century egg

[Why Do Chinese Eat] Introducing: Century Eggs

I agree with you: century eggs are gross.
They look weird, smell awful, and bring to mind mutated baby godzillas.

But does “looking gross and smelling awful” = revolting food?
Think about your favorite blue cheese, then think about century eggs again.
You’ll never know if you never try.

皮蛋-open-2

There are two versions of Chinese folklore regarding how century eggs — or what we call “Pine Needle Eggs” or “Pi’Dan” — are discovered. Here is the ridiculous and ugly one:

Around the time when Thomas Jefferson was the president, a guy who lived right outside of Beijing decided to make a wooden coffin for his still alive-and-healthy mother — a tradition now extinct (for good). And, one of the problems he faced was how to prevent wood from rotting in humid weather. He decided to stuff the coffin with lime (not the fruit) and ashes, because they absorb moisture and slowly produce heat.

Years later, his mother passed away. While emptying the ashes from the coffin, he found hundreds of eggs inside. He was mad, throwing all the eggs away. The eggshells broke and revealed black eggs with drops of white pine-needle patterns on their surfaces.

An audacious guest picked up an egg and tasted it, said the egg was actually delicious. Other guests started to try and all agreed that the eggs tasted good. Among the guests was a businessman; he later replicated the process, put eggs into lime and ashes and started selling these cured eggs. He named it “gradient-colored egg,” and it was the beginning of century eggs as we know and eat them today.

If someone tells you century eggs are toxic, he probably grew up in the 1950s. Old-fashioned century eggs were indeed toxic as it requires lead — a toxic chemical used in paint — to complete the process. Today lead is completely eliminated from the production of century eggs as it’s against Chinese food safety law.

Century eggs are safe to eat now.

Two years ago, a CNN reporter ranked century eggs as the most revolting food he’s ever eaten.
I’m pretty sure he didn’t have them prepared properly — as an ingredient in a dish.
If stinky cheese is not served with a slice of bread or crackers, fewer people would like it.
Food needs to be eaten in the right way.

So for this post and the next one, I’ll introduce to you two recipes with century eggs.
Try them, and then decide whether the eggs are disgusting or not.
The recipes will speak for themselves.

Enjoy!

P.S. When I’m in China this fall, I’ll interview a century eggs maker and uncover the real deal behind these gross eggs. Stay tuned. :)

Silken Tofu with Century Egg

Century-Egg

What you need:
ingredients-with-texts

Steps:
1. Quarter half of a century egg lengthwise, then dice them into half-inch cubes:
chopping-pidan-1

chopping-pidan-2
2. Dice the green onion:
chopped-green-onions

3. Cut the silken tofu in 井 way:
chopping-tofu-1

chopping-tofu-2

chopping-tofu-3
4. Add everything onto the tofu:
add-chopped-pidan

putting-green-onion

soy-sauce

sesame-oil

Done!

Now forget about the presentation, mix everything up and eat.
final-dish-2

Zhajiang-Mian-cleanfinal

Beijing Zhajiang Noodle

My first bite of Beijing Zhajiang Noodle happened on a scorching summer day in 2002.

I was 12 years old and had traveled to Beijing with my mother. I think I visited the Forbidden City or the Great Wall earlier that day, but the summer heat made my memory hazy.

That day really came into clear focus when stepped back into my aunt’s apartment, who was hosting our visit. The scent of savory, caramelized pork awoke me from my zombie state; I saw a table filled with fresh, shredded cucumbers and cubed celery, hand-pulled noodles seasoned with sesame oil and Zhajiang, a sauce made of crispy pan-fried pork chunks slowly stewed with fermented yellow soybean paste. This is how I was introduced to “Beijing Zhajiang noodle”.

Making a perfect bowl of Zhajiang noodle requires a little DIY attitude. With my aunt’s instruction, I topped a plate of noodles with shredded cucumber, cubed celery, mung bean sprouts, and a heaping spoonful of Zhajiang. I mixed them well with my chopsticks and had by first bite – oh man, words can’t describe what I experienced.

The juiciness of the vegetables, the crispiness of the pork chunks, and the chewiness of the hand-made noodle, sealed with the perfectly balanced sweet and savory sauce… It was like firewoks, an opera, or a symphony erupted in my mouth.. I could hear the soprano of vegetables and the bass of pork singing a heavenly, harmonious chorus on my tongue. If I had wings, I would have flown off the ground.

Over the next few years, I learned that Zhajiang noodle is simply a of cold noodle dish topped with different fermented bean sauces and fresh vegetables. Almost every city has its own variation, and most common stars of Zhajiang sauces include ground pork, pork belly, and tofu. I’ve tasted some Zhajiang noodle variations, from Shanghai to Shanxi, and even returned to Beijing for a bowl at a well-respected restaurant. But none struck a chord like that first bite – they were too salty, too sweet, too sloppy or too stale.

