3. Recipes with memories

Bitter melon with beef and fermented black bean, and the story of the ‘left-behind’ children

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Bitter melon 苦瓜 with fermented black bean 豆豉 and beef

When I chatted with my friends over lunch today, I told them about the documentary about the left-behind children in Southern China.

These children lived in small and remote communities deep in the beautiful mountains in the GuangXi province, bordering Vietnam.  With limited land for farming, their parents left home to work in factories in the coastal cities.  Some children lived with their elderly grandparents. Some children, as young as 12 years old, looked after themselves and their younger siblings.

Living in leaky shacks, these children faced daily challenges with the lack of food, water, firewood, money for school, and loving care by parents.  Yet, the children were full of hope and spirit. Their daily chores, besides going to school, were fetching water, growing a few corns, collecting wild vegetables and cooking meals. The children looked forward to seeing their parents once a year during the Luna holiday, when the massive migration of workers returned home to their families.

Amazing resilience, their unique stories filled with sadness and joy.

“I was a left-behind child too, together with my younger brother and sister,’ say my friend Loyd, who came from Malaysia.  “I  was cared by my grandparents until I was 9 years old. My parents worked at a logging site in the forest.  My dad leased out equipment to the workers, while my mum worked as an administration clerk for the big logging company.”

” How do you feel about it, growing up without parents?” I was curious.

“This was the life we were given. We appreciated what we had.” Loyd said.

I always look up to this man, kind, respectful and calm.  Life is good for him and his family.

I cooked a bitter melon dish tonight.  Bitter melon is an unusual vegetable with bumpy husk and a peculiar peppery taste.  Some people hate its bitterness, yet many more appreciate the humble and unique deliciousness it offers.

Life is good when you appreciate it.

Easy stir fry method is as follows:

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Fried rice with Asian spices, and memories of Auntie Wong (gluten free option)

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Fried rice with Asian spices

I first learned how to use Asian spices from my best friend’s late mother whom I dearly called Auntie Wong.

Growing up in Malaysia, Auntie Wong was an acrobat in a circus, and later became a self-trained dentist. ‘How do you install a denture for an old lady without a single tooth,’ she laughed,’ luckily I was young and good looking then, I asked male dentists for helps and was never refused’.

Auntie Wong migrated to Australia in early 1980s with her three daughters. She ran a small take away shop in Glebe, an inner Sydney suburb, selling Malaysian fast food. To supplement the limited income from the shop, in the evenings she made spring rolls for catering companies. My friend Mei, the youngest daughter, helped with the spring rolls while she was still in primary school.

Some years later, Auntie Wong saved up enough money and bought a studio apartment. Auntie and Mei lived there for many years, sharing a bed. In their tiny but always welcoming home,  Auntie Wong cooked me many heart-warming meals. The smell of delicious food filled the small space, and what a wonderful place it was.  My favorite dishes were the Singapore meat and bone soup, noodles with salmon XO sauce, and fried rice with Indian spices.

While enjoying meals, auntie told me many of her life stories. I was always inspired by her amazing abilities to adopt to changes, and her keen spirit for new adventures.

Here is my version of a spiced fried rice  – simple, aromatic and satisfying, with fond memory of Auntie Wong’s kindness and love. 

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Shandong shredded chicken, memory of a cranky Mr. Chen (FODMAP friendly option)

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Shandong Shredded Chicken

As the years went by, I found myself complaining more – the traffic, the bad drivers, so many conflicts around the world. Why can’t everyone just do the right thing, and the world could be a better place?

Some days, I thought I might have turned into a cranky person, like Mr. Chen.

Mr. Chen was a university friend to my father. During the culture revolution, his family was labeled as the enemy of the state. His house was searched, and wealth stripped; his father was prosecuted and thrown into jail; and Mr. Chen himself without a job or means to support himself.  Like many others ahead of him, he took the dangerous journey to the Pearl River Delta, jumped into the river, and swam across the sea to seek freedom.  He was shot at by the soldiers, but fortunately landed safely in Hong Kong.  Worked as an engineer, he married a lady 10 years younger. He was very fond of Mrs. Chen and constantly praised her achievements, such as being able to speak fluent English, and had worked as an executive assistant to a hotel general manager.

The Chens migrated to Australia in early 1980s. With their savings, they bought a small grocery store at Rose Bay and an apartment at Point Piper, both are rich suburbs of Sydney. Their apartment, although had wonderful views of the Sydney harbor, was dark, miserable, and quite a mess.

When I arrived in Australia in late 1987, my father asked the Chens to provide me with guidance and helps. Whenever Mr. Chen had the opportunity, he would talk about Chinese politic. He spoke with the deepest anger and hatred, teeth crunching and fist waving.  He yelled at me from time to time, for my lack of interest of his topics, and I did not keep my mouth firmly shut.

Within a few months, I found a job at a Chinese restaurant. The restaurant specialized in mid-north cuisine, such as Peking ducks and spicy Sichuan dishes.  The Chens had dinner in the restaurant one night, and particularly liked the Shandong shredded chicken.  They asked me to get the recipe, which was refused by the chef.  The Chens did not speak to me ever since.

I found out many years later, that Mr. Chen told my parents, who were afar, that I was very naughty – I enjoyed working as a waitress; and I went out for suppers with with co-workers after work.

The last time I heard of the Chens, they were running a small restaurant in a suburban office park.  Every morning at 3am, Mr. Chen, then 78 of age, got out of bed to collect supplies; then he joined his wife at the restaurant to work.

I can’t say that I appreciated my experience with Mr. Chen.  But I sincerely hope they are enjoying their life, and are happy.

And here is my version of a Shandong chicken, recalling the ingredients and method I learnt from the restaurant. I first placed the chicken in brine overnight, then shallow-fried the chicken with soy sauce, steamed the chicken, shredded the chicken, and served the chicken with a tangy and spicy sauce.

The most important element of this dish is the sauce. It is sweet, sour, salty and spicy – just like life, never boring.

Recipe and easy steps are as follows:

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Beef flank stew (牛腩) with Asian spices and soy sauce, my memory of the hawker stall on the ‘Poetry Book Road’ ( FODMAP friendly)

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Beef flank stew
When I was a little girl, I walked to the primary school each day.  I ate breakfast along the way. I had a ten cents allowance for two plain steamed buns each morning.

I walked down a street commonly known as the ‘Poetry Book Road’. For many years, the street was renamed as the  ‘Red Book Road’ in honor of Chairman Mao’s red book of quotations.

DSC01174
Translation of the road sign:  Poetry Book Road; to the north, ‘Paper Factory Road’; to the south, ‘Heavenly Successful Road’.  September 2017, GuangZhou, China

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A street vendor selling beef flank stew and pig intestines near Poetry Street, September 2017, GuangZhou, China

At the end of the street, there was a tiny hawker stall selling beef flank and pig intestines. In winters, the hot steam rose from her big pots. The aroma of soy, star anise and clove lingered in the air, mouth-watering and irresistible. The stall operator was a middle age woman, short, chubby and never smiled. She had a pair of gigantic scissors that made loud ‘chop chop chop’ sound. When she received an order, she cut some small pieces off a larger piece, skillfully threading them to a bamboo stick without touching them with her hands.  A stick with 3 pieces of juicy, fatty and heart-warming meat cost 10 cents. It was a difficult decision for a little girl – spending the 10 cents on a meat stick and be hungry for the rest of the morning, or two plain buns. I took some deep breaths (the aroma was so good) and nibbled on the tasteless buns.

Now I remembered, the two buns never filled me up anyway. At school I sat next to a boy whose name was ‘Bin’. We enjoyed a few laughs as our stomachs rumbled at the exact same moment.

I cooked beef flank many times over the past many years. It always brought back memories of the hawker stall on the Poetry Book Road.

