Sat, Jan 21, 2017 - Page 13 News List

Peas please

Snow peas are coming into season, providing a splendid side to all kinds of dishes, fish in particular

By Ian Bartholomew  /  Staff reporter

Snow peas, with their delicate yet intense flavor, are a perfect accompaniment to fish dishes.

Photo: Ian Bartholomew

It is the season for fresh Taiwan-grown snow peas and this can only be a reason for celebration. They have just started to appear in our local street-side market, the beautifully shaped pods promising a special treat.

The Taiwan strain of snow pea seems vastly more buff than those I grew up seeing in western vegetable markets, with pods often twice or three times the size. This used to concern me, as big does not always mean better in the vegetable world. But fear not, these massive pea pods deliver not just in taste but also in texture.

I was brought up on tiny little snow peas, no longer than a finger in length and with the thinnest of pods. These are pisum sativum var saccharatum, also called mangetout in French cuisine, and in local cuisine can be most clearly identified by their Hoklo name of Holland beans (荷蘭豆), presumably due to some introductory duties performed by early Dutch traders. They are thought to have originated in the Mediterranean and western Asia, but have adapted well to the more humid climate of Southeast Asia, though as indicated above, they seem to have adapted somewhat to the Taiwanese climate.

It is worth noting that while they are described as peas they are quite distinct from field or garden peas in that they have edible pods. There is some complex genetic reason why the pods lack the fibrous texture of most peas, which need to be shelled before eating. It is a trait that is shared with sugar snaps, which are also currently in season. These provide even greater crunch, and sometimes greater sweetness. However, unless you get them at their most tender, they have a higher risk of being stringy. The flavor profile of sugar snaps is also slightly different, currently being at their best and definitely sweeter moment. Both can be eaten raw and thrown into any salad with a nice dressing, but a hint of heat, whether from the wok or the steamer, is a great benefit in bringing out their full flavor.

And snow peas, especially the robust Taiwan variety, are packed with flavor — it’s just rather low-key and you don’t want to smother it. Mark Bittman, food writer for the New York Times, talking about a learning experience from an idiosyncratic Chinese chef in New Haven, put his finger on the main issue of snow pea preparation. With the stir-fry, the professional Chinese chef might use some high quality peanut oil and leave the flavoring there, with nothing other than the intense heat of the wok to bring out the flavor. Bittman was referring to the wok hei, translated poetically as the “breath of the wok” and more scientifically as “wok thermal radiation,” an effect that can sometimes be achieved in professional Chinese kitchens with massively hot stoves (and to be honest, is only really achieved in the very best establishments where chefs work in front of searingly hot gas flames that would not be out of place in an iron foundry).

On the home stove, stir frying snow peas has never worked for me, and I have always had a strong preference for the steaming basket. Get the water into a good rolling boil (let the water boil in a covered pot for 2 to 3 minutes before to place the steaming basket), and don’t let it stay there for more than 2 minutes. It is all about speed. After that, whether you want to toss it in butter and tarragon or sesame oil and basil is all up to you.

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