Friday, December 09, 2016
This was my first-ever attempt at tangsuyuk, I think—by which I mean real tangsuyuk, not the travesty I'd made before, which used pre-made breaded pork.
I had followed, more or less, the advice from a YouTube video on how to make this popular Sino-Korean dish (well...it's as authentically Chinese as American-style Chinese sweet-and-sour pork is, so I'll let you figure out the authenticity issue; meanwhile, watch this awesome TED Talk about Chinese food throughout the world), but now that I've made the dish (with a few alterations), I have two major points of disagreement, both related to the pork.
1. The video suggests marinating the pork with vinegar. I found that the vinegar was way too intrusive, even after rinsing off the marinade and patting the meat dry before mixing the pork in with the cornstarch batter. Next time around, I'm going to use a bare minimum of vinegar, or I'm going to forgo the vinegar altogether. In fact, I'm not convinced the pork gains anything from a marinade at all. I used thinly sliced pork sold in my building's grocery. It was already of very good quality, and I don't think it needed enhancement for tangsuyuk-ish purposes.
2. In the video, the degree of golden-brownness for the fried pork is, in my opinion, too light. Most tangsuyuk from your typical faux-Chinese eatery isn't nearly as crispy, or as golden brown, as it should be.* So, having learned my lesson about deep-frying, I fried my pork to my preferred level of brownness and crispiness, which is a much deeper brown and a much crispier crisp. My standard of crispy-brown is roughly the same as Outback Steakhouse's when they make their popcorn shrimp, just to give you an idea of what I mean.**
So next time around, I'll keep frying the pork my way, but I doubt I'll marinade it first. I just don't see the point.*** Let's talk a bit about other aspects of tonight's dinner.
Pickling the veggies, except for the shrooms (I used pyogo, which you Statesiders may know by the Japanese name shiitake), was a most excellent move. It kept everything lively and flavorful, and the citric-acid accent of the pickling (a gentle solution of salt, apple vinegar, lots of sugar, and lots of water) went well with the dragonfruit-pineapple sauce.
The sauce itself looked awfully disappointing: it was grey and cloudy, and when I mixed it in with the veggies after having stir-fried them, the whole thing looked as depressing as the gravy you see with pepper steak. However, the moment I put down my rice, piled on some pork, and ladled on the veggies-and-sauce, the sauce suddenly made visual sense. Those black flecks you see in the above photo? Those come from the dragonfruit: they're not flecks of black pepper.
Let's go back to the pork for a second. The video recommended making a slurry of potato starch, cornstarch, and water. I had once heard from my brother Sean that a local Korean in Virginia had made incredible tangsuyuk, and that her secret was that her pork batter was nothing more than cornstarch and water. So I left out the potato starch and added water... thereby creating an impossible-to-stir non-Newtonian fluid that was extremely frustrating to handle and not nearly as compliant as the slurry seen in the YouTube video. The video said to mix the starch with water, then to let it chill a few hours in the fridge. After that, you're supposed to drain out the water, add some oil, and mix the oil in with the wet starch. I tried and tried, but ultimately I failed: after I'd added the oil, the slurry would harden and become immiscible every time I tried to stir it or massage it with my fingers. In the end, I decided to "fool" the slurry by glopping it onto the marinated pork and letting gravity do the rest. Sure enough, the slurry slumped and became a liquid that oozed and dripped through all the cracks and eventually coated all the pork evenly, at which point the now-battered pork became very easy to handle, and the heretofore immiscible oil suddenly became miscible. Problem solved. I do wonder, though, whether adding potato starch would have made the slurry less recalcitrantly non-Newtonian. An experiment for another day, perhaps.
So there were things that went right and things that went wrong, but overall, the food was quite delicious. The fruit sauce (to which I did add some sugar and lime juice to amp the whole thing up) drowned out the citric sourness from the marinated pork; the veggies had been pickled and stir-fried to just the right degree of doneness; the pork's crunchiness was the ultimate saving grace. All in all, this was a winner, and I'll likely be doing this again soon, though maybe not with dragonfruit, which adds little to the presentation except for the cloudiness in the sauce and those black-pepper-looking flecks.
*One shining exception is a spot in Ilsan where they fry the fuck out of the pork, but somehow keep the batter surprisingly light. My buddy Tom knows the place I'm talking about.
**Years ago, when I first met Charles, he and I went to a lovely Italian resto in Gangnam called Puccini. Puccini's approach to fried frutti di mare was cautious and delicate, resulting in a light golden-brown color that's similar to the blond tangsuyuk you see in the above-linked YouTube video. But while I might be complaining about too-lightly frying pork for the Sino-Korean dish, I'm not at all implying that Puccini was also in the wrong to use a similar approach. First, consider that, in Puccini's case, we're talking about seafood, which should never be over-fried for the same reason you never overcook any sort of water creature: seafood gets real tough real fast when it's overdone (my rule of thumb: if it looks done, it IS done). Second, Puccini's approach to the dish in question was to let the seafood speak for itself, which is why the dish I received wasn't covered in heavy batter; it was more like a panko fry. Joe's Steakhouse in Front Royal, Virginia, showed similar respect to its calamari.
***According to Chef Ann Burrell, a marinade normally has three components: an oil (like olive oil), an acid (like lemon juice or vinegar), and an aromatic (like garlic). If I do stick with a marinade next time, I'll probably substitute Coca Cola for vinegar as the acid. Plenty of Koreans do this when marinating galbi (short ribs).