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Egg Rolls and Gold Bars

February 14, 2013

The Lunar New Year celebration lasts 15 days so there’s still plenty of time to eat your fill of lucky and auspicious foods for a prosperous year ahead.

egg rolls uncooked

Freshly wrapped egg rolls waiting to be fried

Egg rolls (also called fried spring rolls) are a favorite all year round but they’re considered an auspicious food during the new year because they resemble gold bars and thus symbolize wealth and prosperity!

If you’d like to see a demo of me rolling egg rolls as well as learn more about lucky new year foods, here’s a video of my segment on King5 TV’s New Day Northwest (click on the still below and you’ll be taken to the video):

King5

Here’s my recipe, enjoy!

~~~

Fried Egg Rolls (蛋卷)

fried egg rolls

I’ve adapted this lumpia (Filipino egg rolls) recipe from The Asian Grandmothers Cookbook. I used carrots because in Mandarin, orange carrots are called hong luo bo (红萝卜), i.e. “red carrots,” and red symbolizes good fortune, while the yellow carrots are close enough to a golden hue and gold symbolizes wealth. Chinese chives are known as jiu cai (韭菜) which sounds like “forever vegetable,” and who doesn’t want a long life? Feel free to add or subtract whatever ingredients you’d like. Ground pork, glass noodles, cabbage, bamboo shoots, mushrooms, etc., are all great ingredients to add to the mix. The filling can be made ahead and stored in the refrigerator for up to 3 days.

Makes: about 25 egg rolls
Time: 1-1/2 hours

2 teaspoons salt, divided
1 pound skinless, boneless chicken thighs
1 tablespoon vegetable oil
1 medium onion, finely chopped (1 cup)
3 cloves garlic, minced (1 tablespoon)
3 medium orange and yellow carrots, shredded (1-1/2 cups)
1 cup (4 ounces) finely chopped green beans
1 stalk Chinese chives, finely chopped
2 teaspoons soy sauce
Freshly ground black pepper
1 package egg roll wrappers (usually 25 wrappers, click here for my favorite brand)
1 egg white, beaten, or water for sealing
3 cups (or as needed) vegetable oil for deep-frying
Sweet and Sour Sauce (recipe follows)

To make the filling, place the chicken in a medium saucepan and fill with water until the chicken is submerged by about an inch. Add 1 teaspoon of the salt and bring to a boil over high heat. When the water starts to boil, turn off the heat and cover. Let the chicken stand for 15 minutes. Test by cutting into a piece: it should not be pink. Let cool and shred the meat along the grain into tiny shards with your fingers, or chop into a confetti-sized dice. Reserve the stock for another use or discard.

In a small skillet, heat the 1 tablespoon oil over medium-high heat until it becomes runny and starts to shimmer. Add the onion and garlic and cook until the onion is soft and light golden, 4 to 5 minutes. Add the chicken, carrots, and green beans, and stir to mix. Add the soy sauce, remaining salt, and 1 teaspoon pepper (or to taste) and mix thoroughly. Add the Chinese chives and stir and cook until the mixture is heated through.

Allow the filling to cool completely.

To assemble the egg rolls, carefully peel one wrapper from the stack (cover the remaining wrappers with a damp cloth to keep them moist). Lay the wrapper on a dry work surface with one corner pointing toward you.) Place 2 tablespoons of filling just below the center line of the wrapper parallel to your body. Shape it into a mound 1 by 3 inches, leaving about 2½ inches on either side. Fold the corner closest to you over the filling and tuck it under snugly. Roll once, then fold the left and right sides in to form an envelope. Continue to roll the filling tightly into a fat tube until you reach the end of the wrapper. Before you reach the end, dab some egg white or water along the top edge to seal the egg roll. The egg roll should measure 4 to 5 inches in length and 1 to 1½ inches in diameter. Place on a plate or tray and cover with a damp towel or plastic wrap. Repeat with the remaining filling and wrappers.

Preheat the oven to 250 degrees F. Line a plate with paper towels. In a large wok, heavy skillet, or Dutch oven, heat the 3 cups oil over high heat until it reaches 350 degrees F on a deep-fry thermometer.

Reduce the heat to medium-high. Using tongs, gently lower the egg rolls into the oil one by one; fry in a batch of 5 or 6 until both sides are evenly golden brown, 1 to 2 minutes. Remove the egg rolls with a slotted spoon, shaking off excess oil, and drain on paper towels. Keep warm in the oven.

Bring the oil temperature back to 350 degrees F before frying the next batch. Repeat with the remaining egg rolls. Serve immediately with sweet and sour sauce.

Sweet and Sour Sauce
3 tablespoons rice or distilled white vinegar
2 tablespoons sugar
1 tablespoon ketchup
1 teaspoon soy sauce
2 teaspoons cornstarch dissolved in 1/4 cup water to form a slurry

In a small saucepan, bring the vinegar, sugar, ketchup, and soy sauce to a boil over medium heat. Stir the cornstarch slurry and add to the pan, stirring constantly until the sauce thickens, about 1 minute. Pour into a small bowl and serve with the egg rolls.

Some egg roll making tips (don’t heed at your own risk!):

  1. Keep your egg roll wrappers frozen and defrost in the refrigerator for an hour or two, or on the counter for 3o minutes.
  2. If your wrappers dry out, cover with a damp towel and microwave on medium for 10 seconds. They should soften up but work quickly before they dry out again and keep covered with a damp towel!
  3. Allow your filling to cool completely before wrapping your egg rolls. A warm filling may cause your wrapper to soften and tear, and your egg roll to fall apart.
  4. Don’t overfill your wrapper or #3 will happen.
  5. Make sure your oil is at the optimum temp before you start frying. Otherwise your egg rolls will come out soggy instead of crisp.
  6. When frying, don’t overcrowd your pan, otherwise #5 will happen.
  7. You can freeze unfried or fried egg rolls. Lay them out in a single layer on a cookie sheet and freeze them for about an hour. Then transfer them to a ziptop bag and freeze for up to three months.
  8. When ready to eat, deep-fry the frozen egg rolls (don’t defrost) for 2 to 3 minutes (pre-fried) or 5 to 7 minutes (unfried).
  9. To warm up fried egg rolls (that have been refrigerated or kept at room temp), preheat your oven to 325 degrees F and heat for 8 to 10 minutes, or until crisp.

