I TAKE MY CRACK, VERY… VERY, SERIOUSLY
I AM not, by even the most flexible standard, what you would call a person of a particular faith… I have no investments in god/gods, demon, Buddha, ghost, after-life, next-life, karma, heaven or hell… or paying somebody to tell me that I shouldn’t be moving my furnitures next week. I would almost say that I’m an atheist if I wasn’t in fact, slightly uncomfortable with the absoluteness of such term. When it comes to this stuff, I’m pretty sure the truth is… Nobody knows.
Look, I know there’s an unspoken rule for smart-asses to comment on anything, anything… as long as they don’t touch the subject of religion. So why am I babbling all this and making Jason very nervous? I guess I’m not smart, nor an ass, and also because I don’t want to sound the least bit superstitious when I say that my personality – the genetically coded behaviour – has largely dictated the scripts of how my life is played out. Or as some like to call it, “destiny”. A word I don’t use but I think that my previous 34 years of walking this earth up till now - including this blog, this post, everything leading up this moment – is predetermined by my hard-wired, inexhaustible desire to…
NOT leave my apartment. For as looong as I can.
Seriously, I cannot understate my jedi-like ability in talking myself out of leaving my home. Weather’s bad. Weather looks bad. Weather could potentially look bad. Going out means spending the money I have, or not having any money to spend on going out. Hey, my thumb is sore. Anything, perceivable by excuses, can make sleeping-in and laying low inside my comfortable bunker feel like a much better idea. It’s in my DNA, or “soul” as they call it. But there really is no romantic mystery to why I am now, after years of attempts for the opposite but still end up sitting here, “destined” to tell you about this particular subject.
No, not about religion. About cracks.
Obviously being a bunker-dweller, or living with one, it means we have to frequently deal with the scarcity of food courses. I know it may not look that way, but the diversity of our diet is actually… oftentimes limited. Aside from a couple of “new and exciting” experiments I churn out, gladly, for the sake of blogging, for the rest of the time, very possibly, we’re actually eating this. This as I call it, the crack-slurp.
Why because if we were gonna eat the same thing up to three times a week I daresay, it better freaking tastes like crack. Slurpable crack, and it’s as much about tastiness as making wonders out of practically nothing. Over the years, it has evolved into any Asian-style, non-soup noodles that are mixed in an intensely flavoured “sauce”, based on of course homemade….
The crack: The foundation… the mother-earth. I call it “crack” not only because it consists of fat-cracklings and crispy aromatics of some sort, but also because it will pretty much make anything it’s scattered on, taste goood. There’s a couple variations but most of the times, chicken skin-cracklings and crispy shallots fried in the same fat rendered from the cracklings. Sometimes crispy garlic or ginger is added to the equation. Solid crack + liquid crack. You know you’re set up to succeed.
But as we all know, one cannot sustain life purely based on crack. Other substances are needed, and for something that we consume in such high frequency, believe me when I say that I take my crack-slurp, very… very, seriously. Aside from the original that we’ve been “addicted to” for more than a decade, an sichuan-style “dry noodle” which is what we’re focusing on today, I have also discovered a few other exciting variations for diversity-sake. And they will be posted in the following month. But first, it’s helpful to get familiar with the crack-slurp principles… the breakdown of my equation for Asian saucy noodles, if you will. Aside from the crack, you’ll also need:
The carb: Asians love their noodles, no doubt. And as a result, there is gazillion different types of noodle to select from. As a rule of thumb, I like to go with fresh noodles made with wheat flour, or rice (a more common option in Southern China or Southeast Asia) which I store frozen in individual portions. But if in absolute isolation from any of this, dried noodles can be good substitutes.
The paste: There is always, always, some kind of “paste” that is unique to a regional cuisine in Asia. Always. They keep forever in the fridge, figuratively speaking, a “Godsent” bunker foods. From the more well-known miso from Japan, gochujang from Korea, to douban-jiang (broad bean chili paste) from sichuan, tianmian-jiang from northern China, and different assortment of curry paste from Southeast Asia. All widely available online these days and more will be featured in the following posts, but today, we’re talking douban, and this is the exact brand that I use.
The Seasoning: This part doesn’t stray too far from the usual suspects – soy sauce, fish sauce, vinegar, sugar and whatnots. What’s important is the ratio between each that builds a well-balanced flavour.
The spices: Goes from simple ground black/white pepper to sichuan peppercorns, chili flake or ground corianders and whatnots. Just a little magic dust to pump things up.
The aromatics/herbs: Diced scallion, garlic and sometimes ginger is my go-to, but the party gets more crowded as we move down to Southeast Asia.