Recipe is as follows: Read the rest of this entry »

Tomato and egg soup, with Chinese mushroom and miso, memories of friends from the GuangYa Middle School (廣東廣雅中學)

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In the 1980s, I attended a local selective school called “GuangYa” in Southern China. It was one of the few schools with boarding facilities. During high school years, boarding was compulsory so the school could control the kids academic progress with minimum disruption. We worked really hard and rarely did anything remotely exciting. On the weekends, other kids were eager to return home to their families. I liked to stay in the school over the weekends to avoid home, a place lack of warmth.

There were a few other kids staying behind too, mostly boys. It was scary to stay in the empty dormitory on my own. It was a huge room lined with over 20 bunk beds, dimly lighted with a few bare bulbs, and filled with dark shadows. There were no cleaners, the kids took turns to sweep the floor. So the room was full of spider webs and dust.

I tried to persuade some other girls to stay behind too. Two of my good friends, Yi and Qin, stayed with me sometimes. We studied the whole weekend at our own pace without bells and patrolling teachers – it was rather peaceful. The school canteen was closed and we were to manage our own meals.

At the back of the school, there was a busy bus terminal, a noodle shop and a few small grocery shops. A strip of the street was occupied by a few vendors that sold fruits, vegetables and some other basic essentials. We often ate noodles for dinner, and brought back a few eggs and vegetables to make soup for supper – we were peckish after our evening study sessions. With no cooking equipment available, we used a small electric kettle.

One of our favorite soups was the tomato and egg soup. It was the simplest soup you could imagine – drop some diced tomato and an egg in the boiling water, a quick stir, salt to taste (or a little soy sauce), and some chopped coriander. The soup is done in 2 minutes, light and delicious.

Ah, good old days – hardship and friendships.

Memories of GuangDong GuangYa Middle School - Friends
Memories of GuangDong GuangYa Middle School – good friends

I am visiting China in a few weeks, and I will be seeing Yi and Qin. It has been 30 years since we said good-bye to each other. I crossed the oceans and moved so very far away from my friends. Today, Yi is a devoted Buddhist and Qin is an energetic entrepreneur.

Here is my more creative version of an egg and tomato soup, with a Chinese mushroom and miso base. I am looking forward to see Yin, Qin and some of my school friends again in a few weeks.

I didn’t write up the recipe – imagination and creativity work best for this dish.

Tomato and egg soup, with Chinese mushroom and miso

Rice congee with pan fried fish (low FODMAP, gluten free)

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My little boy asked me last night: ” what was the kindest thing your mommy did to you?” Somehow, I have been asking myself the same question since my mother passed away a few years ago.

“One time, she let me put my cold feet between her legs to warm up.” I said.

“That wasn’t much at all,” said the little boy. He expected every mother to be kind, loving, caring and demonstrates extraordinary devotion to their children.

“One time, I fell down the stairs, and she cooked me a soup with field mice. The soup was said to have calming effect on children after experiencing trauma. There was a wandering vendor balancing a few long bamboo sticks on his shoulder. He put a cotton bag at one end of a stick, opened the lid, and shook out two field mice. He then smashed the bag on the pebbly ground. I was force fed the soup that afternoon.”

“Oh’, said the little boy. “That doesn’t count.”

“Another time, I was very sick, and I couldn’t eat any normal food. My mum cooked me fish and lettuce congee.” I said.

“What happened to you?” The little boy asked.

“I was eight, second grade in a local primary school. After a basketball game, we ran back to the classroom. A boy fell over me, and we fell on a concrete step. My lips were split, and some of my front teeth collapsed. The school principal took me to the hospital at the back of his push bike. I had an operation and could not eat solid food for days.”

I continued, “my mother tried to claim $10 for medical expenses from that boy’s family. But then she found out the boy’s parents were divorced, and the boy lived with his grandmother. They had no income and could barely come up with a few dollars. My mother told them not to worry about the money after that.”

“That was kind,” my little boy was finally satisfied. “What was the boy’s name?”

“Li Hai 李海, means ocean”. I answered. “He had very bright eyes.”

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Impression of Li Hai and other primary boys

This afternoon, I cooked coogee for lunch. Rather than breaking up the fish and cooking it in the congee like a stew, I pan fried a few small pieces of barramundi and served them on top of the congee – tasted lovely.

Rice congee with pan fried fish (low FODMAP, gluten free)

Recipe is as follows. A FODMAPs check list is also attached. Read the rest of this entry »

Sweet and sour pickled white radish 甜酸萝卜, and wish all children in the world are loved (FODMAP friendly, Vegan)

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I went to an industry lunch a few weeks ago. A speech was given by a high-up official who spoke about many things, including the children out-of-home care. The person said, after the government outsourcing the administration services, the children return-to-home rate had increased from 27% to 60%. And they said the best place for the children was with their parents.

On hearing that, I felt unsettled.

I do volunteer work regularly for a charity in an inner-city suburb. That’s where I met Molly (not her real name). Molly might be in her 40s or 50s. Her face was somehow deformed, and she had no teeth. When she appeared at the charity late in the morning, she talked very loudly as if she was yelling. Her speech was not recognizable. The staff at the charity made her drinks. They told me it was prescribed protein drinks. Molly sat by a table for hours on her own, talking to everyone and no one.

“She was a beautiful little girl, beautiful!” one of the local ladies told us one day. “She was beaten by her father, ended up in the hospital with brain damage.”

I, myself, was a physically abused child when I was growing up. Those days, physically abusing children was perfectly acceptable in China. When I was beaten up, no one came to my rescue, not even my grandmother.

I was lucky. I grew up to be a strong and independent individual. Molly didn’t have that chance.

In the evening, I made my favorite childhood snack – sweet and sour pickled white radish. I used to buy them from the street vendors, 10 cents for 3 pieces, a special treat when my friends visited on very rare occasions.

Sweet and sour!  And I wish all children in the world are special to someone, and loved by someone.

Sweet and sour pickled white radish 甜酸萝卜
Sweet and sour pickled white radish 甜酸萝卜

Recipe is as follows:

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Simple Chinese mushrooms and cloud ear fungus, memories of Chinese New Year (vegan)

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Simple Chinese mushrooms and cloud ear fungus

Nearly 30 years had passed since I left China, but I still remember vividly the wonderful days around the Chinese New Years. Extended families gathered at the large dinner tables, briefly forgot about their quarrels throughout  the year. The wok chinked with an aroma of delicacies that we couldn’t afford as daily meals. The rolling pins were out for the wickedly delicious sweet peanut pastry.

The flower festival (‘huaJie’, 花街) was held about a week before the Chinese New Year. Families went to the street market packed of flower vendors to select their festival decorations. Kumquat 金橘 was an essential – ‘kum’ means gold and  ‘quat’ has a similar pronunciation as fortune. It is a plant that will bring good prosperity in the new year. A small blossoming  peach shrub was also an essential, s symbol of strength and vitality, with beautiful flowers emerged from the harshness of the winter. Also common were the chrysanthemum 菊花 and peony 牡丹, large and colorful, symbols of riches and honor.

Flower street
Memories of a street pack with people, flowers and green plants

When I was a little girl, my father worked in another city. So my second uncle took me to the flower festival each year. Our most memorable trips were the ones on the New Years Eves. We had loads of fun browsing the market and pushed through the crowd. There were so many people at the market, my uncle had to put me on his shoulders to be safe. When it was close to the midnight, we rushed home to light our fire crackers. There was one time that we were late and ran into the fire cracker storms at mid-night. The crackers and the odd firework were loud and smoky, with laughter of the children, so much joy and happiness.

Fire work
Memories of kids lighting fire crackers on the street

The next morning the streets were quiet with a red carpet of paper left behind by the fire crackers. Kids got up early to collect the odd fire crackers that did not go off the previous night, then ran around greeting their relatives ‘goon he fa choi’ 恭喜發財, in exchange for red envelopes with a little money, which they would use to buy lollies for months to come.

After the big feast on the New Year’s Eve, vegetarian meals were common on the first day of the new year.  My favorite dish was the stew Chinese mushrooms, a delicacy rarely consumed during the year. The mushrooms were cooked with different types of dry or fresh vegetables – lily buds, fungus, dry tofu sticks, hair vegetable 髮菜 and bamboo shoots. The aroma of the dish is still lingering in my mind.

