Jiu Hu Char is a Penang Nyonya dish that we always had when we were home for the holidays. Any special occasion would be a good time to find this dish at our family home. The flavors remind me a little of my mom's popiah (they share similar ingredients) but this dish is eaten mainly with rice instead of being wrapped in a flour skin.
The jiu hu (dried strips of cuttlefish) give this dish its unique flavor and texture. But it is the vegetables all cooked down together and given time to meld together that gives this dish its sweetness and character. When I couldn't locate my packet of dried cuttlefish in my freezer (I'm terribly disorganized and my freezer reflects that), I decided to go with dried shrimp (hae bee) instead.
I know it nullifies the name of the dish (I should just call it hae bee char) but it works out as dried shrimp is a much easier ingredient to find here in the US. And having tried it I must say that it's just as tasty. Plus, I do believe that the Nyonyas have another version of this using crab and shark's fin so I know that their dishes reflect their ability to adapt and recreate dishes and make them new. I'm just carrying on that type of culinary inventiveness (I hope!) with my substitutions.
Practice Your Knife Skills
The main vegetable in jiu hu char is jicama, followed closely by cabbage and carrots. My grandmother and many of my aunts would insist that the only way to prepare the vegetables would be to cut it using a knife for the best texture. I have always used my box grater to grate the jicama and the carrots and perhaps the texture does turn out a little bit more soft but it does save me time and effort this way. I do, however, cut all the other veggies with my trusty knife.
This dish seems like a lot of work but if you're pretty decent at chopping up vegetables, then this will not take that much time at all. And if you're not, then this is good practice to get good at chopping veggies. (Seriously, I used to be so slow that my mom would shoo me out of the kitchen in exasperation. Now I'm just as quick as she is!). Practice really does make perfect.
Besides the cuttlefish (or dried shrimp in this case), there is also a bit of belly pork (or dark chicken meat) in it. The fat in the meat gives additional flavor to the dish so please don't leave it out, and of course the meat itself lends more sweetness to the dish as well. I used boneless, skinless chicken thighs this time.
Jiu Hu Char
adapted from "Nyonya Flavours"
250 ml (1 cup) water
1/2 lb belly pork/boneless, skinless chicken thighs
1 lb jicama
1 medium carrot
1/4 head cabbage
6 dried shiitake mushrooms, reconstituted in water
2 small yellow onions
3 Tbsp vegetable oil
5 cloves garlic, minced
3.5 oz shredded dried cuttlefish (or dried shrimp), rinsed and soaked in half cup water, then drained and reserve water.
1 Tbsp taucheong (brown bean sauce)
1 tsp sugar, or to taste
1 tsp salt, or to taste
1/4 tsp pepper, or to taste
1. Bring water to boil in a small pot and add the meat. Boil until meat is cooked, about 5 minutes. Reserve stock, shred meat finely and set aside.
2. Peel jicama and carrot, and slice as thinly as possible and then julienne fine (if using box grater, use large holes to grate).
3. Slice cabbage and mushrooms as finely as possible.
4. Halve onions and slice finely.
5. Heat oil in a wok or large fry pan over medium heat and saute the garlic until lightly brown and fragrant. Add the cuttlefish (or dried shrimp) and fry until fragrant or begins to pop.
6. Add taucheong and fry for another minute.
7. Add the onions and stir-fry till it is slightly wilted, then add the rest of the vegetables (carrots and cabbage, then mushrooms, then jicama). Stir-fry until the vegetables are soft, then add the reserved meat stock (about half cup) and dried shrimp water (a little at a time, you don't want it to become too soupy). Bring to a boil and simmer for 10 minutes, stirring occasionally.
8. Season to taste with sugar, salt and pepper.
If you try this, make sure to give it some time to sit as the flavors improve with a bit of time. I try to make this in the morning and then have it for dinner. Also, you could try to make this more like a stir-fry by just quickly stirfrying it thus leaving the vegetables more crisp. You lose the melding of the flavors when it is cooked thus but the slight crunchiness of the vegetables can be delightful as well. I imagine that for me, it would be a seasonal decision--more crisp in summer, and more soft and braised-like in winter. Your call...
Jiu Hu Char
This is truly a delicious and versatile dish! You can also choose to eat this like an appetizer serving it alongside fresh lettuce leaves with a side of sambal to color it with a bit of spice. Or serve it in Pie Tee (the filling for pie tee would be very similar except without the cuttlefish, onions and mushrooms).