Maybe “cook” isn’t the right word in this case. This is a truly special installment of Here’s Lookin’ at You Cook (albeit my second), one of a New York exile. As long as I’ve known him (since his jew-fro-sporting high school days), Michael Manning has been a connoisseur of all things delicious. After living in Manhattan for a few years working for NBC, Manning surprised us by doing something that we all should have done: he took an English teaching job in the Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region (aka: the farthest Western desert of China), packed his bags, and hasn’t really come back since. No longer teaching, Manning’s moved on to writing guides for Fodor’s, upkeeping his blog and world’s largest photo gallery of the Xinjiang region on The Opposite End of China, and helping start up a sundried tomato operation as the Vice-President and Quality Manager of Demeter Foods.
We think the locals have gotten used to seeing him around, but that if he were to grow his hair back to its naturally thick brush, he might blend in well enough to look like a Chinese muslim with a furry Cossack hat. He responds to the following questions over email:
What’s your favorite dried vegetable?
To tell the truth, I’m not sure that there’s any other dried vegetable out there that comes close to the sundried tomato in terms of popularity or availability. Sundried tomatoes taste great and are perfectly suited for cooking or eating alone. Unsulfured dried mango slices are really delicious (and expensive) . . . but that’s a fruit. Then again, I guess a tomato is a fruit too, depending on who you’re asking.
How exactly do you sundry the tomatoes? Give me a little run-down of the process–can I do it in my backyard (if I had one), or do I need tools, chemicals…?
The basic sun-drying of tomatoes is a very simple thing: slice the tomatoes in half from stem scar to blossom end, let dry in the sun for 5-8 days, and eat. The real difficulty comes in bringing your final product up to the standards required for sale in an American or European supermarket. Dirt, sand, bacteria, yeast, foreign plant material, and moisture all have to be managed to meet the buyer’s exact specifications. American buyers typically require sundried tomatoes to be sulfured, while the EU requires a salted product as sulfur is absolutely forbidden.
If you want to try drying tomatoes in your backyard next summer, I suggest buying a number of fleshy Roma-type tomatoes of approximately the same size. Slice the tomatoes evenly in half from top to bottom. Soak sliced halves in 5-10% salt water for about 5 minutes. Place outside in the sun . . . don’t worry about flies, as the salt keeps them away for the most part. In the desert heat, the tomatoes can dry to a proper moisture level (which means quite dry but still flexible) in 4 days, but you’ll have to experiment with time if you live someplace cooler and wetter like NYC. You may need as many as 10 days. You can store these very dry tomatoes in a zip-lock bag in your refrigerator for at least six months. To make them more like what you buy in the store, soak your sundried tomatoes in warm water for half an hour or so . . . then put them into a jar with oil, garlic, spices, or whatever you like.
What’s an ideal sundrying tomato?
The typical tomato that you use on sandwiches probably isn’t what you want for a sundried tomato. The tomato is going to lose something like 85% of it’s weight during drying, so you want something fleshy and well-structured . . . not the kind of tomato that spills out all over the cutting board when sliced. Roma tomatoes are the most famous variety that fits the bill, but there are many other types that can be successfully dried.
Where’d your tomatoes come from?
Xinjiang – which borders Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikstan, Afghanistan, Kashmir, Tibet, Mongolia, and Russia – is one of the last areas in China to maintain the “bingtuan” system of communal army farms. The great majority of farming activity here is still run directly by the central government, and Demeter Foods cooperates with such a farm. I suppose this leaves us open to criticism that we are working with “the man” and supporting China’s drive to increase the region’s non-native population . . . but it’s the only game in town in terms of agri-business.
How come I don’t see Chinese people eating too many tomatoes?
I don’t know why a certain list of vegetables that are very popular here in China seem to be left out of Chinese food in the US. Tomatoes, potatoes, corn, taro, pumpkin, and onions – just to name a few – are frequently featured in the dishes I eat in restaurants here every day. My guess is that when Americans started eating Chinese food, they didn’t want to see the same vegetables that were featured in their mother’s classic Sunday dinner. So broccoli, chinese cabbage, fragrant mushrooms, etc. were used instead of potatoes.
With all the scare over produce in the states, how does agriculture differ over there (aka: how are cows not going to poop on your tomatoes)?
Well, first of all the problem in the US was related to the enormous amount of cows raised in California’s Central Valley. I’m sure I don’t need to tell you that numerous health issues are raised by the methods used in America’s hyper-industrial meat industry – whether it’s cows, pigs, or chickens. Xinjiang simply has not yet developed an advanced meat industry on par with anything you’d see back home. (Sheep are raised in great numbers, but mostly by families and in small flocks driven daily to pasture by shepherds.) The other issue is between fresh and dried vegetables. Even if there was a bacterial issue with of our tomatoes, the problem wouldn’t likely survive the drying and cold storage process.
How’d you come up with the idea for this business plan?
It wasn’t actually my idea at all. An English friend of mine has been working on getting things going in the initial stages for two years already. I like the idea of actually producing something and being my own boss, more or less.
If you were back in NYC right now what would you be making in the kitchen?
Probably something not very interesting. I was always fond of microwaving frozen taquitos. Here in China I’ve become an expert scrambler of eggs and griller of cheese . . . anything that reminds me of home sweet home.
What are some of the local specialties in your region?
Probably the most typical Xinjiang dish is Dapanji (Big Plate Chicken) . . . it’s spicy as hell, containing both chili peppers and a healthy dose of numbing spice (mala). Can you get numbing spice in the US? If so, I can look into a recipe.
Is it the same “ma” as in that stinging spicy Szechuan pepper used in one of my all-time favorite dishes, Ma-Po Tofu? That stuff makes me cry. It’s so good but it hurts. It’s like an abusive relationship. (And yes, I do have a jar of it.) Anyway, thanks, Michael!
photos of Demeter Foods’ sundried tomato production courtesy of The Opposite End of China