There’s a reason they call it “comfort food”–something about sitting down with a warm dish that’s both savory and delicious is incredibly reassuring. Mandy Lee, author of The Art of Escapism Cooking knows this better than most. While living in Beijing, Lee began a cooking blog as a way to cope with her unhappiness. Here, Lee shares one of the recipes that got her through a difficult time in her life.
Somewhere around 2013 in Beijing, my body was slouching an inch over my kitchen countertop, sobbing so violently that the muscle in the back of my throat began to get sore. For a moment I contemplated whether jabbing my paring knife into the helpless body of an orange lying bare in my sink, to watch its orange flesh being forced out of its rind in a juicy rupture, would at all help mitigate this troubling pathological episode. But nah, the orange couldn’t help me. Oranges don’t feel pain. The sobbing continued. But the orange pound cake with Greek yogurt buttercream tasted delicious.
It was the third year into the six-year span of me living in Beijing as an expat wife, the most difficult time of my life. In a desperate retreat, I fled into my kitchen and took what was originally a moderate hobby, cooking, and turned it into a recreational addiction that helped distract me from this unpleasant reality. I became, what I would like to call, an escapist cook. This book is a memoir with recipes, where I reflect upon these difficult days and make sense of them through recipes. It is for people who cook for one and one purpose only, happiness.
Italian Meatballs in Taiwanese Rouzao Sauce
America has hamburgers. Japan has sushi. Italy has pasta. As shallow and generalizing as it is, in terms of a culinary ambassador that serves almost as a symbol of national identity, what does my homeland, Taiwan, have? If somebody says Taiwanese beef noodle soup one more time, I’m going to cry over my boba tea.
Rouzao, man. Rouzao is the shit.
Rou means “meat” and zao, believe it or not, means “parched.” Two words that might not seem to make sense together, but in Taiwan they represent a sticky, gelatinous meat sauce made with pork belly and fried shallots. How is rouzao more monumental to Taiwanese cuisine than, say, the more commonly recognized beef noodle soup? Because Taiwanese foods will still stand with or without beef noodle soup, but if you pull rouzao out of the equation, the entire ecosystem will collapse into a sad pile of confused rubble. Why? Because rouzao is in everything. It’s on rice, it’s in noodles, it’s used to season blanched vegetables—hell, it’s even added to cakes! Think Italian cooking without tomatoes. Think Mexican cooking without corn. Think The Notebook without Ryan Gosling.
I’m utterly incapable of being impartial about rouzao—and specifically rouzao fan, which is rouzao on rice, aka lurou fan. You hover a bowl of that stuff in front of my face and I’m hardwired to react, salivate, and secrete adrenaline, a response so ingrained in my being that I can’t tell if it’s nature or nurture. Which is why I’m including a recipe in this book as a social experiment. Tell me—it’s not just me, right?
But look, I know how hard it can be to convince people to cook something they’re unfamiliar with. Therefore, I’m deploying one of my tactics for incentivizing anyone to make anything . . . and that is to turn it into meatball form.
Okay, Taiwanese people who are about to skewer me on a spike, settle down, because I’m not even done with my treason yet. To push my sacrilegious sedition even further, it’s an Italian-style meatball pumped with intensified porkiness from coarsely ground guanciale and a banknote of Parmigiano cheese for complexity. Flavorwise, it still embodies all the mesmerizing seduction of a traditional rouzao, the essence of which comes from fried shallots, and this recipe has a ton, and I mean a ton. But instead of a pot of ambiguous brownness, it now parades in the form of melty meatballs that collapse under the slightest pressure of a spoon, surrounded by the disintegrated fried shallots in a gravy of soy sauce and molasses and aroma-infused lard, as it all rampages through every nook and cranny of a bowl of hot, steamed sushi rice. And to cut through all the heavy-hitting richness, it’s accompanied by a few sweet and tangy tea-soaked prunes.
If you still want to nail me to a cross, well, let me finish eating this first.
