Feeding the Dragon: Yunnan Potato Balls with Spicy Dipping Sauce
At first glance, I didn’t want to like Feeding the Dragon, the recently published travelogue/cookbook on China. First of all, there are the names of the co-authors, sister and brother duo Mary Kate and Nate Tate. But that’s not their fault.
However, young Mary Kate Tate asking in the introduction, “How can we record each person’s story, taste every dish? Have we bitten off more than we can chew?” is quite their fault. It reeks of a Julie & Julia attempt. I bet The Two Tates have talked about just playing themselves when the cookbook is optioned. Now I’m just being snarky. I did that with Julie & Julia, come to think about it.
At least my snark has backstory. I spent the first part of my 20s living in a small Chinese town as a student on scholarship, working as a teacher, model and even as an actress in some really bad television shows and one martial arts film to earn enough money to travel over 250 hard-seat hours by train throughout China. No credit card. No cell phone. No parents footing the bill. Pretty hardcore travel. Who can blame me for being snarky when it comes to a couple young hipsters who claim to have roughed it through China on a quest to “taste every dish?”
Just when I’m feeling quite smug, Mary Kate & Nate Tate (I just love saying that) do something that impresses the hell out of me — they admit to eating dog. They weren’t ballsy enough to include a recipe calling for dog meat. But I give credit when it’s due. And that took balls. I’ve killed the mood at more than one dinner party after raving about doggie dumplings. (Dog people can be so freakin’ sensitive.)
Positively speaking, some of the recipes, like Mapo (Spicy) Tofu, did take me back, some of the anecdotes are amusing and the photographs are gorgeous, making Feeding the Dragon, for me, a better travelogue than cookbook. Though I was often confused as to who was narrating, was it the Mary Kate or Nate part of Mary Kate & Nate Tate? For that, I blame the editor.
The book is divided into chapters based on regions where they traveled. Beijing, Shanghai, Hong Kong, Sichuan … I get those. But Tibet? And Xinjiang?? These are two of the sparsest landscapes in China. Culinary wastelands. They eat yak. In fact, Mary Kate writes (at least, I think it’s her), “It occurred to me that the extremely basic food of Tibet isn’t necessarily something to write home about. The yak butter flavor in tsampa can sometimes taste rancid …” Yet they do write home about it. A whole chapter to be exact which includes a recipe for Tibetan Butter Tea, the non-rancid variety.
I skipped the Tibet plateau chapter and chose to make Yunnan Potato Balls with Spicy Dipping Sauce partly because I love Yunnan province and partly because I had all the ingredients, one of which is unsalted butter. In China, I would’ve shaved my head for a stick of butter. During my nearly four years living there, I only saw butter in Hong Kong, which was then still a Royal colony of Great Britain. So, they had lots of butter.
Spicy Dipping Sauce
6 fresh small red chiles, seeded and thinly sliced
3 cloves garlic, minced
1/4 cup sugar,? juice of 1 lime
1/2 cup water
1/4 cup Asian fish sauce
Combine the chiles, garlic, sugar, lime juice, water, and Asian fish sauce in a saucepan and bring to a boil. Decrease the heat and simmer for 5 minutes. Remove from heat and let cool to room temperature.
1 1/2 pounds baking potatoes, peeled and cubed
2 tablespoons unsalted butter, at room temperature
1/4 cup water
1/4 cup all-purpose flour
1 large egg
1/2 teaspoon salt
Oil, for deep-frying
Place the potatoes in a saucepan and add enough water to cover them. Bring to a boil and cook for 20 minutes, or until the potatoes are fork-tender. Drain the potatoes well and place them in a large mixing bowl. Use a potato masher to mash the potatoes until smooth. Slowly stir in the butter, water, flour, egg, and salt and mix until smooth.
Heat up the potato mixture in a large saucepan or wok over medium heat. Stir constantly for about 3 minutes or until the dough begins to clump, and then remove from the heat and let cool in the refrigerator until cold.
Grease your hands with a little oil and form a tablespoon of the potato dough into a ball. Repeat with the remaining potato dough.
Heat 2 inches of oil in a wok over medium heat until a small piece of potato dough turns golden brown in 30 seconds. Fry about 10 of the balls for about 2 minutes, or until they are golden brown and crispy. Make sure to turn the balls over while cooking so that they brown on all sides. Use a wire strainer to transfer the balls to paper towels to drain. Repeat with the remaining balls. Serve the piping-hot potato balls with a side of the dipping sauce.
My husband and son liked them. But one loves Tater Tots. And the other is six. So …
Feeding the Dragon and its accompanying website do something very well — they both describe in great detail how to understand Chinese ingredients and how to find or substitute them. Feeding the Dragon is worth it for that alone.