Of the many useful things my mum taught me about cooking, probably the thing that’s served me best is understanding that it pays to take care with how you do your chopping.  I admit that sometimes it matters more than at other times: roast veges, for example, are more forgiving of oddly shaped neighbours than coleslaw is, for example; and if you’re making a fruit salad, evenly-cut fruit may be aesthetically more appealing but roughly-hewn pieces will likely still taste fresh and snappy.

This recipe for vegetable san choy bau, like most stir-fries, relies on well-chopped vegies.  Even knowing this in advance, however, and after the rigorous training as mum’s kitchen helper, this recipe surprised me.  There’s no way around it: the chopping takes ages, and because the joys of eating the dish are all about freshness, texture and contrast, there’s absolutely no substitute for careful chopping and timing.  It probably took me a good 30 minutes to chop the vegies alone, and then a few more minutes to assemble the other things before even firing up the stove.

So despite the very quick cooking time required for this dish, it is not a quick dish to make.  Leave yourself a good hour for unharried cooking, start to table, and you’ll be rewarded with a great vegetarian interpretation of an old-school Chinese classic.

I’ve included the vegetable preparation as part of the method for this dish, as I think it really is a crucial part.  If you think a food processor orother gadget could speed things up, by all means go for it. (Or perhaps rope in a kitchen hand? I thought it might be a bit early to get my son started on his kitchen knife training at this stage, but it won’t be too much longer if I have my way!)

Vegetable San Choy Bau
Adapted from a Kylie Kwong recipe, from Delicious

6-8 best pieces of iceberg lettuce
2 garlic cloves
100g green beans
2 spring onions
1 small carrot
3cm piece ginger
1/2 small red onion
5 fresh shiitake mushrooms
2 tbsp shaohsing rice wine
1 tbsp light soy sauce
1 tsp white sugar
2 tsp oyster sauce
1/2 tsp sesame oil
2 tbsp vegetable oil
1 cup bean sprouts
Coriander leaves, to garnish

Prepare the vegetables:

  • Select the best, most bowl-like leaves of iceberg, wash them and soak them in cold water for an hour, then drain and put in the fridge until you are ready to eat.
  • Into a medium bowl put the following: finely chopped garlic, ginger thinly sliced and cut into  slender matchsticks, green beans cut into 5mm rounds, red onion thinly sliced into half moons, and mushrooms finely sliced.
  • Into another medium bowl, put the following: carrot finely shaved with a vegetable peeler and then cut into matchsticks, spring onions finely sliced, and the washed bean sprouts.

Prepare the sauce: into a small jug combine the rice wine, soy sauce, sugar, oyster sauce and sesame oil.

To cook: Heat the peanut oil in a wok or large frying pan, then add the entire contents of the first bowl (garlic, onion etc).  Stir fry for 1-2 minutes until the vegetables begin to soften, then add the sauces and cook for another 2 minutes or until beans are tender.  Then add the entire second bowl (carrots, spring onions etc) and cook for another minute to warm through.  You want to retain most of the vegetables’ colour and crunch.

To serve: transfer the mixture to a serving bowl, and garnish with the coriander.  Put out the serving bowl and the dried and chilled lettuce leaves on the table, allowing people to serve themselves.  Scoop a goodly amount of vegetable mixture into a lettuce leaf, fold to enclose and eat.  This is not a glamourous dish to eat, so have napkins at the ready!

Yield: serves 2-3 as a main meal, 4-6 as an appetiser.