Luckily, my aunt still makes her recipe! And here is how to make the most authentic Beijing Zhajiang noodle that guaranteed to spark your palate:

You will need (for 2 servings):

Ingredient-1-text* You only need half of the pork belly in the above picture to make two servings, which weigh about 4 oz.

Ingredient-2-text

Soybean-paste-and-rock-candy-text
*Substitute the rock candy with 1 and a half tablespoons of cane sugar (or more, it’s up to your taste)
*The yellow soybean paste weighs about 1.2 oz.

Now you may wonder what is yellow soybean paste; below is the paste with its package as the background:
Soybean-Paste

You can find yellow soybean paste in almost all medium-sized Asian grocery stores; it’s always in a little red square plastic package, with its name — if translated literally — “yellow soybean paste” on top, and will cost you less than $2.

Unfortunately, it’s no available in any American grocery stores, and there’s absolutely NO substitute for it.

I know you might be thinking that Miso is also a type of fermented soybean paste, so why not using that? Well, in Asia, there’re literally hundreds of different fermented soybean products. (Think about the variety of cheese here; Also, can you substitute Feta with mozzarella? No, they don’t work the same way.) Yellow soybean paste and Miso are two completely different products produced with totally different methods, and using miso will actually make the sauce bitter.

My point is: you have to use yellow soybean paste to make Beijing Zhajiang Noodle; it’s the soul of this dish. If you don’t want to make the effort to find it, then don’t bother making it.

Preparation:

For the sauce

1. Cut the pork belly (with the skin on) into 0.8-1 inch diameter cubes.
Cubed-Pork-text-2

2. Cut the white part of a scallion into two equally long pieces. Smack them with the flat part of your knife. (this helps to release the flavor)

2. Heat 2 tablespoons of vegetable oil in a 8-inch nonstick skillet over medium-high heat. Add star anise, sliced ginger, Sichuan peppercorn and scallion whites immediately.

3. When the fragrant is potent, oil starts to smoke and scallion white turns golden brown, take all the spices out. (the purpose of these two steps is to infuse the oil with these spices)

4. Still over medium-high heat, add pork chunks. Pan-fry them until the fat in the pork is almost rendered out and the pork chunks turn crispy and golden-brown color. This step will take a while, for about 8-10 minutes. Stir constantly.

5. In the meantime, dilute dry soybean paste with water in a small bowl, start with two tablespoons of water. If not enough, slowly add one more tablespoon of water.
Soybean-paste-mix-text

5. Once fat is almost rendered from the pork, add water and soybean paste mixture. Slowly combine pork chunks and mixture with a spatula, and then add more water till pork is almost covered.

7. Increase the heat to high and bring everything to boil. Once the sauce is bubbling, cover the pan with a lid and reduce the heat to medium-low. Let it simmer for about half an hour to 40 minutes. Stir the sauce once in a while.

cooking-3-pic-together-text

8. After 40 minutes, remove the lid and increase the heat to medium-high. Add 1 and a half tablespoons of cane sugar and keep stirring until the sauce reaches your desired consistency. (In my case, I used rock candy; There’s no difference between cane sugar and rock candy; the latte is just more traditional to Chinese)

9. Serve the Zhajiang sauce in a bowl.

For the vegetables:

8. Cut half of a British cucumber into thin strips, and one stalk of celery into half-inch wide cubes.

9. Rinse mung bean sprouts, cubed celery and shredded cucumber thoroughly.

10. Place them on a plate separately and orderly.

shredded-vegetables-text

For the noodle:

10. Bring a pot of water to boil, add a pinch of salt and noodle. Cook the noodle for about five minutes, and drain it over a strainer. (I’m using dried noodle here, but if you have fresh wheat noodle, definitely go for it. But don’t use pasta)

Boiling-noodle

11. Place the strainer (with noodle) in a pot of ice-cold water (to stop the cooking process), and drain them again.

12. Drizzle sesame oil over drained noodle, combine them well by tossing the noodle up and down for a couple of times.

13. Place the noodle on a plate.

Now you can assemble your own Zhajiang noodle and enjoy the explosion of texture and flavors as I did 11 years ago!

# What’s your favorite noodle dish? (Don’t tell me it’s ramen…)

Product 2

Eight things you need to know about Mung Bean Cakes

You know you enjoy creativity and compliments in the kitchen, especially those epic moments when your guests tell you “Ohhh–my—goddd– thiiis— is— AMAZING.”

Don’t tell me you haven’t been secretly playing them in slow-motion over and over again in your head.

But what is creativity in the kitchen?

  • Brownies topped with strawberries?
  • Frosting with a bit of lemon zest?

Can you make something even more innovative?
Like exotic and unique delicacies that you’ve never seen or heard of before?

How does Mung Bean Cakes” sound to you?

