Traditionally made by hand, erkuai (饵块) is a food unique to Yunnan province. Often made communally in a public mill shared by several villages and requiring a team of laborers, it is customary to produce erkuai on Chinese New Year. Fortunately for Kunming folks, according to China Daily at least, the best erkuai is made at a mill here in Guandu District.
Erkuai starts out as high-quality rice, which has been washed twice, soaked for an hour and then steamed in spring water. Once cooked, the steamed rice is pounded down into a soft mush with a huge mortar and pestle. The mush is hand-kneaded on a wooden board to remove any air bubbles and then shaped into is signature pillow shapes.
Once you buy erkuai, it will keep for two months in fresh water, which is a good thing since it's usually sold in a larger quantities than one person could consume. Erkuai combines perfectly with most fresh ingredients and is common as a street food. It is versatile enough to be eaten for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Two of the most popular ways to serve it are fried with spicy chili sauce or sliced ever-so-thinly and stir-fried with ground pork or pickled vegetables.
This recipe calls for king oyster mushrooms — in Chinese referred to as either xingbaogu (杏鮑菇) or ciqin'gu (刺芹菇). Although any mushroom variety will do, these are not only delicious, but also inexpensive and most plentiful during fall and winter. Buy a bright white king oyster mushroom and after washing, finely slice it on the diagonal. Stack up the slices and cut them together into matchstick-sized pieces.
The variety of other vegetable ingredients and the amount of spice you use for this recipe all depend on your own particular tastes. If you can't find erkuai at your local market, you can substitute store-bought Chinese rice cakes. This recipe serves four and can be adapted for vegetarians by simply omitting ground pork.
100 grams ground pork
1 thumb-sized slice of ginger, finely chopped and divided in half
1 heaping teaspoon cornstarch
1 tablespoon ShaoXing cooking wine
3 tablespoons cooking oil
1/4 cup skinned, unsalted peanuts
2 garlic cloves, finely chopped
3 green onions, both whites and greens, cut into four-centimeter slivers
1/2 chicken leg mushroom (equivalent to 100 grams), cut into matchstick slivers
1/2 red bell pepper, chopped into two-centimeter pieces
1-3 spicy chillies (to taste), finely sliced
10-20 prickly ash seedpods (also known as Sichuan peppercorns)
1 small Chinese cabbage, finely sliced
1 teaspoon salt or chicken bouillon granules
1-2 tablespoons dark soy sauce
1 teaspoon aged dark vinegar
1 teaspoon white sugar
1/4 teaspoon fresh ground black pepper
12 slices erkuai, the thinner the better
1 teaspoon sesame oil
1/2 cup cilantro (coriander), finely chopped for garnish
Marinate ground pork in a small bowl with cornstarch, cooking wine and half of the ginger for 10-15 minutes. Heat wok on high and then add one tablespoon of cooking oil and swish to coat sides of the cooking surface. Heat oil. Cook peanuts in the oil on medium-high heat for one minute. Remove to a small bowl, leaving the oil in the wok. Once they have cooled, crush the peanuts.
Heat wok again. Add pork and marinade, stir-frying until meat is pink and almost cooked. Remove pork from wok and set aside.
Add two tablespoons of oil to the wok and heat as above. Add garlic, green onion and remaining ginger. Stir-fry on medium-high heat for one minute to release aromas. Add mushrooms, bell peppers, spicy chillies and prickly ash seedpods and stir-fry on medium high heat until mushrooms are cooked and tender.
Add cabbage, chicken bouillon granules, soy sauce, vinegar, ground black pepper, erkuai slices and cooked pork. Mix well and continue to cook for three minutes or until the erkuai slices are tender, being careful to keep them from sticking together. Mix in peanuts. When ingredients are well blended, add sesame oil and garnish with cilantro. Serve warm and enjoy!
Editor's note: Roz Weitzman has been living and working in China since 2005 as an international school principal, writer, and educational advisor. An avid cook, Roz has epublished a cookbook entitled "Roz Weitzman's World of Chinese Comfort Food" as well as an illustrated version. They can be purchased on iTunes, Lulu and Amazon. There's also a hard copy Chinese Version of the same book, available by contacting Roz.
Since moving to Kunming she has explored the cooking traditions of Yunnan. Her book "Roz Weitzman's World of Yunnan Cuisine" will be available shortly at the above sites. More of Roz's recipes can be viewed on her blog (requires proxy) and PDF and soft cover versions of her books can be obtained by reaching her at roz[at]candismail[dot]com[dot]cn. She welcomes your comments by email. Bon appétit!
Giant mortar and pestle image: China Daily
All other images: Roz Weitzman