~~~

Here are some other dishes to help usher in a happy and prosperous new year:

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Indonesian-Style Pineapple Tarts for Chinese New Year!

February 7, 2013

The snake may not be my favorite animal but I just learned a very interesting factoid about the Year of the Snake which starts this Sunday, February 10, 2013. Just as a snake sheds its skin, this is a good year for making dramatic transformations, whether it’s changing jobs, pursuing a lifelong dream, or discarding destructive relationships and negative influences in our lives.

Now, I actually have a new appreciation for this slithery reptile.

I don’t have any earth shattering changes in my life to share (although I did promise myself that this is the year I find direction for my writing), however, I will tell you about my favorite new year treat—pineapple tarts!

Pineapple tarts!!

Singapore-style pineapple tarts (Photo credit: chernwei)

Pineapple tarts and cookies are popular in Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia. And even Taiwan lays claim to a similar pineapple cake. They come in different shapes and sizes, flower shapes being favored in Singapore and Malaysia, whereas simple golf ball-shaped cookies are preferred in Indonesia.Taiwanese cakes, on the other hand, are square or rectangular. Unfortunately, these Asian-style pineapple tarts are not quite de rigueur in the U.S. but that might change!

pineapple cakes . 01

Taiwanese pineapple cakes (Photo credit: 7_70)

Like all other popular new year foods, there’s a reason why pineapple tarts are served in most Chinese households (in the above regions) during the “visiting” season, the first 15 days of the new year when it’s customary to visit family and friends.

The Mandarin word for pineapple is feng li (鳳梨) which means “phoenix pear,” or more commonly, huang li (黃梨), wong lai in Cantonese and ong lai in Hokkien (also Fukien). This means “yellow pear” and phonetically sounds like “good luck comes.” So eating this sweet cookie will bring good luck as well as sweetness in the upcoming year.

Pineapple

There’s a reason (or two) why pineapples are considered auspicious (Photo credit: Wolfharu)

Since moving to the U.S., I haven’t  indulged in pineapple tarts too often. But a few weeks ago, my mum offered me some kue nastar (the Indonesian name for them) her friend Linda had made. Oh … my!  Tante (Indonesian for auntie) Linda’s kue nastar are seriously the best I’ve tasted in a really long time—each cookie is a ball of soft, crumbly pastry encasing a golden orb of pineapple jam that achieves its mellow sweetness from good quality pineapples slow-cooked with just enough sugar.

I asked  my mum if Tante Linda would teach me how to make them. Mum made a quick phone call to her and I had an appointment in her kitchen the next week!

Tante Linda is from Jambi (it’s both the name of the province and town) on the Indonesian island of Sumatra. She’s proud to say that Jambi pineapples are the sweetest and most flavorful she’s ever tasted. Tante Linda loves her hometown pineapples so much that every time she goes home, she asks her sister to make and pack containers-full of pineapple filling for her to bring back to the U.S.. Making these pineapple cookies with the Jambi pineapple filling gives her a nostalgic taste of family and home.

ingredients

Dutch butter (brought back from Indonesia) in the red can which Tante Linda calls colloquially”Wijsman” (see ingredient list in the recipe below), is one of the ingredients she had laid out on the counter when I arrived at her home.

I must warn you that Tante Linda didn’t do much measuring when I baked with her, instead relying on her many years of experience and her sense of touch and feel. The recipe below comes from her sister who Tante Linda claims is the better baker.