Don’t frown. All you need to know is they’re extremely creamy, smooth, sweet, guilt-free, and take literally no effort to make.

But before we dig our hands into the mixing bowl — oh wait, we don’t even need one! — here are eight pieces of random ramblings you need to know about Mung Bean Cakes:

1. Mung Bean Cakes are not cakes; they’re made with steamed mung bean flour, mixed with sugar and sesame oil, and molded into different shapes.

2. Yes, that does mean you either need to pay a visit to your nearby Whole Foods for a $7 bag of Bob’s Red Mill Mung Beans and then grind them up with your coffee grinder, OR visit a nearby Asian grocery store — a bag of gound mung bean flour only costs you half of the Whole Foods price.
(And as a proud member of “No-Overpricing” league, I can testify that those Chinese brands contain the exact same content as the Bob’s Red Mill bag)

3. Mung Bean Cakes are a must eat on Dragon Boat Day — a day when dragons come down to earth and kayak with the Chinese.

4. The above is only half true, and I’m not telling you which half. (<- come on, click it!)

5. Mung Bean Cakes are actually very easy to make -- unless you are as stupid and boring investigative and experimental as me and try to recreate the exact process used milleniums ago.
( Seriously, spending hours shelling a ridiculous amount of tiny mung beans almost got me Trypophobia )

6. Mung bean cakes often come with a variety of fillings, but the most common ones are original and azuki bean paste.

7. Mung bean cakes became popular in China mostly because of the medicinal values of mung beans, which are believed to contain heat dispersing, detoxicant and diuretic properties. They are on the “alkalinity” side (if that make any sense) and are supposed to compensate the “Yang” of your body.

8. Please take the above medicinal value subjectively. As a Chinese , I was taught this “knowledge” growing up, and I personally believe they’re not wrong. BUT not wrong ≠ right. The bottom line is (“Bottom”, hehehe) : mung bean cakes are delicious and will do you more good than harm.

Trivia: Chinese consume mung beans almost on a daily basis during summer, in the form of mung bean cake, mung bean drink, mung bean paste, and mung bean sprouts.

And now, here’s how to make them, traditionally:

You need:

Mung Beans — 1 1/2 cups
Sesame oil (or coconut oil) — 1/2 cup
Sugar (or maple syrup) — start with 1/2 cups, add more if you like things sweet.

1. Soak the beans for two days (remember to change water once in a while)
泡好的豆子

2. Peel the beans. (WARNING: every 0.2 lb beans takes about 1 hour to peel)
分好的豆子和皮

3. Steam the beans for about 30-40 minutes, or until you can easily mash them with the back of a spoon.
蒸豆子

4. Mash them.
碾豆子三联图

Alternative:

Now forget about step 1 & 2 & 3 & 4.
Grind the dry beans in a coffee grinder, or even better: buy them ground.
Steam them for 20-30 minutes, and then go directly to step 5.
Explainwhy the hell you need to peel the beans:

Mung bean skin doesn’t break down when steamed, so leave the skin on will compromise the creamy, smooth texture. Also,  in a pre-electricity and low-productivity era, our ancestors probably had nothing but time..
Today, because a grinder can grind the beans into superfine powder, and productivity is key to any kind of work, it makes sense to eliminate the tedious process.

5. Place the mashed beans into a non-stick pan, turn on your stovetop to low heat.
炒豆泥

6. Slowly mix in sesame seed oil and sugar (or coconut oil and maple syrup), stir constantly until it forms into a paste consistency.
Note: because sugar melts when heated, your mashed beans might turn really liquidy (if you like them really sweet). No worries, just keep stirring

两款二联图-text
两款豆泥

7. Mold it.
Note: the wooden mold below is a gift from a Chinese friend. Nowadays it’s hard to find such an antique mold, so you can form the paste/dough into any shape.
模子

8. DONE!

成品1

pig-feet

[Why Do Chinese Eat ...] Braised Pig Feet

Above was my snack last night.
Yes, I was diligently gnawing on them while watching Despicable Me.

I love minions.

(Whispering)
“But those feet had stepped over mud and shit!”
“And what exactly are you gnawing about? The skin?”
“Eww…”
“Gross.”

Wait! How do you define gross?
This?
Bear-Gylls-Eating-a-Reindeer-Heart

 

 

 

 

 

(photo from: the Internet, featuring Bear Grylls, Man vs. “eating everything” Wild)

Or this:
EPSILON3_o1
(Photo from:Gabriele Galimberti’s ‘Delicatessen With Love’ in Epsilon.
This is actually a wonderful project. Check it out
here)

I admit, raw reindeer heart or pan-fried insects are pretty gross novel, at least to most of us. But imagine this situation:

You’re starving and dying in the wild,
A dead reindeer happen to show up to your left,
insects are rich in protein and you know that

Suddenly, eating these “food” become surprisingly acceptable. Isn’t it?
Would you rather die, or take a bite of those gross food and live happily ever after?
Moreover, you might start to even appreciate them and brainstorm better ways to cook them later on –
Like… “Sweet and Sour Larvae”? Or “Reindeer Heart Jelly“?

