Each Sunday I post a salad based on classic Chinese salad recipes, which I tweak and standardize so it's all-natural (no MSG!), easy to make and enjoyable for the traditional and noob palate alike. Each recipe can be enjoyed as a "Western-style" salad, by consulting my leafy greens pairing suggestions; or of course the Chinese way, as-is as a cold starter or side dish.
The literal translation of this Chinese radish is "Inner Beauty"; you can see why. The xinlimei (SHIN-lee-may; 心里美) is a pretty boring-looking bulb of a root vegetable, its skin the colour of low-grade jade; but slice into it and it reveals a pretty, fuchsia flush.
The dense and firm flesh resembles a carrot's, and its flavour bears a peppery, wasabi-like zing which makes it a perfect candidate for a garlic dressing.
The xinlimei may look exotic but it's a very common salad vegetable here in Beijing. Its ubiquity should remind me to look for the inner beauty in people, something that's been weighing heavily on my mind in the last two frustrating weeks (and, come the think of it, the last two years of living in this country).
I had just returned from a work trip to Shanghai before making this Sunday Salad and each time I go I am more and more convinced that the locals in Shanghai are definitely more hostile than the ones in Beijing. Scooters and all manner of jerry-rigged vehicles with unneccessarily (or purposely?) harsh horns zip around corners way too quickly, run red lights, fly in the opposite direction of traffic, and unleash a continual barrage of irritating and loud noises that would put a Hollywood machine gun scene to shame. The manager of the cheap hotel my company shuffled me into refused to apologize for the breach of security I discovered when, opening my door that morning, I found escort service calling cards pushed under the door and into my room. "Then just don't call the phone number, if you don't like it!" Practical, funny and strong-willed, what's not to like about people like him? Encoutering rude, dangerous drivers and rude, unthinking people sent me into a dark bout of glaring, blaming and shaming anyone who dared be impolite... which seemed to be everyone, like the pushers on the subway or the folks who aren't enthusiastic about queueing at the train station.
But on my descent I decided I had to be compassionate or I would go crazy and be just as gruff and rude as those who were rude. I started reminding myself that in most cases these people weren't being deliberately rude, they were just never educated to practice good manners; that the gruff practicality of their culture was a new one born from deplorable political events of the recent past. And that the gruff and rude "country folk" I'd met and been able to build friendships with, like Wang ayi and Ms Zhao in Huairou, were loud and mean-spirited on the outside but once you broke through their tough, worn-and-wrinkled skin, they had so much love and generosity in their hearts to share.
This xinlimei salad is a nice dish to kick off a new month and hopefully, a renewed resolve to believe in the inner beauty of people. As one quote I saw once said, "Be kind. You have no idea what struggles others are going through." The salad has a very peppery kick from the natural wasabi-like sting of the radish, the spicy raw garlic and the heat of sizzled red chilis. The way this is cut is quite unusual by vegetable standards but is a classic in Chinese cuisine; irregular but same-sized pieces are lopped off as you turn the radish, essentially beveling it like a jewel, to create radish "petals" that remind me in a way of orrechiette pasta. I reccomend letting the radish sit in the dressing overnight, covered in the fridge, to absorb the flavours, but don't hesitate to eat it right away as is commonly done.
"Inner Beauty" Radish in Garlicky Soy Dressing
- 1 xinlimei radish
- 1 clove of garlic
- 3 tsp light soy sauce
- 1 tsp water
- 1/2 tsp granulated sugar
- 1 tsp Chinkiang black vinegar
- 1 Tablespoon vegetable oil
- 1 Sichuan-style dried chili
- 1/2 tsp toasted white sesame seeds
- 3 springs coriander
- Wash and peel the radish, lopping off the gnarly ends. Go around the whole bulb with a vegetable peeler. Then, using a very sharp knife, slice off pieces by turning the radish as you cut irregular, not-too-thick "petals", essentially beveling the sides of the whole radish. go around the radish top to bottom, about three times (you should end up with about 300 grams of petals). Set aside and clingfilm the leftover radish for another use (will post a recipe of a basic, refreshing xinlimei slaw).
- Finely mince the garlic or push it through a garlic crusher. Combine with the soy sauce, water, sugar and vinegar and set aside.
- Heat up the vegetable oil in a frying pan or wok. Chop the top off the chilli and let the seeds tumble out and discard the seeds, then chop the chilli into 1cm-long sections. Just before the oil starts smoking, add the dried chillies, tipping the pan to let the chillies float in the pooled-up oil and fry for 30 seconds (at this point it will have only just begun turning very dark -- if the darkening happens sooner, you can stop cooking to prevent burning it).
- Pour the hot oil and chillies to the sauce mix.
- Toss to combine, then top with chopped coriander (I like to put several whole leaves on) and the toasted sesame seeds.
- Remember to practice compassion as often as possible, and that behind every person there is a story and a certain beauty to acknowledge.