Nowadays I cook Chinese mushrooms quite often – nearly everybody in our family and extended families love it.  In Sydney the Chinese mushrooms are inexpensive, a 250g bag of good quality mushrooms cost around $12. It makes a huge dish for 8-10 people to share. We are thankful for what we are able to enjoy today.

Here is a simple mushroom dish I’d like to share with you.

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Steamed pork with soy sauce, memories of my aunt Yi-ma(姨妈), and how my mother met my father (low FODMAP, gluten free)

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During the week, we try to make simple meals.  A meal cooked over rice in a rice cooker is ideal for a late autumn evening – warm, comforting and super easy. We enjoy a few glasses of wine while the rice cooker is hard at work.

I cooked some steamed pork in the rice cooker tonight. The dish reminded me my aunt Yi-ma (姨妈)  who cooked an excellent steamed pork dish. My mother met my father during a match making visit between for Yi-ma and my father.   Yi-ma means an aunt from the mother side.

Steamed pork with soy sauce

My mother’s childhood

My mother was an orphan. Her mother was a maid who married her aged master.

In early 1900s, my grandfather was a laborer who went to Malaysia to work on a rubber farm. It was very common those days along the south coast of China. When he returned to China, he bought some farm land and a few houses. He then took a concubine, the maid. His first wife gave him only a daughter and no sons.

The first wife’s daughter migrated to America with her husband. Before my grandfather had his own son, he adopted a relative’s child whose name was Han.

During the Sino-Japanese war the family ran out of money. Grandfather and his wives died under some unspoken circumstance. My mother refused to talk about it. Some relatives said they suffered a great deal of financial hardship as they were not able to collect rents from the land and houses during this period.

During the 1940s, my mother grew up with his brother, living on some cash sent home by the sister in America. The two young children cooked for themselves and cared for each other.

The adopted son, Han, was 20 years older than the children. During the war he was a soldier in the National army. When he returned from the war, he took over all the cash sent from America and rents. The two young orphans was left with no food or resources.  Every day the siblings walked down to the Han’s house to collect some rice and whatever he would give them. Their regular meal was a thin rice porridge (congee). They were always hungry. As a grown up, my mother refused to talk about this man. Every time his name was mentioned, mother was anxious, sad and angry.

Moving to the city

In mid-1950, my mother was about 12 years old. My aunt Yi-ma’s family needed domestic helps and took my mother into their home. They were remote relatives from my mother’s side. Mother was grateful to them despite that she didn’t enjoy the chores, like getting up 5am in the morning to cook breakfast.

A few years later, she was accepted by a selective high school and could not come up with the few dollars for school fee each year. Mother was devastated when the family told her that they didn’t have the resources to support her education.

My mother (left) and Yi-ma (aunt) at the roof top terrace of yi-ma's apartment
My mother (left) and Yi-ma (aunt) at the roof top terrace of yi-ma’s apartment

A young and beautiful maiden full of dreams

Young and attractive looking, my mother applied for an actress position which she was rejected because she was not sufficiently tall. Utterly disappointing, she found a job as a childcare worker which she thoroughly enjoyed. Her role was shortly made redundant and the position was offered to a relative of an official.

Mother became a factory hand in a wireless factory.  She made many new friends. In later years, I observed her interaction with her friends, I could not help wondering if some of her male friends were once her admirers.

With the ambition to migrate to the U.S. to join her elder sister, my mother refused to have a relationship. When she was 28 years old, her sister passed away.  Mother’s dream was shuttered again.

How my mother met my father

In the late 1960s, a young and bright engineer and his family were living two blocks away from Yi-ma’s apartment.

My grandmother was a friend of Yi-mas mother. They organised a match making 相亲 to introduce my aunt to my father. The introduction (相亲) did not go well – the young man stepped inside the apartment, and decided he wanted the other good looking maiden instead. Mother was visiting Yi-ma that day.

That’s how my mother met my father.

Married life

The young couple dated briefly, and happily married. They had many photos of happy times, sitting in the park with sweet smiles, and holding each others’ arms.

The happy time ended when I was born. My father was sent away to the countryside to work for another factory.  He visited us for 10 days each year at Chinese new year, and occasionally dropped in for a few days while he passed through for work.  My mother’s dream of marrying an educated man and living a comfortable life was shuttered. My father was not entitled to any accommodation in the city. We all cramped into a terrace house with my grandparents, uncles and aunt and their families.

When my father returned to the city, it was 13 years later.

My mother and father
My mother and father in late 1960s

 

Aunt Yi-ma

Yi-ma married a nice man with a gentle soul. He was a senior official in the foreign trade inspection office. We called him ‘Yi-zhang’ (姨丈), meaning an uncle from the mother side.  In his official position, Yi-zhang received gifts all the time – fruits, cookies to expensive Chinese liquor in fancy bottles. Yi-zhang didn’t drink. So it didn’t bother him that some liquor turned moldy in unopened bottles – they were fake and most likely filled with tea.

Beside free gifts, they were quietly well off. Yi-ma’s brother died during the Korean War. All the family assets went to Yi-ma, including a sizable portfolio of real estate and stocks in Hong Kong.

Knowing our limited financial resources, Yi-ma was always generous to us. Every year at the Chinese New Year she always gifted me a handsome amount in a red envelope.  She gave me my first $1 note. In early 1970s, $1 was a fortune to a little girl.  Unlucky for me, my mother confiscated the money, saying that she would have to provide red envelopes to other children so she must recycle the cash.

Yi-ma and Yi-zhang were the first family we knew to own a color TV and a fridge.  They often invited us over for meals, cold jelly, special goodies or simply when they cut open a watermelon.  Their most tasty dish was the steamed pork, cooked in a little metal dish on top of the rice, juicy, sweet, salty and delicious.

My steamed pork

I cooked some steamed pork tonight, just like how Yi-ma used to cook it.

Recipe is as follows:

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Grandmother’s fried pork cracklings, warm rice with pork fat and soy sauce 豬油豉油撈飯 (low FODMAP)

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I cooked some cracklings tonight, the way my grandmother cooked them a long long time ago.

Grandmother's pork crackling, warm rice with pork fat and soy sauce

When I was growing up, pork fat was a rare delicacy. Meat was rationed. It was difficult to imagine that one would waste the precious coupons on pork fat instead of good cut of meat.

My grandmother was an extraordinary woman, always working, never complaint and never indulged herself, except, she loved pork fat. Occasionally she took me to the food market across the street and bought a small slap of pork fat with skin. She cut up the meat, then pan fried the pieces in a wok over the coal stove.

The pan frying turned very quickly to deep frying. She scooped out the oil and stored it in a little black urn. The black urn sat on a rotten timber shelf, up high and away from the cats, looking like a treasure pot.   In the wok, the pork pieces eventually turned into golden delicious cracklings which we shared with the whole extended family of about 10 people.

Over the next few days, grandmother and I enjoyed hot boiled rice with pork fat for lunches, flavored with a dash of soy sauce. My grandmother called it ‘lou fan’ meaning ‘mix the rice’. These were some of the most delicious meals I ever had.

Grandmother's coal stove - grandmother's pork cracklings, pork fat with boiled rice and soy sauce
My grandmother’s coal stove

I still remember our kitchen. The walls were never painted, darken by the smoke from the coal cakes.  The small earthy stove was among piles of coal cakes, which we purchased from a small shop at the end of our lane way.  From very young age, I helped to carry the coal cakes home, a few at a time, on top of a small timber slab.  Our house cats slept on top of the coal cakes during winters for the warmth from the stove, waking up in the morning, looking filthy. The cats were working cats and expected to fetch most of their own food (rats). They ate scraps from the family meals, most of the time it was just some rice, vegetables and sauce. Unloved and hungry, they had anxious looks in the eyes that I could never forget. They had a hard life.

Today, we have shiny appliances in our kitchen and beautiful stone splash back. We have a beautiful dog in our household which we dearly love. He enjoys his home cooked meals with all the goodness.

