Bamboo soup with pork ribs and rice cakes

Let’s talk about meat.

These days I am up to my elbows in the stuff–research-wise, I mean. As I suggested in an earlier post, I am currently working on a paper to try to determine just how much meat Chinese people ate in the early twentieth century.

It’s an interesting puzzle, because every source presents a slightly different picture. Kind of like the four blind men trying to describe an elephant, except instead they try to eat it.

And even though I now have whole spreadsheets full of numerical data, this project is giving me ample proof for mistrusting quantitative research, at least on its own.

So what do you want to do after a full day of reading about meat, slaughterhouses, hides and pig bristles (an average of .9kg per pig, in case you wanted to know)? No real pattern: some days I spend all day reading this stuff and really want a hamburger, and some days I really want anything else.

Today’s dish has something for both days, which is why I made a lot if it. The main ingredient is dried bamboo shoots, which are a specialty item that you can pick up in any Asian store, but of course, that’s the easy part…now you have to cook them. It also has pork ribs, Korean bean paste and Japanese rice cakes, all of which are fairly esoteric, but we’ll talk about substitutions as we go.

Acquire for yourself one package of dried bamboo shoots.

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There are lots of different kinds. In addition to storage, drying foods like bamboo shoots also concentrates their taste, sometimes in conjunction with fermentation. So the bamboo shoots you buy may be salted or not. Some have a strong sour taste–you really wont know until you open the package. Soaking not only rehydrates the bamboo shoots, it lets you dilute the taste and smell to your liking. I used about 200g of the plain ones, but still soaked them for two nights, changing water in the morning and evening. (Be warned, soaking bamboo shoots uncovered can really stink up a kitchen).

Even after the shoots are plumped up, they will still be chewy. Cut them into thin strips. At this point you could stir fry them, but we’re making soup, so just set them aside.

The strong taste of the bamboo shoots needs a balance, so pork is your best bet. Pork belly is ideal, but we used about one pound of pork ribs. Brown slightly in a large pan, add a thumb-sized piece of fresh ginger, sliced thin, one package of soft tofu, cubed and about 4 cups of water.

Start the liquid on a slow boil and add 1 tsp salt, 1/4 cup of soy sauce, white pepper and one large tablespoon of Korean bean paste. If you don’t have Korean bean paste, you can add miso or Chinese doubanjiang, or if you’re really stuck, just leave it out.  Remember that all of the salty ingredients are to taste — especially if you are using salted bamboo shoots, you’ll use a lot less of these.

Cover and cook the soup on a low boil until the ribs are nearly done. Add 1 cup of sake, and cook for another 15 minutes.

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We served ours with mochi, Japanese rice cakes that come packaged in this attractive little square, but become soft and chewy after a minute in the microwave. You can substitute rice noodles, or leave out the rice altogether.

The broth of this soup absorbed all the flavors of the meat, the bean paste, and of course the bamboo shoots. Like any soup, this will be even better the next day, so make lots!

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