SWEET FRIED NUTS (tianzha hetao)
"On rainy days we children liked nothing better than to pick nuts from our nut trees and fry them. We would crowd around the biggest wok and toss sugared nuts into the hot oil. As soon as they were brown and crisp we'd fish them out with wire scoops and wait impatiently for them to cool. They were better than candy."
We first encountered fried nuts at an elegant Hunanese restaurant in Taipei, where they were definitely haute cuisine, one of the required cold appetizers preceding a banquet. We felt a little inhibited about eating a sweet before dinner, but we quickly got over it; the nuts were too delicious to let our dinner companions have them all.
In America we serve fried nuts in the traditional manner, as an introduction to a multicourse meal; they are delicious for cocktail par- ties as well, and can be made in advance.
Restaurants on Taiwan made this dish with black walnuts. We haven't found any here, and have substituted pecans instead. They're just as good.
2 cups shelled pecan halves
3 to 4 cups boiling water, approximately
1/2 cup granulated sugar
1 teaspoon water, approximately (optional)
3 cups peanut or other cooking oil, approximately
Put the nuts in a pot or heatproof bowl and cover them with the boiling water. Let soak for 3 minutes.
Put the sugar on a flat plate.
Drain the nuts and put them on the plate with the sugar. Stir them very thoroughly, until all the nuts are completely coated with the sugar, which should be practically dissolved. ( You may want to add a little extra water if you find the sugar not sticking to the nuts enough.)
Transfer the sugared nuts to a dry plate and set them aside to dry overnight or, preferably, for 24 hours.
Heat the oil in a wok or regular saucepan.
When it is hot enough, add the sugared nuts and fry them until they turn a rich, golden brown and their sugar coating is crisp and candylike; this should take about 8 to 10 minutes. Don't burn the nuts, or let them turn very dark, but make sure the sugar melts.
Remove the nuts from the oil with a slotted spoon. Spread them out on a plate to dry and cool off. Before you serve them, break them into individual nuts.