I have moved my blog over to SmithsonianAPA.org/PicklesandTea, produced in tandem with the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center. The Asian Grandmothers Cookbook blog will remain up but I won’t be posting here regularly. We’re migrating followers and the email list over to the new site but if you don’t want to miss a post please subscribe directly on Pickles and Tea!
Thank you very much for your support all these years and hope to see you at the other end!
We all know about Lunar New Year, celebrated most notably by Chinese and Vietnamese in January or February every year. However, under-the-radar new year festivities take place at the start of spring.
Lao New Year is celebrated as a three-day-long festival from April 13-15 (it can vary and may occur April 14-16 according to some calendars). The 13th is the last day of the old year, the 14th is the “day of no day”, and the 15th marks the start of the new year. Catzie Vilayphonh, creative director of LaosintheHouse.com (a collaborative arts project that brings together the collective stories of Lao-Americans) puts it simply, “On the first day, we clean everything, on the second we don’t do anything and on the third, we celebrate!”
I asked Catzie to give me some insight into her new year experience, especially the foods eaten.
Unlike the Chinese, Laotians don’t celebrate with a lavish reunion dinner at home. Instead, families head to the closest Lao Buddhist temple (called a wat) to pray and seek blessings, to take part in cultural activities, and of course, to eat lots of good food. Here, they also follow an important tradition: splashing water on each other. “It’s a cleansing ritual signifying starting anew,” explains Catzie.
Catzie points out that because of schedules, and perhaps competing wats, Lao New Year is celebrated almost every weekend in April.
There aren’t any symbolic foods or traditions that usher in wealth and good luck, nor are there sound-alike ingredients for gold and long life. A practical people, Laotians eat everyday foods to ring in the new year. “There’s no one thing that we must eat,” says Catzie. “We’ll just eat everything that we like.”
As a teenager, Catzie, who was born in a Thai refugee camp and raised in Philadelphia, went along to the temple for one reason—the street food vendors who thronged the temple grounds.
She describes some of her favorites:
- “Mieng kaham is an aromatic street snack. Sticky rice is dried, fried and smashed in a mortar with a pestle and pork broth is added to it until it becomes a sticky mush. You put the mush in lettuce and wrap it with lemongrass, toasted coconut, peanuts, dry roasted pepper and tomatoes.”
- “There’s always barbecued meat on sticks—beef chunks on skewers, chicken wings, and lemongrass sausage (som sai gok) made with ground pork that’s allowed to sit for a day to ferment.”
- And probably the most well known Lao/Thai dish:“Lao papaya salad is made with just papaya (Thai papaya salad, som tam, has plenty of extras) and garnished with pork rind for extra flavor and texture. It’s served with cabbage which is used like a spoon to pick up the salad. It’s extra sour and extra spicy, not like Thai papaya salad!”
For those of us who are accustomed to gathering at mom and dad’s for Thanksgiving or Lunar New Year dinner, it might seem odd not to celebrate this important cultural celebration with a large family meal.
But eating together as a family is just as special any time of the year, not just during the holidays.
Catzie recalls annual visits to a cattle ranch as a little girl with her extended family—uncles, aunts and cousin–to pick a cow. The cow was slaughtered and butchered onsite and everyone brought home a share of the animal.
“That first meal was the best part. We had to eat certain parts (of the cow) right away and we had a big family meal (usually raw laab),” she reminisces. “Everyone took turns working and we all had a part to play.”
“Sitting down with the family all together and sharing the meal. That’s truly, authentically Lao.”
Photo credits: Fawn Grant
Pictures taken at Lao Wat Buddhist temple of North Philadelphia, 2012
Sheng’s Papaya Salad
Recipe excerpted from Cooking from the Heart–The Hmong Kitchen in America (University of Minnesota Press, 2009)
The country of Laos comprises three main ethnic groups—Lao (60 percent), Khmou (11 percent) and Hmong (6 percent). Papaya salad is a dish that’s prepared by all but this particular version comes from Sheng Yang who is Hmong. In Lao, it’s called thum bak hoong, and in Hmong, see taub ntoos qaub. This papaya salad is probably rather different from what you’ve had at a Thai restaurant—it’s earthier and more complex than its Thai counterpart thanks to fermented shrimp and crab pastes; it also lacks the usual accoutrements like crushed peanuts, garlic, snake beans, etc. Leave out the funky pastes if you prefer, and by all means add peanuts if you’d like.
