅛-inch wide strips. Next, peel and trim the carrots, then cut them into thin slices and again into ⅛-inch wide strips. Repeat these steps with the red bell pepper.
Trim the spinach ends and cut the stalks and leaves into 2¾-inch strips. Peel the ginger and cut it into fine slivers.
Once the wood ear and shiitake mushrooms are fully reconstituted, discard any stalks and knotty bits, then cut them into thin slices. Drain the lily flowers, if using.
Heat a ½-tablespoon of cooking oil in a seasoned wok over a high flame. Add the ginger and stir-fry to season the oil. Then add the mushrooms and lily flowers and stir-fry until hot and fragrant. Season with salt, to taste. Remove the ingredients from the wok and set aside.
Return the wok to a high flame and add another ½-tablespoon of cooking oil. Briskly stir-fry the celery strips until just hot enough to remove their raw bite. Season the strips with salt, then remove and set aside. Repeat these steps for the other vegetables, stir-frying each of the ingredients separately. Be sure to add a ½-tablespoon of oil each time and season lightly with salt, to taste.
Once the vegetables have cooled, transfer them to a large salad bowl. Add a tablespoon of the caster’s sugar and ½-tablespoon of sesame oil, stirring thoroughly to combine. Serve and enjoy!
All photos by Yuki Sugiura.