Ok, stop imagining. Let’s return to reality.
The truth is, we don’t really struggle with “to live or not to live” everyday.
But that’s not my point.

My point is: pig feet are delicious, especially with my recipe.
I’m shameless, I know.
If you never had pig feet before, this is exactly how they taste like (of course with this recipe): the Gelatinous texture is infused with your DIY soy-sugar sauce, every bite is a full sensory experience. The tender skin announces the sweet and savoy flavor first, follows with the fluffy fat melting on your tongue, and completes with the most succulent and chewy pork meat you’ll ever have. I’m serious. Just think about how often a pig walks than shakes his body.

Also, did I mentioned that you can buy 6 halves of pig feet for only $2.50?

Ingredients:
Pork feet: 6 halves
Sugar: 1/2 cup
Ginger: 4 slices
Garlic: 2-4 gloves
Star Anise: 1
Rice Wine (or water): enough to almost cover the feet
Dark Soy Sauce: 2 tablespoons
Regular Soy Sauce: 2-4 tablespoons (taste and adjust the saltiness yourself; we don’t need salt in this recipe)

Steps:
1. Place pork feet in a large pot, merge them with boiling water
2. Bring the water back to boil, and continue cook over medium-high heat for 5 minutes. (you’ll see scum forming over the surface)
3. Drain the water, and wash the feet thoroughly with cold tap water (to clean the scum and stop cooking)
4. Pat dry the feet’s surfaces with paper towels.

5. In a large dutch oven pot, melt the sugar. (This step is time sensitive; don’t burn the sugar)
6. Put the dried, cleaned, half-cooked pork feet in the pot, coat them with melted sugar. About 1 minutes. (sugar might crystalize over the skin immediately, since our pork feet are cold. No worries, it’ll melt again later)
7. Add sliced ginger and garlic cloves to the pot, keep stirring for 1 minutes (you can also crush the garlic cloves a little bit before putting them into the pan)
8. Pour rice wine over the feet until almost covered (not completely). (SS: I like cooking meat with alcohol, but feel free to replace cooking wine with water).
9. Add soy sauce, dark soy sauce and star anise to the pot.
10. Over medium-high heat, Bring the pot to boil. (lid on)
11. Turn the heat to medium-low, keep the feet simmer for 2 hours or until the skin is very tender.(lid on)
12. Turn the heat back on high to thicken the sauce to your desired consistency. (lid off)
(SS: some Chinese like this sauce, so they’d not thicken it all the way through, but save a lot to pour over their steamed rice. I like my pig feet as a snack, so I’d let the moist in the sauce evaporate completely)

soy-sauce-vs.-dark-soy-sauce-2

Soy Sauce Vs. Dark Soy Sauce

Recently, a seasoned chef from America’s Test Kitchen asked me this question: what is dark soy sauce? What are the differences between regular soy sauce and dark soy sauce?

I was a little surprised, because I always thought this was common knowledge. But I forgot that soy sauce is not an essential condiment in traditional western cooking.

So what is dark soy sauce? How is it different from the regular soy sauce?

soy-sauce-vs.-dark-soy-sauce

I assume you know that soy sauce comes from fermented soybeans. And just in case you’re “extra” curious, below is a short but fascinating clip on how exactly soy sauce is produced: (The clip is found on YouTube; I’m by no means promoting the brand)

To explain dark soy sauce in the simplest way: it’s like an older sister of regular soy sauce, who likes applying makeup. It ages longer and finishes with molasses or caramel, as well as a bit of cornstarch.

Regular soy sauce and dark soy sauce are used in completely different manners: regular soy sauce is salty and light in color, making it perfect for marinating and dipping; dark soy sauce is thick, dark and less salty, hence can provide dark-red color to red-braised or stewed dishes, without overpowering the original flavor. These two are the most commonly used soy sauce in mainland China, and they are NOT interchangeable.

In Taiwan, there’s a third kind called soy sauce paste. It’s produced with a unique fermentation process, which not only maintains the salty flavor, but is also thick and dark, almost like a paste. Unfortunately, this type is quite hard to find even in Asian grocery stores, not to mention the regular American supermarket chains. (But if you live in San Francisco or NYC, you will have no problem finding it)

In a Reuter’s report 7 years ago, scientists from the National University of Singapore discovered that dark soy sauce is actually considered healthier than red wine:

[Dark soy sauce] contains antioxidant properties about 10 times more effective than red wine and 150 times more potent than vitamin C.

However, as legit and wonderful as it sounds, I’d still rather drink red wine than dark soy sauce any day.