As I enjoyed the meal, I really appreciate what we have today.

Recipe is as follows:

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Cantonese sweet tea buns and my friend OuYang

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I made some tea buns today.  When I was a little kid these buns were sold in little shops on nearly every street in GuangZhou. We had them mostly for breakfast. The bread was also great for a picnic lunch during school excursions.

Cantonese sweet milk bread / tea buns

Growing up, I didn’t have many close friends in the neighborhood, until I met OuYang in year 3 of primary school.

I grew up in a terrace house on a small lane way. There were always other kids around. During my early childhood years, I often wandered around and watched other kids played. I rarely joined in as most kids were older than me. At pre-school I didn’t quite connect with other kids. I was the odd one who always cried at the front door when my nails were examined for cleanness; the one who went for the old books rather than new toys; and the one that was the fastest on tricycle but never won any competitions.

In primary school, I was one of top students academically. I was ‘appointed’ as the literacy subject ‘leader’ for the class that year. The role of a ‘leader’ was to collect homework, and led the morning reading sessions at the front of the classroom, a proud job for a young girl.

One day, the teacher pulled me aside. She reassigned my literacy ‘leader’ responsibility to a new kid transferred from another school. The teacher said she was excellent in literacy, won awards for her essays, hence deserved to be the literacy ‘leader’. I was told to take on the role for English instead. I didn’t mind, I was good at both subjects. I was looking forward to meet this new kid.

Then I met OuYang, a bright girl with pony tails like ox horns (common those days). We got on straight away and we became best friends. OuYang was open, warm and highly competitive. Our next 3 years were amazing as we shared our love for literacy and appreciation for nature. At break time between classes, we leaned on the railing of the long balcony, chatted about anything and everything. When I spent time at her house, her mum was kind and gentle. It was the first time that I realized that mothers had different parenting style.

For a school excursion we went to the tallest mountains in the city, called the ‘Baiyun Mountain’  (白雲山) or the ‘White Cloud Mountain’. We found some common wild flowers with yellow blossoms. We sat down on the green grass and had our picnic lunch next to the flowers. We named the flowers ‘yellow sun’ and wrote a poem about it.  I still remember my lunch that day were 2 tea buns which I bought from the little convenience store near my house.

At white cloud mountain
A trip to the white cloud mountain, GuangZhou, in late 1970s

As I enjoyed the warm and delicious tea buns I made today, I wished I could reconnect with my long lost friend OuYang again.

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Homemade wheat noodles in soup, memories of a peasant family at a noodle shop

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Homemade wheat noodles in soup, memories of a peasant family at a noodle shop

A few evenings ago, I watched Behind the News with my 9 year old boy on ABC iview. Behind the News is a TV news program made for the kids. That evening, the program covered the famine situation in Sudan.  “Had China ever have famine?”my little boy asked. These few innocent words had brought back my memories of a peasant family begging at a cheap noodle restaurant. I could still see their shadows, even today.

In early 70’s, my grandmother cooked communal dinners for the extended families. Each family contributed to the cost of the food. Money and resources were limited at the time. We nearly never went out for dinners, as my mother didn’t want to pay for meals twice. One night, for whatever reasons we were at this cheap noodle restaurant. It was a common and shabby place. The kitchen inside was steamy with a large pot of hot water for cooking the noodles, a large pot of cold water to cool and rinse the noodles, and a large pot of soup with nothing in it and barely any color. We found a table outside with wobbly chairs and started to eat our noodle soups. For a few cents, the meal had no meat or vegetables, just plain noodles and a little green shallot floating on top. It was hot and a rare treat for a little 5-year old girl.

Suddenly, 3 children in ragged clothes surrounded our table. They looked different to our city people. They had dark and coarse skin, as they were farmers from the countryside. They were dirty and messy, as they were far away from home and living on streets. They spoke in dialect that I never heard before. They would have traveled from afar, probably from another province where their crops failed. And their eyes, they had such hungry eyes. The littlest one just devoured some leftover soup from the next table, and redirected his attention to my bowl.

I looked up to my mother. ‘Eat up all your food’, she said sternly. When I left some food in the bowl at the end of the meal, she picked up the bowl and swallowed everything in it, including last drops of the soup, the soup of nothingness. The children moved away to another table, motionless.

Peasant family
A peasant family

Many years past, my memories of that family did not fake. Most of all, I was puzzled why my mother was so indifferent to the begging children.  After all, she was an orphan herself. She would have understood the pain and suffering of that family, hungry, homeless and desperate?

This weekend, I made a large batch of noodles from scratch. I served the noodles in a beautiful chicken soup, topped with mouthwatering crispy bacon bits. Life has been kind to our family and we really appreciate what we have.

Like to have a go at making your own noodles?  Recipe is as follows.

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Seaweed and egg soup 紫菜蛋湯 and the memory of GuangYa Middle School (low fodmap, gluten free)

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Seaweed and egg soup 紫菜蛋湯
Seaweed and egg soup 紫菜蛋湯

Recently, I reconnected with my high school mates on WeChat via a group chat. The high school, named the GuangDong Guangya Middle School, was one of the most prestige selective schools in the GuangZhou city. We all grew up to be proud and competitive individuals. Then we went on our separate paths to distinctively different lives. I selected a simple but busy life in Sydney – a job in the finance industry, a small family, a house with picket fences, a lovely garden, and a double garage full of beautiful crockery and cooking equipment – I love my cooking.

GuangDong GuangYa Middle School
Today’s GuangDong GuangYa Middle School

Bo, a school mate from Singapore had been posting his dinners every night in the group chat. He often has 5 dishes for his family of 4. The dishes are home style, plain and simple. A typical meal consists of a gorgeous seafood dish, an overcooked meat dish and 3 seasonal vegetable dishes bursting with freshness.  Sometimes we could tell how many were dining at home by counting the jumbo prawns. I was puzzled by Bo’s persistence and efforts posting his 6 meals a week, and occasionally meals from the restaurants when they ate out on Sundays. And a few days ago, he posted this story…

‘I live a simple and unexciting life, often with repetitive routines. There were seldom any exceptional events. However, the memory of this single incident at GuangYa Middle School I will always treasure. 

It was a very hot afternoon. We were attending a physical exercise class in front of the physic building. That day we had a basketball game. I was pushed over by a big fellow student. I fell and my left hand landed on the ground first. I could see my wrist was twisted, followed by sharp pains. I realized I had broken my wrist.

I was surrounded by teachers and students. The PE teacher asked who would accompany me to the local hospital which was within walking distance from the school.  Hong pushed through the crowd and took my arm. Hong was a quiet student, often with a few words and rarely smiled. I hardly spoke with him in the past. I was pleasantly surprised by him volunteering to help.

One thing was overlooked by the PE teacher – he didn’t ask if we had any money for the hospital. Those days most families were not well off and kids didn’t get much pocket money. I didn’t have any money on me that day. Luckily Hung had some money and he managed to pay for the treatment.  There was no x-ray machine at the local hospital. The wrist was bandaged and that was that. 

The next day after the math class, our math teacher, Feng, came over to my desk with a bowl of soup and a gentle smile . Feng was one of the strictest teachers and rarely showed her emotions. ‘This is a seaweed and egg soup’, she said, ‘you have it now while it is warm. It helps with your calcium intake and good for your bones.’  

I was speechless. Even my mum never cooked me a soup before (she didn’t really learn how to cook until she was retired).  I looked at Feng, who had returned to the teacher’s podium, I felt warmth all over. 

Despite her tough appearance, teacher Feng had a kind and caring heart. Many years later I connected with her via a video chat. She asked why I was still so skinny and said I should look after myself better.  

Next time I am in GuangZhou, I will visit Teacher Feng and cook her a big bowl of hot seaweed and egg soup.’

Ah, I can understand why Bo has been posting his dinners each night. Somehow he found deep connection with his food.

