chinese


Well, there’s really no easy way to put this. So I might as well just come right out and say it.

I don’t know how to cook Chinese food.

Yes, I know this sounds ridiculous coming from a Hong Kong native who ate pretty much nothing else but Chinese food for her entire childhood. Naturally, you would think that Chinese cooking would come as second nature to me. But alas, nothing could be further from the truth. (Chinese eating, however, is another matter altogether and on that front, I believe I do my culture proud.)

I remember the first time I asked my mom to teach me how to cook something Chinese, way back in the day when I considered popping frozen mini-pizzas into the microwave as cooking. I honestly don’t even remember what she was making at the time. You see, what stuck in my memory are exchanges like the following:

Me: Mom, how much soy sauce did you just add in?
Mom: Oh you know, just enough.
Me: … um, how many teaspoons is that?
Mom: Oh I don’t know. It doesn’t matter. There’s no need to measure.

Let me tell you, when you’re new to cooking, nothing is more frustrating than figuring out what to write down in your notebook (aka future recipe treasure trove from whence magical dishes shall be recreated!) when all your mother will tell you is that you need to “add just enough soy sauce.” Right then and there, I became convinced that Chinese cooking was some crazy voodoo magic, possibly involving incense sticks and incantations but definitely not involving actual measurements. So instead, I turned to cuisines with actual recipes(!) published in actual cookbooks(!) and began learning to cook from there, all the while quietly avoiding the topic of Chinese cooking and hoping no one will notice.

That is, until my favorite cookbook-writing duo came out with a book focused on Chinese cuisine, specifically the cuisines of the minority populations of China. As wary as I was about Chinese cooking, I can never resist one of their cookbooks, so our cookbook collection got another book bigger. Thanks to this new addition, I’m slowly learning to overcome my fear of Chinese cooking. And these days, you can even find me guilty of foregoing measurements in favor of instinct. Because if ever there’s a cuisine flexible enough for creative/lazy measurements, it seems it would be ours.

You know what they say: Like mother, like daughter.

(more…)

Advertisements

Pork and Leek Dumplings

It’s been a while since I’ve waxed poetic (at least here) about how much I love dumplings. When I really get going, I have been known to declare that dumplings are the snacks of the gods, are so awesome that nearly every culture has developed some version of them and quite possibly, the food item that will eventually bring about world peace. But I will spare you.

Finding that suddenly I have much more free time than I have in the past months, I decided it was time to stock up the freezer with a menagerie of dumplings again. This time, I restricted myself to only two varieties: a trusty pork and ginger filling from Ming Tsai and a new-to-me pork and leek filling from a recent cookbook acquisition, Jeffrey Alford and Naomi Duguid’s gorgeous Beyond the Great Wall. I ended up modifying their dumpling recipe slightly by adding an egg to the filling to help it bind better and by scaling up, since I always make dumplings in big batches for freezing.

Now that I own two of their books, I can officially say that I love this couple of cookbook authors. Their books are more like travel diaries interspersed with recipes and with plenty of beautiful photography, which happen to be three things I love…well, in addition to dumplings, of course.

(more…)

Szechuan-style Green Beans

Green beans is one of these ingredients that has always stumped me. Whenever we get a big bag of them in our CSA box, I inevitably throw them in the fridge, ignore them for as long as possible, and then wind up just blanching them and eating them in giant dinner-size salads. Which, admittedly, is not such a bad thing every once in a while, but even I can’t bring myself to eat giant dinner-size salads more than once or twice a week.

It seems, then, that I need an alternative green bean strategy. For a while, I attempted the ‘French tactic’ – by purposely calling them ‘haricot vert’, I thought it would make them sound much more exotic and delectable. But sadly, I found that while I did enjoy saying the phrase (especially many times in a row), I still had no good ideas on what to do with this giant pile of now-fancy ‘haricot vert’.

So when we recently got another big bag of green beans (ahem, ‘haricot vert’), I opted for a ‘Chinese tactic’. I had eaten a Szechuan-style dish featuring slightly charred green beans in this deliciously salty/sweet/tangy sauce a long time ago and I decided to try to recreate this dish. After some research, I learned that the biggest trick is to ‘dry-fry’ the green beans until they get slightly soft and blistery – this actually takes longer than you would think for a vegetable that usually only takes a few minutes to blanch. But while you wait, you can mix up a sauce and chop up big piles of garlic, green onions, and ginger. Then you just throw everything together and the solution to the Green Bean Dilemma will be literally at your fingertips.

I will never dread the arrival of green beans again.

