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.
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.
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.
This week I discovered an Asian grocery store 10 minutes’ drive away. Their stock range was quite comprehensive. The man in the shop helped me with the bags to my car which was sort of services I never experienced from an Asian store. I managed to find a parking spot very close to the shop – can’t believe my luck. I was very impressed.
I picked up a beautifully fresh hairy gourd from the shop. Hairy gourd is a very popular vegetable in Southern China, easy to grow with plenty of subtropical rains. The gourd is normally cooked in a soup or a stew with a tender and soft texture.
Today I decided to do something different with a ‘liangban’ 凉拌 salad. I added XO sauce to the salad for a kick as the gourd, on its own, could be quite plain. XO sauce is a mildly spicy paste made with dried seafood, garlic and chili, packed of flavors.
I first peeled the skin of the gourd; I then julienned the flesh, disregard the seedy part of the gourd (but reversed for a soup dish). I then briefly blanched the vegetable until it was just cooked (about 1-2 minute) and ran it under cold water to cool; I mixed the drained vegetable with sesame oil, XO sauce, a generous dash of dark soy sauce, white pepper, chili, sesame seeds and sliced green shallot. I left the salad in fridge to chill for couple of hours before serving. So simple and delicious. No recipe required.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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 »
Last week I was cooking humble carrots and wondering how may carrot dishes I could create. Here is one of them…
There are so many wonderful things about carrot, crunchy, juicy, colorful, full of goodies. Best of all, it has no carbohydrate so the FODMAPers can have as much carrot as they wish.
Recipe is as follow:
I was helping out at Salvation Army’s community kitchen earlier this week. The kitchen uses OZ Harvest, a food rescue service that collects excess food products and provides the food to charities for free. The lady who runs the kitchen, Monica, a wonderful and cheerful woman, explained that she was not able to buy any other ingredients other than what was donated.
On the lunch menu it was Vietnamese San Choy Bao. I volunteered to cook the meal as I was comfortable with cooking large amount of food. After all I had ran an Asian food stall at our school fetes over the past three years. The good news was that, we had pork mince and lots of vegetables. The bad news was that, there was no fish sauce, soy sauce, lemon or lime. I found two small bottles of BBQ sauce. I cooked the meal with the BBQ sauce, a little sugar, salt and some turmeric. Although not really Vietnamese, the dish tasted pretty good. The meal was sold at $2 per serve. After that, there was no fresh meat left. So I prepared 2 trays of zucchini slices for next day’s free community lunch. For the vegetarian option, I stir fried some diced potato, carrot, leek, capsicum, scallion and coriander with curry powder, turmeric and veggie spices. Thank goodness for all the other volunteers who chopped, diced, graded, washed and helped.
When I got home that day, I decided to learn a little more about cooking with simple ingredients. I started with the humble carrots and some left over pure maple syrup.
I diced 2 carrots, tossed the pieces with some rice flour, maple syrup, a little oil and a pinch of salt. Then I pan fried the carrots with a little oil, tossed in some sesame seeds, turmeric and coriander.
It was the best carrot I have ever had.
Recipe is a follow:
My little boy’s school has a school fete shortly and I am running an Asian food stall for the school.
Last Sunday we had a few school families and friends over to wrap dumplings for the Asian food stall. We used up 16kg of pork mince, 6 large bunch of garlic chive, 3 large wom bok cabbages. At the end of the day we made 1,100 ‘jiaozi’ dumplings and 120 ‘siu mai’ dim sims.
In between wrapping the dumplings, we enjoyed a few bottles of sparkling wines, smoked spicy beef ribs, Vietnamese pork kebabs, some giggles and chats. We also tested our fruit of labor – pan fried dumplings (picture below).
I have learned a few new tricks for making dumplings. Our friend Michelle had kindly came over to help out and she was an expert in preparing the dumping filling. She soaked some Sichuan red pepper corns with hot water and added the water to the filling, this will give the meat extra favors. She also stirred the mince with chopsticks one circular direction which will smooth the meat. When she pan fried the dumplings, she added some plain flour mixed with a little water, which formed a lovely web-like base that tasted absolutely delicious.
We also added sesame oil, mirin, soys sauce to the dumpling filling. We used shop bought dumpling wrappers as 1,100 wrappers were too many to be hand made.
Looking forward to sell these lovely dumplings at the fete and raise some money for our school.