If you follow this blog, or say, talk to me for about five minutes, you’re likely to get the impression that (1) I am a hardcore carnivore, and (2) I have recently become more than a little obsessed with David Chang. (But you know, not in like a threatening way … More like, You are my culinary soulmate. Let’s hang out together; maybe check out some antiques! Text me?) It’s true. I am a big fan of the meats (and David). So honestly, when I first read this recipe excerpted on Amazon.com, I was a bit dubious that a vegan dish could elicit such a passionate response from a devout porkatarian like Chang. I just didn’t get it. It’s basically a bunch of raw onions and ginger. How good could it be? I’m not even a huge ginger guy. But there wasn’t much to lose, so I gave it a shot.
As my sister described in her über-popular guest post, it ain’t easy to impress my mother in the kitchen. The one dish I remember making for her that she liked was a rice salad that I saw on Lidia’s Italian Table. She liked it so much, she told me how she planned to make it herself:
I’m not going to use cheese. I’m going to make my own way. Some chamgireum, a little bit of gochujang, some gim …
So you’re basically going to make bibim bap.
Mom was visiting from LA, and I was pretty certain she’d never had this before, so I made her the ginger scallion sauce. She was, as always, deeply suspicious of my measuring the ingredients. She’s constantly giving me a hard time about this.
Why did you measure that?
I just wanted to make sure I was close. It doesn’t have to be exact, but the ratio should be close.
She was actually most excited about trying the fresh ramen noodles, which she had never had before. We ate lots of the instant stuff growing up. Sapporo Ichiban, Original Flavor, soup base diluted two-fold. I joke with my Asian friends all the time about this. How much soup base does your mom use? To a man: half. My mom actually felt the need to remind me of this fact. You know, you should only add half of the powder. Yes, Mom. I remember. And I don’t eat instant ramen.
Bottom line: Not only were the noodles a hit, my mom ate the noodles, continued to spoon more of the sauce onto her rice, and started listing things that she would use that sauce on. Bibim bap. Brown rice noodles (good call). Mook (another excellent call). Dad’s really going to like it. Jason might not like it, because he doesn’t like ginger. She ate the rest of the sauce the next day while I was at work, and asked me to buy more green onions on the way home. And then went out and bought green onions herself. She made the sauce herself that night, and—I am not shitting you—measured the ingredients. I could not believe what I was seeing. Mom, are you actually MEASURING that??? She short of shushed and waved me off. I didn’t push it, and instead took it as the greatest possible compliment. She was so intent on reproducing the recipe that she sucked it up and used measuring spoons. I’m 38 and I’ve never seen that happen. Mom also emailed me several times after she went home to ask me where I thought she might be able to find usukuchi and exactly what kind of sherry vinegar to buy.
So what is it about this dish that makes it so magical? It’s the transformation that occurs when you combine ingredients that, if taken alone, would be unpalatable to most people. The intensity of the onions and ginger is cut by the oil. The oiliness is mitigated by the acid. The sauce does not taste overwhelmingly of onions or ginger, but instead adopts an emergent third flavor that is robust and clean. It gives you the sensation (which I rarely get from vegan food) that you’re eating something substantial. And it’s fucking delicious.
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Ginger scallion sauce
(dresses roughly 6 – 8 four oz servings of noodles)
2 1/2 C thinly sliced scallions (greens and whites; from 1 to 2 large bunches)
1/2 C finely minced peeled fresh ginger
1/4 C grapeseed or other neutral oil
1 1/2 tsp usukuchi (light soy sauce)
3/4 tsp sherry vinegar
3/4 tsp kosher salt, or more to taste
That’s the whole recipe. The additional tips Chang offers are: correct the seasoning (if necessary) and allow the mixture to sit for 15 – 20 minutes. That’s it. Of course, being who I am, I couldn’t possibly let you off the hook without offering a few tips of my own.
Ingredients Since scallions and ginger play such a prominent role in this recipe, it stands to reason that you want those particular ingredients to be as fresh as possible. It’s usually pretty easy to find fresh scallions. My go-to neighborhood grocery does not generally have good fresh ginger. How can you tell? It should be firm, fragrant, and have smooth skin. Break off the size you want from a larger piece. If it is dry and fibrous on the inside, dump it! And make a mental note to scold your grocer. It is worth being anal about this. I get mine from a Chinese market, because I know that it’s high turnover.
Re: usukuchi. This is a type of soy sauce that is lighter, sweeter and saltier. Kikkoman and Yamasa are common brands. If you can’t find it, you could substitute 1 tsp of regular (not low sodium) soy sauce. You may need to add a bit more salt to taste.
Prep My only comments here are about the ginger. Since the skin is very thin, you can remove the peel easily and quickly by scraping it with a spoon. A vegetable peeler also works. Can you use a microplane here, instead of mincing? You could. I like knife work, so if a recipe calls for mincing, I generally do it with a chef knife. The reason I don’t use a grater or a microplane to mince is that I find that doing so releases a lot more juice. You also end up with very fine strings instead of small pieces, so the texture is different.
Yield I usually don’t discuss yield, because people tend to have their own ideas about what constitutes a “serving.” But in this case, the book claims that the recipe makes about 3 cups. Not the case. The sliced scallions take up space because they’re little rings. When you add liquids, they occupy a lot of the empty space, and on top of that, the scallions eventually wilt. So you get about 1.5 cups, which isn’t too bad. Correspondingly, I add about half of what’s recommended of the sauce to noodles, and that works out about right.
Use The sauce can be deployed as a general, magical condiment. As presented above, it works great with noodles. What kind of noodles? In Chang’s world, ramen is king. But he acknowledges that fresh ramen is not always so easy to come by. When I don’t feel like hoofing it all the way to J-town, I have been known to use fresh chow mein noodles (known in NY as lo mein), which can be found at virtually any Chinese supermarket, and even some American ones. I’ve also had good luck with what Chinese markets call “vegetarian” noodles, which are eggless and contain alkaline salts (sodium and potassium carbonate). Thus, they are basically the same as ramen noodles. And as my mom brilliantly notes, this sauce would be fantastic on brown rice noodles. I don’t recommend using soba noodles. Why? Because craft, hand-cut soba noodles are quite delicate and I think would be overpowered by this sauce. I find the dried soba noodles you can get at the supermarket to be more or less inedible.
Putting the dish together If using fresh noodles, cook about 4 oz of noodles per person in boiling water that has been adequately salted. I cannot stress this enough. It’s striking how much flavor these noodles have if properly seasoned. If not, they taste like nothing. I like my noodles hot, so rather than shocking them, I cook until almost done. With fresh noodles, you need to start checking at about 2 minutes. When they are softened, but still quite toothy, remove from heat and drain. Add about 3 T of the sauce, and mix. If desired, garnish with sliced scallions, togarashi, and any number of other condiments: meat, pickles, a fried egg, pan-roasted cauliflower, etc. Serve immediately.
What’s up with the picture? If you check out the accompanying picture in the book, you’ll see Chang stuffing his face with some ramen noodles that have brown stuff on them. That’s not the ginger scallion sauce (which is presumably what’s in the tiny bowl in the center). My guess is that it’s hoisin sauce, or some liquid from the sliced pork belly nearby, which likely contains hoisin.