Bo's family meals
Bo’s family meals

 

The traditional egg soups are often made of ‘egg flowers’, means scrambling the eggs in hot water. I found scrambling eggs with seaweed was too messy.

So here is my version of a ‘neat’ seaweed and egg soup.

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South sea meat and bone soup (bak kut teh,肉骨茶)

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My best friend’s late mother, whom I dearly called Auntie Wong, used to make this herbs and spices infused soup for me. The wonderful aroma filled their small inner city apartment and floated down the narrow common corridor as I walked out the lift. I instantly felt at home, safe, warm and loved.

Besides being a fantastic cook, Auntie Wong was an amazing woman with many talents. Once a circus acrobat in Malaysia, she was retrained as a dentist. ‘It was so difficult at the beginning,’ she said, ‘there was this old lady with no teeth, and I could not figure out how to attach the denture.’ She grinned, ‘lucky that I was young and good looking at the time. I had lots of helps.’

Here is my simple meat and bone soup, with fond memories of Auntie Wong. Somehow my soup never tasted as good as Auntie Wong’s. She had added a lot more love to the soup.

South sea meat and bone soup (bak kut teh,肉骨茶)

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Chinese New Year sweet dumplings filled with peanuts, sesame seeds and coconut 角仔

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I remember the 10 joyful days during Luna new year while I was growing up. It was always in the midst of winter and the air was cold. There were sparkles in our eyes with the excitement of fire crackers, flower stalls, new clothes, a few good meals and the red envelopes with some money in it.

The ‘gok-zai'(角仔) or the ‘YouJiao'(油角), translated as the fried little triangle pastry, diligently homemade and exchanged between families while paying the rare once-a-year visits, were delightful.  Families often re-gifted the ‘gok-zai’ they received. We often ended up with a bag of ‘gok-zai’ with different shapes, sizes and colors. My grandmother stored them in a brown urn under the stairs and we were allowed to have a few each day. During the early 1970s while food supplies were scarce, these little treats were very much appreciated by the little ones.

Here is my quick and easy ‘gok-zai’. Traditionally they were deep fried but I baked them for a healthier version.  Happy new year everyone, 新年快樂. Hope the newSw year will bring you and your family health, peace and happiness.

Recipe is as follows: Ingredients

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Winter melon broth with dried shrimps and memories of a factory in the town of ‘YingDe’ (英德)

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Today I cooked a winter melon broth with dried shrimps. It brought back so much memories of a peaceful country town with a fast running river, a farmers market and a factory with impressively huge machines that were sky high in the eyes of a little girl.

Winter melon broth with dried shrimps and memories of a factory in the town of 'YingDe' (英德)
Winter melon broth with dried shrimps 

I was born towards the end of the culture revolution in GuangZhou, a major city in Southern China. At the time, workers from the cities were sent to farming villages or smaller towns to work or for ‘re-education’. Shortly after I was born, my father, a young  mechanical engineer, left us to work in a township called YingDe (英德). YingDe was 150km or a 4.5 hour train trip away from Guangzhou. My father didn’t return to Guangzhou permanently until I was in high school.

My father examining a machine
My father examining a machine

I visited my father several times over the summer holidays. His accommodation was a bare room with its walls lined with old newspaper. The room was normally shared by a few workers using 2 set of bunk beds. The workers mostly ate at the canteen. If they wished to cook, the room was also their kitchen. There was no shower rooms for the male dormitories that I could recall. They washed themselves at the common cold water taps nearby with their shorts on, or at the nearby river. When there were family members visiting, the workers moved around to different dormitory rooms in order to make room for the families.

In this room, I cooked for my father and myself over a tiny diesel stove on the floor. The 3  x 20 cents meals from the canteen were deemed to be too expensive as daily expenses. Each morning after my father went to work,  I took a short walk to a small farmers market to buy ingredients to made lunches and dinners. Meals were mostly just boiled green vegetables, melons, eggs and rice. Once, a colleague came back from Northern China and gifted us a small bag of dried shrimps. We enjoyed it for months, adding a few pieces to each meal.

Sometimes in the afternoon I hanged out in the factory office. Bored with drawing, I often begged my father to take me to the workshop where they made huge machines. He chatted with the workers, tested the machines and they all looked awfully serious. I never had any ideas what they talked about and was never interested. I liked workshop for its high ceiling, big windows, smell of the engine oil, and something else special about it that I could not pinpoint.

YingDe was a quiet and peaceful town by a fast running river. The river was where I first learned to swim. In the evenings we walked down to the river on a small path shared by farmers and their animals. One time, I jumped into a pile of cow dropping thinking it was a rock. Where the river turned there was a small beach. Across the beach there was a particularly tall rocky mountain with a mystery looking cave.  I always wanted to swim across the river to explore the cave, but never had the courage.

By the river at YingDe, GuangDong, China
By the river at YingDe in 1980s

The winter melon broth I cooked today was a lot more fancier than the plain and simple YingDe version I cooked over 30 years old.  I do hope you will enjoy it.

Recipe is as follows: Read the rest of this entry »

Asian mustard greens 芥菜 and the memories of the GuangDong GuangYa Middle School

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Sometimes, I boil some Asian greens with a dash of cooking oil and a little salt. I eat the vegetables and drink the water that was used for boiling the veggies as a ‘soup’.  I can drink many bowls of this ‘soup’. It is strangely comforting. It brings back the memories of my GuangDong GuangYa Middle School years.

Chinese mustard greens 'gai choi'

GuangDong GuangYa Middle School was one of the highly selective schools in the city of GuangZhou. Although the school was located in one of the most populated cities in Southern China, it was established in the 1880s and built on an unusually large block of land with gardens, traditional style buildings and sports grounds. While we were not able to escape from the common poverty and a rigid  educational system which we were to memorize pretty much everything, we learned to be self-discipline and responsible for our own destiny.

My junior year at GuangYa Middle School - class singing competition
My junior year at GuangDong GuangYa Middle School – school singing competition

During my junior years when I was still living at home, the best time during a school day was the lunch time. When bell rang at 1pm we ran for the canteen. There were 4 tiny little windows at the front of the canteen where we collected our meals with prepaid vouchers. A typical meal was 2 cups of boiled rice, a few pieces of thinly sliced pork cooked with Asian greens, cucumbers or melons. The meals were pale looking, probably only seasoned with salt and nothing else. The vegetables were  over cooked, floppy and watery.  From time to time there were huge canisters in front of the canteen and we could scoop ourselves some ‘soup’ – the water used to boil the vegetables.  A few times a year before the major exams, we received special bonus called ‘Jia Chai’ 加菜 which was a little extra food.

When I started boarding during the senior years, I shared a rundown dormitory room with some 40 other girls. The room was large, with high ceiling and always full of dust. There were no cleaning staffs, the girls took turns to sweep the bare concrete floor each day. One end of the room was used as a drying area with rows of newly washed clothes dripping water onto the floor below. The external shower rooms  were bare with only cold water taps, no individual doors and very limited lighting. During winter time we could pay 2 cents to buy a bucket of hot water from the canteen and carried it all the way to the shower rooms for a warm splash, or to brave it with a cold shower.

At the dorm in the GuangYa Middle School, GuangZhou
Girls’ dorm at the GuangYa Middle School in the 1980s

The kids at the school were all very bright. They were expected to go to university. This meant 10-12 hours of study each day. Those days, going to university  would mean a guaranteed government job for life and the selection exams were very competitive. Boarding was compulsory during the senior years. There were strict routines –  getting up at 6am, compulsory exercise, breakfast,  a morning self-directed study session,  followed by 5 formal classes, lunch, nap time, 2 more study sessions in the afternoon, followed by exercise, shower time & dinner time, then evening more self-directed study in the classroom till 30 minutes before bed time. Lights were turned off at 10pm.

Despite the handwork and poor living conditions, GuangYa was a haven for me. At GuangYa  I found friendship, kindness and I was able to build confidence. I met a few good friends who were wonderfully warm and inclusive. Two of my main teachers were reasonably flexible and supportive (unusual for China those days).  Best of all, I escaped from home, a place where I struggled to feel warmth – perhaps one day I will have the courage to write about it.