I’ll be darned if her sister can bake pineapple cookies any lovelier than these!

~~~

Indonesian Pineapple Cookies (Kue Nastar)

kue nastar ready

Tante Linda takes quite a few liberties with this recipe but it’s the recipe she learned from, adding her own flourishes along the way. If you’d like to dress up these little beauties, you can push in a whole clove for a hat (they’ll look like tangerines!), or shower them with shredded cheese.

Makes: about 100 cookies
Time: 1-1/2 hours

500 grams margarine (2 cups, Tante Linda uses Imperial brand)
150 grams salted butter (2/3 cup, Tante Linda swears by H. J. Wijsman & Zonen Preserved Dutch Butter which she says makes the cookies fragrant and tasty, “wangi dan enak” )
4 egg yolks, plus 1 for glazing
100 grams sugar
600 to 700 grams (5 to 6 cups) all-purpose flour (Tante Linda uses Gold Medal brand)
4 to 5 tablepoons powdered milk (Tante Linda uses Dancow, a brand from Indonesia. I’ve also seen recipes with custard powder too)
Pineapple Filling (recipe below)

In a large mixing bowl, combine the butter, sugar and egg yolks. Using a hand mixer, mix on low speed for 5 to 7 minutes, until the mixture turns fluffy and pale yellow.

butter_sugar_eggs

Add the powdered milk and mix by hand for another minute or two until well incorporated.

powdered milk

Add the flour gradually into the mixture and mix with your hands until it forms a sticky pastry dough that’s a little drier than cookie dough but not as dry as bread dough. Tante Linda didn’t weigh the flour but kept adding more until the dough felt “right.” She likes hers soft, “empuk” so she used closer to 600 grams, but if you’d like a crispier pastry, feel free to use more flour (closer to 700 grams).

pouring in the flour

Pinch a piece of dough and roll it into a ball between your palms about the size of a marble (about ½-inch in diameter). Hold the ball in the palm of one hand and use your finger to flatten it into a circular disc 1-1/2 to 2 inches in diameter.

Scoop about ½ teaspoon of pineapple filling (or more!) into the middle of the disc and fold the dough up and around so that the ends meet. Pinch the dough to seal, trying to encase all the filling within. Don’t worry if some filling peeps out. Roll between your palms into an even ball slightly smaller than a golf ball and lay on an ungreased cookie sheet. Repeat until all the dough and filling are finished. You will need two cookie sheets.

waiting to be glazed

Preheat your oven to 350 degrees F.

Beat the remaining egg yolk in a small bowl and brush the tops of the cookies with a thick layer of yolk. Bake for 20 to 25 minutes or until shiny and golden, rotating the cookie sheets halfway for even browning.

glazing2

Scrape the cookies loose from the cookie sheet while they’re still warm. Cool on a cooling rack or on the sheets.

scraping cookies

Pineapple Filling

nastar filling

Tante Linda says that Jambi pineapples are very sweet and don’t require much sugar hence this recipe only calls for 3/4 cup sugar. Taste the mixture halfway and add more sugar if you’d like. Making the filling is quite a tedious process but you can make it up to a week ahead and refrigerate it. Or try using a slow cooker. A friend tried this method out with great success. You can confidently leave it alone to simmer (she said it took about 4 hours), checking on it only occasionally. You can also add cinnamon sticks or cloves to spice up the filling.

Time: 4 hours

3 ripe pineapples
150 grams (3/4 cup) sugar

Peel the pineapples and dig out the eyes. Cut into chunks or slices, discarding the core, and grate by hand (better) or use a food processor (you won’t get as much texture but it’s a whole lot easier!).

Combine the pineapple and sugar in a large, wide-mouthed pot and cook over a very low flame, stirring occasionally so it doesn’t stick to the bottom of the pot, for about 2 to 3 hours. Halfway through cooking, taste the pineapple filling and add more sugar if desired.

The filling is ready when all the liquid has evaporated, the color has transformed from bright yellow to dark ochre-almost brown, and has achieved the consistency of a very dense jam.

Let the filling cool completely before making the pineapple cookies or storing in an airtight container in the refrigerator for later.

~~~

Happy Year of the Snake and Gong Xi Fa Cai!

Teach Your Kids to Love Whole Grains With Jabgok-Bap (Korean Mixed Grain Rice)

January 16, 2013
077 (400x600)

Different colored varieties of rice and grains make for an interesting final mix

“At least half the grains you eat should come from whole grain sources.” I’ve heard this mantra so many times it’s beginning to play in my head like a broken record.

I find it hard enough to abide by that myself all the time but convincing a toddler that chewy whole-wheat bread with grainy bits is tastier than pillow-soft white bread is an even harder sell.

True, it’s best to introduce your kids to whole grains sooner rather than later. Then they’ll think it’s just, well, normal, and grow up assuming that whole-wheat bread is yummy, and white bread is yucky (yeah, right!).

First things first, don’t assume your kids won’t like whole grains. I just leaped right into it, and I was lucky to get tipped off with some great ideas for one of the world’s most popular staple food, rice.

My most serendipitous discovery so far has been Korean jabgok-bap (mixed grain rice). The bag I found at an Asian market comprised barley, millet, sweet brown rice, brown rice, black rice (which gives the rice a pretty purple color when cooked), and white rice.

071

Clockwise from top left: brown glutinous rice, black rice, steelcut oats, Bhutanese red rice, brown rice, millet

The ingredients in jabgok-bap can vary from five to 20 different grains to include legumes like kidney beans, black-eyed peas, soy beans, mung beans, split peas, etc., and even oats, amaranth, and sorghum. Rice is not indigenous to Korea and was very expensive when it first arrived. Hence, it was mixed with other grains to “stretch” the rice.

Don’t you just love how this frugal necessity can stealthily add vitamins, nutrients, fiber, and flavor to your diet?

I was talking to a Korean friend the other day and she told me that she makes her own rice “mix,” ensuring she adds plenty of whole grains like brown rice and millet to the combination. She says her three children love it!

Like any concerned parent, I want my son to eat–and enjoy–whole grains so I decided to try it out on him.