Extra:
1. Sometimes you can find exotic words like Tamari, Shiro, Saishikomi on soy sauce labels. These are Japanese soy sauces. Japanese learned soybean fermentation skills from China during the Tang Dynasty (June 18, 618 – June 1, 907), and then developed their own classification system. When you’re cooking Chinese dishes, however, I strongly recommend you NOT to use Japanese soy sauce. The varieties are confusing, flavors are different and expensive in most cases.

2. Sometimes you can also find words like “tabletop”, “light” or “premium” on a soy sauce bottle. Remember: all of these are just camouflaged regular soy sauce with better designed bottles, bigger marketing budget from their parent company, and higher prices with no extra value.

 

Spring-Roll-2 feature image

Authentic Chinese Spring Rolls

Holiday foods are for the holidays; people hardly eat stuffing at everyday dinners. But exceptions do exist, and one of them is spring rolls.

Chinese eat spring rolls in the “Spring Festival” (Lunar New Year); Chinese eat spring rolls for daily breakfasts. They are always homemade – a family’s secret recipe wrapped in a round, silk-thin wrapper bought from a nearby farmer’s market, where a man or woman sits by an old coal stove with one hand tossing back and forth a high-gluten, semi-liquid dough, and then swirling it on the flat cast-iron surface of the stove.

In Ithaca, N.Y., however, making such a traditional spring roll is almost mission-impossible. Last week, I shopped at an Asian grocery store for yellow leek – an essential ingredient in my family recipe – only to find it a name recognized by no one. Other ingredients like bamboo shoots sit sloppily in cans on Wegmans’ shelves, and wrappers are frozen and mass-produced. Pork might be the only fresh ingredient available.

Challenge accepted.

I thawed the wrappers, planning to substitute Chinese cabbage with yellow nira grasses, a giant vegetable. In the old days when the north was cold, public transportation was backward and the people had only a few vegetable options, the northern Chinese would store piles of this vegetable in their basements. They last an entire winter.

I peeled three leaves – sufficient for making 15 rolls – and chopped them diagonally into thin strips. I opened a can of bamboo shoots, turned it upside down and drained it through my hands. Shoots should be no moister than the fresh ones, so I squeezed them again with paper towels. As with the cabbage, I chopped them into strips. Then I moved on to shred the pork.

My dad used to tell me the best part of pork is the shoulder cut: the muscle is adequately exercised with a beautiful dark-red color. In Nanjing, a butcher would cut the pork shoulder the shape my dad wanted and strip it for him; but in Ithaca – well, I bought a 9-lb. shoulder cut, shaped to my desired parts, and then sliced and stripped it myself.

In a small bowl, I marinated shredded pork with soy sauce, rice wine and a teaspoon of cornstarch. “Never add salt when marinating,” my dad used to tell me. “If you want salty flavor, add soy sauce.” Later in life I learned that salt extracts moisture from meat, but doesn’t soy sauce contain salt as well? I don’t have a scientific explanation for it; dishes just taste right with it.

Here is an extra step I didn’t take: put the chopped cabbage in a big Ziploc, add an adequate amount of salt, and zip and shake – vigorously – for at least 20 seconds. Later, set the bag aside, and squeeze the liquid before cooking. This is supposed to draw the fluid out and crisp the cabbage. However, for a simplified version of spring rolls, my perfectionism is deficient.

In my heated non-stick pan, I drizzled some vegetable oil, and poured in the shredded pork. The instant sizzling seemed to be heralding the start of a fight, and I, along with my spatula, was ready to split the tangling contestant. I swirled my spatula around the twisting pork strips; a few seconds later, they were separated. However, the intensity remained, so I dumped in the chopped cabbage and bamboo shoots to calm things down. I tossed the battlefield back and forth, tried my best to mediate the situation with the newcomers. It worked. Three minutes later, I sprinkled salt and pepper, and called it a truce. The filling was done; I plated it to let it chill.

Separating the thawed wrappers is a delicate job; even today I still destroy one or two pieces when peeling them from the stack. This time, however, I paid extra attention – they are the rare animals in the U.S. market – and I didn’t mess up. Fifteen wrappers. Check!

I ran back to the sink, filled water in my silicone cupcake mold. Let the assembling begin – a piece of cake.

I placed a lot of filling at the lower third of my wrapper – right to the point of equilibrium. People used to say I’m a bottomless child; I think it still holds true today. I rolled the wrapper upward once, folded both sides inward, and then continued rolling. At the wrapper’s edge, I tapped some water – it helped to stick the envelope together. I placed the folding edge face down, and my spring roll was complete.

With all my 15 rolls laid tidily on a cutting board, I opened my freezer. The rolls would be semi-frozen there, to form the shapes. Fifteen minutes later, I piled them into another freezer bag.

Now I can eat them whenever I want.

