Pork spare ribs are inexpensive in Sydney, a fraction of the cost of pork ribs. It is one of the most popular cuts of pork for Asian food, lovely when slow cooked in a rich salty, sweet and sour sauce.
Here is our dinner tonight – pork spare ribs braised in a soy sauce, red wine,sesame oil and vinegar, with a hint of ginger and cumin.
Recipe is as follows:
Steamed pork with soy sauce, memories of my aunt Yi-ma(姨妈), and how my mother met my father (low FODMAP, gluten free)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
I cooked some cracklings tonight, the way my grandmother cooked them a long long time ago.
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.
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:
I recently purchased a Tiger thermal magic cooker from Singapore. It is really a magical piece of equipment – perfect for slow cooking with limited use of the stove top. I made some pulled pork for dinner last night – it was slow cooked over 24 hour, juicy and yummy.
The thermal cooker consists of 2 layers – an inner pot and an insulated outer pot. I first placed the pork shoulder in the stainless steel inner pot; I topped it with some pineapple pieces with all the juices^, 1 cup of apple cider vinegar, 1/2 cup of soy sauce*, 1/4 cup of dark soy sauce*, 1/2 cup of brown sugar, 1 cup of wine, 6 cardamon pods (slightly crashed), 6 star anise, 1 tsp cloves, 2 cinnamon sticks, a piece of ginger (approx 15g) and 1 tsp pepper corn (slightly crashed). I then added some water to fully cover the meat, brought it to boil. Once boiling, I placed the pot into the insulated outer pot for 8 hours.
After 8 hours, I brought the inner stainless pot to boil again on the cook top – it took about 5 minutes as the pot was still hot from being inside the thermal pot. Then I placed it inside the insulated outer pot again for another 8 hours. I repeated this one more time. And it was ready to enjoy.
To serve, I hand pulled the pork to strips. I made a sauce with some marinate, added some maple syrup and some corn flour mixture (corn flour mixed with a little water). I brought the sauce to boil and it was ready.
If you don’t have a thermal cooker, you can slow cook the pork in a heavy pot, or slow cook in an oven with an oven bag – juicy and yummy.
^use fresh pineapple for a FODMAP diet (as it is tested by Monash University) *use a gluten free soy sauce for a gluten free option.
On WeChat my ex high school mates were chatting about not having time to cook dinners. Really? I thought, surely a few equipment could help.
In addition to a standard kitchen, I have a double garage filled with cooking equipment – a pressure cooker, a rice cooker, a waffle maker, a table top multi-use grill, a mixer, a blender, a Tiger magic thermal pot, a 16 liter thermal pot, a five deck steamer pot, a 3-deck electric mini steamer, 3 electric frying pans, a portable induction cook top, 2 electric bain-maries and countless pots, cake tins and serving plates. Cooking a quick dinner is a breeze.
Before I continue on, I’d like to declare that I am not a hoarder. I run the Asian food stall each year for the school fete and I always contribute a bundle towards special event bakes. Hence I have accumulated so much useful equipment over the years.
Tonight I cooked a quick dinner with my pressure cooker. In the morning, I put some rice in the rice cooker and switch on the timer. I then spent 10 minutes browning the pork spare rib pieces, added carrot, potato chili, ginger and white wine. I turned the pressure cooker on high pressure 30 minutes. When I got home, dinner was ready and warm.
Recipe is as follow:
For the past few years I coordinated the Asian food stall for our school fetes. Last year we sold over 1,000 pan fried dumplings which was one of the most popular food on the day. To make these dumplings, I held a dumpling party at our house. Many Chinese families from the school came to help out. I was rewarded handsomely – I learnt many family dumpling tricks from all over China.
Now I am preparing for this year’s fete again. I am keen to experiment a few more varieties of dumplings.
One of the mums from school told me about a thick bush of fennel by the railway. She gathered some of the herbs and made pork and fennel dumplings, a popular dish from Northern China.
I didn’t gather the herbs from the side of the railway, but I did make the pork and fennel dumplings. I used a thicker shop bought wrappers and steamed the dumplings. I am a Cantonese after all and I love my steamed dumplings. They were really yummy.
Recipe is as follows:
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.