I went to the bulk section of my grocery store and picked out an assortment of grains for my custom-blend. I chose white jasmine rice (which my son already loves), brown rice, sweet brown rice, wild rice, red rice, pearl barley, steel cut oats, millet, and black rice.

I’ve been mixing and matching the grains and so far so good. My son gobbles it up without any fuss, not realizing he is now the poster boy for the USDA dietary guidelines!

Depending on your family’s tastes, feel free to use whatever grains you desire and mix them in any proportion. This is a great way to introduce your kids to brown rice and the very en vogue farro, buckwheat, and quinoa. Whole grains have a chewier texture and nuttier flavor that may not be as pleasing to them, so start off with less and use a greater proportion of the more palatable white rice or even orzo pasta. As time goes by, adjust the proportions. Keep experimenting until you find the right mix that your family loves.

Mixed-Grain Rice

mixed grain rice

Black rice turns the resulting mix lavender which I served with mochiko chicken

1/4 cup (or more) of any of the following grains and legumes (Culinate.com has a fabulous guide):

Brown rice
Sweet brown rice
White rice
Wild rice
Red rice
Pearl barley
Steel cut oats
Millet
Black rice
Farro
Buckwheat
Quinoa
Split peas
Garbanzo beans
Kidney beans
Mung beans
Sesame seeds

This is not really a recipe. Rather, it’s more a set of guidelines.

Mix all the grains in an airtight canister. Scoop out however much mixed-grain rice you’d like to cook. Wash and drain. If you have time, soak the grains for 30 minutes so they will cook faster. If not, just proceed to add the grains to your pot and add the required amount of water.

Since different grains require different amounts of water and varying lengths of time to cook, you’ll have to experiment to get mixed-grain rice done to your taste. I suggest starting with the ratio and time recommended for the longest cooking grain in your mix using your choice of method. For example, I cook my mixed-grain rice in the rice cooker with the 1:2 grain-to-water ratio recommend for brown rice. My appliance magically flips the switch when the rice is done.

However, you can cook the grains in a pressure cooker (30 minutes for brown rice) and on the stove top (45 minutes for brown rice) as well.

Or follow the guidelines here.

You may want to cook the grains in large quantities and freeze the leftovers in zip-top bags. Just microwave for 2 to 3 minutes on high to thaw. It tastes as good as freshly-cooked.

Use the mixed-grain rice to make rice salads, pilafs or just serve it with any dish you’d eat with white rice.

Choose Love … and a How-To for Vietnamese Fresh Spring Rolls

January 11, 2013

 

Romantic Heart form Love Seeds

Romantic Heart form Love Seeds (Photo credit: epSos.de)

Choose love.

These two simple words have been on my mind since they popped out at me from a friend’s Facebook post a few weeks ago. She was recapping her past year and she ended her reflection with “When in doubt, choose love.”

They could mean many things to many people, and I’ve been thinking about what it means for me to “choose love.”

2012 was a challenging year personally and love was often in short supply. Not that I wasn’t loved, but rather that I wasn’t a very loving person. I felt so drained I had no love to give.

I had to get used to the fact that my husband was 6,720 miles away and 12-1/2 hours ahead for an entire 12 months. And I worried (and still do) about his safety, every single day. Plus, I had to adjust to solo-parenting a toddler.

After a three-year hiatus, I worked very hard to develop a book proposal (one that I thought was very sellable and timely) that was quickly shot down. I have yet worked up the nerve to submit it elsewhere.

And I’m sure anyone who lives close to their parents can relate to the stress of having them live a stone’s throw away.

Did I mention I’m solo-parenting a toddler? I definitely have a newfound awe and admiration for single parents everywhere!

While I admit 2012 wasn’t all that bad—there was a trip to Vietnam to meet my husband, a paperback book launch–it was filled with plenty of angst and stress.

I realize now that many of these events and circumstances were beyond my control. Yet I was riddled with unnecessary anxiety and/or reacted negatively to them.

In hindsight, I can come up with any number of “what if?” scenarios.

What if I kept calm and didn’t raise my voice at Isaac when he wasn’t behaving the way I wanted him to? Then maybe I wouldn’t be wracked with guilt in the thereafter believing I was traumatizing my son and ruining him for life.

What if I listened patiently every time my dad complained about a new ache or pain, or expressed concern that his memory wasn’t as sharp as it used to be (aging has nothing to do with it, of course!). Instead, these could have been happy dad-and-daughter moments spent over a cup of coffee, especially if the topic at hand could be diverted.

If I had chosen love in these circumstances, perhaps I wouldn’t have expended superfluous time and energy getting worked up, upset, frustrated, etc., etc., you know what I mean. Thankfully, it’s never too late.

Today is only the 11th day of the new year but I’ve already savored the power of choosing love.

The other day, the cashier at Target had a face so sullen it rivaled Posh Spice’s– a.k.a. Victoria Beckham’s–perpetual pout (am I dating myself with this analogy?). Instead of condemning her off-putting attitude silently in my mind, I complimented her on her gorgeous red top out loud. That coaxed a smile out of both her and me.

When my toddler asks for one more book, yet another sip of water, anything he can think of, to put off going to bed, I take a deep breath, tuck his blanket under his chin and hold him till he falls fast asleep. This phase won’t last forever (I hope, gulp …).

I’m off to a good start, don’t you think?

