Introduction: "niang Pi" (酿皮): a Delicacy With Gluten Separated From Wheat Flour

About: Like to solve everyday life little problems. I'm curious about things I don't know much. Like to do things that require and allow creativity.

Ever wondered how to remove gluten from wheat flour? How does the gluten look, feel, or taste like? How does the food made of wheat flour with gluten removed look, feel, or taste like? Or does such a food exist?

Follow this Instructables to have questions answered.

 “niang pi”(酿皮)is very popular in Northwestern provinces of China, from street vendors to high end restaurants.

The process involves washing wheat flour dough in water until the water insoluble protein (gluten) form a lump and other water soluble chemicals form a solution. Then the water soluble part is concentrated and steamed in flat pan to smooth pancake like thickness with a denser, harder, slippery texture and sliced to strands/noodles, which is the main part of "niang pi". The insoluble gluten is steamed in the pan and becomes spongy like and sliced. With its authentic dressing made of several ingredients, it is served cold, some people specify they want theirs to be made of gluten free part only, some say nothing (meaning two parts in the natural proportion), some always beg for extra gluten sponge called "mian jin" (me is one of them).   

My root family made it only once in my life. They think the process is tedious. They really shouldn’t give up on making more often of it. Anything could be tedious if it’s tried only once. Good thing that when I went to college in the city, there is either a street vendor or restaurant selling it every 10 minutes’ walk. I had it every time I walked by one and took it for granted.

In the first few years after I moved to the States, I became “niang pi”-sick and made an attempt at making it at home. I had success with the first few steps and total failure with the later steps. Making “niang pi” has stayed on my mind ever since then as one of the problems I’d like to nail it one day. Recently there is a potluck gathering in my circle of people. I made a bold decision that it is time to nail it. And I did. It has been 10 years since my first attempt. Time does solve problems in our lives!

If you don’t come from the Northwestern region of China, haven’t visited there, have no friend from there or no friend from China, you probably have never eaten, seen or heard of “niang pi”. In the States, there are thousands of Chinese restaurants. I have moved and traveled in a lot states. Not a single one of the restaurants has “niang pi” on their menu. There was one street vendor in Queens of New York City selling it several years ago. I tried his. It was acceptable. That could be the only one in the States. I may become the second vendor if I were in NYCJ.
 Hope I haven't made you leave yet. I'm going to show you the whole process of the ancient trade and here comes the ingredients already: 

For “niang pi”:
2 ¾ cups (380g) of wheat flour ( I used Bob’s Red Mill Enriched Unbromated Unbleached White flour)
1 cup water for making dough
 380 g water for washing the dough
1/4 tsp salt
1/8 tsp baking soda for the gluten sponge separated from flour
1/4 tsp baking soda for the water soluble solution
 1 seedless cucumber (washed, unpeeled, sliced, my local Sam’s club carries it)
For dressing:
 3 tbsp vegetable oil
2 - 3 tbsp Balsamic vinegar
2 - 3 tbsp hot chili pepper with oil
2 tbsp crushed roasted almond
1 tbsp lightly roasted sesame seeds
2 tbsp cilantro, minced
 4 cloves of garlic, sliced and then crushed to fine paste 
Salt to taste (if the hot chili pepper with oil doesn’t give enough saltiness)

Step 1: Make a Dough

Mix salt and flour well.

Gradually add the water to make a dough harder than bread dough but not too hard to knead.

Knead the dough to smooth, at least several minutes, the longer the better I think.

Cover the dough with a plastic wrap, tuck at the bottom, leave it at room temperature for 30 minutes to 1 hour.

So far so easy.

Step 2: Wash the Dough

Clip your finger nails, remove your rings, wash your hands and wrists really well and get ready to work.

Place the dough in water (same weight amount as flour) in a large bowl.

Wash the dough like you hand wash clothes, knead, rub or do any other way to achieve the effect: gluten forms insoluble lumps and other water soluble chemicals in flour becomes milky solution.

