Seasons by the Sea: Craving Esoterica

If I wake up fantasizing about a particular kind of food, watch out
Papdi chaat is an Indian street food snack with many variations. Laura Donnelly

When I wake up in the middle of the night I usually begin to fantasize about palominos.I Google palominos for sale and imagine the fun of owning one. This insomniac behavior can last for hours. Sometimes I research vintage Airstream trailers, because, well, they’re pretty to look at. The Bambi model, measuring a mere 16 feet and built from 1961 to 1964, is the most totes adorbs!

But if I wake up fantasizing about a particular kind of food, watch out. Something is bound to happen. Last year, it was Szechuan dumplings — fat, silky pillows filled with porky bits or shrimp, swimming in an oily, spicy chili sauce. Upon researching where I could find the closest decent dumpling (one and a half hours away), I realized that spending that much time in the car just to satisfy a craving was madness. 

“You’re a cook, you should be able to figure out how to make them,” was my internal scold. And, with the Lucky Peach cookbook I did. Store-bought wonton wrappers, ground pork mixed with scallions and ginger, and a few tweaks to the “China Moon Cookbook” chili oil, which lives in my fridge, et voila. Now I have little plastic baggies filled with dumplings in my freezer, ready for any occasion — or obsessive craving.

Next was something called papri chaat or papdi chaat, an Indian street food snack with many variations. Basically, it is papdi dough cut into little circles and fried. I skip this step and use store-bought papadums. These are topped with a mixture of diced boiled potatoes, chickpeas, chopped onions, and tomatoes, and then drizzled with several chutneys, usually cilantro and either tamarind or mango. The final touches are a few spoonfuls of thinned yogurt and a sprinkling of sev, which are crunchy little fried chickpea noodles. The whole thing is light, healthy, and colorful, crunchy, spicy, sweet, and sour. It’s fun to lay out the ingredients for guests, like a taco bar, and let them have at it.

For a while, okonomiyaki was my favorite esoteric dish to make. I have written about it before; it is essentially a Japanese pancake made with cabbage, bound with eggs, and filled with anything from octopus to pork belly, seasoned with lots of scallions and pickled ginger, then topped with okono­miyaki sauce (similar to Worcestershire except a bit sweet and thicker) and a drizzle of Kewpie mayonnaise. For this recipe I fiddled around with some I found online and once again used a Lucky Peach version as a template.  

Another surprise I like to spring on people is kimchi pancakes. They’re kind of like Korean latkes. Kimchi, fermented cabbage (and sometimes radish), is one of the super foods of the moment because it contains healthy bacteria, lactobacilli, along with plenty of vitamins A, B, and C. It is salty and spicy, good as a condiment, side dish, or incorporated into stews, folded into scrambled eggs or fried rice, you name it.

After a good deal of experimentation, I settled upon a brand available at King Kullen called Chonnga. I like this one because it isn’t too spicy, and once it is combined with the other ingredients it has just the right balance of flavors. The pancakes can be a side dish, a snack, part of an all-vegetarian meal, and they freeze and reheat beautifully.

My latest obsession is XO sauce, a Chinese condiment that supposedly was invented in the 1980s. It is named XO after cognac, not because it contains cognac but because the ingredients are almost as expensive. Its expensive ingredients are dried scallops and dried shrimp. The first time I tried XO sauce was at Dim Sum GoGo on the border of Chinatown in New York City. There is always a tiny dish of XO on the table there, along with a little dish of ginger-scallion condiment. The XO sauce at Dim Sum GoGo is salty and a bit chewy, but not fishy. I purchased a commercial brand and it was overpoweringly fishy and nasty. Time for more research!

The first recipe I came across was again from the folks who write for Lucky Peach, via their latest book, “Power Vegetables!” This recipe had only a small amount of dried shrimp and scallops and included sesame oil, sugar, chipotle powder, and almonds. Other recipes had lots of fishy bits, shallots, and sometimes cured, not smoked, ham. In other words, recipes for XO sauce are all over the map. Because it is a bit time-consuming and the ingredients aren’t cheap, I decided to consult a chef buddy who is an expert on Chinese foods, Kevin Penner. Coincidentally, he recommended this exact recipe.

I was still wanting to find a recipe that used ham, because I’m pretty sure the Dim Sum GoGo version has ham in it. When I found an older recipe, from David Chang’s Momofuku restaurant, I decided this could be the one. It has a whopping two ounces each of the shrimp and scallops to yield a mere cup of savory sauce. Warning!

Being a true Southern gal, I already had a slab of country ham in the freezer, which is an adequate substitute for Jinhua, the dry-cured Chinese ham called for in some XO recipes. Everything is ground up individually in a food processor, then fried low and slow for about 45 minutes. The mixture looked like the beginnings of scrapple, and my house stunk to high heaven, but in kind of an uber-umami way. The final product is actually kind of dry looking and brown, as if your mom forgot about the sloppy joe hamburger on the stove for a couple of hours.

I’m kind of moderately pleased with this first foray into XO sauceland. It will be good (in small doses) on brown rice, plain rice noodles, shredded daikon radish, sugar snap peas, and, as Mr. Chang recommends, any seafood with high sugar content like scallops, shellfish, and squid. But I’m going to keep trying until it tastes like the version I crave.

Obsession and insomnia are not necessarily bad things. Sometimes they can lead to great discoveries and accomplishments. Even if you can’t go to India to sample papdi chaat or Korea for kimchi and China for XO, your own kitchen can take you to far-flung lands and teach you about exotic flavors.

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