Makes: 6 servings
4 cups shredded green papaya or 4 medium sized carrots
2 to 4 garlic cloves (depending on your taste)
1 to 3 Thai chili peppers (depending on desired heat)
1 to 2 tablespoons fish sauce
½ tablespoon shrimp paste (optional)
½ tablespoon crab paste (optional)
1 tablespoon sugar
1 teaspoon MSG (optional)
Juice and some pulp of 1 lime
6 cherry tomatoes
3 cups shredded cabbage (optional)
Some Asian markets sell shredded green papaya or you can shred it yourself using a special shredding tool available at Asian markets. If preparing this dish with carrots, scrub them well and cut off top ends. Peel into long, thin strips with a vegetable peeler and set them aside.
Remove the papery skin from the garlic cloves and put into a large mortar. Remove the stem ends of the chilies and add the chilies to the garlic. With a pestle, pound the garlic and chilies until they are mushy. Next, add the green papaya or carrot strips, fish sauce, shrimp and crab pastes (if desired), sugar, and MSG (if desired). Squeeze the lime juice into the mixture, discarding the seeds. Use a spoon to scrape some of the lime pulp into the salad. Pound together a minute or two, turning the mixture over with a spoon. Continue until the flavors are extracted and mixed but the papaya strips still retain their shape.
Cut the cherry tomatoes into quarters and mix them into the salad. Put ½ cup of the cabbage on 6 individual plates and top with the salad mixture.
A few weeks ago, my food writer friend Debra Samuels (co-author of The Korean Table and author of My Japanese Table, both by Tuttle Publishing) came to Washington D.C. to do a bento box demonstration with the Smithsonian Associates.
Deb and I have only communicated via email and social media, but when I heard she was coming to town, I eagerly volunteered to help. I was delighted to discover that Deb is every bit as lovely in person!
We spent the day of the event (we were expecting 150 people!) prepping, prepping, and prepping.
Here is a slideshow with some highlights:
I’m sure many of you are dying to try your hand at bento “box-ing” so I asked Debra to give us some guidance on putting one together. Note that her focus is on kids’ bento boxes.
1. What are the most important elements of a bento box?
- It’s all about balance and using foods that span 5 different colors: red, black/brown, white, green, yellow. With those colors it is deemed that you have a balanced meal
- Have a variety of foods, whether in texture, cooking methods (boiled, stir-fry, fried) as well as types of food
- Make it visually pleasing
- Pay attention to nutritional value and portion sizes. Have smaller amounts of each food but a greater variety (see above, they are closely linked)
- And my Japanese friends say “LOVE” is in the box
- Usually rice or a carbohydrate (bread or pasta are fine too!) takes up to at least 1/3 of the box for a girl and up to half for a boy
- Protein is also important. Sometimes boys will get 2 kinds of protein
- Otherwise, meat, fish and chicken are often seen as okazu–side dishes–so they share equally in portion size with vegetables, fruit, etc.
2. What tips can you share with us newbies?
- Look at a bento box as a food sampler of sorts
- Concentrate on the colors
- Have a few neat picks so that you can create a kabob, for example: skewer a turkey meatball, steamed broccoli and a cherry tomato and brush all with a glaze of teriyaki sauce (find cute picks and more bento accessories on Amazon.com!)
- View this as a good opportunity to give your child some new foods in smaller amounts
- Stock up on silicon cups and put mini salads in them: pasta, leafy greens
- Prepare ahead of time: Have several (see-through) containers of precut and cooked veggies, corkscrew pasta, cut fruit, mini-meatballs
- Good leftovers equal a good lunch so make more than you need for dinner. The point is to re-fashion it creatively
- Definitely add a small treat (try Deb’s matcha mochi cupcakes below)
- For me, there are almost no ‘no-no’s.
