East meets West – wild garlic, Sichuan-style

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This week we went foraging for what’ll probably be the last of this year’s wild garlic. It’s rare to be able to gather it so close to the start of June, and after a late start – disrupted by the snows at the back end of March – this year’s ended up yielding a good crop. I’ve made plenty of wild garlic butter; there’s a kilner jar of pesto in the fridge, ready to add a splash of bright viridescence to a bowl of pasta; and we’ve sprinkled flowers over half the dishes we’ve eaten this week. Forget the adage of ‘make hay while the sun shines’… more like make the most of nature’s most abundant free food while you can.

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I love cookbooks, but it’s rare a cookbook excites and engrosses me as utterly as Fuschia Dunlop‘s Every Grain of Rice. Recommended by a swathe of foodie friends, I got it six weeks ago and have been rapt with attention… more so than her other writing. The sheer simplicity and balance of the many recipes chimes with my style of cooking; and the comprehensive yet conversational tone draws the reader in. As a result I’ve already cooked a broad selection of recipes from the book, with many more earmarked to try soon. However one recipe leapt out at me as soon as I opened the book… and it’s one of the very simplest. It’s called Stir-fried Garlic Stems with Bacon (La Rou Chao Suan Tai).

It turns out these particular garlic stems (suan tai/suan mian/suan xin) aren’t something we often get in the UK. She’s written a great article about the subject here… comparing them with green garlic and other alliums. I’ve seen the latter in several Asian shops in Manchester. But as soon as I saw the photo of the Stir-fried Garlic Stems, my mind lept to wild garlic. As the season progresses, the stems grow longer… and in the past I’d snipped them off to discard them, concentrating on cooking the leaves and flowers.

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The recipe itself is so simple its a doddle to follow, and takes only a couple of minutes to cook.

  • 250g garlic stems
  • 3 rashers of streaky bacon or similar (I used somewhat less but of my own home-cured guanciale, which has so much flavour a little goes a long way)*
  • 3 tbsp cooking oil (I’ve used lard too, to amp up the savoury flavour)
  • Salt to taste
  • 1/2 tsp sesame oil

Heat the oil in a wok, then add the bacon/pancetta/guanciale and stir through. Add the stems and fry until wrinkled slightly, then salt to taste. Bring off the heat, drizzle over the sesame oil, and serve.

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I’ve cooked this several times in the last few weeks… served simply with plain rice, or alongside other dishes such as Mapo Tofu (Pock-marked Old Woman’s Tofu), where I’ve used even more wild garlic stems and leaves.

I’ve also tried Fuschia’s suggestion for a vegetarian-friendly version, using chestnut mushrooms, and also rehydrated shiitakes which had been used in a stock. Both were excellent, although the flavour wasn’t as rich as the porky version, so I’d perhaps add a tablespoon of diluted miso or the reserved mushroom soaking liquid to the wok to coat the stems before salting and finishing.

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Either way, it’s a superb dish which takes full advantage of free, local and foraged food. Embrace it while spring (and the ramsons) are still here!

*This harks back to the first time I paired wild garlic and pork a few years back: it’s still one of my favourite flavour combinations and is equally good in a British or Chinese-inspired dish.

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3 replies
  1. thelittleloaf
    thelittleloaf says:

    Do you know, I think the first recipe I ever read on this blog was your recipe for wild pesto! This looks every bit as delicious – I really do need to go foraging, such gorgeous spoils!

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