Today is the Qingming Festival (清明節) when Chinese families all over the world visit ancestral tombs to pay respect by cleaning them. Despite being one of the three major holidays celebrated by the Chinese, very few in the West understand its significance. It is such a vital holiday that controversial for hire tomb sweeping services are now available for migrant workers who are unable to return to their ancestral homes during this festival.
A week ago Friday the night after yuanxiao (元宵), which is on the fifteenth day or the last day of the formal Chinese lunar New Year celebration, I’d invited a few of my blogger friends over for dinner. For months, if not years, I’d been promising them I would cook one of my Chinese feasts, but had not fulfilled this pledge. This last eighteen months I’ve been so pre-occupied with writing my cookbook that I had neglected them. So I made it up to them with a “Spring Awakening Dinner.”
Last year at this time I was frantically trying to complete the manuscript for my upcoming cookbook. With the deadline looming I did not have the time to cook a family Chinese New Year dinner. But the book, Phoenix Claws and Jade Trees: Essential Techniques of Authentic Chinese Cooking, is now finished and will be published this fall, so I am back making a Chinese New Year banquet for the family.
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.
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.
Writing a book is a fulltime job. This I discovered last fall once I started to earnestly concentrate on completing my cookbook. What with my commitments in restaurant consulting and teaching, I have no time at all to prepare lunch. To utilize my time efficiently I buy commercial cold cuts, sliced cheeses and wheat bread to make sandwiches. But I yearn for the occasional comfort Chinese lunch that invariably sooths my anxiety about writing the book. So I need a new lunch plan.
Have you ever gotten into a situation where two friends you’ve invited for dinner have different dietary constraints? One doesn’t eat red meat, but another would eat just about everything except liver. And you’ve been planning to serve your signature beef Wellington to dazzle your guests. Being the good host that you are you put on your creative thinking cap and accommodate them by changing the menu.
Go to a Japanese noodle shop or a casual Korean restaurant and you’ll find two noodle dishes with very similar names: Jajangmyeon and Jajamen. Not unlike spaghetti Bolognese they consist of a bed of noodles topped with a brown ground meat sauce often accompanied by julienned cucumbers. Few people though realize that this dish originated in China. Known as Zhajiang Mian (炸醬麵) in Mandarin it is a classic snack food from the Beijing region.
In spite of the hazy smog that has become the norm in China’s polluted cities, all but one day of my recent trip to Chengdu (成都), the capital of Sichuan province, was clear and bright. I took full advantage of the good weather and explored many of its vibrant neighborhoods on foot. Living up to the city’s reputation as the snacking capital of China, I found a myriad of street vendors selling noodles, dumplings, fried snacks and other local delights. Much of these have been glorified in guidebooks, travel articles and cookbooks. What is not commonly known, however, is the struggle these vendors face in dealing with the authority.
In Ba Jin’s (巴金) epic Chinese literary trilogy: Family, Spring and Autumn (家,春,秋), the author describes the life of a Chinese aristocratic family during the final years of the feudalistic Qing dynasty. It was a tumultuous time in which the family members had to negotiate changing political landscape as dynastic rule disintegrated, as well as the family’s own struggle between generations over changing values and aspirations. Ba Jin was a great observer and narrator of a China struggling within and without while falling into chaos at the beginning of the twentieth century. Among all the confusions and upheaval, there is one single constant and that is the communal family meal.