I’m not immune to the charms of kung pao chicken or mapo tofu, but when I’m scanning a Sichuan restaurant menu, gan bian si ji dou are my quarry. Unlike the crisp, steamed green beans I grew up on, these are chewy and deeply satisfying, cooked to the point that their crunch collapses into a meaty density. They’re coated not in a sauce but in a light savory stickiness that captures crumbles of fried pork and aromatics.
The first step when making them is transforming the beans from crisp to concentrated—you have to dehydrate them a bit, which can be done in a variety of ways. Restaurant cooks typically deep-fry the beans, while home cooks often opt to dry fry (a technique in which the beans are tossed with little or no fat over a moderate flame until they are lightly browned and sufficiently dehydrated). I chose a hybrid broil-steam approach: You blast the beans under the element until lightly charred and then allow their trapped steam to finish the cooking in a covered bowl.
Dense Beans, Minus the Frying
The key to dense, concentrated beans? Dehydration. I tested several methods to reduce the beans’ water weight by a measure comparable to deep frying and dry frying. After blanching, broiling, and roasting batches of beans, I landed on a simple hybrid method of broiling and steaming. Broiling the beans about 8 inches from the element for 10 to 15 minutes condensed the vegetables and created lots of spotty charring, and allowing the beans to gently steam in their residual heat in a covered bowl ensured that they were tender.
As the beans steamed, I stirred dried red chiles (in Sichuan, Facing Heaven chiles would be used, but more readily available arbols work well) and Sichuan peppercorns into oil in my wok, gently infusing the oil so that it could carry spice and tingle throughout the dish. Next came garlic, ginger, and a small amount of pork (here, the meat is primarily for seasoning), which I smeared across the bottom of the wok and chopped with the side of my spatula to create fine‑textured crumbles.
After returning the beans to the wok, it was time for one of my favorite Sichuan ingredients: ya cai. The concentrated savoriness of these dried and fermented mustard green stems adds a floor to the flavor in this recipe, a mouth-filling umami depth. “To me, it’s just this really distilled veggie essence,” Taylor Holliday, the owner of online Sichuan ingredient shop The Mala Market, described over a video call.
The ya cai distributed, I added a mixture of sugar (to balance the saltier ingredients), soy sauce, and Shaoxing wine. A minute later, the beans were lightly coated, and I finished them with a drizzle of sesame oil. They were dense, chewy, and satisfying, and I knew that it wouldn’t be long before they had disappeared—and before I’d be making another batch.