I’ve been remiss lately about updating my “books” section of the blog, but that doesn’t mean I haven’t been reading! Despite the busy schedule, I usually read at least a few pages at lunchtime and then again at night before bed. I recently devoured Blood, Bones & Butter by Gabrielle Hamilton (it took me all of 2 days to plow through that) and was wondering what to start next, when I got an email from Cheryl Tan, author of the cooking memoir A Tiger in the Kitchen. She’s going to be doing a book event at Leopold’s in Detroit this Saturday, August 13th at 7pm and wondered if I might be able to help spread the word. Consider it spread!
After reading Cheryl Tan’s memoir A Tiger in the Kitchen, I would venture to say that no one would be more surprised at the turn of events in the author’s life as Tan’s own girlhood or teenage self, if such a thing were possible. Born under the fierce and headstrong sign of the Tiger, she grew up in Singapore, moving to the States after high school to attend college and build a career as a journalist. As a child, she was pushed to achieve academically, but was never expected to learn “womanly” tasks such a cleaning and cooking- there were maids for that. Her paternal grandmother, however, was a powerhouse in the kitchen, not only doing the family’s daily cooking while she was alive, but churning out tarts and dumplings by the hundreds during holidays and festivals. The family recognized that Tanglin ah-ma (Tan’s nickname for her grandmother) was a great cook, but it was also taken for granted, and Tan simply didn’t possess any curiosity at the time for anything taking place in the kitchen.
Tan makes sure to emphasize the difference between an interest in cooking (or lack thereof) and an interest in food. Somewhat ironically, she echoes Calvin Trillin’s characterization of Singapore as “the most food-obsessed nation on earth”- in one passage, she tells how she’d visit the computer lab late at night in college to go online just to look at photographs of Singaporean food (surely one of the earliest instances of online food porn!) because she missed it so much. But it didn’t occur to her for several more years that she might actually be able to learn to create the food she so desperately craved.
Tan’s culinary exploits started slowly and humbly, with meatloaf and other dishes “built on the salty shoulders of a can of Campbell’s soup”, and evolving through her twenties as she met her husband-to-be and they began cooking together. She developed a fondness for baking, which she found calmed her after particularly harried days at work. 2008 brought about a turning point- her job was becoming increasingly unbearable, and stress-related health issues were signaling to her that she needed a change. She decided that she would spend a year traveling back and forth between the US and Singapore, spending time with her Aunties and learning to make her grandmother’s recipes. Her grandmother had passed away when Tan was a child, but fortunately, her father’s sister-in-law had spent years cooking with Tanglin ah-ma and knew how to produce all of the key dishes the family had grown up with.
Tan’s journey is an enjoyable one to tag along with, as we follow her from tentative observer to capable cook able to serve her family a multi-course meal (the ambitiousness of which would have sent even the most experienced cooks into a panic). In the beginning, she insists on measurements for everything, which her aunts laugh off: “Just agak-agak“, they insist, a phrase that roughly translates as “guesstimate” or “adjust as you go”. As someone who has observed and taken notes of my future mother-in-law making her Puerto Rican rice without measuring anything, this scene made me chuckle with recognition.
Although Tan displays the characteristic cockiness of an oldest child at times (and a Tiger at that), she also doesn’t hesitate to portray herself in a sometimes unflattering light. She admits that anything still resembling the animal it came from makes her squeamish, and confesses that she messed up a batch of dumplings for being too stingy with the filling. The pressure she felt as a child to achieve is ever-present, as her family are all harsh judges of food and don’t hesitate to let her know when her efforts are “sub-par”. Still, she is willing to put herself on the line by exposing herself to their critiques for the sake of learning.
The book is a great read not only for food lovers, but for anyone interested in Singaporean and Chinese culture. Through Tan’s stories of her childhood and her interactions with her parents and older family members, we glimpse the chasm between the older generation and the new, the cultural gap between Singapore and mainland China, and the struggles of being a modern, Westernized woman in a culture that has contradictory expectations for women (Tan’s parents push her to succeed in her career, while her aunts all nag her about having babies!).
One of the things that struck me most about the book is exactly how much it can take to overcome the notion that one “can’t” cook, or the fact that it never occurs to many people to even try to learn. If it takes a major cathartic event for someone who grew up eating amazing home cooked food to want to learn, what will it take for the average American? How do we get the average person back in the kitchen, so that narratives like Cheryl Tan’s are the norm rather than the exception? I hope to be able to get her thoughts on this and other questions at her book event this weekend- hope you in the Detroit area can make it!