Starting with this new year 2013, whatever the season, whatever the mood, always choose love.

~~~

Vietnamese Fresh Spring Rolls (Gỏi Cuốn)

all rolled up

In line with our #LetsLunch theme of new beginnings and first times, I’m going to start a new column about trying dishes I didn’t think I could or would make at home. I’ve been told many times how easy it is to make these fresh rolls but I’ve always been intimidated by the rice paper wrappers. Most sources say to dip the dry rice paper rounds in water until soft but it seems impossible to get just right. While traveling in Vietnam, I learned two other methods of softening the rice paper: one is to wipe it with a wet, non-terry towel until pliable, and the second, use a spray bottle. The rest is easy. Well, the rolling does takes some practice but you’ll eventually get the hang of it. The following recipe/how-to is based on what I learned at a cooking class I took at the Morning Glory Cooking School in the beautiful town of Hoi An in central Vietnam.

Time: 45 minutes prep
Makes: 4 servings

8 sheets rice paper wrappers, plus more in case some break (8 to10-inches across is best)
Red leaf, romaine, or butter lettuce
3 cups fresh herbs: mint, cilantro, Thai (or regular) basil, red perilla, Vietnamese mint, rice paddy herb, bean sprouts (any combination of these is fine)
Carrot and daikon pickles
8 ounces small round rice noodles, cooked according to package directions (look for noodles labeled ‘bun,’ not the super thin vermicelli or bean thread noodles. If you have my cookbook, they are pictured as #1 on pg. 15)
8 small slices pork shoulder, cooked as desired (I like to use char siu, store-bought or home made)
12 large cooked shrimp, peeled and halved
12 (3-inch-length) pieces garlic chives
Dipping Sauce (see below)

Lay all the ingredients out on the table and let everyone make their own rolls.

Soften the rice paper using your method of choice:
1. Dip in a bowl of warm water for about 3-5 seconds (depending on its thickness).
2. Lay on a flat surface and wipe with a wet non-terry towel several times until pliable.
3. Fill a spray bottle with water and spray until pliable.
You want the rice paper to be just soft enough that you can fold it. You will lessen the risk of over-soaking your rice paper wrapper if you use the latter two methods but it is up to you.

Place the wrapper on a work service (a flat plate works fine) and lay a piece of lettuce on the edge closest to you. Grab a handful of herbs and place them on top of the lettuce. Place a handful of noodles on top of the greens. Add some pickles. Arrange 2 slices of pork above the noodles, followed by 3 slices of shrimp, pink-side down.

layout

In case you were wondering, the surprise in the middle is a deep-fried rice paper roll (a tip I learned at the Morning Glory Cooking School). Adds a lovely crunch to it!

Fold the edge closest to you over the ingredients and start rolling, ensuring the roll is snug as you go. When you are about half-way, fold both sides in and  arrange three pieces of garlic chives on the right so that they jut out like palm leaves swaying in the wind. Continue rolling until you have a nice tight roll.

If you tear the rice paper, don’t fret, just start over again. And even if your roll isn’t perfect, so what, it’ll still taste good!

Serve with dipping sauce.

Dipping Sauce (Nước mắm chấm)

Makes: 4 servings

2 large cloves garlic, minced
1 to 2 Thai red chilies, or to taste, sliced
3 tablespoons sugar
3 tablespoons lime juice (from about 1 large lime)
2 tablespoons warm water

Combine all the ingredients in a small bowl and stir until all the sugar has dissolved.

~~~

This post is  part of #LetsLunch, our monthly Twitter-inspired food bloggers potluck. This month, it’s new beginnings and first times.

Don’t forget to check out the Let’s Lunchers’ creations below (the list will be constantly updated). And if you’d like to join Let’s Lunch, go to Twitter and post a message with the hashtag #LetsLunch.

Annabelle’s Brown Butter Creamed Greens at Glass of Fancy

Emma’s Gluten-free Pretzels at Dreaming of Pots and Pans

Grace’s Matcha Green Tea Yogurt at Hapa Mama

Jill’s Heavenly Angel Cake at Eating My Words

Lucy’s Mexican Hot Chocolate Cookies at A Cook and Her Books

Lisa’s Da Bombe Alaska at Monday Morning Cooking  Club

Linda‘s Trinidadian Black-eyed Peas  at Spicebox Travels

Nancie’s Vietnamese-style Chicken with Lemongrass at NancieMcDermott

Rashda’s Parathas at Hot Curries and Cold Beer 

Sonja’s Beetroot and Fetta Varenyky at Foodnutzz

 

Ann Mah’s “Kitchen Chinese,” a Q+A, and Salt and Pepper Shrimp

December 20, 2012

Kitchen Chinese Ann Mah

Ann Mah’s debut novel, Kitchen Chinese: A Novel About Food, Family and Finding Yourself, has all the ingredients for a successful chick lit novel. It’s an easy, breezy read. It has a lovable heroine–Isabelle Lee–who has her flaws yet  emerges victorious. And it offers so much more, especially for Asian Americans who hardly see themselves reflected in mainstream literature. Plus, the book is chock full of mouthwatering descriptions of the regional cuisines Isabelle samples in Beijing, Shanghai, and beyond.

