When my wife and I were in New York for the James Beard awards a few months ago, we were wandering around the Lower East Side, and I was hungry (as usual). We turned a corner, and I spotted Mission Chinese Food’s New York outpost and I knew my life was about to get a lot better. I’d eaten at Danny Bowien’s San Francisco location a year ago and had been depressed because I was by myself and could only try a couple of dishes, so stumbling into a chance to eat his food again was a happy moment indeed.
One thing that stands out on the Mission Chinese menus is that a lot of unlikely sounding dishes are marked with a * indicating that a vegetarian version is available. Sure enough, I spotted and chose the vegetarian rendition of Stir Fried Pork Jowl and Radishes with Fermented Black Bean, Shiso, and Mint. It was terrific on several levels.
First of all, it turned out to be this big amazing soupy thing – not your typical saucy stir-fry, but more like a bowl of lightly thickened, flavorful broth. Which was mostly awesome except I was eating it to go, wandering around the LES while Sarina searched for comfortable shoes. And the broth was approximately 1 million degrees. So it was kind of risky business, wearing a nice shirt and trying to scarf this down, but totally worth it because…
Second of all, it tasted amazing. I’ve rarely seen red “American” radishes cooked, but the flavor is wonderful, with just a bit more kick than cooked daikon. And I’ve certainly never had copious quantities of shiso used almost as a vegetable in a dish. That flavor is one of my all-time favorites, but I’ve usually had a leaf or two as a garnish. Briefly cooking a big handful of it doesn’t kill the flavor, it actually kind of accentuates it. Each bite was a knockout. (Shiso is available in good Asian groceries, or it is extremely easy to grow, like the mints it is closely related to.)
Today’s dish is my off-the cuff attempt to make something similar. I included a few cubes of zucchini because that was what my garden was offering, and omitted the fermented black bean paste because, well – to be honest because I hadn’t gone back and read the menu description until just now, and was recreating it from months-old taste memory. But feel free to add some.
Oh, and you should absolutely check out Danny’s book, Mission Street Food: Recipes and Ideas from an Improbable Restaurant – it is both a super cookbook, and a very fun tale of how he went from early food-cartist to rather subversive restauranteur. If you want to cook some badass, atypical-for-America Chinese food or if you’ve ever had an ambition of running a restaurant, I’d call it a must-read.
Mission Chinese Food-Style Tofu with Radish and Shiso
Serves 2 as a main course or 4 as part of a larger family-style meal
Vegetarian, vegan, and gluten-free if you use gluten-free soy sauce
- 2 tablespoons sugar
- 1 tablespoon cornstarch
- 1/4 cup Seitenbacher brand vegetable broth powder or similar
- 6 tablespoons soy sauce (use gluten-free if needed)
- 1 1/3 cup water
- 2 tablespoons vegetable oil
- 8 red radishes, scrubbed, trimmed, cut into bite-sized pieces
- 1 smallish zucchini, medium-dice
- 6 ounces pre-flavored and cooked extra-firm tofu, like Wildwood’s baked Teriyaki tofu – you can also use plain extra firm tofu and fry it yourself, I just happened to have this on hand and it worked well in this dish
- 12 whole small red chili pods – I believe they are chili de arbol in Mexican markets, or the ones you typically see in Kung Pao style dishes from a Chinese market (less if you don’t care for spicy food)
- 6 green onions cut into 1″ lengths
- About 20 leaves of shiso
- 2 green onions thinly sliced for garnish
- In a small bowl, whisk together the sugar, cornstarch, and vegetable broth powder. Add the soy sauce and whisk to begin to form a paste. Drizzle in the water, whisking to break up lumps. Once the lumps are dissolved, you can add the rest of the water quickly.
- Heat a wok or large cast iron skillet over maximum heat. When it is smoking hot, add the oil and immediately add the radishes and zucchini. Stir-fry until they begin to color and become tender. Add the tofu and chili pods and stir-fry for about a minute, until the tofu picks up a little color.
- Whisk the sauce one more time, reduce the heat of the pan to medium, and add the sauce all at once. It will sputter and boil so be careful. When it reaches a boil, you will see it start to thicken just a bit and turn glossy. Add the green onion and shiso and stir through.
- Quickly, transfer to a serving bowl (or individual bowls), garnish with the green onion, and serve. Warn guests not to eat the chili pods!