Wednesday, September 01, 2010

A taste of Xinjiang, in a glass

The last time I was in MaoMaoChong overindulging on one of their extremely generous '25 kuai Wednesdays' ("selected drinks" - which seems to mean just about all their current cocktail menu - just 25 kuai each on this night each week), I got into an experimental mode for a while.

They gave me something with a hefty garnish of coriander in it (their Mao Collins, I think it must have been). I was caught off guard for a moment, had been thinking it must be mint, and struggled at first to place this unexpected flavour - powerful, yet very appealing.

Once the penny dropped, I began wondering how best one might try to recreate the refreshing flavours of the classic Xinjiang salad lao hu cai in a cocktail.

Lao hu cai, the 'Old Tiger Dish', is an essential accompaniment to rou chuanr (mini mutton kebabs - an almost nightly snack for the Beijing drinker throughout the winter months), and, I think, one of the great litmus tests for a Xinjiang restaurant. It's delightfully simple, and brilliantly refreshing if done right; but so many places manage to find ways of screwing it up. It's just julienned cucumber mixed with a few strips of fiery green chilli, finished in a very light dressing (which is probably no more than heavily diluted vinegar) and garnished with handfuls of fresh coriander. When you get the proportions just so, the heat of the chillies is perfectly offset by the coolness of the cucumber, and there is no better palate cleanser for clearing the fattiness of the mutton-sticks (and the powdered chilli which encrusts them) out of your mouth. However..... well, sometimes a restaurant will apparently not have chilli, and will seek to substitute regular green bell peppers (or even just onions!) instead; that doesn't work. Sometimes, they'll have chillies that are far too hot, or use far too much of them; that, too, is a no-no. Occasionally, I've even known places to be out of cucumber, and try to serve the dish with just chilli (and maybe a bit of onion, for light relief). As I said, the ways of screwing something up in this country are legion. But when it's done right..... oh my!

Can we get that same impact in a glass? Well, the coriander is no problem: that clearly does work well in light, refreshing summer drinks. Soda water would seem to be the best fit for providing the mouth-cleansing, refreshing sensation of the dish. And the distinctive cucumberiness can be added by muddling some in the bottom of the glass (big lumps or fat slices will do, I think; no need to worry about producing the fine shreds of the dish itself). MMC proprietor Stephen Rocard infuses his own house spirits, so we thought his self-made chilli vodka (I love it in his Moscow Mule variation, the Stubborn Mule) seemed to be the ideal way to get the heat in the drink. However, I think his approach to the spicier infusions is perhaps a bit conservative; or maybe that particular bottle was somehow a bit weaker than usual - for me, it just didn't have quite the kick I was looking for. We 'fixed' it by adding a dribble of Tabasco as well.

And that, my friends, is Froog's Tiger Drink. Don't knock it till you've tried it.

I'm an ideas man, you see. I'm thinking I should add that as a category on here....


Froog said...

I gather Stephen, the MMC boss, was wary of putting this on the menu "because it seems too much like a mojito".

Pah! I think that's only because his Mrs - displaying the invariable Chinese fondness for sweeter drinks - insists on trying to put syrup in it!!

Apart from the refreshing soda water base, it's really nothing like a mojito at all: vodka NOT rum; cucumber NOT limes; coriander NOT mint; and spicy NOT sweet.

Unfortunately, I conceive of it as a summery drink... so I doubt if I'll have the inclination to try one again for several months now.

That is kind of paradoxical, though, because I mostly eat yangrou chuanr - and hence the lao hu cai salad - during the winter months.

Froog said...

I'm tempted to experiment a bit more with the infusing of spirits, though. We need something with a bit more of a spicy kick than Stephen's standard chilli vodka.

I suppose I could try making it all-in-one-bottle by adding cucumber too. Might be a bit tricky to control the balance of flavours, though. Probably a separate chilli vodka and cucumber vodka would be the way to go....

I've also wondered about trying a dash of Worcestershire sauce, to give just a hint of the tanginess of the salad's dressing; but maybe that would be guilding the lily. And I'm not sure that Worcestershire sauce would work in a light drink like soda water.