Fifteen years ago China was a net exporter of grain. Now it is the second largest importer of grain in the world. It was once also the world’s leading producer of soya beans, but now it imports soya too.
The seeds of these extraordinary changes were sown in China’s economic reforms which began in the late 1970s. Since then, as its economy has developed, average incomes in China have risen sharply and the country now has a relatively affluent middle class which has developed a more sophisticated diet, moving away from basic staples towards a westernised diet involving much more meat consumption.
Some 1.35 billion people live in China, one fifth of the world’s population, and meat consumption requires plenty of grain and soya, hence the reason for China’s move from being a net exporter to becoming a net importer of the key components of animal feed.
This change in dietary preferences of such a significant proportion of the world’s population over a relatively short space of time has brought more urgency to a problem we already knew we faced – how do we feed a rapidly growing world population on shrinking amounts of arable land?
Some simple arithmetic might help answer that question. It takes 16 kg of grain and soya protein to produce 1 kg of beef protein. If we ate less meat, we could make better use of the farmland available to us by growing more plant protein for human consumption, making it easier to feed everyone.
And if we did that we would also help tackle another major problem facing humankind – global warming. The meat industry is, by far, the single biggest contributor to greenhouse gas emissions.
This recipe is a small-scale reversal of the trend, being a vegan version of a classic meat dish from from China’s Szechuan province, a region with a rich and distinctive cuisine.
Named in honour of a 19th century governor of the province, at the heart of the dish is an oil called “ma-la”, which translates as “numbing-spicy hot”. The “spicy hot” element derives from the chilli and star anise whilst the “numbing” element comes from Szechuan peppercorn (not actually a pepper at all but the fruit of the prickly ash).
So this “numbing, spicy hot” oil provides the starting point for the dish. It follows that this is probably not a recipe for the faint hearted, but the more intrepid cook will be rewarded by a sumptuous dish brimming with rich, harmonious layers of flavour and heat.
If you cannot source roasted peanut oil, use another oil with a high smoke point, such as groundnut or rapeseed oil. Szechuan peppercorn are fairly widely available.
Kung Pao cauliflower
1 head of cauliflower, broken into florets, each about 1½-2 cm
4 cloves garlic, finely chopped
2 red chillies, seeds in, finely chopped
2 cm piece of ginger, peeled and finely chopped
4 spring onions, sliced, including green parts
50 g unsalted peanuts, dry fried and roughly chopped
2 tbsp fresh coriander, chopped
50 g organic cornflour
for the ma-la cooking oil
125 ml roasted peanut oil (use groundnut oil if not available)
2 star anise
1 tsp Szechuan peppercorns
1 tsp dried chillies
1 tbsp toasted sesame oil
for the marinade
100 ml organic soy sauce
50 ml Chinese rice wine (use sake or dry sherry if not available)
1 tbsp maple syrup
1. First, make the ma-la cooking oil. Place a wok over a high heat. Add the oil and once it is hot enough to start shimmering add the star anise, the Szechuan peppercorns and the chilli flakes and stir to combine. Keep on a high heat for thirty seconds then remove from the heat. Sir in the sesame oil and leave to cool for a few minutes before straining the oil through a muslin cloth placed over a fine sieve.
2. Next make the marinade. Mix together the soy sauce, rice wine and maple syrup. Add the cauliflower florets, mix to coat them in the marinade and set to one side for at least 30 minutes. Put the cornflour in a separate bowl next to the cauliflower.
3. Place a wok over a high heat and pour in half of the ma-la oil. When the oil is hot, lift out the cauliflower florets individually from the marinade and roll them in in the cornflour until they are coated. Keep the remaining marinade to one side.
4. Fry the florets in the ma-la oil , stirring continuously, until they are evenly browned and crisp. This will take about 3-4 minutes and you may need to do it in 2 or 3 batches to prevent overcrowding the pan which would also reduce the oil temperature. Add a little more ma-la oil between batches if necessary, but be sure to keep back 2 tablespoons for the next step. Drain the cauliflower on kitchen paper and set to one side.
4. Wipe the wok clean and return to a high heat. Add the remaining ma-la oil. when the oil begins to smoke add the chilli, garlic and ginger and stir fry vigorously for 30 seconds before adding the spring onions. Continue to stir.
5. After a further minute, add the cauliflower, peanuts and most of the coriander, reserving a little for garnish. Stir for 30 seconds then add the reserved marinade, which will quickly bubble up. Cook for one minute more, stirring or tossing the wok so that the cauliflower is coated with sauce. Remove the wok from the heat.
6. Serve the Kung Pao cauliflower scattered with the remaining coriander, alongside plain steamed rice and, if you like, some simple steamed vegetables such as pak choi, broccoli or green beans.