*[在优酷上看此视频]

Zongzi-1

It’s Dragon Boat Day — So You Must Eat Zongzi

There are three things you must eat today: a hard-boiled salted duck egg, a Zongzi, and Lu Dou Gao (mung bean cakes). Why? Well, today is Dragon Boat Day! One fourth of the world’s population will be celebrating at the biggest river near you.

If you live in a big city, with a river, take a stroll down to the waterfront. You will see teams of people racing banana-shaped boats decorated with intricate carvings and brightly colored dragon heads and tails. A drummer sits next to the head, beating his drums intensely to excited the rowers. The air is filled with shouting and cheering. It is a serious race, but silly and festive at the same time.

Story of Zongzi and Dragon Boat Race:

Rumor has it that the origin of this “competition” started with a reputable Chinese man, Qu Yuan, who threw himself into the Miluo River 3000 years ago. He loved his country deeply, but was upset with the bureaucracy of the government (SS:have things changed much since then?). So he decided to kill himself – an act he hoped would wake up his neighbors to fight for their rights.

When Qu Yuan’s friends, family and neighbors learned of his death, they ran to the riverbank crying.

(Disclaimer: the following dialogue is based on brief historical text, embellished with my imagination)

“We need to find his body!” One person shouted.
Everybody agreed.
“What if fish start to eat his body?” Someone else asked.
Everybody was appalled.
A woman jumped up, “we can feed the fish with rice!”
Everybody was relieved.
“But rice would float!” Someone played the devil’s advocate, and offered a solution,
“ We need to wrap them up, and make it heavy!”
Everybody nodded.
Then another voice added, “let’s make it flavorful, too! Fish would like that!”
Everybody cheered.
Then the neighbours ran back to their homes, mixed rice with flavorful ingredients, wrapped in bamboo or reed leaves and tied with white cotton string, and returned to the riverbank.
“How can we send them to the fish?” One asked.
One answered, “let’s boat to where he jumped, and dump the rice wraps.”
So that’s what they did.
And this, my friend, is how we invented the dragon boat race and Zongzi (SS: Imagine in Ryan Seacrest style, please)

Now let’s be serious.

naked-zongzi-with-white-background

If the above were true, eating Zongzi would be way more interesting. The truth is, nobody really knows when and why it was created. Although there’re historical books and folklores attributing the origin to Qu Yuan’s death, the earliest records of an actual Zongzi being discovered was in a tomb from the Song Dynasty, 1,000 years after Qu Yuan’s time. I think it’s safe to say that Zongzi is one of many foods that can be found throughout China in varying forms, despite the fact that communication was virtually impossible between regions during the time they were invented.

Making Zongzi is complicated – it’s a process that I have far from perfected single-handedly. So, when my mother came to visit me in the U.S. for Thanksgiving, I asked her (sweetly) to make me a dozen:

[Youku]

Now, before you decide that Zongzi is amazing but too complicated to make at home, let me reassure you. Zongzi is very similar to another food you might be familiar with: tamales.

Zongzi-Tamale-Infographic

There are three ways to find/eat Zongzi in the U.S.:
Buy it on Amazon, or,
Buy it at your local Asian grocery store, or,
Thanks to my mother, who shows us the secret to making perfect Zongzi, you can try making this Chinese delicacy at home!

Di-San-Xian-new-2

Di San Xian (Stir-fry Three Earthy Vegetables)

“I want to eat Di San Xian,” said Xinying. She lived in my apartment.
“What?” Surprisingly, I’d never heard of it.
“Never mind. I think I’m just a little homesick.” She paused, “My mom makes great Di San Xian.”
Oh right. I forgot it was only her third day in the States.

My apologies. I actually know Di San Xian, as nouns though: potatoes, green bell peppers and eggplants – three earthy vegetables as the name implies. They grow predominantly in Northeastern China, Xinying’s homeland. But it is also a dish?

Google rescued me. I excused myself and dashed to the closest grocery store. Three ingredients, three dollars, and then an assured joyful face – is there any happiness simpler than that?

The kitchen is my castle. Xinying didn’t cook. I quickly rinsed my babies, and was ready to craft my gift for her.

“Gundao(1) cut the potatoes and eggplants, cube the bell peppers, and heat a small pot filled with oil.” I did what the recipe told me. That was easy.

At a young age, I learned from a seasoned cook – my father – that testing the temperature of oil only takes a drop of water at the tip of a chopstick: slightly stick the dampened top into the hot oil; if fine bubbles sizzle around the edge, the temperature is right for frying. Neither a peaceful nor an explosive reaction works. I’ve never used a thermometer since. I tested my heating oil – perfect – so I slid in the eggplant cubes.

