When it comes to holiday celebrations, Warren and I are traditionalists. For Thanksgiving, a New England turkey dinner, accompanied by oyster stuffing, pan gravy, mashed potato and orange cranberry sauce, is the undeviating menu. For Christmas a prime rib roast or a ham would be added as we host a larger crowd. Lately though, there’s been grumbling by the family that we should be more modern and innovative with our Christmas dinner. But how does one inject creativity into a classic Christmas dinner? I decided to search for an answer in my Chinese cooking tradition.
In Singapore during the 1960’s, drinking milk meant reconstituting white powdery dried milk that came in a large can. The powder needed to be dissolved in hot water, and no matter how vigorously it’s stirred, the result was always slightly gritty with a rather bland taste. “Fresh” milk, which came in a triangular pyramid-shaped paper carton, was expensive and only available in the few exclusive supermarkets. I remember its taste was closer to what we now get in an UHT milk rather than the fresher taste of U.S. milk. It was considered a luxury and we would indulge only occasionally.
My Chinese zodiac sign is the wooden horse, and since this is the year of the wooden horse I’m not surprised I’m starting out the year with a busy schedule. For the first time in a very long while, I did not make a family Chinese New Year dinner at home. But I do have very good reasons for this lapse. First of all I’ve been busy with the manuscript for my upcoming book, which is now due in the spring that I was supposed to have completed last fall. Then I was asked by my very good friends Amy and Romy at Purple Yam restaurant in Brooklyn to help them develop a Chinese New Year menu for their restaurant. And just two weeks before Chinese New Year, through my wonderful friend Wendy Chan, Ron DeSantis at Yale University dining services invited me to put together a home-style Chinese New Year dinner for the students.
When my brother got married in Singapore more than two decades ago, the wedding banquet included a braised wild duck dish. As a city state Singapore does not produce much of its food, never mind finding wild ducks. So the banquet chef at the restaurant provisioned imported wild ducks from Germany. In order to show evidence that the ducks were in fact wild, I remembered the chef showing us bullets left in the duck before butchering and cooking them. That was my first encounter with wild fowl.