Disclosure: I received a copy of A Tiger in the Kitchen from the publisher for review purposes.
Ever since reading Fuchsia Dunlop’s Shark’s Fin & Sichuan Pepper last year, I’ve been hankering to get into more authentic Chinese cooking. I realize “authenticity” is subjective and can be cause for debate, but in the broad sense I mean food that would actually be prepared in a Chinese home, rather than dishes that were created Stateside and appear on every Chinese take-out menu from Dubuque to Des Moines.
With that in mind, I picked up The Breath of a Wok by Grace Young from the library recently. It focuses in on the techniques of wok cooking as a necessary component of Chinese cookery, as opposed to some Asian cookbooks that reassure the cook that it’s fine to just stir fry in a skillet if need be. The way Young describes the use of a wok, it’s practically an ingredient unto itself. Anyone who’s had a well-prepared stir fry can identify the flavor of wok hay, the essence or “breath” of the wok, as Young translates it. It’s that underlying hint of smokiness that you just don’t get unless you cook at extremely high temperatures, and it is simply not possible to accomplish with a Western skillet.
So vital is the selection, care, technique and culture of the wok that Young spends the first 65 pages of her book discussing these topics before any recipes are given. I read most of those pages, but the other night I was feeling eager to dive in so I thought I’d forge ahead and try my hand at one of the recipes, a scallop & asparagus stir fry. Apart from one misstep at the very beginning (minced garlic that turned black within seconds of being added to the uber-hot wok), the recipe was a breeze. Best of all, when I tasted the dish, there it was- the slight “grilled” flavor of wok hay! It felt like a revelation. I served it with a very non-authentic but delicious variation of my favorite carrot and avocado salad, where I subbed in ginger, hot chili paste, rice vinegar and a touch of soy sauce for the French vinaigrette.
Even if you only make the occasional stir fry, I would highly recommend reading Young’s chapters about wok use and putting her advice into practice. That little bit of knowledge just might have you creating some wok hay of your own, and I’m here to tell you it’s worth whatever small extra effort might be involved. My scallop stir-fry was easily one of the best I’ve made- the scallops seared but juicy; the vegetables crisp-tender; the sauce just a sheer glaze that nicely flavored without drowning the ingredients. I have a feeling the wok is going to be put to use a little more often in our household in the near future.
I can’t summarize Young’s 65 pages for you, of course, but here are a few tips for achieving wok hay in your own kitchen:
- Use a carbon-steel wok, never nonstick.
- Have all ingredients close at hand; the process goes lightning fast and there’s no time to realize you forgot a component during cooking.
- Don’t exceed the amount of ingredients a recipe calls for or add too much to the wok at one time; it brings the temperature down too far and your food will steam instead of sear.
Notes: The original recipe called for 1 lb of asparagus. I only had about 3/4 lb so I subbed in some snow peas for the remaining 1/4 lb. The important thing is not to go over 1 lb total of vegetables, because it will reduce the wok’s heat too much. The only other change I made was to sprinkle the garlic on top of the scallops when I put them in the wok. When I put the garlic in first, I found that it instantly burned and I had to start over.
1 lb. scallops (if you want to splurge, use fresh dry sea scallops, but I used frozen, thawed bay scallops and they tasted fine)
1 lb. asparagus, trimmed & cut into 2-inch pieces
1 ¼ tsp salt
4 tsp Shao Hsing rice wine or dry sherry
2 ¼ tsp cornstarch
1 ½ tsp oyster sauce
1 tsp sesame oil
½ tsp ground white pepper
1 Tbs peanut or other vegetable oil
1 Tbs minced garlic
Put 2 cups of water in a medium saucepan with 1 tsp salt and bring to the boil. Add asparagus. When the water returns to a boil, remove from heat and drain the asparagus; set aside. (If using any snow peas, they do not need to be blanched.)
Rinse the scallops and pat dry thoroughly with paper towels. Combine in a bowl with the sesame oil, white pepper, 1 ¼ tsp of the cornstarch, 1 tsp of the rice wine and the remaining ¼ tsp of salt; mix well to combine. In another bowl, combine the remaining 1 tsp cornstarch, rice wine, and the oyster sauce with ¼ cup cold water.
Place scallops, asparagus, sauce and garlic within hands’ reach of the stove. Heat a 14″ flat-bottomed wok over high heat until a bead of water vaporizes within 1-2 seconds of contact. Swirl in the vegetable oil. Add the scallops, carefully spreading them in a single layer. Sprinkle the garlic on top. Cook undisturbed for 30 seconds to allow them to brown; then stir-fry with a metal spatula for 30-60 seconds or until scallops are light brown but not cooked through. Add the asparagus. Stir the sauce mixture and add to the wok. Bring to the boil to thicken the sauce and finish cooking the scallops, about 30 seconds.