The decisive moment for Di San Xian was approaching; time and temperature were turning into my enemies. A slightly off temperature would transform my eggplants into oil addicts and droop their sloppy bodies onto the plate shapelessly; a millisecond of lingering would wrinkle their skins like the forehead of Gordon Ramsey. The key here was to seal the moisture and nutrients of the eggplants quickly by firming and crisping their skin in high temperature oil. Luckily, I didn’t mess up. I saved them in time.

Then I scooped two spoonfuls of hot oil onto a non-stick skillet. Crunching the potato cubes was a breeze; I just let time and patience do their jobs, and took them out when they looked right.

Now was the final assembling.

The same non-stick skillet was warming up; I minced a clove of garlic. It wasn’t in the recipe but I liked this extra layer of flavor. I tossed in the minced garlic – its aroma instantly filled all my senses – and then the bell pepper cubes. They danced with my spatula for a few seconds and were joined by potato and eggplant cubes. After a few more flips, I covered the lid and let them steam.

I intended to get a glass of water in this second break, yet my hands started to prepare the cornstarch mixture. In a blue silicone cupcake mold, I combined two teaspoons of water with two teaspoons of cornstarch – a magic portion that made the Di San Xian shiny, gooey and earthy.

I lifted the lid, sprinkled sugar and drizzled in some soy sauce and rice wine. The sudden sizzle explosion from the skillet startled me; I dropped the lid back on and gave it a final round of flips. With the heat turned off, I poured in the cornstarch mixture. I stirred it with my spatula; it vanished in the thickening sauce.

“Xinying.”
“Yes?”
“Come to the kitchen!”

Both my hands offered her a white porcelain plate with the steaming Di San Xian.
I saw the joyful face I was waiting for.

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Stir-Fried-Rice-with-Eggs-and-Sausage-feature-image

Authentic Chinese Fried Rice

It’s 11:50 a.m. The bus is coming in 15 minutes.

I’m hungry.

I open my fridge and see a bowl of leftover rice covered in cling film.

Just like the previous hundred times, I take it out along with my egg carton. As a Chinese, seeing these two is like seeing conjoined twins: Fried Rice with Eggs. They’ll do the work adequately, yet I return to the fridge – variety won’t hurt. I spot green onion and Cantonese sausage; my frozen green peas and corn kernels should still be resting in the freezer. I lay all the ingredients on the counter. Thirty seconds.

From the drying rack, I grab a bowl and a pair of chopsticks and begin scrambling the eggs. I roughly chop the green onion and slice the sausage on a piece of paper towel – less washing later– and heat up the pan. One minute.

For health purposes, I scoop some coconut butter. The type of oil doesn’t matter here. I throw in the chopped onions and sliced sausages, and their fragrance immediately takes over the kitchen. I could’ve been more artistic about the process and dumped in the sausage first – an extra step that crisps it and heightens the flavor – but I’m lazy. After a few light stirs, I pour in the beaten eggs. Nothing has gone wrong so far.

The key to making the perfect fried rice is an extremely hot wok and a bowl of leftover rice. (Freshly cooked warm rice is too moist to texturize the dish: liquid eggs loosely wrap a chunk of steaming rice, and even the lightest stir could mash the combination into soggy patties.) After the eggs sizzle for a few seconds, I dump in my cold rice block.

If I had enough time, I’d actually crumble my cold, dry rice first to minimize the potentially uneven heating. But I’m in a rush. I quickly flatten the rice with a spatula and flip the pan back and forth, blending everything. After only one and a half more minutes, it’s almost there.

Oh crap! I see my frozen peas and corn staring at me.

But it’s ok. Nothing can go wrong in making fried rice. I turn off the heat, sprinkle in the peas and corn kernels, and immediately flip them to the bottom as if they had always been there. After a few stirs with the heat off, I turn it back on. I’m ready to season; only a minute late.

I like to season my fried rice with both soy sauce and salt. My mother prefers only salt. My reasoning is that after suffering high heat for nearly two minutes, the rice mixture might be craving a little shower. So I bestow it the wish, and continue stirring for another minute to complete the final assembling of the ingredients.

I serve them in my wide-mouthed wooden bowl. In all, five minutes.

菜场

Chinese Pursuit of Food – How we shop and eat in China

Hidden in the noisy urban jungle, the quiet, traditional courtyard house seems quite busy this morning. In the backyard, an energetic black carp is still struggling as a man catches it from a giant crock. He takes the fish to the kitchen, finishes it off by sticking two skewers in its mouth. Proficiently, he scrapes off the scales, debones and cross-marks the fillets, coats them with flour and showers them with high temperature oil. This is just the beginning. Without a moment of hesitation, he moves on to cuttlefish, duck gizzard, fresh chili pepper, curd pork belly, and more. He marks, de-seeds, slices, marinates, washes; the flow is melodic. Then he stops, steps out into the courtyard. Just when we think he might need some rest, he walks up to a fence, inside of which are his free-range, naturally fed chickens. He squats down and peers through the fence, seeking the perfect one. He has a winner. Minutes later, the squawking sound stops, and the chicken is beautifully naked.