Recipe for Asian mustard greens

Here is a simple dish with Chinese mustard greens (‘gai choi’芥菜 ), boiled briefly with a dash of cooking oil and seasoned with salt. I describe mustard greens as deliciously peppery with a slight bitterness.

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Garlic chive pockets 韭菜餅, and memories of a TV set made of a heart rate monitor

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Garlic chive pockets 韭菜餅

When I was a little girl, I was fascinated by my cousin Yang’s skills in making dumpling wrappers.

Yang was the eldest daughter of my 2nd aunt. My aunt joined the army and met her husband in Northern China. They settled there for over 10 years before moving back to GuangZhou and re-trained as experts for mending medical equipment. My aunt made our first TV set out of an abandoned heart-rate monitor. It was the only TV set in the neighborhood. I still remember watching a green and grey version of the ‘Sound of the Music’ on the 3-inch diameter screen. It didn’t have a protective case in the back – we could see all the wires and connections. My grandfather put all his newspapers next to it. One time,  grandfather asked me to fetch him an old paper. I climbed up the drawers under the TV and reached for the paper.  I felt someone hit me with a stick from behind. I turned and looked, my grandfather was sitting at his desk working on something, and there was no one else in the room. I was zapped by electricity from the TV set!

Cousins from GuangZhou
A rare photo of the cousins in early 70s. Clockwise from top left, Yong, Zhi, Yang, Jie, myself

Anyway, Yang was a true master of the rolling pin from a young age – she could make hundreds of wrappers in no time at all. Her fingers were magic and I used to watch her whenever I had the opportunity. Their apartment always smelt of noodles, dumplings and aged vinegar… yum!

Being a ‘southerner’, my rolling pin skills are lacking – I am just too slow. To get around my deficiency, I discovered that my Italian pasta machine can produce wheat based wrappers rather efficiently. The trick is to first roll a small amount of dough into a ball, then press it to a round disc, and put it through the pasta machine a few times rotating each time. To show off my newly developed ‘skills’, I made these northern style garlic chive pancakes with eggs, Chinese mushrooms  and shrimp shell.  The traditional pancake uses heaps of garlic chive and has as a very strong taste. In this recipe, I used smaller amount of garlic chive and added chicken and mung bean vermicelli for extra texture and flavor.

Recipe is as follow: Read the rest of this entry »

Vegemite twists and Chinese Luna New Year

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Vegemite twists and Chinese Luna New Year

I can hear you asking –  what has vegemite to do with Chinese Luna New Year?

My little boy’s school is running a food festival next month.  I am baking some vegemite twists for the Australian food stall.

The shape of this twist is borrowed from a Cantonese fried sweet pastry called ‘DanSan’ (蛋散). DanSan is a humble homemade pastry with flour, eggs and sugar, and deep fried in hot oil. Dan San is often made just before a Luna New Year, together with ‘YouJiao‘ (油角), a deep fried pastry with a filling of peanut, coconut and white sugar.  My memory was that my second uncle always rolled out the pastry, we all helped making the DanSan & YouJiao, and my grandmother deep fried the pastry in a wok of hot oil over a coal stove.  Because it was Chinese New Year, my grandmother allowed me access to the brown urn where the cooked pastries are kept under the stairs, I was in heaven!

I still remember that, during the first 10 days of a Luna New Year, families would visit their relatives to ‘BaiNian’ (拜年), or wishing  them a happy new year. They would bring a bag of the pastry and some fruits as gifts. Their hosts would return the bags with their own homemade pastry and a few of the fruits. This is called ‘HuiLi’ (回礼), or the return of gifts. During these visits, children would get red envelopes from older relatives with money in them. The envelope is called LiShi (利是), meaning good luck.   As a little girl I always looked forward to such visits, where I could stock up on the hard-to-get pocket money. 

And once a year, the family gathered together for a rare group photo.

My family in the 70s #1
My family in the 70s, in front of grandfather’s terrace house

Here is my version of Australian ‘DanSan’ look-alike made with puff pastry & Vegemite, and I hope these little yummy treats can bring you good luck for 2016.

Recipe is as follows:

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Flaky shallot pancake (蔥油餅)

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I was chatting with Li, another school mum about a forthcoming international food festival at school.  I mentioned that I’d make some shallot cake, a traditional snack from Northern China.  There were twinkles in Li’s eyes. “For one of my birthdays,” Li said, “my mother made three pieces of those really tasty flaky shallot pancakes. I asked why there were only three pieces.  To make these pancakes for my birthday, mum used up every drop of cooking oil in the house. Those days, cooking oil was rationed in China.”

Yes, I remember ‘those days’.

An 250 gram cooking oil coupon
A 250 gram cooking oil coupon

That afternoon, I made my family a batch of shallot pancakes – flaky, oily, chewy and incredibly comforting!

Flaky shallot pancake (蔥油餅)

Recipe is as follows: Read the rest of this entry »

Chicken chop suey, my father’s story of radish

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Chicken chop suey, my father's story of radish

I sent some chicken chop suey with sweet-salty radish to father’s house today. Examining the food, my father told me the following story.

My father went to a major university in Wuhan in the late 50s. During the 4th year in the university,  the school canteen ran out of food, meat or vegetables, as they were not able to source any supplies locally. With very little excess funds, the university  asked the students for loans. When the school collected sufficient money, they sent a truck to farms in the next province and came back with a load of radish. Students were organized into groups to preserve the radish – peeling, sliding and drying the radish in front of the dormitories.  The canteen cooked dried salted radish most of the year with steamed plain wheat buns (‘mantou’).  That was the year my father suffered malnutrition with swollen legs. Many people died over this period, referred to as the ‘Great Chinese Famine’. Fortunately, the situation improved quickly after a couple of years.

My father and other college students having a picnic after a swimming session,  summer 1961
My father and other college students having a picnic after a swimming session, summer 1961

Father and I sat down to enjoyed the chicken chop suey I made. It was juicy, sweet and salty. We were thankful for our delicious food.

Recipe is as follows: Read the rest of this entry »

Clams with XO sauce, and the life story of my uncle from TaiShan 台山

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These lovely New Zealand clams reminded me my first clam experience, a dish made by my uncle’s family from the countryside of TaiShan, GuangDong province in China.

Clams with XO sauce

My mother and her brother were children of a concubine who married an elderly man returned to China after years of hard laboring in Malaysia. During the second sino-Japanese war, both parents died as the family ran out of money. For some reasons unexplained to me, the family offended some important locals with considerable power. My uncle, at the age of about 7, was sent to prison as a Japanese traitor. When he was released, he was so weak & sick that he was carried out.  He was never the same again.

During one school holiday I was sent to stay with TaiShan uncle and his family in the village. My uncle was a man with very few words, not smart, worked a lot, and always smiling.  He was very skinny and looked sickly. With money sent by another uncle from Singapore, he was able to get married. He married a kind, strong, capable and hardworking woman and they had 3 children. As rice farmers, they did not have sufficient rice for me to eat. So I brought them food stamps, some money and some old clothes which they treasured.

Taiishan village - the lane way leading to the house my uncle's family once lived
Taishan village – the lane way leading to the house my uncle’s family once lived

The eldest boy, Zhong, who was a few years younger than me, was responsible for providing ingredients for lunches and dinners. Some days we went to the rice field with some threads & small potato pieces – we fished out frogs from the water. Some days, we went to the creek, searched through mud to find tiny little clams. The frogs were small and we chewed the bones as well as whatever little meat on it. The clams, half of a bowl to share among us, was so very delicious and moreish.  I still remember the satisfied looks on the children’s faces at the end of each meal. They never complained about wanting anymore or anything else.

A run-down traditional house at the ThaiShan village
A run-down traditional house at the village

When economy improved in the 80s, the rice field was sold to make way for factories. There was no more farming to be done. My uncle figured out that if he collected soft drink tins and bottles, he could sell them for money to buy snacks. Reportedly, he was the happiest soft drink bottle collector around town.