3. What’s the difference between an adult’s and a kid’s bento box?
Mainly the difference is volume. There are also differences in volume between bento boxes for men and women. Men’s boxes have an interior space that can contain about 30% more food. Also the types of food that go into the box could be heavier on protein and carbs for men, and more fried foods as well.
As far as presentation is concerned, it still has to be pleasing to the eye. The Japanese say “me de taberu” they eat with their eyes. The same care is given to a 5-year-old’s lunch as is to a 15 or 50-year- old. A bento box for an adult may be less cute, but it will still be attractive.
For more info and tips, please visit Deb’s site: Cookingatdebras.com
Happy bento “box-ing”!
Matcha Mochi Cupcakes
From My Japanese Table (Tuttle Publishing, 2011) by Debra Samuels
“Thai sweet rice (glutinous) flour doesn’t work in this recipe. The best results are with Koda Farms Mochiko. I first learned about mochi cupcakes when a Boston friend who is married to a Japanese-American man. She got the recipe from her mother-in-law’s Buddhist Temple Community cookbook from Los Angeles. It has since been tweaked several times by other cooks.” ~ Debra
Makes about 16
3 cups (one 1-pound box) Koda Farms Mochiko (sweet rice flour, available at Asian Markets and some Whole Foods Markets)
2 teaspoons baking powder
1/4 teaspoon salt
2 teaspoons matcha (green tea powder)
3/4 cup canola oil
1 cup sugar
1 1/2 cups milk
1 can (15 ounces) sweet adzuki beans (optional)
Set the oven at 375 degrees F. Line a muffin tin with paper or foil cups.
In a bowl, combine the rice flour, baking powder, salt, and green tea. Whisk well.
In another larger bowl, mix the oil and sugar. Add the eggs and milk and whisk vigorously.
Add the rice flour mixture and mix with a rubber spatula until completely blended.
Fill the cupcake papers half full with the batter. Add a scant tablespoon of the adzuki beans. Spoon a little more batter over the beans. This should come just below the tops of the papers.
Bake the cupcakes for 20 to 25 minutes or until they begin to crack. Set on a wire rack to cool.
I’ve been thinking about kaya a lot lately—that creamy, unctuous coconut egg jam that was the foundation of many a childhood breakfast. I ate kaya at home between toasted sandwich slices (Gardenia, of course). I ate the holy trinity of Singapore breakfasts–kaya toast, soft-boiled egg, and iced Milo–at the neighborhood kopitiam (coffee shop). And I ate kaya swirled into soft loaves of bread that my mom bought from the local bakery.
I was definitely craving kaya. Unfortunately, the store-bought specimens looked like jam only ET could love but maybe even he would be put off by the fluorescent yellow or green hue. And not surprisingly, it tasted bad too.
So I did a little research to see what it would take to make kaya at home. After skimming a few recipes that required freshly-squeezed coconut milk, 10 eggs, and/or hours of stirring over a hot water bath, I all but gave up.
Then it hit me. Kaya’s ingredients and texture are similar to a curd! So I looked up the recipe for lemon curd in Martha Stewart’s Baking Handbook and realized it would be so easy to tweak to make kaya. The ingredients are surprisingly similar. The biggest difference was that instead of whole eggs, only the yolks are used. And it takes only about 10 to 15 minutes from start to finish!
To be honest, I was a little skeptical. But the recipe was easy to follow and the curd/custard turned out perfect in taste and texture the very first time!
Thank you, Martha!
Easy Kaya (Coconut Egg Jam) à la Martha Stewart
Martha Stewart didn’t really come up with a kaya recipe but her lemon curd recipe was the inspiration for my version. Instead of palm sugar, you can also use brown sugar—light or dark, it doesn’t matter–and/or use a mix of white granulated and brown. And feel free to adjust the amount of sugar to suit your taste. If you can’t find pandan leaves, don’t fret, just leave them out. Or you might want to try vanilla. Personally, I don’t find vanilla to be an adequate substitute for the complex flavor and aroma of pandan leaves. But, if you didn’t grow up with it, you probably won’t care. Just sayin’.
Makes: 1 cup
Time: 15 minutes
¾ cup unsweetened coconut milk (not light coconut milk please!)
