|Vegetarian rou zao (肉燥), in danzai noodles|
I looked up how to make southern Taiwanese meat sauce*, rou zao (肉燥) when I was craving dan zai mian (擔仔麵), an old-school noodles classic usually with a prawny-porky broth, prawns, some egg and this meat sauce.
I ended up making it for a potluck at the Future of Food roundtable organised by marketing consultancy CatchOn, and it was surprisingly fitting for the occasion, as dan zai mian was considered fisherman's food - seafood leftovers would be tossed in the broth - a prime example of common sense of yore that respects and conserves resources, not for "green" reasons, but because it's just practical.
For my meat sauce, I tried using some "beef crumble" from Beyond Meat, a company that creates "meat" products from plant proteins. Now, before you close this tab and dismiss it as another attempt at some tempeh or tofu burger hippy dippy thing, let me tell you this - there's a good chance you would not know it wasn't meat**. In Hong Kong, you can find Beyond Meat at Green Common, and it's probably one of the best grocery store discoveries I've made this year.
Anyway, this is the result of my sleuthing around on the Internet for a good rouzao recipe - and sure, you can use pork***, but I'm finding Beyond Meat's beef crumble good for any mince-based recipe too, Asian or otherwise.
Vegetarian rouzao - Southern Taiwanese meat sauce
250g BM beef crumble
2 tablespoons dark soy
1 tablespoon light soy
3-4 shallots, thinly sliced (or around 5 tablespoons of pre-deep-fried shallots, readily available in HK supermarket or Southeast Asian grocery stores)
2 tablespoons Shaoxing wine
1-1.5 teaspoons of five spice powder
1 dice-sized piece of rock sugar, or around 1 tablespoon of regular sugar
oil for deep-frying shallots (you won't need it if you buy pre-fried)
If you are deep-frying your own shallots, heat the oil in a medium-depth pan****. You can test the heat of the oil by sticking a bamboo chopstick or skewer in - if bubbles come up the sides, it's ready. Or, you can just throw in a little piece of shallot and see how quickly it fries. Don't overheat the oil. Pat the shallots dry and fry until deep golden brown and fully crisp. Strain the oil and set the shallots aside on some paper towels to absorb any excess oil. You can do this step way in advance, so long as you strain and store the shallots in a dry place.
Heat a regular skillet or wok and put your mince in, and be sure to break it up. Add about a third of the fried shallots, all the five spice powder, and a teeny bit of white pepper, and mix briefly to distribute evenly. Add the soy sauces and enough water to cover the mixture. Let it simmer until the water is almost all gone.
Add another 1/3 of the fried shallots, mix briefly, and add the wine and let it evaporate (you'll smell it instantly), then add sugar and a little water barely to the level of the mince, and cook until the sugar dissolves. If the colour looks too pale, add a touch more dark soy, and adjust your flavouring as needed (sugar, five spice etc. I doubt you'll need more salt as the Beef Crumble is already seasoned).
As the liquid is beginning to cook off, add the final 1/3 of fried shallots and stir on the stove until combined.
Spoon on top of your danzai noodles, or on rice, or whatever!
*While looking for a good rouzao recipe, I came across this one on Serious Eats. The author calls it lurou (滷肉) as in the the meat sauce that's on top of luroufan, commonly found in northern Taiwan (I tried a pretty good version in Taipei here), but the recipe, which calls for ground meat and pre-deep-fried shallots, makes it much more similar to the rouzao recipes (written by Taiwanese people) I found online. The ingredients are similar but lurou typically uses batons, or even slices of fatty pork (belly is often used) and throw raw shallots in with the meat. From memory, it is usually also more savoury and less spiced (especially sweet spices - cloves seem to be the choice for lurou, whereas five spice is for rouzao). I know I'm being a bit an@l but I do believe the two recipes are different, and labelling matters... It brings me back to the days when people would shout konnichiwa at me or bow with their hands in prayer position.
**You know it takes around 20,000 of litres of water just to produce a couple of steaks, right? Animal farming, especially cattle, is so resource-intensive it makes no sense for us to eat it all the time. If you love food, you won't want it to run out.
***If you do decide to use pork, you may need to increase all the liquids, and the cooking time, and probably add a bit more light soy.
**** My friend Rachel who is a much better cook than I Whatsapped me with tips about frying shallots after reading this recipe. Considering I used store-bought pre-fried shallots, I would say she's a better source of instructions: "I find it a lot easier to do fried shallots by starting the shallots in cold oil / Add shallots and oil to a pan THEN turn on heat to medium/medium-low / I find it gives you WAY more leeway to get your shallots crispy without burning / Plus you can actually just listen and do other stuff / When it starts to heat it'll have the spluttery sound [of] moisture slowly driving off."