I felt happy and sad when I cooked & enjoyed this delicious New Zealand clam dish with XO sauce.

Cooking method is as follows:

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Pork belly with Chinese dry mustard greens (Mei Cai Kou Rou 梅菜扣肉)

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Pork belly with Chinese dry mustard greens (Mei Cai Kou Rou 梅菜扣肉)

When I was a little girl, my grandmother often sent me to the market across the road to get groceries. At the market, there were urns of soy sauce, slabs of tofu, loads of vegetables, a fish stand and a pork stand.  When it was my turn at the butcher’s stand, with his huge chopping cleaver in his hand, he looked down to me and asked loudly: ‘soup or for stir fry’. I looked up and quietly said: “kou rou’. He would then cut me a small piece of pork belly and tight it with a bamboo string as I handed over coupons and money.

A Chinese butcher at the market
A Chinese butcher at the market

I still remember how the bundles of dry ‘Mei Cai’, or salted Chinese dry mustard greens, hanging from the bamboo racks at the markets. There were preserved greens as well, being fermented in large brown urns. In the good old days, ‘mei cai’ was popular in China – it was cheap and can be use with so many dishes. If one ran out of money, ‘mei cai’ and boiled rice was considered a far superior option than soy sauce and boiled rice.

Here is one of my grandmother’s favorite dish – ‘mei cai kou rou’, or pork belly with Chinese dry mustard greens.

Recipe is as follows:  Read the rest of this entry »

Hometown (中山) style steamed rice cake with radish, bacon and dried shrimps; memories of grand uncle ‘Chi’

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I am visiting my old grandaunt & granduncle today. I will cook them their favorite steamed glutinous rice cake.

Hometown (中山) style steamed rice cake with radish, bacon and dried shrimps

As an orphan, my mother wished to join her sister in the U.S. since she was a young girl. After trying for many years without success, she married my father at the age of 28. My father has many relatives in Australia, one of them is the Uncle Chi’s family.

Uncle Chi is my granduncle. He is a cousin of my late grandfather from the ZhongShan (中山) prefecture in the GuangDong province. My granduncle’s family came to Australia during the gold rush era in early 1900s. The family opened a peanut shop in Newcastle with a roasting workshop at the back. The peanut shop had a table in the corner, with old Chinese ladies dropping by daily to enjoy a cup of Chinese tea and a few chats.

My granduncle went to high school and he was academically excellent. He took over the family business instead of pursuing university. This was considered the right thing to do by the family.

During 1940s, granduncle went back to ZhongShan for an arranged marriage. He married a pretty and educated maiden from a well-off family. My grandaunt came to Australia, without a maid on her side for the first time, learned to cook and raised 6 children.

When the peanut shop was sold to a large competitor, the family opened up a Chinese restaurant. They worked really hard.  According to their children, they were in the restaurant ‘all the time’.  Over this period, they sponsored many relatives to migrate to Australia for a better life.  They moved to Sydney in early 1970s as the children studied in universities around Sydney.

My father connected with granduncle in early 1970s by mail.  My grandfather was an educated man (rare those days) and a well-respected figure in our hometown. The two families got on very well in the past.  Since I was a little girl, my parents told me that I must study hard, I must go overseas, and I must seek a better life than the one that I was in. The idea was that, once I could make a break through, my parents could tag along too.

Reasonably good at school work, I attended one of the most selective high schools in Guangzhou city.  My father diligently wrote to my granduncle each year on my academic achievements and suggested that one day I’d have the ability to have a go at a new life in Australia.  So when I graduated from high school in 1980s, my granduncle sponsored me to come to Australia. My granduncle found a school for me, paid for the exuberance school fee and bought an air ticket for me – my parents couldn’t even afford the airfare. I lived with them until I was on my own two feet. With their help, I was able to secure a university degree, became a qualified accountant and later on an investment professional.  Thanks to their generosity, I have a wonderful life in a beautiful country.   I am grateful for their support, kindness & care.

So today I am cooking them a dish from our hometown, ZhongShan, a steamed glutinous rice cake that they loved when I was living with them.

Recipe is as follows: Read the rest of this entry »

Mapo tofu (麻婆豆腐), and my father’s story of two spoonful of oil

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Mapo tofu (麻婆豆腐), and my father's story of two spoonful of oil

The province of Sichuan in China is famous for its taste bud killing pepper corn & spicy food.  One of their most famous dishes is the ‘mapo tofu’, sometimes translated as the ‘pockmarked grandma’s bean curd’.

When my father was a young lad, he attended a university far away from home. Ever since then, he developed a strong desire for traveling. After graduation, he worked for a state-owned factory with a starting salary of 51 yuan a month. He did not have the money to travel other than travelling for work.

One year, he was fortunate enough to be sent to Sichuan for a research project. He asked my grandmother for an oil coupon.  Those days most essentials were scarce and required coupons. When he arrived, he took the coupon to a well-known local restaurant and ordered a big bowl of mapo tofu. ‘The tofu was so good,’ he said to me, still with great enthusiasm, ‘ it had two spoonfuls of oil in it.”

A young traveler, somewhere in the Nortern China
A young traveler, somewhere in the Northern China

I have had many mapo tofu dishes over the years – they all seemed to be overly oily. But I liked them just like that  – I soaked up the oil with boiled rice. I could feel  my father’s joy and excitement as a far-away-from-home young traveler.

Recipe is as follows:   Read the rest of this entry »

Steamed blue eye cod 蒸鱼 and the market across the ‘Yayan Lane’ 雅言里 (low FODMAP, gluten free)

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How I love steamed fish!

Steamed blue eye cod with shallot & soy (low FODMAP & gluten free)

Growing up in Guangzhou in the early 1970s, we lived in a rundown 5-bedroom terrace house on a little lane way called the ‘Yayan Lane’ 雅言里  , translated as the ‘elegant words lane’. The house was bought by my grandfather in early 1950s for $1,200 yuan from a tea merchant. At the time there was a ‘movement’ to crack down tax evasion. Like some other small businesses, the tea merchant had to sell his house to pay his tax bill.  It was said that most houses on the market were going cheap over that period.

IMG_5013 #1
My grandfather at the old terrace house, Yayan lane, guangzhou

There were many family members lived at the terrace house at various intervals – my great grandmother, my grandparents, my family, 3 uncles & 1 aunt and their families. My grandma cooked dinners for all the families. Food & basic essentials such as rice, oil, meat, fish, coal & fabric were on rations, and we had books of colorful coupons.

There was a state-ran market across the road from our lane way. The market sold all sort of food – meat & vegetables, seafood, Chinese sausages & BBQ meat, tofu, preserves, oil & soy sauce. When very small fish were caught from large schools, sometime coupons were not required.  The neighbors always kept a look out for such rare occasions, and we would hear a shout across the lane way.  Grandmother and I would grab a bamboo basket as fast as we could, rushed over to join the crowd.  There were no such things as lining up – layers of people cramped in front of the concrete table where the fish piled up among large blocks of ice, pushing each other, yelling to attract attention. The fish was always fresh and undeniably small,  not longer than my little hand.  My grandmother steamed the fish with soy sauce for dinner. Our skinny house cats would fight over the bones & left-over sauce mixed with some rice – a rare treat for them.

Riding a bike at Yayan Lane, GuangZhou, China in 1970s
Riding a bike at the Yayan lane in 1970s

Today, we are so very lucky in Australia with all the wonderful seafood, spices & herbs. My favorite method of cooking fish is steaming. From time to time, when I enjoy a good steamed fish, I could still smell the sea at the crowded market place across the road from the Yayan Lane.

Here is my version of steamed fish – fresh & simple.  I used Blue Eye Cod on this occasion. You can use most sort of white flesh fish. My favorite fish for steaming is perch.

 Recipe is as follows: Read the rest of this entry »

Hometown sweet and savory rice dumplings (家乡咸水角) – memories of my grandfather’s village at ZhongShan (中山)

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These dumplings are distinctively Cantonese- sweet & savory, gentle and tasty. Someone told me that it was originated from the Zhongshan region (中山) where my grandfather was born.