Isabelle leaves behind debris of an ex-boyfriend and a dead-end editorial job in New York for the bright lights of big city Beijing. She moves in with her high-powered attorney sister, Claire, who helps her land a job as dining editor for an expat magazine. True to formula (and just the way I like it!), Isabelle bounces between two irresistible men, all the while struggling with her identity as American yet Chinese.

With her knowledge of the culture and language limited only to what Ann terms “kitchen Chinese” (hence the title of the book), Isabelle finds her way in Beijing’s fast-paced society and reconnects with her roots with a touch of self-deprecating humor, warmth, and somewhat wide-eyed innocence.

I couldn’t put the book down for many reasons. It was smart, funny and overall, a very engaging read. Three things really struck me:

1. Isabelle, with all her insecurities and self-doubts (about her identity, talents, allure, etc.) was very much like me. I could really identify with her character and I deemed her my soul sister!

2. The smattering of Mandarin words (written in Romanized hanyu pinyin) used throughout the book encouraged me to pick up Mandarin again.

3. All the luscious descriptions of regional specialties like jianbing, mabo tofu and Peking duck made me so hungry I was enticed to either seek out recipes or call for takeout.

To give you a taste, I asked Ann to share a little bit about herself (do check out her blog) and her book and I hope you treat yourself or a friend to it. You can still order it in time for Christmas here!

Q+A with  Author Ann Mah

Ann-in-Paris KGL

 1. What inspired you to write this novel?

In 2003, my husband and I got married and a month later we moved from New York to Beijing. I gave up a job I loved in New York book publishing to become a diplomat’s wife. Initially, I was a little stunned — and I missed my job so much it felt like I’d amputated a limb — but slowly the local Chinese food ignited a spark to explore. This book grew out of those experiences.

2. You’ve admitted that Isabelle’s story is inspired by your own life. But how much is true to (your) life and how much is fiction? Did you embellish Isabelle’s character/life with elements you wish were present in your life?

Oh, of course! Isabelle is based loosely on my own experiences but ultimately I decided to write a novel because it allowed me to explore ideas of ethnicity and self-discovery more metaphorically. Isabelle is much braver than I am, especially when it comes to eating everything and traveling in the primitive Chinese countryside. And, unlike me, she’s lucky enough to have a sister.

3. You spent a year in Bologna, Italy on a James Beard Foundation scholarship, and after living in Paris for several years you are now working on a book about regional French cuisine. But you are ethnically Chinese and grew up eating Chinese food. How important was it for you to write this book and to spotlight China and Chinese cuisine?

I love Chinese food but in my Chinese-American home, I grew up eating it every day so I thought I knew everything about it. But when I got to China, I was shocked to discover an enormous landscape of regional cuisines — everything from numbing peppercorns to Chinese cheese — stuff wildly different from the food in my parents’ house. Food became the bridge that drew me into China. But the tale that burned inside of me was of a young American woman — who happens to be Chinese — living in Beijing. Food is the metaphor that allows the main character to make peace with her circumstances.

4. Growing up in Southern California, were you raised with strict Chinese traditions? Did living in China and/or the process of writing this book connect you to your culture? What are your reflections on both?

My father is ethnically Chinese but he was born in the States and as a result I had a very American childhood and grew up with a very American perspective. Living in China actually made me feel more American than Chinese because I felt more accepted by my compatriots, who understood that the conflict of outer appearance and inner identity. It also made me appreciate the struggles faced by my grandparents, who must have experienced the same fish-out-of-water challenges in 1920s California that I faced in 21st century Beijing. And, after leaving China, I have to say I missed Chinese food for the first time in my entire life. I still do.

5. You used to work in book publishing and made the transition to writing when you moved abroad. How did this decision come about and why focus on food?

I always secretly dreamed of being a writer but never had the gumption to go for it. Living overseas changed that — especially living in a place like Beijing, which pulsed with opportunity for someone young, energetic and educated in the West. I’ll always feel grateful to China for giving me a chance to realize a dream. As a young, semi-illiterate woman in Beijing, food was the bridge that drew me into China, the thing that made me eager to learn more about the culture and history. In fact, I’ve learned, it’s a pretty great way to explore the whole world.

6. Unlike many households, your dad did most of the cooking. Did you find this odd? Can you share a favorite recipe your dad taught you?

My dad grew up in central California, the son of Chinese immigrants who owned a Chinese restaurant. When he moved to North Carolina for his first job, he missed his mom’s food so much he taught himself how to cook it. I love to imagine him growing bitter melons and gailan (Chinese broccoli) — he even made his own tofu (once). Some of my earliest memories are of sitting on the counter while he chopped garlic; he remains one of my favorite cooking partners. For his legendary dinner parties, he always makes a dish of salt and pepper shrimp — they’re so delicious, they can make even the most squeamish of eaters start to suck shrimp shells.