4 egg yolks
3-1/2 ounces palm sugar (2 discs), crushed, or 1/2 cup sugar
2 to 3 pandan leaves, tied into a knot
Combine the coconut milk, egg yolks, and sugar in a medium heavy-bottom saucepan and whisk until smooth. Add the pandan leaves and cook over medium-high heat, stirring constantly with a wooden spoon until the custard is thick enough to coat the back of the spoon, 8 to 10 minutes. To be doubly sure the custard is cooked, it should register 160 degrees F on an instant-read thermometer. Don’t forget to scrape down the sides!
Remove the saucepan from the heat and discard the pandan leaves. Strain through a fine sieve into a small glass bowl or jar with a lid. Leave uncovered until completely cool. Cover and refrigerate for up to 1 week.
The authentic way to make kaya toast is to grill your sandwich slices—white bread is best, Gardenia or WonderBread is even better–is over coals. Since this is not always possible, just toast it. Slather a thick layer of butter (at least ½-inch according to some sources), followed by a hefty layer of kaya. This is not meant to be diet food!! Remove the crusts, halve, and serve with coffee, tea, or Milo!
For something a little different, sandwich kaya and butter between two Jacob’s Cream Crackers.
People who cook rice at home often belong to one of two camps: those who cook their rice in a rice cooker, and those who cook it on the stove top.
When I was in the beginning stages of researching my cookbook, I met a woman who was adamant that I should include a recipe for cooking rice the “right” way on the stove. I smiled and told her sweetly, “I use a rice cooker.”
Then, last year, during our multi-pronged move from Seattle to Washington D.C., I had to survive four whole months without my beloved rice cooker.
In those few months, with only two pots to my name, I had no choice but to learn how to cook rice on the stove. I even attempted micorwave cooking as well! Through trial and error, I perfected cooking rice using three methods, no special equipment necessary.
I realize now how spoiled I’ve been by my rice cooker—all I had to do was rinse, add water, and push a button. It was a humbling experience learning to cook without one of my most-used kitchen gadgets. Not to mention, I’m very surprised how much tweaking a seemingly simple food requires to achieve perfection.
Needless to say, if I met that woman again, I’d have to put my foot in my mouth.
I used jasmine rice for all these recipes but you can use any type of rice you prefer. You just have to adjust cooking times and the amount of water accordingly. For example, brown rice requires more water and a longer cooking time. The rice package should give you guidelines.
1. Stovetop Absorption Method
This method can be tricky, as the ratio of rice to water varies depending on how old the rice is. The older the rice, the drier it is, and the more water you’ll need for it to come out tender. As a general rule, new-crop rice uses a one-to-one ratio, but older rice needs 1 cup rice to 1¼ cups water. New crop rice is usually labeled as such on the bag. Regardless, always pay attention to the rice-to-water ratio the first time you make rice from a new bag, even if it is your favorite brand that you’ve been buying for decades. If the rice is too dry, add more water, a few tablespoons at a time, and continue cooking. If it’s too soggy, decrease the water gradually the next few times you cook. You may have to make a few mediocre pots before you get perfect rice, but it will be worth it! Look for Thai or North American jasmine rice—they are of the highest quality.
Time: 40 minutes (10 minutes active)
Makes: 2 to 3 servings
1 cup jasmine long-grain rice, rinsed until the water runs almost clear
1-1/4 cups water
Combine the rice and water in a medium heavy-bottomed saucepan with a tight-fitting lid (preferably glass so you can observe the changes). Set the saucepan over high heat and bring the water to a simmer. Bubbles will gather around the edge of the saucepan. Reduce the heat to the lowest possible setting and cover the saucepan tightly with the lid. Cook for 15 to 18 minutes, or until all the water is absorbed.
Turn off the heat and let the rice steam, lid intact, for another 10 minutes.
Lift the lid and gently fluff the rice with a fork or a pair of chopsticks. The rice should not be lumpy and the individual kernels should be separate.
Keep the rice covered until ready to serve. Serve hot.
