I’ll never forget the look of disapproval I got when she saw me outside the dorm smoking a cigarette and drinking a beer. Or the face of sheer embarrassment she wore when I tried to teach her how to dance. I imagine it felt something like the mortification I experienced when she insisted on holding my hand everywhere we went.
Yes, cultures did indeed collide when I had a Chinese roommate during my study abroad experience in Harbin. But finally one day, our mutual obsession with food landed us on the same page. Eager to forge a close relationship, the lovely Guan He offered to cook for me. She asked what I wanted, and without a second of hesitation, I asked for jiachang liangcai (aka Chinese salad).
Why, when someone is so intent on pleasing me, and there’s so much amazing food in China, would I pick a salad, you ask? Well, because it’s not only the best salad in the world, but one of the most satisfying and dynamic dishes I have ever had the pleasure of devouring. Crunchy, chewy, a little bit squishy, salty, tangy, spicy and vibrant, this dish has it all! And as I blissfully shoveled chopstick-full after chopstick-full into my mouth, I forgot about all the moments of confusion and awkwardness that had been shared between me and my roommate, and began to appreciate how dedicated she was to making me feel welcome in her city (however difficult it was for both of us).
In fact, my interaction with Guan He closely mirrored my overall relationship with China. Living there for five months in 1999 was extremely challenging, with a new, violent culture clash to experience every day. The temperatures were extreme, the language was intense and the people were welcoming and curious to the point that it could be a bit overwhelming at times. But in the end, we fell into sync, and hence began my decade-and-a-half obsession with Asia. I miss its beautiful scenery and the many sweet faces that shaped my experience there, but above all, it’s the flavors that leave me wanting more.
Makes 6 large servings
- 6 oz. Tianjin Starch Sheets (I found this in the noodle section of my local Asian market, but if you can’t find it you can substitute 6 oz. glass noodles.)
- 1 lb. pork tenderloin
- Salt & pepper
- Cooking oil for stir frying pork
- One hothouse (English) cucumber
- ½ head green cabbage, outer leaves removed
- 5 cloves garlic
- 3 scallions
- One small bunch (or ½ large bunch) cilantro
- 6 oz. shredded tofu (also found near noodles in Asian market)
- ½ lb. bean sprouts
- 4 oz. shredded carrots
- 10 tbsp. sesame oil
- 10 tbsp. soy sauce
- 5 tbsp. rice wine vinegar
- 5 tbsp. Chinese black vinegar (also found in Asian market, substitute balsamic vinegar if you can’t find it, or just double the rice wine vinegar)
- 1 tsp. Asian chili paste (such as Sambal)
- Extra soy sauce for serving
- Chopsticks for authenticity!
- And don’t forget the fortune cookies and orange wedges for dessert!
- Get thee to the Asian market!
- Boil starch sheets according to package directions (I stopped cooking mine about 5 minutes shy of what it said on the package because you want them to be somewhat squishy, but not totally limp.)
- Meanwhile, trim fat off of pork tenderloin and cut into thin strips about three inches long. Generously season with salt and pepper to taste.
- Coat the bottom of a wok or non-stick pan with cooking oil (vegetable, canola, etc.) and stir fry pork until it is lightly browned and no longer pink inside – break into smaller pieces as it cooks. (You want the little pieces of pork to be like hidden treasures amidst the sea of vegetables in your salad.) Set aside when done.
- Don’t forget to check on your starch sheets! (Drain in colander and rinse with cold water when finished cooking to prevent overcooking and sticking.)
- Chop cucumber into matchsticks.
- Cut cabbage into thin strips.
- Mince garlic cloves.
- Chop scallions into small, garnish-sized pieces.
- Rinse and dry cilantro (do not chop, keep sprigs whole and just separate a bit when adding to salad.)
- Quickly boil shredded tofu according to package directions (mine said 3 minutes), then drain in colander.
- Quickly blanch bean sprouts in boiling water for 1-2 minutes, then drain and rinse with cold water in colander to prevent overcooking.
- Now that your meat and all of your vegetables are prepared, it’s time to make the sauce!
- Whisk together the sesame oil, soy sauce, both vinegars and sambal.
- Put all salad ingredients (minus the sauce) in a large bowl and mix well. (Don’t forget the carrots, which should be all ready for you if you purchased them shredded!)
- Pour in the sauce and mix very well once again.
- Eat the salad right away if you want it extra crunchy and fresh, or let it sit for a few hours if you prefer it more saucy and slurpy. (I prefer it slurpy!)
- Serve by the heapful with extra soy sauce on the table.
- Pat yourself on the back for eating a salad and loving it!