With another bowl collecting the solution, pour the mixture over a fine strainer. Wash the above strainer gluten lumps with just a little bit water at a time for several more times, until the water runs relatively clear. I found kneading the gluten lump against the strainer mesh worked wonderfully.

You should end up with two separate things: the gooey gluten mass and the milky solution.

This step isn’t exactly hard. But it definitely demanded patience and time, and faith in success. It took me 38 minutes. I recorded the whole process and edited the recording down to 4 minutes. So I recommend you watch the video before you are trying it for the first time.

I don’t know if the street vendors and restaurants have equipment to speed up the process. I’m brewing an idea. If it worked out and significantly shortened this step, I’ll post an Instructables on it. So stay tuned.

Here is the video:

Step 3: Steam the Gluten

Set aside the milky solution for at least 3 hours to let it settle.

Meanwhile, add 1/8 tsp of baking soda to the gooey gluten and knead the gluten dough it to make them mixed well.

To cook/steam the gluten, I saw pictures on internet that home cooks spread it on a plate and steam it. Out of either genius or nowhere, I stretched it on the back of the strainer and steamed it for about 15 minutes. When done, it should become spongy. And I was right, it did.

Use a paper towel, pat the bottom of it that has come in contact with water. Slice it. What a beauty! I just love the texture of it. When it’s soaked with the flavors and juices of “niang pi” dressing, nothing tastes better than it.

Now go take a nap, swim some laps and pick up your child before the 3 hours is up, hehe… which was what I did.

Step 4: Steam the "niang Pi"

When the milky solution settles, there is a layer of clear water on top. Pour that out, if you lose some of the white starch while doing that, it's okay.

Add 1/4 tsp of baking soda to the solution and mix it well.

Brush vegetable oil on the pan you’ll use. Ideally something thin and light with 2-4 inches side wall, so water doesn’t get in it when it’s boiling, works best. I found a shallow metal dish from Goodwill. It was not ideal but I managed to have the job done with really shallow water bath and a rack to sit the dish on.

Ladle the solution to the pan, at most ¼”thick, steam for about 5 Minutes. The solution will gelatinize, bubble and bulge in the middle.

Remove the pan and sit it on ice. Once the back of the pan is cool to touch, peel the cooked ‘niang pi” off, lay it on the cutting board, brush olive oil on top it, slice it. You should have “niang pi” that is gelatinous, slippery, harder than instant gelatine now.

Step 5: Dressing the "niang Pi"

Place ingredients in layers in order of: "niang pi", cucumber, crushed roasted almond, roasted sesame seeds and cilantro around the seasonings.

Heat vegetable oil to have very faint smoke rising from it.

Drizzle the hot oil over the seasonings and cilantro. (pictures shown I was preparing asparagus at the same time in a similar fashion).

Add vinegar and chili pepper with oil (picture shown a store bought brand I found most close to the authentic one).

Peel and slice garlic. Place it in a mortar. Sprinkle it with coarse salt to add flavor and friction for easy crushing. Crush the garlic to fine paste. Add about 2 tbsp cool water to it and let it sit for a few minutes. Pour the whole thing on “niang pi”.

Mix everything and taste. Add salt if needed.

Step 6: Conclusions

For people who aren't allergic to gluten, just seek to avoid gluten for the claimed benefits, "niang pi" without the gluten sponge ("mian jin") is gourmet.  

Whether “niang pi” without “mian jin” is gluten free enough for folks who are allergic to gluten needs to be tested chemically. Any researchers, professors and lab people want to collaborate with me on this?

To me, I always beg for extra “mian jin”. I won’t have “niang pi” any other way. Now beg no more, as I can make it myself, I can have it for the rest of my life without ordering from any restaurant or flying to China. I can also have “mian jin” as much as I like for the rest of my life since there is high gluten flour on market.  For those who are trying to avoid gluten, give the spongy beauty to me. Lucky me!

Please vote it for Gluten free Contest and Copycat Recipes Contest. Thanks a million.

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