2. Stovetop Pasta Method
Just as the title suggests, you can cook rice the same way you cook pasta. I don’t measure the water, I just fill my pot up with just enough water so that it won’t boil over. I love how the rice grains come out plumper and fluffier, and the kitchen rebel in me likes that precision isn’t key. My friend swears by this method for cooking brown rice–she claims it only takes 30 minutes and the rice comes out perfect every time.
Time: 20 minutes (5 minutes active)
Makes: 2 to 3 servings
1 cup jasmine long-grain rice, rinsed until the water runs almost clear
Pour in enough water to reach about three-quarters up the sides of a 4- to 6-quart pot and add the rice. Bring to a boil. Turn the heat down until the water simmers sprightly but isn’t boiling over and cook uncovered. Stir when you remember.
Start testing the rice at around 15 minutes. When the rice is cooked to your liking, turn off the heat and strain in a colander over the sink. Serve immediately.
3. Microwave Method
The best vessel to cook rice in the microwave is the tallest one that can fit in your microwave as the contents tend to overflow making a huge mess. You can buy one here. I’ve tinkered with this recipe a little and I’ve found that a large, wide vessel with straight sides works well. (I used a 2-1/2 quart Corningware casserole dish.) But, you can’t cook too much rice at one time, and you have to cook it on very low. All microwaves are different (and depending on the rice you use) so you’ll probably have to use trial and error to get this right, but don’t be discouraged!
Time: 20 minutes (5 minutes active)
Makes: 2 to 3 servings
1 cup jasmine long-grain rice, rinsed until the water runs almost clear
1-1/2 cups water
Combine the rice and water in a microwave-safe container.
Cover and program your microwave on low (I programed mine to 60%) and cook for about 20 minutes. Starting at 10 minutes, check every 5 minutes and stir.
Once the rice is cooked to your liking, leave the lid on for about 5 minutes, then fluff with a fork and serve.
Every year, Lunar New Year is celebrated around the globe with great fanfare: lion dances, red packets stuffed with money, and of course, 10-course banquets comprising dishes made with exquisite ingredients and brimming with symbolism–foods that are homonyms or look-alikes for gold bars, prosperity, family unity, fertility, good fortune, etc. This year, Lunar New Year falls on January 31st–it’s the year of the Horse!– and families will gather from far and wide over the next two weeks to eat dishes from long-life noodles to whole fish and fried egg rolls.
In pockets of Asian communities, this important holiday is also feted with special foods, albeit lesser known and a little lower-key. Here’s a delicious assortment for you to choose from.
In Singapore where I grew up, my family and I would celebrate with raw fish salad, or yu sheng in Mandarin Chinese. This “salad” is usually eaten in restaurants, not at home.
The dish’s make-up varies from place to place and comprises an assortment of ingredients including: sliced raw fish (salmon, ikan parang [mackerel], or grass carp), carrots, daikon, sweet potato, jellyfish, candied fruit, pomelo, pickled ginger, pok chui (fried flour crisps), etc., etc., all dressed with a sweet and sour plum sauce and spices. Like many dishes served during the New Year, yu sheng is popular because of its name (a homonym for the words for prosperity and longevity) and the “lucky” ingredients that go into it. The ingredients are served neatly laid out on a platter and then pandemonium breaks out as diners start tossing with their chopsticks, and crying out auspicious sayings. Supposedly, the higher you toss, the more luck you’ll have for the New Year!
While yu sheng is traditionally eaten on the seventh day of the New Year (the celebration lasts 15 days, the length of a moon cycle), restaurants tend to have it on their menus starting a week before the New Year, up till several weeks after.
Tacoma, Washington-native Mary Huynh’s parents gift her with many pounds of “bánh chưng,” glutinous rice bundles stuffed with mung beans and pork wrapped in banana leaves, every Tết, the Vietnamese New Year. The bundles are boiled anywhere from six to 12 hours. It’s basically “cooked to death!” but for good reason–it gives bánh chưng a long shelf life. “(It’s) delicious!” Huynh describes. “I’d lug it as checked baggage when I visit, and there have been mailings to my sister.”
