We know what you're thinking, What the heck is vegetarian eel? Trust us, it's worth discovering. In Fuchsia Dunlop's new book, Land of Fish and Rice, she describes a popular Jiangnan dish of fried eel in a sweet-and-sour sauce, but since eel isn't commonly available in the States, she also offers up a fish-free alternative popular in Buddhist vegetarian restaurants. Dried shiitake mushrooms are reconstituted, then dredged in potato starch and deep-fried before getting tossed in a sweet-and-sour sauce.
If you're unfamiliar with some of the ingredients used in the sauce, here's a primer: Chinkiang vinegar is a black vinegar common in Asian dishes and is often sweetened to make a sauce for dumplings. Light soy sauce is the bottle you probably have in your pantry, while dark soy sauce is sweet and salty, and thick like syrup. If there's one thing you will be certain of, it's that this vegetarian dish trumps any sweet-and-sour takeout.
To learn more, read “The Other Chinese Cuisine You Need to Know.”
Sweet-and-Sour Vegetarian Eel
Recipe adapted from 'Land of Fish and Rice,' by Fuchsia Dunlop
Yield: 2 servings
Prep Time: 15 minutes, plus soaking time
Cook Time: 10 minutes
Total Time: 25 minutes, plus soaking time
For the Sweet-and-Sour Sauce:
3 tablespoons granulated sugar
2 tablespoons Chinkiang black vinegar
1 tablespoon Shaoxing rice wine
2 teaspoons light soy sauce
½ teaspoon dark soy sauce
For the Mock Eel:
9 medium (1 ounce) dried shiitake mushroom caps
Boiling water, for soaking
Vegetable oil, for frying
½ cup potato starch
One 2-inch piece ginger, julienned
½ green bell pepper—stemmed, cored and thinly sliced
½ red bell pepper—stemmed, cored and thinly sliced
1 teaspoon sesame oil
1. Make the sweet-and-sour sauce: In a small bowl, whisk all of the sauce ingredients together. Set aside.
2. Prepare the mock eel: In a small bowl, cover the dried shiitake mushroom caps with boiling water. Place a small plate or bowl on top to submerge the mushrooms and let sit until rehydrated, 30 minutes. Drain the water and dry the mushrooms well with paper towels, then cut into ½-inch slices.
3. In a medium saucepan, heat 2 inches of vegetable oil to 350º and line a plate with paper towels. Toss the mushroom slices with the potato starch to coat, shaking off any excess. Add the mushrooms to the oil and fry until crisp but pale, 2 minutes. Using a spider spoon, transfer the mushrooms to the prepared plate to drain. Raise the oil temperature to 400º.
4. Return the mushrooms to the oil and fry until golden, 2 to 3 minutes. Transfer the mushrooms to prepared plate to drain again.
5. Transfer 1 tablespoon of the fryer oil to a medium skillet over medium-high heat. Add the ginger and cook fragrant, 1 to 2 minutes. Add the sauce and peppers to the pan, stirring until the sugar has dissolved and the peppers have softened, 1 to 2 minutes. Add the fried mushrooms and stir to coat. Remove from the heat and stir in the sesame oil, then transfer to a plate and serve.