Arriving in America in the 1970’s I was introduced to a few American Chinese restaurants that still served chop suey and chow mein. I remembered that one particular item on the menu aroused my curiosity. It was Moo Goo Gai Pan. Expecting a dish with mushrooms and chicken I ordered it. Imagine my horror when the dish arrived displaying a rainbow array of vegetables with pork slices. There was no Moo Goo. There was no Gai Pan.
Once the yearend holidays and New Year craziness are over everyone begins to look to Valentine’s Day. Lovers are not the only ones wooing their partners. Marketers, the media and even bloggers take this opportunity to court their customers and readers. Chocolate companies package their products in red and white, and the media and blogs are full of advices and suggestions on how to charm your lovers. There are articles on how to make your lady or man happy, and how to celebrate the day as a single person. Not to be outdone I’m also going to give you advice on how to create an impressive dish for that Valentine’s Day dinner.
At first I noticed a few blocks of broken links on some Web pages. Then I started receiving “connection timeout” and “server reset” messages. Access to my favorite places like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube was unsuccessful. Furthermore many food blogs I regularly visit were inaccessible as well. These were not symptoms of a widespread network failure, but rather the result of surfing the Internet from Shanghai. Such was the extent of the “great firewall” of China I encountered during my travel there last fall.
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.
As an open-minded omnivore, I enjoy vegetarian dishes as much as meat dishes. On many occasions I’ve successfully made vegetarian dishes for my vegetarian friends. Many were surprised at the diversity of Chinese vegetarian dishes and commented how flavorful and hearty they were. The key to a rich tasty vegetarian dish is to make use of what is known as umami, which is a Japanese word used to express the fifth taste in addition to the generally accepted four tastes of sweet, salty, sour and bitter. In Chinese umami is known as xian (鮮) and making stock full of umami is the basis for a successful vegetarian dish.
Summer in Shanghai heralds the arrival of bountiful local fruits like lychees (荔枝), longans (龍眼), peaches, and yangmei (waxberries 楊梅). Street vendors hawk them from overflowing bamboo baskets, which they carry on poles balanced on their shoulders. They are a welcome, yet increasingly rare, sight in modern Shanghai as urban life whizzes by. Although I’m not adept at the art of bargaining I would always try to get the best deal from the vendors. It simply is part of commerce in China. After successfully negotiating a purchase I would bring my fruits home, chill them and serve them at the end of dinner. But this is not the only way to enjoy these summer fruits. Cooking with fruits is a long-standing tradition in Chinese cuisine.
A starving beggar in China during the Qing dynasty is said to have stolen a chicken and was hotly pursued by its owner. In his haste he buried the chicken in mud near a riverbank to hide it. Later that night he returned and retrieved the chicken, its feathers covered in mud. He started a fire of twigs and branches to cook the chicken. But not having any utensils he placed the entire chicken directly into the fire. A tight clay crust formed as the fowl cooked, and when the crust was cracked open the feathers came right off the chicken exposing juicy tender meat and emitting an incredible aroma. The roasted chicken was so delicious he decided to start selling his creation to the villagers. Unbeknownst to him he had just invented one of the greatest culinary traditions of China.
Chinese takeout lunches as a rule are fast, convenient, filling and economical. We in America know them as a Styrofoam container loaded with heaps of white rice, and topped with a gooey sticky stir-fry. Sometimes accompanied by a grease soaked fried spring roll. Although the quality of these lunches is not always consistent they are mostly tasty and satisfying. I’m not ashamed to say that I occasionally enjoy them as well. But are there homemade alternatives that can be more fulfilling than these quintessential takeout lunches? One answer is red cooked pork over rice.
I can’t believe it’s been more than a month since my last post! I’d just completed a major system development project for a client at work. The delivery of this system had taken over my entire attention. Perhaps some of the technologist readers out there might sympathize with me and I ask for your apology. As soon as the project was over I went to Chinatown and was excited to find edible lily bulbs (百合) in season. I was itching to get back to my kitchen.
I was encouraged, actually prodded, to start blogging about my cooking slightly over a year ago after Kim at the Yummy Mummy Cooks Gourmet tasted one of my all time favorite dishes, Red Cooked Pork, or “Hong Shao Rou” (紅燒肉). She was completely blown away by the tender velvety meat of the pork belly surrounded by sweet soy sauce and anise flavors. Since this recipe was posted on January 18th 2008, I’ve had numerous responses from readers and friends about variations in ingredients and techniques. I’ve decided to revisit this very important dish.