Sweets like dried fruit candies and coconut candy are also abundant during Tết. Huong C. Nguyen has vivid memories of dried candied fruit offered on huge plates for visitors. “We served them with tea before sitting down to eat meals,” recalls Nguyen who grew up in Denville, New Jersey.
On the dining table, an assortment of traditional Vietnamese dishes like lemongrass chicken, braised duck, and thit kho, pork belly and eggs braised in fish sauce and coconut juice would be laid out. “Sometimes my mom would even mix in turkey!” she laughs.
The daughter of Taiwanese immigrants, Grace Hwang Lynch celebrates Lunar New Year enjoying hot pot with her family. Lynch, who blogs at HapaMama.com, describes the visually stunning array of foods: “There’d be a variety of meats–beef, chicken, sometimes lamb or pork. Seafood like shrimp, scallops, fish and shrimp balls, different veggies, leafy greens, mushrooms. The final item would be bean thread noodles to soak up the flavorful broth.”
On the 15th day of the Lunar New Year, the Lantern Festival, Lynch says it’s customary to have sweet red bean soup (ang-tau-thng in Taiwanese) with dumplings (in-a). “The dumplings are made with sweet (glutinous) rice and are really small, about marble-size, and come in pink and white.” The round dumplings and the bowls the sweet soup is served in symbolize family togetherness.
Although she didn’t celebrate Lunar New Year in a big way in Indonesia, Yusi Sasmitra fondly remembers kue keranjang, also called kue cina (literally Chinese cakes), that were sold widely during Imlek (the Indonesian name for Lunar New Year). They’re similar to Chinese nian gao (sticky rice cake) but with a Southeast Asian twist. “The brown cakes are cut into slices, grilled and rolled in shredded coconut,” the real estate specialist explains.
Sasmitra’s eyes light up when she rattles off the wide selection of cookies made available to guests who come round to visit after the first day of the New Year: kue bangkit (made from sago flour), kue satu (made from mung bean powder), cheese sticks and her favorite, kue nastar (pineapple tarts).
Growing up, kimchimom.com blogger Amy Kim vaguely remembers having dduk mandoo guk (rice cakes and dumpling soup) on January 1st. According to Korean custom, this dish is served during the Korean New Year, called Solnal or Seollal, that follows the lunar calendar. But in an effort to assimilate to American culture when they migrated to the U.S. in the 1960’s, Kim’s parents stopped celebrating the holiday. Kim only learned about it through friends, Korean language classes, and stories her mom told her.
“Now that I have a family of my own, I decided to start this tradition several years ago. Better late than never!” she says.
A typical bowl of dduk mandoo guk comprises ground beef and cellophane noodle dumplings served in beef broth. Kim, who lives in Northern New Jersey, created her own version made with Japanese dashi and shrimp dumplings. She buys the rice cakes from the Asian store.
A lot of symbolism is present in this simple bowl of soup. The New Year is considered everyone’s birthday and eating the soup symbolizes becoming one year older. The white rice cakes symbolize blessings and purity, and when cut into perfect rounds or “coins,” represent money and prosperity.
While Lunar New Year is not a major festival in Japan, many Japanese celebrate Setsubun, a seasonal marker on the ancient, lunar-based koyomi calendar. This year, February 3rd marks the beginning of spring as well as the lunar new year.
In recent years, eating eho maki-zushi–Good Fortune Setsubun rolled sushi–has become part of the Setsubun fun (in addition to the bean-throwing ceremony!). These sushi rolls are similar to the futo (plump) maki (rolls) available at American Japanese restaurants. “The biggest difference is that these Good Fortune Rolls are not sliced,” explains Tokyo-based Japanese culinary instructor Elizabeth Andoh. “Some people include seven fillings (to represent Shichi Fukujin, the Seven Gods of Good fortune), others just four or five. A few takeout places in Tokyo this year are offering very plump rolls with 15 fillings!”
The proper way to eat eho maki is to face the eho, the auspicious direction for the year, and gobble down your sushi roll uncut to keep the good fortune intact.
HAPPY YEAR OF THE HORSE 2014 EVERYONE!
LINKS TO RECIPES:
Eho Maki-Zushi (+ more about Setsubun!)