Once you have overcome the phobia – if any – of rendering oil out of skins and fat (hey, exactly like cooking bacons…), and witness the complete transformation of shallots after a (figurative) baptize in the same oil until caramelized and crispy, and you mix all of the above good-things together, you will never see “weeknight meal” with the same light again. Enlightened… Found…
And as far as I go, this is as religious as it gets.
Servings: 2 people
Based on what’s most available, you can choose different fat to render the cracklings. Chicken skins (what’s used here) will give you chicken skin cracklings + chicken fat/schmaltz. Pork fat (what’s generally used in Asia for this purpose) will give you pork cracklings + pork fat/lard. And of course if you happen to have access to duck skins… oh lucky you. The recipe is what you need for exactly 2 servings, but of course, it will make total sense to double or even triple the crack-portion and store it in the fridge for future use (instructions follows).
I used the method of stacking, rolling, then freezing the chicken skins to get an even, unified thin slices. Of course if you want to just throw them in a bag and freeze, then cut into very small pieces, it’s not gonna ruin the dish. Whatever you do, flash-freeze the skin until hardens will make things a lot easier.
The recipe has MSG. Every single bowl of noodles you get from either restaurants or street-vendors in Asia, has MSG. But if you’re not gonna use it, the dish will taste great anyways. Just not as great.
The crack (makes for 2 servings):
- 6.2 oz (175 grams/approx from 2 large whole legs) of chicken skins, rinsed clean and dab dry
- 5 small or 4 medium Asian shallots, thinly sliced
- 1/2 tsp of fine sea salt
- 1/2 tsp of ground white peper
To make the crack: Stack the chicken skins on top of each other over a large plastic-wrap. Roll the chicken skins into a thick log as tightly as you can, then twist the two ends of the plastic-wrap together to secure. Apply another layer of plastic-wrap if need to. Freeze for at least 2 hours until harden. Then remove from the plastic-wrap and cut into thin slices, which will give you even strips of chicken skins. Add the skins to a non-stick pot/non-stick deep skillet (just trust me on this…) over medium heat. Let the skins render out its own fat, and stir occasionally as they slowly dehydrate and crisp up as they fries (they will get sticky mid-way through frying, then not-sticky again when they’re done), until they are golden-brown and crispy, approx 8~9 min. Drain through a fine sieve. Then season it immediately with 1/4 tsp of fine sea salt and 1/4 tsp of ground white paper. Set aside.
You should have approx 1/4 ~ 1/3 cup of chicken fat. Add however much vegetable oil you need to make it a heaping 1/2 cup, and return it to the same pot/skillet. Add the thinly sliced shallots and cook over medium-low heat. Stir constantly until the shallots dehydrates and turn lightly golden-browned, approx 10 min (they will continue to darken a bit, and will crisp up after removed from the oil). Drain through a fine sieve, then immediately season with 1/4 tsp of fine sea salt and 1/4 tsp of ground white pepper. Mix the fried shallots and chicken cracklings together, season with more fine sea salt if need to. Set aside.
If you want to store crack. Freeze the chicken crackling + fried shallots in an air-tight container, and refrigerate the oil in an air-tight container.
The slurp/noodle (makes for 1 serving only/for each bowl):
- 2 tbsp of crack-oil (the reserved fat)
- 3 tbsp of crack (chicken crackling + fried shallots)
- The carb: 14 oz (400 grams) of fresh, thick-cut Chinese hand-rolled noodles
- The paste: 1/2 tbsp of sichuan douban chili paste
- The seasoning:
- 1 1/2 tbsp of soy sauce
- 1/4 tsp of dark soy sauce (mainly adds color to the dish)
- 1/4 tsp of rice vinegar
- 1/4 tsp of sugar
- 1/8 tsp of MSG, optional
- The spices:
- 1/2 tsp of ground red sichuan peppercorn
- 1/2 tsp of ground white pepper
- The aromatics/herbs:
- 1 smashed garlic clove
- 1/4 cup of finely diced scallions
To make the slurp/noodle: Bring a large pot of water to boil.
Meanwhile, in a bowl, mix 2 tbsp of crack-oil, douban chili paste, all the seasonings and spices, and 1 smashed garlic clove (smashed enough to release flavour, but intact so you can pick it out later) until even. Cook the noodle until done, then drain through a slotted spoon and add to the bowl. Mix well, add a couple tbsp of the cooking water if it’s too dry. Then top with 3 tbsp of crack and the diced scallions. Mix again, and slurp.