During Christmas, or Thanksgiving for that matter, many Chinese immigrant families like mine face a dilemma. Should we serve turkey or just simply make a Chinese meal? Turkey has always been an iconic American foods that the Chinese never embraced. Jeff Yang wrote in a Wall Street Journal blog post that his family serves both the big bird and “a long buffet line” of other Chinese dishes. This seems to be the most common solution for satisfying both the family’s preference for Chinese food and our desire to assimilate into the American culinary tradition.
“Why don’t they remove the bones before they serve the fish?” is a common question I hear from friends whenever we go to Chinese restaurants. In fact on one occasion after finishing a steamed striped bass at a popular Cantonese seafood restaurant in Chinatown a fellow diner jested that the remains of our dish looked like Felix the Cat had swallowed the fish whole and pulled out a completely cleaned skeleton with just the head and tail left on. So why do the Chinese like to keep the bones in the dishes they cook?
Photography by Kim Foster
I am very fortunate to be living in the most wonderful building in the greatest city. This year my schedule around Chinese New Year was absolutely crazy. What with cooking classes, cooking demos, panel discussions and a guest chef event I had neglected preparations for my own family New Year dinner. The day before New Year’s Eve only four members of my family had been invited and confirmed. I was not looking forward to spending a quiet New Year’s Eve celebration with so few people. Determined to change this I turned it into a festive gathering of friends and neighbors.
This January whisked by at a breakneck pace without my realizing that it is over. During the month I taught cooking classes, consulted restaurant entrepreneurs, advised market researchers on Chinese sauces, and cooked a guest chef dinner at a restaurant. I am quite baffled by how cooking has turned into such a central role in my life. Yet for many years this is what I aspired to do. Three years ago this month I wrote my first post on Red Cook coaxed by my neighbor, Kim of The Yummy Mommy and Charcutepalooza fame. It has become a way for me to share my passion for Chinese cooking with others as well as to discover opportunities to work as a culinary professional. Thanks to my many enthusiastic supporters I am starting to do what I truly love.
I first encountered sea intestine (海腸) last January while dining at the M & T Restaurant in Flushing, a section of Queens in New York. The owner, James Tang, a native of Qingdao, was not able to articulate exactly what sea intestine is. I’d simply assumed it to be some sort of sea animal and thought it best to leave it at that. Little did I know it was to be such an integral part of modern Qingdao cooking.
There is something slightly disconcerting about planning a dinner intended entirely to highlight different kinds of exotic meat such as wild boar, veal, pork, quail, rabbit sausages, lamb sausages and oysters. Separately they each would make a winning dish, but how would you put them all in one dinner without overwhelming the diners. Should there be a specific style of cuisine? What kind of supplementary ingredients would be suitable? This was the challenge Christo at Chez What? faced when offered a bounty of these meats from Marx Foods to sample. His solution was to invite a few bloggers to get together and cook.
Like many home cooks I love to collect all kinds of cooking utensils, appliances, cookware and tableware. I own a strawberry huller, fish poacher, taco frying tongs and artichoke plates. Then after using them once or twice they’re usually banished deep in a drawer or at the back of a kitchen cabinet, where they’re undiscovered for years. But there is one curious looking specialty clay pot, with a steam spout in the middle, that I use regularly for making the most delicious chicken soup. It is a Yunnan (雲南) steam clay pot (汽鍋).
We’ve just entered the year of the tiger and according to the five elements of Chinese geomancy it is the metal tiger year, which is also known as the white tiger year. Consequently for most people it is to be a turbulent period with unpredictable outcomes and uncertain prospects. But if you were born in the year of the sheep, horse, dog, tiger, ox or dragon, you’re in luck because your birth sign counteracts the negativity. You’ll have more good fortune and opportunities for success in your career this year. Since I was born in the year of the horse I’m due for some good fortune or career success. But as a practical man that I am I just wish for a successful New Year’s dinner.
During the winter months for the last two years I started noticing fresh frozen abalones for sale in New York City’s Chinatown. A few fishmongers display mounds of these large solidly frozen mollusks. I was curious where these abalones come from. Unfortunately most of the shopkeepers were not able to enlighten me. However one person suggested Australia, which is plausible since abalone farming has become very successful there. This success has made abalone a sustainable ingredient. So this year when I was planning our Chinese New Year family celebration I did not hesitate to include some of these beautiful abalones for the Hakka dish DaPenCai.
I have a New Year resolution, a Chinese New Year resolution that is. I am going to eat healthier from now on. No I’m not going to seek fat-free products on market shelves, nor am I going to reduce the fat in my cooking. I plan to use natural animal and vegetable fats in my cooking. Yes, that’s right I am not going to shy away from either natural animal fats such as lard, tallow and organic butter, or natural vegetable fats such as coconut oil, olive oil and grapeseed oil. As it turned out these fats are not necessarily harmful to your health; in fact they are often essential for your body. Besides they are delicious!