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.
Probiotic food is all the rage at the moment. In food and health magazines, blogs and newspapers, everywhere you turn there are articles singing the praises of tempeh, or extolling the benefit of kombucha in keeping our digestive systems healthy. Television commercials advertise the miraculous power of yogurt whose live cultures keep us all regular. Even sauerkraut and kimchi have been enlisted to manage the balance of bio functions in our gastrointestinal tracts. So are there probiotic foods in Chinese cooking?
Two weeks ago a Chowhound forum user, Gordon Wong, started a discussion thread and he questioned whether mooncake is like fruitcake: often gifted but rarely eaten. I was pleased to read that majority of the responders reported they love mooncake and do eat them. I too am a fan of mooncake. I like them so much that I often wait until after the Mid-Autumn Festival so I can buy more of them at a discount.
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.