We usually plan our New Year’s Eve early. We would arrange to join friends for a dinner celebration either at a restaurant or at home. This year, however, with my busy travel schedule to Asia in November and December, hosting our family Christmas celebration and organizing Warren’s 60th birthday party we found ourselves without a plan. Fortunately, a neighbor suggested we join them and their friends for a late night champagne and h’or d’oeuvres gathering.
It has been more than five years since we lost our cat, Lily, to cancer. Warren and I were very fond of her, and until now just couldn’t bring ourselves to adopt another cat. We finally decided we’ve given ourselves sufficient “adjustment” time. Early this year our friend Grace Young, author of The Wisdom of the Chinese Kitchen and The Breath of a Wok, had suggested we consider the Only Hope Cats Recue, Inc. when we were ready. So last week we finally contacted Kris at Only Hope Cats and found our beautiful four-year old rescued gray tiger tabby, Brandon.
As a newly arrived foreign student from Singapore during my university years in Boston, I had to learn the customs and traditions of American holidays. Although I was already familiar with Christmas and New Year celebrations, Thanksgiving was totally unknown to me. For my first Thanksgiving in America my roommate invited me to spend the holiday with his family in New Hampshire. Unbeknownst to me I was to experience a classic yet quaint practice of American holiday celebration: an enormous turkey dinner and a football game.
One of my favorite activities when traveling is to visit local food markets. Last week, while wandering through the produce section of a wet market in Shanghai, I found something I’d never seen before. A large unmarked basket was full of miniature bright red fruits freckled with light brown dots that resembled crabapples. They had long green stems attached, and visible sepal crowns at the bottom. According to the friendly wrinkled-faced vendor I had stumbled upon haw fruit.
Beets were introduced into China from Babylonia around the ninth century. However unlike other food items of New World origin such as potatoes, tomatoes, peanuts and chilies, which Portuguese traders brought to China in the seventeenth century, beets have never become a major Chinese cooking ingredient. Given this long history of existence in China why are they not more popular?
After fleeing prewar France with her American employers, Clementine and the Beck family settle along the New England coast. As the central character in Samuel Chamberlain’s book Clementine in the Kitchen, the Burgundian cuisinier struggles to adjust to her new environment. One day as she cycles along the coast near her new home, she looks at the ocean and is amazed and “livid with excitement.” She rushes home and announces “J’ai trouve de moules! De quantites des moules!” She “has found mussels! Lots of mussels!” Clementine is overjoyed that such expensive French delicacy litters the American shoreline.
If there’s one thing that everyone can agree on about durian it’s the odor. Not only is the odor strong and distinct, it permeates through layers of packaging and lingers interminably. Airlines and public transport authorities in Asia ban durian in the aircrafts, subway trains and buses. Hotels in the region similarly prohibit it in their rooms.
To foreigners not familiar with this fruit the odor is so foul that few would attempt to eat it. Durian is the only fruit that the host of Bizarre Foods on the Travel Channel, Andrew Zimmern, simply couldn’t swallow. But to many other people the aroma, which becomes more pronounced as the fruit ripens, is the allure of the fruit. Therein lies the conundrum of durian: the stronger the odor the more desirable the fruit.
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I walked into the K-Mart store near Penn Station in New York last week and discovered to my horror that the Christmas section is already fully stocked with artificial Christmas trees, holiday decorations and ribbons. I had to check the date on my New York Times to make sure I had not completely missed Columbus Day, Halloween and Thanksgiving. This senseless commercialization sent shivers up my spine.
Just like Christmas in America and the West, Asian merchants have learned the art of commercializing holidays. I was rather surprised, though not completely unexpectedly, to find mooncakes being marketed all over Asia as I traveled in August even though Mid-Autumn Moon Festival (中秋節) is not until October 3rd. From Kuala Lumpur to Hong Kong and Singapore to Shanghai, neighborhood bakeries as well as multi-national food chains were touting their specialty mooncakes in advertisements as well as by shelf talkers in their stores.
Our good friend CK took us to the Chinatown section of Kuala Lumpur during our tour of Malaysia in August. Walking through a little alleyway we entered a small bustling wet market. These markets, still commonplace in Asia, are collections of vendors hawking multitudes of produce, seafood, poultry, meat and dry goods. Beyond the market there was an area full of hawker stalls selling prepared food. Weary shoppers could enjoy a snack or a hearty meal there. In among the stalls was CK’s favorite vendor selling yong tau foo. He still remembers skipping class to sneak a snack there. Passionate fans of yong tau foo lavish devotion on their favorite vendors for good reasons. Many vendors have been in the business for generations and have developed their very own special recipes. But if these recipes have been handed down through generations, why then is the yong tau foo we know of in Malaysia and Singapore so different from the traditional Hakka yong tau foo served in China or Hong Kong?