**Question #7 has a spoiler so it’s after the recipe.

~~~

Salt and Pepper Shrimp (Salad)

salt and pepper shrimp_blog

Ann learned to make this dish from her dad. She usually serves the shrimp as a salad with arugula or mixed greens tossed in balsamic vinegar, olive oil and sesame oil. I adapted the recipe a little, tweaking amounts as well substituting pine nuts for red bell pepper. I also chose to serve the shrimp as a main course on an undressed bed of shredded red lettuce.

Time: 30 minutes
Makes: 2 to 3 servings as part of a multi-course family meal

1/2 pound shrimp (about 20 31/40 shrimp), peeled, cleaned, and patted dry (*preferably fresh because frozen shrimp contains salt, and you may have to alter the amount of salt you use)
1-1/2 teaspoons salt-pepper-sugar mixture (recipe follows)
1 tablespoon cornstarch
2 tablespoons canola oil
1 plump garlic clove, minced
1 green onion, chopped
1/2 small red bell pepper, diced (about 1-1/2 tablespoons)
2 tablespoons dry sherry or white wine

Bed of shredded lettuce or mixed greens for serving

In a small bowl, toss the shrimp with the salt-pepper-sugar mixture and cornstarch until well coated.

Preheat a wok or large skillet. Swirl in the oil and heat over high heat until it starts to smoke. Add the shrimp and cook until they just turn pink (1 to 2 minutes on either side). Add the garlic, green onions, and red pepper and stir and cook until the garlic is fragrant, about 30 seconds.

Drizzle in just enough sherry to create a sauce that barely coats the prawns. Remove from the heat.

Place the shrimp on the bed of greens and serve with rice.

Salt-Pepper-Sugar Mixture

This is a master batch for your spice cabinet (about 6 batches). You can increase the quantities to make more and store it in a bottle. I used white pepper from the Asian store which in my opinion is spicier than black pepper. Feel free to adjust the ratio according to taste.

2 tablespoons ground black pepper or white pepper
1 tablespoon sea salt
1 tablespoon sugar

Combine all the seasonings in a small bottle or jar. Shake well and store for up to a month.

 

~~~

**SPOILER ALERT—If you don’t want to know what happens in the end, stop reading now!**

7. This question is to satisfy my personal curiosity. I like that you left Charlie and Isabelle’s relationship open-ended. I get annoyed when authors feel they have to give their characters a happy-ever-after ending. Was this intentional?

Ha ha — well, yes, I wanted Charlie and Isabelle to have a chance to be together, but who knows what happens to them in the end? I like to think Isabelle stays in China for a good long while, unlike me. Maybe she is my döppelganger in that sense.

A Multi-Culti Christmas and New Year To You!

December 14, 2012

I was about 14-years-old in this picture taken during a family celebration. You can see the tippity top of the nasi tumpeng in front of my parents. No one is smiling except my mum! Hmm… My excuse? I was a teenager!

When I was growing up, fragrant yellow coconut rice was right at home sitting next to the roast beef and/or honey-baked ham during Christmas dinner.

Every year, my mum would make nasi tumpeng, yellow coconut rice served with a smorgasbord of Indonesian dishes. Come to think of it, the roast beef and the Bûche de Noël were probably an afterthought!

Mum’s first task was to make rice imbued with the fragrance and flavor of coconut milk and turmeric (nasi kuning or yellow rice, my recipe here). She would then mound the rice into a cone atop a bed of banana leaves folded in an intricate pattern origami-style. This “mountain” represents the numerous mountains and volcanoes that dot the  thousands of islands that make up the Indonesian archipelago.

Around the base of the cone, Mum would arrange various foods that she’d prepared over the past week in neat piles: shredded egg omelet, ayam goreng, (fried chicken), empal (sweet and spicy fried beef), teri kacang (anchovy with peanuts), tempe orek (fried tempe), perkedel kentang (potato cutlets), and anything else that she fancied.

My mum recently made this nasi tumpeng for a friend's wedding

My mum recently made nasi tumpeng for a friend’s wedding

The cone mimics the holy mountain, once revered as the abode of ancestors and gods, and its height symbolizes the greatness of Allah. The rice’s golden hue symbolizes prosperity and wealth. The food at the base of the cone symbolizes nature’s abundance.

Traditionally, this feast was created in thanksgiving for an abundant harvest or a blessing that a family has received. Today, nasi tumpeng is still widely served to celebrate any special occasion, be it a birthday, a marriage, or even a successful business venture.

Without a doubt, nasi tumpeng fit perfectly into our holiday celebrations, a time of thanksgiving and hope for a prosperous New Year.

Buoyed by my own memories, I asked my friends if they had any fusion holiday traditions to share. They sure did!

Filipino

Large bibinka (bebinca).

Bibinka is a popular Christmas treat in the Philippines (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

According to Happy, Filipinos traditionally go to midnight mass on Christmas Eve. When they come out, the streets in the Philippines are usually lined with vendors selling tasty, freshly steamed treats. “People look forward to Christmas midnight mass because this is the only time the vendors sell these items this early in morning,” she says. The treats include “puto bongbong,” a purple rice flour treat steamed in a bamboo tube and served with shaved coconut; and “bibinka” is a rice flour and coconut milk treat, steamed in banana leaves and cooked in a clay pot.

“In America, it is common for families to continue cooking these treats during the holidays to remind them of the Philippines,” she explains.

Japanese

New Year's Dishes

A variety of Japanese New Year’s dishes (Photo credit: JanneM)

Hiroko spends two days preparing a traditional Japanese New Year’s Day feast for family and friends. “For New Year’s Day, each food has meaning… We always start with these three as the root,” she says, describing the following foods: “kuromame,” black beans, which represent the hardworking ethic of the Japanese people; “kazunoko,” salt-cured herring roe, the thousand eggs symbolizing a wish for a large and prosperous family, and “gomame,” a tiny fish that reflects growth and good luck.