Serves 4 as part of a multi-course meal.
The year after I graduated college, I spent a year working and traveling in France. It was an adventure for a girl who had grown up in suburban Michigan, and although I had traveled fairly extensively in Europe in college, living somewhere and learning how to fit in to another culture on a daily basis was nonetheless a challenge. However, France is one thing; China is quite another. I envy and greatly admire someone like Fuchsia Dunlop, who in her early twenties decided to attend a school for foreigners in China in order to learn Chinese and study the culture. Not only did she choose China for her adventure abroad- she chose Chengdu, in Sichuan province, a mid-sized provincial capital where the sight of foreigners still provoked stares and finger-pointing. Not initially having any intention of a career in food, Dunlop found herself seduced by the intense allure of Chinese cuisine, and has since made it her life’s work to learn about it and instruct others. She takes us on her journey in her fascinating memoir, Shark’s Fin and Sichuan Pepper: A Sweet-Sour Memoir of Eating in China.
The memoir chronicles several of Dunlop’s visits to China, both as a student and to research her cookbooks (Land of Plenty: A Treasury of Authentic Sichuan Cooking; Revolutionary Chinese Cookbook: Recipes from Hunan Province), but it’s that first year that really makes an impression, as Dunlop experiences many foods and flavors for the first time. In one memorable passage, she recounts her first taste of stir-fried rabbit heads, a dish she had once avoided but eventually succumbed to in a late-night, post-drinking attack of the munchies. She rapturously describes the creaminess of the brains; the silkiness of the cheek. Equally evocative are the descriptions of humble noodle dishes enlivened with scallions, ginger, and the zing of chilies and the famous Sichuan peppercorns. Every day provides opportunities for discovery, and Dunlop is not shy about diving in headfirst. She makes friends with street vendors and other locals, fully taking advantage of her surroundings where many Westerners would languish and bemoan the lack of “normal” food.
In addition to the vicarious thrill of reading about the inevitable exotic fare, the book also reveals a great deal about the Chinese culture, their relationship to food, and their relationship to foreigners. In the cooking school Dunlop attends, her curiosity and hunger to learn drive her forward in spite of the outright scorn and derision of her classmates, both for being foreign and female. However, she manages to find a few kindred spirits, including a would-be pick-up artist who takes her under his wing and teaches her authentic Sichuan home cooking.
The Chinese attitude to food and cooking is equally as fascinating as the dishes Dunlop learns at cooking school. Cooking is looked down upon as a menial task, regardless of the complexity of many dishes. Recipes are closely and jealously guarded by chefs, and many have been lost to the ages because a chef refused to share his secrets with the next generation. The years of famine have created a culture of extreme excess and wastefulness, where it is commonplace at a banquet or other large dinner to throw away three times as much food as what is consumed. Middle and upper class appetites for a more meat-heavy diet are exhausting the environment, while peasants in the Chinese countryside still subsist on simple diets with very little meat. In one chapter, Dunlop suffers a crisis of conscience when treated to an extravagant dinner with Communist leaders in a poor provincial town, but fears angering them by refusing their generosity.
I don’t think I can overemphasize the impact this book had on me in terms of rethinking what we (i.e. Westerners) consider edible, and the attitudes towards a living thing becoming food. In China, the boundaries are fuzzy at best. Pretty much anything that moves is fair game; no distinctions are made for creatures considered “cute” or “lovable”. Where we would look at an animal and possibly see a creature with a soul, a Chinese person might simply see a potential meal. Dunlop describes it thus:
Culture shock hit me hardest when I was invited to lunch by a motherly middle-aged woman in her special rabbit restaurant, not long after I had arrived in Chengdu. ‘Come into the kitchen and watch,’ she urged me. When we entered, the main ingredient for our stew was sitting sweetly in the corner of the room, nibbling lettuce. The following is an extract from my diary, written in the kitchen that day as I watched:
Death of a Rabbit
Hit rabbit over the head to stun it.
Hang up by foot.
Slit its throat.
Immediately peel off skin.
Chop brutally into small pieces with a cleaver.
From live rabbit to dish on table in less than 10 minutes. (pp. 49-50)
The above incident perfectly illustrates Dunlop’s observation that “They didn’t kill animals before they cooked and ate them. They simply went about the process of preparing a creature for the pot and table, and at some random point it died.” (p. 49; italics mine).
