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.
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.
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?