Chinese

Sticky rice stuffing is a common dish served by Chinese Americans during Thanksgiving and Christmas

Every Christmas, Virginia’s family combines American traditions of turkey and ham along with their  family tradition, Chinese Sticky rice, at the dinner table. “Inside the sticky rice, my parents would add … Chinese sausage, shiitake mushrooms, and dried shrimp,” she says. “For us, sticky rice represents family unity and togetherness — which is especially important now that my siblings and I live in different parts of the country.”

“Sticky rice is something I look forward to every year!” she says. (Find my recipe here.)

Taiwanese

hot pot!

Assorted ingredients surround a hot pot waiting to be dipped into the soup (Photo credit: StudioGabe // Gabriel Li)

Tina, a Taiwanese who grew up in Guam, remembers spending New Year’s Day around a hot pot. “It brings the entire family together over one pot of boiling soup with a variety of ingredients,” she says. “Moreover, it’s a hot soup dish and simply appropriate for the cold winter.”

Indonesian

Chicken porridge, Jakarta, Indonesia

Indonesian bubur or congee or rice porridge (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

For Titania, congee and Chinese wine were staples to ring in the New Year when she was growing up in Indonesia. “We put preserved salty plum in the wine to create a unique salty and sour (from the wine) taste and we’d toast with that at midnight,” she says. “Then we would eat up the chicken and pork “bubur” (Indonesian-style congee) that my mom made to warm us up.”

By blending old and new, adding a dash of east meets west, plus a sprinkle of creativity, we can all design our own family traditions for the holidays. But regardless of what is served on the table or what gifts are under the tree, remember that being together as a family and sharing each other’s company should be number one on everyone’s wish list.

(These quotes were originally published in a 2007 Northwest Asian Weekly article)

Do you have a fusion holiday tradition to share?

~~~

This post is  part of #LetsLunch, our monthly Twitter-inspired food bloggers potluck. This month, it’s holiday celebrations around the world.

Don’t forget to check out the Let’s Lunchers’ creations below (the list will be constantly updated). And if you’d like to join Let’s Lunch, go to Twitter and post a message with the hashtag #LetsLunch.

 Annabelle’s Pecan Slices at Glass of Fancy

Emma’s Latkes at Dreaming of Pots and Pans

Grace’s Persimmon Salad at Hapa Mama

Lucy’s Ham and Cheddar Scones at A Cook and Her Books

Joe’s Orange Honey Cake

My New Kitchen Toys

December 12, 2012

One of the greatest joys of traveling is bringing home loot, whether for yourself or for friends and family. Some travelers purchase objets d’art, others, clothes and accessories. Me? I almost always go for food and kitchen knick knacks.

I just spent three weeks in Singapore (for a friend’s wedding) and Viet Nam (for a two-week R&R with my hubby). And I have plenty to show for it!

I scored most of my finds in the lovely town of Hoi An on the Central Viet Nam coast. My husband and our friends attended a market tour and cooking class organized by the Morning Glory Cooking School and we were introduced to all manner of local fruit and vegetables, as well as kitchen gadgets.

A girl can’t have too many peelers, no? This Y-peeler, etc., is excellent for skinning cucumbers and shredding green papaya (I saw many street vendors wielding this same tool) but the main reason I bought it was because it can transform a lowly carrot into beautiful rosettes!

This multipurpose tool peels, shreds and makes gorgeous carrot rosettes

Here we have an unusual instrument that transforms morning glory–a.k.a. kangkung, a.k.a. water spinach–stems into sprightly blossoms. It works with spring onions too.

spring onion flower

The label on this nifty tool reads” Instrument to split convol(v)ulus vegetable made of inox metal.” I used it to split a green onion instead.

This instrument makes easy work of splicing the stems, a job I saw many street vendors tediously doing by hand with small, sharp knives. The stems are then soaked in cold water to allow them to “bloom” and curl before being scattered over soups or tossed into salads and rolls. (See this Wandering Chopsticks’ blogpostfor more photos.)

Green onion “blossoms” and cilantro sprigs are scattered over a bowl of pho.

And my final toy is a peeler/slicer/knife, a gift from the cooking school! We used it to shred mango for our salad. I saw women using this versatile knife to shred lemongrass, banana blossoms (see below) as well as using it like a regular knife.

A vendor at the market deftly shaves a banana blossom into thin slices

A vendor at the market in Hoi An deftly shaves a banana blossom into thin slices with this unique peeler/knife

A quick search on the internet reveals this is a traditional Vietnamese knife called a cai bao (this link has a video that demonstrates its use but the selling price seems a little exorbitant to me) or dao bao, depending on where you look.

During the cooking class, we were taught to make vertical cuts into the mango flesh from the seed’s tip to its bottom using the knife’s edge. Then, I used the center blade (which kinda acts like a peeler) to scrape off the flesh which came away as shreds.

Strips of semi-ripe mango are tossed into a tasty salad. My husband made this plate all by himself during our cooking class!

I’m thrilled to add these kitchen gadgets to my collection and can’t wait to use them. I didn’t see any of them at my nearest Asian market (which is 99Ranch) but I’ll try the Vietnamese markets next time.

Have you spied any of these tools at your local Asian Market? And have you brought home a unique kitchen gadget from a trip abroad? Do share!

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