MAKES 21 MEATBALLS, TO SERVE 6 OR 7
1 cup (240 mL) water
1½ tablespoons light brown sugar
1 teaspoon loose black tea or 1 black tea bag (I prefer Assam)
1 star anise
2 whole cloves
1 small cinnamon stick
1 teaspoon sea salt
30 whole pitted prunes
3 ounces (90 g) guanciale or fatty pancetta, cut into small chunks
2 pounds (900 g) ground pork
½ cup (25 g) panko breadcrumbs
Heaping ¼ cup (40 g) grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese
2 large shallots, grated
1½ tablespoons potato starch or cornstarch
1 tablespoon dark soy sauce
¾ teaspoon light brown sugar
½ cup (120 mL) soy sauce
3 tablespoons (45 mL) Chinese rice wine or sake
2 tablespoons molasses
2½ cups (600 mL) water
1½ cups (75 g) Dry Fried Shallots
2 tablespoons fish sauce
1 tablespoon plain powdered gelatin
1 teaspoon ground white pepper
¼ teaspoon five-spice powder
¼ teaspoon ground cinnamon
Steamed short-grain white rice
MAKE THE TEA-SOAKED PRUNES
1. In a small saucepan, combine the water, brown sugar, tea, star anise, cloves, cinnamon stick, and sea salt. Bring to a simmer over medium heat and cook for 5 minutes. Add the prunes and simmer for 5 minutes more. Turn off the heat and chill in the fridge for at least 2 hours before using but preferably overnight. (The prunes can be made up to 2 weeks ahead of time. They get even better.)
MAKE THE MEATBALLS
2. In a food processor, pulse the guanciale until it is in small bitty pieces but not ground. Transfer to a large bowl and add the pork, panko, cheese, shallots, potato starch, soy sauce, and brown sugar. Mix until evenly incorporated, then divide the mixture into 3 equal parts. Divide each part into 7 small meatballs. Toss each meatball back and forth in your hands to make sure it’s firmly packed. Set aside.
MAKE THE STEW
3. Preheat the oven to 320°F/155°C.
4. In a large nonstick skillet over medium-high heat, brown the meatballs until deeply caramelized all around. (There’s no need to add oil because the meatballs themselves will produce enough fat.) Add the soy sauce, rice wine, and molasses and cook, swirling the meatballs in the liquid, until the meatballs are glazed and the liquid is slightly thickened.
5. Transfer everything to a large clay pot (or any pot that has good heat- retaining properties, like a cast-iron pot or Dutch oven). Gently mix in the water, fried shallots, fish sauce, gelatin, white pepper, five-spice powder, and cinnamon and bring the mixture to a simmer over medium-high heat.
6. You want to reduce the amount of moisture lost in the oven as much as possible, so if the lid of your pot has a steam hole, place a piece of parchment paper on top of the pot. Cover with the lid, transfer the pot to the oven, and bake for 2 hours, until the meatballs break at the slightest pressure. (You can also cook the meatballs over low heat on the stove, but you’ll have to come back frequently to scrape the bottom to prevent burning, so I prefer the oven.)
7. This part of the recipe can be made up to 3 days ahead of time (in fact, I encourage it). Reheat slowly over low heat before serving.
8. By the way, you’ll notice a thick layer of fat floating on the surface of the dish. I really urge you not to skim off the fat, or at least to keep most of it, because this is supposed to be a rich dish. The flavor-packed lard is a key factor in giving the rice an almost voluptuous body and texture.
9. Ladle the meatballs and the sauce over steamed short- grain rice. Serve with the tea-soaked prunes.
NOTE ON FRIED SHALLOTS:
You cannot make rouzao without fried shallots. Nope. Can’t do. You can use a little effort to make your own, or use store-bought if available (usually found in Chinese or Southeast Asian supermarkets). Believe me, they’re worth it.
NOTE ON GELATIN:
Traditionally this dish is made with skin- on pork belly that is cut into very small pieces. The skin gives the sauce that sticky richness, which is crucial to the proper success of this recipe. So since the meatballs do not contain skin, we add unflavored gelatin to make up for it.
From The Art of Escapism Cooking: A Survival Story, with Intensely Good Flavors by Mandy Lee. Copyright © 2019 by Mandy Lee. Reprinted by permission of William Morrow, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.
Mandy Lee is Taiwan-born, Vancouver-raised, and slow-aged in New York for the better part of her life. Her previous three decades of literature-irrelevant life was uprooted when she moved to Beijing where, out of absolute misery and desperation, she started Lady and Pups, an angry food blog, in 2012, which unexpectedly ushered her into the world of food writing. You should know that she excels at giving unsolicited opinions. She exercises the same ferocity on her love of traveling as well as being home-bound. She is a dog person, but only because she’s never met a people cat. She is equally convinced about whether pigs should be pets or SPAM, which makes her a hypocrite. She dreams of having a farm where she raises only vegetables and fish to whom it would be difficult to develop emotional attachments. In 2016, she escaped her geographic adversary and is currently residing in Hong Kong with her husband and three dogs.