Rabbit may not be that far out for many adventurous Western eaters, but Dunlop ventures much farther afield, sampling various types of offal, dogs, rats, insects, etc. At the end of the book, there is a moment of truth of sorts when, back in England, she finds that her perspective on what is edible or desirable to eat has irrevocably shifted. In the months since I have read this book, it’s a subject that continues to surface from my subconscious from time to time. I don’t know if I’ll ever be intrepid enough to try some of the delicacies which become familiar flavors to Dunlop, but I am inspired to push the limits of my comfort zone and expand my palate and my mind. If I took anything from this book, it’s that taste is one hundred percent a matter of cultural perception, and completely malleable under the right circumstances.
For my newly-minted book club, I had the ambitious idea that not only would I read a food-related book a month, I would also try to post a recipe or two from said book. June’ s book was Hungry Monkey by Matthew Amster-Burton; go here to see the book review and discussion. (I actually made the dish a couple weeks ago, but time has a habit of slipping away from me these days, hence the delay in posting.)
It wasn’t hard to choose a recipe out of this book- I went with Ants on a Tree (not to be confused with Ants on a Log, an entirely different animal) because the author constantly refers to it as his family’s favorite dish, and it’s the one thing his daughter has been willing to eat even through her pickiest phases of toddlerhood. It’s a Szechuan (or Szichuan, depending on your fancy) noodle dish consisting of seasoned ground pork (the “ants”) and bean thread noodles (the “tree”), and it would give me an excuse to use some of those Szechuan peppercorns I bought a while back at Penzey’s.
The nice thing about this recipe, and one reason I imagine it’s become a favorite at the author’s dinner table, is that it’s pretty easy to throw together. I’m sure after making it a few times and having the seasonings memorized, you could whip it together in a matter of 30 minutes or less. I love highly-seasoned food, so I did enjoy this dish; my only difference of opinion is that I found it a little too “decadent” (see my note below re: oil) to want to consume it on a regular basis. Also, I wouldn’t consider this a one-dish meal since it’s just meat and carbs with no veg, so I made a batch of my Chinese-style kale to eat alongside the noodles. We had leftovers, which I would venture to say tasted even better in my lunch the next day.
Making this dish led me to ponder having my own hungry monkey someday, and wondering what his or her unwaveringly favorite food would be. Until then, I’ll just have to live vicariously through the Amster-Burtons, and raise a forkful of noodles as a salute to Iris and her international palate.
8 oz. ground pork
2 tbs soy sauce
1 tbs sugar
1 tbs hot bean paste (sometimes sold as spicy bean paste, or hot bean sauce)
1 tsp cornstarch
6-8 oz cellophane (bean thread) noodles
1-2 tbs peanut or other neutral oil (see notes)
2 scallions, white & light green parts only, thinly sliced (the darker tops can be sliced and used as a garnish)
1 red jalapeño or Fresno chili, seeded and minced
1/4 cup chicken stock (canned or from concentrated bouillon is fine)
1 tbs dark (mushroom) soy sauce
1/4 tsp ground Szechuan peppercorns (see notes)
Notes: You may try to see if you can get away with using less than the 2 tbs oil called for in the original recipe, as I found the end result to be a little on the greasy side (perhaps the pork I used had a higher fat content than what the author normally uses). Also, the Szechuan peppercorns are listed as “optional”, but if I was of a mind to leave them out, I’d just make a different dish instead; in fact, I would even suggest upping the amount to 1/2 tsp if you’re feeling gutsy.
Directions: Put some water on to boil. Meanwhile, combine regular soy sauce and cornstarch in a medium-sized bowl to dissolve the cornstarch. Add the sugar, hot bean paste and pork, stirring thoroughly to combine. Refrigerate for 20 minutes.
Place the noodles in a large bowl and when your water comes to a boil, pour over the noodles to cover. Soak for 5 minutes, stirring occasionally, then drain in a colander.
Heat oil in a 12-inch nonstick skillet or wok over medium-high heat. Add the scallions and jalapeño and cook 30 seconds, stirring frequently. Add the pork and stir-fry until no longer pink, breaking up any chunks, about 3 minutes. (You really want to break up the pork as small as possible, or the meat will all sit at the bottom of the dish, negating the whole “ants on a tree” thing.)
Add the noodles, chicken stock, dark soy sauce and Szechaun pepper. Cook, tossing the noodles with tongs or two wooden spoons, until the sauce is absorbed and the pork is well distributed throughout the noodles. Transfer to a large platter and serve immediately, garnishing with a few chopped scallions if desired.
