I don't really have a strong sense of direction, and now, with a smartphone, I won't ever need one. But when I was younger, there was a specific intersection in Wilmington, Delaware that stuck out to me particularly strongly. On the occasions when my family would go out to eat, I'd nervously clench my hands in the backseat of the car, holding my breath in anticipation of this critical juncture. The clicking of the turn signals and a leisurely swing of the steering wheel indicated we were off to the local Red Lobster, the Pinnacle of Fine Dining to a suburban eight-year-old. Nothing could top a restaurant that distributed both cheddar bay biscuits and crayons to children in limitless quantities! On the other hand, if the car barreled on through without slowing, we were headed for the highway and en route to Philadelphia Chinatown. What lay ahead was forty-five minutes of mental math drills with my dad, who unfortunately believed this was a perfectly acceptable way to spend long-ish car rides.
As good as Philadelphia Chinatown was, the destination didn't quite justify the frantic backseat arithmetic, with one specific exception. The promise of dim sum could make endless sets of mental gymnastics tolerable; nuo mi ji (糯米鸡 or lo mai gai) in particular was a dish worth fighting for. Imagine a fragrant bundle of sticky rice mixed with chicken, Chinese sausage, and other fillings, wrapped in lotus leaves and steamed such that the fat from the meat renders out and permeates each chewy grain. It's certainly a powerful motivation to memorize one's multiplication tables.
Fast forward a decade and a half, and a lot has changed. One - I kind of like math now, in spite of the childhood trauma of calculating square roots while hungry. Two - I'm perfectly capable of making nuo mi ji on my own, and adapting it to whatever I crave! This version is, more precisely, not nuo mi ji but actually nuo mi ya (nuo mi ji literally translates to "glutinous rice with chicken" - here, I used duck). It's not the first time I've upgraded a recipe through the simple addition of duck fat, and it certainly won't be the last.
Aside from tender duck breast, I had a huge array of other fillings. Chicken is a much more neutral-flavored meat than duck, so I find that nuo mi ji often doesn't need much more than the chicken itself. But since duck is so strong, I wanted to have a variety of contrasting and harmonizing flavors. I included shiitake mushrooms, egg yolks, dried shrimp, Chinese sausage, and edamame, in addition to the seasoning/aromatics of soy sauce, rice wine, scallions, ginger, and garlic. Of the above, edamame is the least traditional, but I liked having some textural and visual contrast.
Despite the long ingredient list, the process is straightforward. I rubbed the duck breast with five-spice, seared it to amp up the flavor and render some of the fat, and cut it into bite-size chunks. With a bit of the reserved fat, I sauteed the aromatics, Chinese sausage, mushrooms, edamame, and dried shrimp and mixed them all into pre-soaked sticky rice. Finally, I piled the fragrant rice into bowls lined with lotus leaves, and nestled in the seared duck and egg yolks. These packets were steamed for an hour until the rice and meat were completely tender.
And what do you do while you wait for your nuo mi ya to cook through? Well, if my dad wants any, I hope he knows the stakes are higher now. He better brush up on his calculus...
Nuo Mi Ya Recipe (serves 3-4)
- 1 duck breast (approximately 3/4 lb)
- 1/2 tsp five spice
- 1 scallion, chopped finely
- 2 cloves of garlic, minced
- 1 slice of ginger, minced
- 1 Chinese sausage, sliced
- 2 tbsp dried shrimp
- 6 shiitake mushrooms, rehydrated and diced
- 1/2 cup edamame
- 1/2 tbsp soy sauce (more to taste)
- 1/2 tbsp Shaoxing rice wine
- 1.5 cups sticky rice, soaked for at least 3 hours and ideally overnight
- 2 egg yolks, cut in half
- 6-8 lotus leaves, soaked for 2-3 hours
Rub the duck skin with five spice and score it in a grid with a knife. Over medium-high heat in a dry (no additional oil) non-stick pan, sear the duck breast, skin-side down, for about 5 minutes. Flip the duck and cook for an additional 2 minutes on the other side; should be browned but not cooked through, and still mostly red/pink. Discard all the rendered fat except for about a tablespoon. When the duck is cool enough to handle, cut it into bite sized chunks and cut away additional excess fat and around half of the skin, leaving a modest amount of fat and skin for flavor. (Too much and I find it to be too rich - but adjust to your taste. I save half the skin and make duck cracklings!)
In the same pan, stir-fry the scallion, ginger, garlic, sausage, shrimp, shiitake, and edamame for a minute or two until very fragrant. Add the soy sauce and rice wine, then add in the sticky rice and toss/stir to coat completely. Set it aside.
Line two medium-sized bowls with 3-4 lotus leaves, covering the sides and bottom completely. Arrange them so that the middle of each leaf is on the bottom of the bowl and the ends point up and out of the bowl.
In each bowl, place 1/4 of the rice, top it with 1/2 of the duck meat and 2 egg yolk halves, then cover with another 1/4 of the rice. Take the lotus leaf ends and fold them over the rice, using a toothpick to secure the packets.
Steam the bowls of rice for an hour over medium heat, or until the rice is to desired tenderness.