(more…)

I’ve been meaning to write this entry for a long time, but until now, I’ve avoided trying to figure out how to embed a video into a post. Apparently, it’s way easier than I thought, so now it seems silly I waited so long.

If you know me, you probably know that I absolutely love dumplings and have been known to spend hours wrapping them by myself without complaints. When I was growing up in Hong Kong, I was recruited to help wrap wontons every time we made them at home and I prided myself on being fast and efficient. Once I got good enough at wontons – which let’s face it, it’s not that hard because you just sort of bunch the wrapper all together around the meat – I wanted something a little more challenging. So I sat down and tried to figure out how to make pot stickers.

It took me a few tries but finally, I figured out how to shape pot stickers that looked like the kind you get at restaurants. I then started looking around for different fillings and of course, the possibilities there are endless. Some of my current favorites are a pork and super-gingery filling and a green curry chicken with thai basil filling. But finding a good all-vegetarian filling has always stumped me… until now.

Ming Tsai dubbed these the “Best Vegetarian Pot Stickers” and before you scoff like I did when I first read it, you really should give it a try. They definitely are the best vegetarian potstickers I’ve ever had.

(more…)

jook.jpg

Is it weird that I’ve never gotten a flu shot?

I’ve lived 30 years of my life with the explicit mission of getting poked by as little number of needles as possible and it’s done me pretty well so far. But last week, I started to wonder if I need to reconsider my stated mission. Not that I’ve kept track, but looking back, I think I have gotten the flu every time I start to see flyers about getting your flu shots. Hmm…

When I was little, every time I would get sick, my parents would make me eat giant bowls of really bland noodles in a clear soup with a few chunks of fish floating around – what I dubbed ‘sicky noodles’. Even now, when I see ‘fish soup with noodles’ on any menu, I associate it with sickliness and avoid it at all cost. (“Why not order something with taste instead??”)

Unsurprisingly, being sick makes me not want to cook. Well, not much anyway. While I still can’t bring myself to cook ‘sicky noodles’, I have started to believe in the power of jook (or congee, or rice porridge, whatever you want to call it). Jook is probably on the comfort food list of every Cantonese person — even my sister who hated jook when she was young now craves it every so often.

So last Thursday, since I was just laying on the couch feeling miserable, I decided I might as well be useful and babysit a big cauldron of jook I can have for dinner. Jook is easy but takes quite a bit of time – when you’re down with the flu, though, time is something you’ve got plenty of.

(more…)

fish.jpg

Would you eat a fish that’s blue?

The other day when I was at the Asian market, I randomly decided to be a good Chinese girl and attempt to steam a fish at home, Cantonese-style. If you’ve ever eaten with my family (or any Cantonese family), you already know that steamed fishes are one of these standard dishes that everyone born in Hong Kong is pretty much required to love. (If you don’t like steamed fish, you bring shame to the family!!) You start eating steamed fishes with the adults pretty much the same time you start to eat rice (instead of mushy rice porridge). By the time you’re entering elementary school, you’re already picking through tiny fish bones like an expert and you’ve already figured out which parts of the fish you like the best. For the record, my favorite parts are the collar area, the skin, and the air sac (yes, you can eat it). To this day, every time my parents visit, they insist on taking my sister and I to a nearby Cantonese restaurant to eat steamed fishes because they know we don’t make it at home. Well…I’m about to prove them wrong!

The art of selecting the right fish to steam has always been a mystery to me. So, standing in the midst of all the options at the seafood section of Sunset Super, I decided to call my dad. He recommended anything in the ‘cod’ family that ‘looked fresh’. Avoid ‘carp’, although it wasn’t clear to me why except my dad made a gross noise when I told him they had carp there too. How can a fish ‘look fresh’? From what I could gather, it means the skin is still shiny, the eyes are still clear not cloudy, and it general ‘looks good.’

Once I got off the phone, the fishmonger started trying to sell various fishes to me, including this blue fish. By ‘blue fish,’ I do not mean a fish with a blue price tag or even blue skin – the flesh of this fish was actually tinted electric blue! When I asked the guy why it was blue, all he would say was ‘It’s good for you! It’s like vegetables! The more colors, the better!’

Hmm. Interesting.

Rounding up all the science I’ve learned in grad school, I quickly decided that 1) fishes are, in fact, not like vegetables and 2) blue fishes are too sketchy even for me. And I eat the air sacs!

In the end, I took home a cute little 1.5 lb black cod with clear eyes. Sorry to steam you, little cod! But you certainly were quite delicious! (For those with issues with eating things that’re looking back at them, you can also steam fish steaks or fillets).

(more…)