(Uploaded by WCoF on Vimeo)

This is the opening scene of Eat Drink Man Woman, a 1994 movie by Oscar-winning director Ang Lee. For four and a half minutes, there is no narration, only this ordinary Chinese man performing his extraordinary culinary art in a dark, somewhat shabby family kitchen.

You might ask: Do Chinese all cook like that? The answer is No. Admittedly, even famous Chinese chefs don’t want to cook this elaborately at home, but the truth behind this scene is that the man illustrates the traditional Chinese care in preparing food.

When I was about ten or eleven, my dad would pick me up from school every day after work, with his old-fashioned black bicycle, and we would head to our community farmer’s market for our daily grocery shopping. From the backseat, I would watch him breaking an ear of corn into two pieces to check the moisture of the core (to determine its freshness), and I’d laugh at him for blowing on the butt of a chicken (to check whether the hen was young or old). Food was always our topic on the way home. He would explain to me, the valuable experiences he inherited from my grandparents – things like chicken with small anus are tender and moist because they haven’t laid many eggs yet; or watermelons with broader lines are less watery. Most of the time those explanations were fascinating and believable, but once in a while I would be confused: why are eggs with grey shells more nutritious than the pink ones? Why always choose tenderloin over thigh meat? He didn’t like those questions – challenging a parent’s authority in China is not encouraged, even today. “There’s no why,” he would say. “Everybody does it this way, and it works. Isn’t that enough?” So then I would shut up.

As I grew older, I started to pay attention to see if any authoritative Western cooking book had validated my father’s cooking theories. The answer was: No. In fact, I could hardly even find Chinese books with subjects like “The Myth Behind A Successful Dish,” or “Chinese Kitchen Confidential.” Eventually, I gave up. And here is my conclusion:

Chinese cooking is not a matter of food scientists or chefs developing a standard foolproof knowledge set for the public; it’s the accumulation of experience passed on from one generation to another. It varies among families and chefs, but it works.

While most western chefs acquire their cooking skills from different culinary institutions, such a system is still new in China compared to our 5,000-year-old tradition of learning from a master’s words and deeds, like the way my dad taught me how to cook.

Shortly after elementary school, I started cooking independently to alleviate some of my father’s daily “burden.” While cooking became increasingly fun with the help of his tips, going to the famer’s market became increasingly nerve racking. I had never anticipated that just walking on the cement floor of the market all alone, could be so different from sitting on the backseat of my dad’s bicycle.

It was bustling, the market. And if I can indulge in more descriptive words – messy, smelly, muddy and incredibly noise. Every time I walked into the farmer’s market in my neighborhood, the farmers’ yelling and the shoppers haggling would greet my ears. I had to shout my questions, screamed, “excuse me” as I zigzagged a path from one section to another. And always along the way, I would step on some sacks that contained either trash or fresh greens. In the old days when my feet were above the ground, my full attention was on my father’s interaction with the farmers. I had never realized that the chickens were killed, plucked and eviscerated directly in the stand, and that’s why that section was so smelly; I had never noticed that the farmers kept spraying water over their vegetables with those one-gallon Pepsi bottles, and that was why the ground was so damp and sticky. And I had never known how picky people could be –shouting, inspecting and comparing produce over and over again to find the desired quality and price – and that’s why the market was so loud. But as I was grocery shopping all by myself, those things stood out. At such a young age with so little experience both in life and in the kitchen, I was terrified.

I’m 22 years old now and I live in the United States. Here in my upstate New York town, they have a farmer’s market too, but it’s nothing like the ones back in China. It is clean, tidy and beautiful; there are food carts and craft arts and cordial people. I often go there on Saturdays, because it’s only open on weekends. When I’m there, I’m relaxed – no need t inspect the quality of the food nor haggle for price, because nobody does. In fact, I barely need to talk other than compliment the farmer’s produce or the artist’s artworks. Here the food is also fresh, chicken is also free-range, and the shoppers are almost all better educated. I should love this place, but I don’t. The farmer’s market in America is like a gift box covered with layers of highly educated manners and carefully crafted marketing strategies. The original desire of quality is hidden underneath the expensiveness of “organic” label and pleasant acceptance of the local farming concept – no haggling, no comparing, and no looking for the best. It seems as long as the produce is sold in the farmer’s market, there’s no questioning the quality. Really?

I miss those markets in my Nanjing neighborhood, miss those noises, those awful smells and that damp ground, because they represent the fundamental instinct of Chinese who seek only for the best quality of food. Two thousand years ago, the Chinese discovered that “Food is the paramount necessity of the people.” This principle has been tested with time, and grounded who we are as Chinese.

*Picture courtesy of danliqing on Flickr.

A Gourmand's Exploration of Authentic Chinese Food