Hometown Sweet & Savory Glutinous Rice Dumplings (家乡咸水角) XianSuiJiao

My grandfather’s family lived in a village called Yunhan (云汉村) in a town called Shaxi (沙溪镇). 

My childhood memory of the village where our relatives lived was picturesque, with peaceful lychee trees growing alongside a small creek, laden with juicy purple-red fruits. The houses in the village were the traditional terrace houses with beautiful classic wooden furniture made with ‘sour wood’ (酸枝), one of the most priced hardwood in Southern China. At the back of each house, there was a courtyard with a sand filter.  Water was carried home from a nearby well, commonly in two wooden buckets on a pole, then filtered to drinking water in a sand filter.  Most courtyards were lined with stones. The stoves were also made of stones where straws and sticks were burned to cook food.

A well-off region with fertile farm land and money from offshore relations, hospitality at the village was always warm and welcoming.

Zhongshan 云汉村 in 1970s
Relatives walking along the lychee tree lined river, at Yunhan village (云汉村), Zhonghshan, 1970s

DelishHomeCook, village, ZhongShan 中山, GuangDong, China
My family’s village at ZhongShan in early 1980s

These savory dumplings are wonderfully interesting  – glutinous rice skin that tastes a little like a doughnut, with extremely tasty fillings.  They are time-consuming to make, but very worthwhile.

Recipe is as follows: Read the rest of this entry »

White cut chicken with Vietnamese slaw, memories of the Chinese New Year’s Eve feast

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White cut chicken is so very close to my heart.

When I grew up in the early 70s in Southern China, we lived simply on limited resources. Earning a first prize in school meant a lot to me, as the prize was typically a pencil with a rubber at the end, a real luxury. I would jump for joy if I received a prize of a few new exercise books as they were frequently out of stock at the shops.

My father was a university graduate and a mechanical engineer.  The year that I was born, he was ‘redistributed’ to work at a factory 150km away from home. Those days, 150km means a 5 hours journey on a train. My father’s monthly salary was about $60 yuan (approx USD10 based on today’s exchange rate). He kept $30 yuan for himself and sent the rest to us. My mother was a factory hand whose monthly salary was $37 yuan (approx USD6 based on today’s exchange rate).  Once a year, our Singapore uncle sent us a little money. My mother would buy some fabric, sew a new piece of clothing for me on my grandmother’s old sewing machine. Our Singapore uncle was very kind to us –  he had a large family to support and he was not well off himself.

At the end of each Chinese Luna year, my father was entitled to a 10-day holiday to spend Chinese New Year with the family. As a special treat for the New Year’s Eve family dinner, my father always brought home a farm chicken which cost around $10 yuan. He had to save up for months to buy the chicken. My grandmother carefully slaughtered and poached the chicken, then served it at the Chinese New Year Eve dinner.  The chicken was shared among the whole family – grandmother, uncles, aunties and us.

White cut chicken with Vietnamese slaw   &  the Chinese New Year's Eve feast

There were only a few pieces for each of us. Grandmother was entitled to the chicken’s bottom, a delicacy. I was the first grandchild born in the house and was entitled to one of the wings – another delicacy. How delicious it was, our once a year white cut chicken feast.

Over the years in Australia I had many white cut chicken dishes – some were delicious, some were cooked without care. I started cooking my own version of the boneless white cut chicken, and my friends always enjoyed the dish.

This recipe is a modern fusion of Chinese & Vietnamese – gently poached juicy tender chicken breast fillet on a bed of fresh Vietnamese style slaw.

Recipe is as follows: Read the rest of this entry »

Bean sprout salad with spicy Korean radish (gluten free, Vegan)

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As a Cantonese grown up in southern China in the 70s, bean sprout dishes were a regular on the dinner table because it was very cheap.  My grandmother grew the bean sprouts herself in a large brown urn under the stairs. My childhood memory of bean sprouts was always a stir fry watery dish with very little flavor. It was not until I arrived in Australian and had the opportunity to taste Korean food, to learn that it could be spiced up and taste so wonderful !

Bean sprout salad with spicy Korean radish  (gluten free, Vegan)

Recipe is as follows: Read the rest of this entry »

Cucumber salad and memories of ‘wine house’ restaurants (low FODMAP, gluten free, vegan)

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Compressed rectangle Cucumber salad

As a little child growing up in southern China in the early 70s, our family was considered very fortunate to have relatives and friends overseas. Every few years a small group of the oversea relatives would visit, bringing with them pre-loved clothes, food, small gifts and special foreign exchanged yuan to shout us a feast in a ‘wine house’ restaurant’ – no food coupons required! In my little eyes, the oversea visitors were beautiful people – they dressed well, smelt so nice and they were always very kind to me.

Out of the pre-loved clothes that were given to me by our visitors, the most memorable was my little red jumper with a plastic print of happy reindeers – all jolly and bright. The jumper was thin, so I wore the jumper on top of multiple layers of clothes.  I wore the jumper nearly every day during many winters as it was the only jumper I had. When it was too short for me and did not extend past my belly button, I passed it to my sister who was 4 years younger than me. My sister used it for many years after that.

With our visitors, the ‘wine house’ restaurant that we most visited was the KwangChow Restaurant (also called the GuangZhou Restaurant in mandarine), one of the most celebrated restaurants in the city. It was only 4 blocks away from our house.  Downstairs of the restaurant was the common dining room – plain and simple. The dining area upstairs was so grand that it looked like a palace!  How I enjoyed the aroma of food, tea and wine lingering through the tastefully decorated dining rooms – carved wooden partitions, classic rosewood furniture and traditional paintings on the walls. My favorite dishes were the little side dishes served at arrival – cucumber salad, roasted peanuts and salted vegetables. These little dishes made me so hungry and so looking forward to the special feast.

Our extended family being entertained by oversea relatives in a restaurant
Our extended family being entertained by oversea relatives in a restaurant in 1970s

Many years later in Australia I spoke with one of our visitors about his impression of China in the 70s – ‘awful,’ he said,’ except for that restaurant, the food was really nice.’

A match box I collected from GuangZhou Restaurant, one of the most famous restaurant in the city in 1980s
A match box I collected from the GuangZhou Restaurant, one of the most famous restaurant in the city in 1970s

I hope you enjoy my version of a cucumber salad with a little modern twist.

Recipe is as follows: Read the rest of this entry »

Soy bok choy, memories of my grandmother’s chicken coop (Low FODMAP, gluten free, vegan)

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Vegetables & melons are popular food in China – bok choy, choy sum & cabbage are some of the most common vegetables.

While I was a little child, we lived in a terrace house with my extended family including uncles & aunties. My grandmother was responsible for cooking dinners for the whole family. To supplement the food coupons, my grandmother raised a coop of chickens on the roof top terrace. Before I was old enough to go to school, every afternoon I went to the market with my grandmother to collect left over green vegetables. We brought the vegetables home, chopped them up on a huge wooden chopping board, and fed to the chickens. While she was chopping, grandmother told me stories, so many stories. One of the stories was about me – while I was still a crawling baby, I crawled up to the roof top terrace, helped myself to the egg storage urn, cracked every single egg and smeared the eggs on the stairs.

That was not the only time that I was naughty – I remember when I was little, bored and feeling mischievous, I put some rice behind the door to the roof top terrace. I peeked through the gaps, waited till the chickens started pecking on the grains, suddenly opened the door – chickens were flying everywhere!  The naughty little girl laughed and laughed.  My grandmother was always very kind to me and never punished me.

Some days we were lucky enough to collect some good vegetables, and grandma cooked them for dinner with a little oil, a dash of soy sauce and nothing else. Soy sauce was always cheap and no coupon needed.

Here is my version of a simple soy bok choy, with fond memory of my wonderful grandmother.

Soy bok choy (Low FODMAP, gluten free, vegan)

Easy method is as follows: Read the rest of this entry »