San choi bao is a popular dish at the Lunar New Year, although it can be eaten at any time. Normally, the "lettuce cups" are filled with a meaty mixture that can include pork, quail, or pigeon, but in this version, all the ingredients are plant-based. Like the meaty versions, this filling is a good mix of colours, flavours and textures, and the lettuce cups add a cool, delicate crispness.
This is a dish that invites improvisation. If you can't find some of the ingredients listed in the recipe, use others. You can add/substitute different types of fresh mushrooms and vegetables, and if you’re vegetarian but not vegan, mix in ribbons of thin egg crepe for more protein. Lotus root – diced or cut into thin matchsticks – is a delicious crunchy addition or can be used in place of the bamboo shoots.
Traditionally, golden thread mushrooms, or Cordyceps militaris, were grown on caterpillars infected with a fungal parasite. These are very expensive and used in traditional Chinese medicine. Now, though, these mushrooms are grown on “farms” without the need for the caterpillars. They have a delicious flavour and slightly chewy texture. If you can’t find them, substitute enoki or shimeji mushrooms.
It takes about three hours to soak the dried Chinese mushrooms; it may be more convenient to soak them overnight in the fridge. The other dried ingredients rehydrate quickly. Once all the ingredients are prepared, the dish takes less than 10 minutes to cook.
Briefly rinse the dried mushrooms, then put them in a bowl. Add enough room-temperature water so they “swim” freely. Leave to soak at room temperature for three hours (or refrigerate overnight), or until they are completely hydrated.
About 30 minutes before you want to cook the dish, start preparing the other ingredients. Break the noodles into shorter lengths. To prevent the brittle noodles from flying all over the place, place them into a loose, clean plastic or paper bag before breaking them up
Put the noodles, dried bean curd skin and bamboo pith in a wide, shallow bowl and add cool water so the ingredients are submerged. Leave to soak for about 10 minutes, or until fully hydrated. Drain the ingredients in a colander.
Squeeze the water out of the noodles and pile the pieces onto a plate. Squeeze the water out of the bean curd skin, cut it into strips about 5mm (¼ in) wide, then put the pieces on a plate. Squeeze the water out of the bamboo pith, cut it into 5mm (¼ in) rings and put them on a plate.
Rinse the golden thread mushrooms, then drain them in a colander. Squeeze the water out of the dried mushrooms (reserving the soaking liquid), then cut off and discard the stems. Cut the caps into small dice.
Peel and shred the carrot. Cut the bell pepper in half, then remove and discard the stem and seeds. Cut the pepper into small dice.
Dice the water chestnuts.
If using a whole bamboo shoot, remove the tough outer layers to reveal the tender flesh.
Cut the tip of the bamboo into thin rounds. Cut the remaining bamboo into thin slices, then into batons about 2.5cm (1 in) long.
Bring a medium-sized pot of water to the boil. Add the bamboo pieces, simmer for five minutes, then drain.
Slice the pressed bean curd in half, cutting parallel to the cutting board so the bean curd is in two even squares, then slice into thin batons.
Put the fermented bean curd in a small bowl and mash it with a fork. Mix in the soy sauce, rice wine, vegetarian oyster sauce, sugar, white pepper and 60ml (¼ cup) of the mushroom soaking liquid.
Heat a wok over a high flame. When it’s hot, add 20ml (4 tsp) of cooking oil and swirl the wok so it’s evenly coated with oil. If, at any time, the ingredients start to stick, drizzle in more oil around the edges of the wok.
Put the Chinese mushrooms and golden thread mushrooms into the wok, sprinkle lightly with salt, then cook, stirring often, for about 90 seconds.
Add the bean curd skin, bamboo pith, bamboo, water chestnuts and pressed bean curd and stir-fry for a minute.
Add the noodles, carrot and bell pepper and mix well.
Drizzle in the fermented bean curd mixture and mix thoroughly so the ingredients are evenly seasoned. Turn the heat to low, then cover the wok with the lid and cook for about three minutes, stirring occasionally.
Remove the lid and stir well, then taste the mixture and correct the seasonings, if necessary. If it seems dry, add some of the reserved mushroom soaking liquid. Put the mixture on a serving plate.
Remove the core from the heads of lettuce, then separate them into individual leaves. Pile the leaves on a plate and put some hoisin sauce in a small bowl.
To serve, smear a small amount of hoisin sauce in a lettuce cup and add the vegetable mixture. Roll loosely before eating.