Cucumbers are known as “yellow gourds” (黃瓜) in Chinese. They are sometime also called “baby yellow gourds” (小黃瓜). I’ve always wondered why they’re called “yellow” since cucumbers are obviously green. Even with all the different varieties, they are all still green. But a few years ago while having dinner at a relative’s home in Hong Kong, her cook served a soup made with a wrinkly yellow-brown skinned gourd with slightly green flesh that she announced was mature cucumbers. That’s when I realized why cucumbers are called “yellow gourd.” They turn into a yellowish gourd with tough dry skin when mature.
It may surprise many people to learn that China has been the world’s largest producer of potatoes since 1993. But it should not be entirely unexpected. The Chinese diet has changed drastically since the economic reforms of the 1980’s. Introduction of French fries by Western fast food establishments popularized potatoes. The Chinese government has been enhancing food security by encouraging diversification of staple crops to include high-yield potatoes. And the Chinese are adapting new and exciting ways to cook the mighty spud.
For much of May I suffered from a seemingly endless fit of coughing. This lingering dry cough from a cold has no phlegm but was irritating nevertheless. I went to see my doctor and I was given an unusual prescription with a drawing and instructions. The drawing was of a pear with hollowed center and flames at the bottom. The instructions told me to get some chuanbei (川貝) from a Chinese herbal pharmacy, place it in the cavity of the pear along with some rock sugar, then steam the pear for about 30 to 45 minutes. I followed these instructions and consumed a steamed pear a day for about one week. Miraculously I was rid of the nagging cough.
About two years ago two neighbors of ours separately stopped us in the corridor and wondered if we had a good time smoking pot in our apartment the night before. I was initially perplexed and rather indignant by the insinuation. Then I realized the odor they smelled through our door was in fact from boiling zongzi, which I was preparing for the annual Duanwu Festival, commonly called the Dragon Boat Festival in the West. The concoction of bamboo leaves, meat and spices has an odor very similar to marijuana smoke, or so I’ve been told.
A Chinese children fable called “Spring Bamboo Shoot and the Pebbles” (春筍與亂石) tells a story of a spring bamboo shoot aspiring to burst through the soil, but is halted by a group of pebbles above him. He politely asks the pebbles to let him through but to no avail. With shear determination he pushes through between the pebbles and grows out of the soil. The pebbles are so impressed that they start celebrating him as a superstar. I’m actually not quite sure what the moral of the story is. But “success through determination” is so typically Chinese and very tiger-mom like. Regardless of the moral though, the story does tell of how bamboo shoots surge forth every spring to produce one of the most delicately delicious ingredients in Chinese cooking.
Across a very narrow strait from the downtown waterfront of Xiamen (廈門) sits the island of Gulangyu (鼓浪嶼), a hilly outcrop smaller than Central Park in New York City and dotted with colonial-era European style buildings. Warren and I took the short five-minute ferry ride to this island last month while we were in Xiamen. Gulangyu occupies a very special place in my heart because my father spent his formative years there attending the Anglo-Chinese Middle School in the 1930’s.
Growing up in Singapore I often chatted with my grandfather about Jinjiang (晉江), our ancestral hometown in Fujian (福建) province of China. The stories he told painted a picture of a fishing village with a thriving commercial center where our ancestors lived and worked as merchants and traders. So imagine my surprise when I learned that Jinjiang is now a city with a population of one million.
Still a busy fishing port, Jinjiang has become the largest center of underwear and swimsuit production in all of China, and by extension the whole world. That is the product of economic liberalization over the last three decades. But what interested me the most was investigating the local foodways. Would I be able to find the comfort foods of my youth in Jinjiang? Would the different kinds of flavored rice, fish balls, angel hair noodles and fresh spring rolls be the same?
Two weeks ago Warren and I left Shanghai’s Hongqiao International Airport bound for Xiamen (廈門), a major southern port city of Fujian (福建) province where my ancestors are from. The first thing I noticed onboard our Xiamen Airlines airplane was that the pre-flight announcement was in the Southern Min (閩南) dialect that I spoke with my grandparents. During my travels in China over the last decade I’ve never heard any local dialects used in such official announcements. So this was surprising to me since China’s central government pretty much dictates people’s life including the language used for official or business purposes. I knew then that I was about to witness a very different independent minded part of China. This spirit probably helps explain their unique culture and cooking customs as well.
Mention Beijing cuisine and Peking duck immediately comes to mind. It conjures the image of sumptuous palace fare and complex cooking techniques. This dish is considered the ultimate of Chinese cooking wisdom and knowhow. Perfectly roasted duck with a lacquer-like glaze covering the skin is the definitive Beijing delicacy prized by connoisseurs. But one would be hard pressed to find another dish from Beijing cuisine that stands out like the duck.
My family is originally from the coastal Chinese province of Fujian. Traditionally our noodles are cooked in soup, boiled unadorned except for seasonings, or stir-fried in a wok with a thin sauce. When I was about ten years old my family went to a Cantonese dim sum house in Singapore, which at that time was an exotic excursion for a family accustomed to mostly eating Fujianese food. We were served a pan-fried noodles dish of delicious seafood vegetable sauce dripping all over thin golden brown crispy noodles. That was the beginning of my life long love affair with Hong Kong pan-fried noodles.