In my potstickers post, I had mentioned that I would post my recipe for Chinese-style kale as well as some variations on the potstickers. In addition to the pork potstickers, Kathy also made some with a really great seafood filling. She was hard pressed to give me an exact “recipe” since she was kind of winging it, but I’ll try to approximate it for you all. Also, although the browned plate of potstickers looks awfully impressive, Kathy tells me that her favorite way to prepare them is actually boiled, so I’ll give instructions for that too. I think there’s just something more “comfort-food”-ish about eating them boiled, and they soak up the dipping sauce a little better than the pan-fried version. In regards to the kale, it was something I came up with on the fly several months ago, and it was so addictive that I’ve made it several times since. I hesitate to call it Chinese, since I only have a vague impression whether they would combine these particular seasonings, but the use of the dry mustard powder called to mind that sharp Chinese hot mustard, so I’m running with it. I’ll try to give amounts, but honestly I usually just eyeball everything, so you may want to add the spices in increments and taste as you go. Also, the kale cooks down a lot so you may want to double the recipe if you’re feeding more than a few people or want leftovers. (I wouldn’t necessarily double the spices though- try increasing them by a third and see how it goes. You can always add more, but you can’t subtract once they’re in there!)
Chinese-style Kale (printer-friendly version)
1 large bunch kale
2 tbs vegetable oil
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 1/2 tsp dry mustard powder, or more to taste
1 tsp dried red chili flakes or Huy Fong chili sauce (the kind with seeds)
2 tbs soy sauce
1/4 tsp toasted (dark) sesame oil
optional: 1 tbs rice wine or Shaoxing (Chinese cooking wine)
Optional garnishes: toasted sesame seeds or fried shallots or garlic (these are available at Asian markets… try them and you’ll soon find yourself garnishing anything & everything with them!)
Remove the large stems from the kale. Chop into strips about 1 1/2″ wide; wash and set aside in a colander to drain. In a large, heavy-bottomed pot (such as a dutch oven), heat about 2 tbs of vegetable oil (add more if it doesn’t cover the bottom of the pan) and 1/4 tsp (a few dashes) sesame oil over medium-low heat. Add the minced garlic and cook GENTLY until the garlic is browned, turning the heat down as necessary so it doesn’t burn.* If you are using the dried chili flakes, add them to the oil and cook them for about 30 seconds to bloom the flavor. Add the mustard powder and stir out any lumps.
Add the kale to the pot and stir to coat with the seasonings. It’s ok if the kale is a little wet; the moisture will help it steam and cook down. The kale probably won’t fit all at once, so cook it for a few minutes until it cooks down and then add the remainder. You can cover the kale to assist the steaming process; just make sure to stir it often enough so that nothing sticks to the bottom of the pan. When the kale is tender but still green, add 1 tbs soy sauce and the chili sauce, if using. Stir and taste for seasoning, adding the remainder of the soy sauce as you see fit. You may also want to add a dash or two more sesame oil, chili sauce, or more mustard powder to taste. Sometimes I add a small splash of rice wine or Shaoxing as well (increase the heat for a moment to cook off the alcohol).
*A note on browned garlic: I know that most cookbooks advise you NOT to let your garlic brown, as they claim it acquires a “bitter” flavor. However, in some Asian and Indian cooking, cooks do brown their garlic and enjoy its characteristic flavor. If you do it gently and make sure not to over-brown or burn it, you’ll be fine. But feel free to sauté it for a shorter time if you disagree.
Filling for Seafood Dumplings (Gyoza)
14 oz. raw shrimp, peeled & deveined
6 oz. mild, white-fleshed fish such as sea bass or rockfish (you can alter the ratio of shrimp to fish if you like, as long as it totals 1 1/4 to 1 1/2 lbs)
1 small bunch Chinese leek (available at Asian markets; see photo above)
2 tbs soy sauce
2 packages round gyoza wrappers, thawed if frozen
Roughly chop or snip the Chinese leek (you should have about a cup). Process with the shrimp, fish and soy sauce in a food processor until almost smooth (a little texture is OK, as long as the mixture holds together). Pan fry a tablespoon or so to check the seasoning. The filling will be a lovely pistachio green color when cooked. It should have a delicate flavor and not be over-salted. Wrap the dumplings as specified in the recipe for pork gyoza.
Boiling Instructions for Dumplings (courtesy Kathy Lee)
Bring a large pot of water to a fast rolling boil. Add dumplings to boiling water. When water comes back to a boil, add a cold 8oz glass of water. Repeat 2 more times; then remove from water and toss around to keep the dumplings from sticking to each other and enjoy!