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It used to be that Asian foods served in American restaurants had to be Anglicized into submission, leading to such hybrid creations as fried chicken coated in lollipop-sweet lemon sauce or California rolls stuffed with avocado, crab and mayo. But nowadays sophisticated diners enjoy the real stuff with a passion, tweeting news of the best Uyghur barbecue or the freshest pho in town.
Even fervent fans of Asian food rarely get to know the comfort food made in the homes of Asians whose families have been in the U.S. for a couple of generations. Other than in ethnically diverse places such as Hawaii, this subject has been strangely overlooked — until this book came along.
“The Asian Grandmothers Cookbook” is a compilation of recipes by home cooks whose bloodlines lead back to Korea, Japan, China, Southeast Asia and India. What they cook in the U.S. has often morphed into something new and exciting, dishes that take advantage of American ingredients and kitchens while satisfying the palates of their children and grandchildren. First released as a hardback in October 2009, “Asian Grandmothers” was recently issued in paperback just as the hardback edition was about to sell out.
By Patricia Tanumihardja
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Author Patricia Tanumihardja was born to Indonesian parents and grew up in multicultural Singapore before settling in the States. She has worked as a food journalist and created an iPhone app glossary, “Asian Ingredients 101.” The book, her first, had its origins in a blog, where she recorded interviews with and recipes from grandmothers as well as aunts, mothers, fathers and “anyone who had a family recipe to share,” she explained in a note. “Several recipes were also from my mom and her mom, and a few were mine.” In addition, she found a few of the recipes in old cookbooks.
And so, with this book, Tanumihardja has cracked open the door to some of those mysterious kitchens, allowing non-Asians to finally enjoy all sorts of dishes that rarely appear in restaurants and which — at least up until now — could only be tasted when a friend’s popo or lola or ba ngoai would carry something insanely aromatic to a table surrounded by family and the occasional hungry friend.
That has happened to me over the years. I grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area and then attended the University of Hawaii. An invite home for dinner or a party meant that I soon would be happily munching on chewy fried chicken coated in rice powder, siphoning down slithery japchae noodles, or weeping tears of joy and pain over the insanely hot sausages my Lao friends brought to college parties. (Recipes for all those delights are included in this cookbook, although as might be expected with food designed to feed one’s offspring, this book’s Lao grandma considerably toned down the heat of her sausages.) For someone who was raised on tuna fish casserole and meatloaf, these were revelations of a whole new sensory spectrum.
The author makes the reader feel as if these Asian grandmothers were in the kitchen too, happy to offer the little asides, like “don’t worry if the custard falls a little” or “cilantro changes its flavor when it comes into contact with steel, so pick the leaves off the stems,” that make you feel part of an extended family. And it perhaps is this intimacy that makes me feel as if I finally have a permanent seat at those old friends’ family tables.
The recipes are a smorgasbord of some familiar and not-so-familiar foods, with some wonderful takes on old classics. For example, there’s the perfect recipe for chicken adobo, one that tasted rich and tart as it should, but also mellow and tropical thanks to the suggested addition of coconut milk. We devoured it along with bowls of the garlic fried rice that — as promised — were the perfect accompaniment.
“Asian Grandmothers” is a book to treasure, and all the recipes I tried worked perfectly. On a warm spring evening, following that chicken adobo dinner, I treated some friends to tall glasses of the Vietnamese classic parfait called che ba mau, which layers sweet beans with tapioca, crushed ice and fragrant homemade pandan syrup. We dug down into the colorful layers as we watched the sun set, sucking up the sweet liquid through thick straws. Hot Pakistani chai (the best spiced tea I’ve ever had, by the way) followed, and it would be difficult for anyone not to feel absolute contentment — and for some of us, nostalgia — after a meal like that.
Top photo composite:
“The Asian Grandmothers Cookbook.” Courtesy of Sasquatch Books
Author Patricia Tanumihardja. Credit: Mars Tanumihardja
During my eight years in Taiwan, I learned to adore Chinese food in all its permutations. One sweet snack I loved in particular would start showing up in the local pastry shops as Chinese New Year rolled around. This was the only time when squares of sachima could be eaten in a perfectly fresh state, the strips of fried dough collapsing at each bite, the syrup still gooey and luscious, the raisins sweet and tender.
I had been told that these were traditional Beijing treats, and I took that as gospel for a long time. But the name always confused me, as it made no sense in Chinese. Most stores displayed signs that said 沙其馬 shāqímǎ, which literally means “sand his horse” — hardly a mouthwatering image. So I started looking into this, and the more I looked, the weirder things got.
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The chef went on to relate a shaggy-dog story about a General Sa who had a penchant for yummy desserts and riding horses, and who was stationed in Guangdong province during the Qing dynasty. The general commanded his cook to prepare a different sweet for him whenever he returned from hunting on horseback. One day the cook fell behind, and by the time his boss had gotten back, he still hadn’t prepared the requisite confection, so he poured some honey over deep-fried noodles, cut them into squares and served the dessert to the general. The officer was delighted. But the cook, grumbling in the back of the kitchen, was heard to mutter, 殺那騎馬的 “Shā nà qímāde.” Loosely translated, it means “[I'd like to] kill that guy on the horse,” but fortunately this was misheard and then interpreted as the name of his new creation, 薩其馬Sà qí mǎ, or “Sa [and] his horse.”
Chinese New Year sweet’s imperial origins
The truth, as it often does, fell straight through the cracks of these tall tales.1 (There at least four more accounts on the origin of sachima, making this a sort of Rashomon of the dessert world.) This sweet actually originated in the Chinese Northeast, in what was once called Manchuria. As the Qing imperial household hailed from this cold area, they brought the treats they loved to Beijing when they arrive to rule over what became China’s last imperial dynasty. However, this didn’t explain the name. I kept digging, but soon wished I hadn’t.
You see, what I found out from some old Chinese books is that sachima is a Manchurian word whose literal definition is “dog nipples dipped in syrup,” or 狗奶子糖蘸 gǒunǎizi tángzhàn. Not an appealing image by any stretch of the imagination.
To my considerable relief, I later found that “dog nipples” was an old name for a wild Manchurian fruit similar to Chinese wolfberries, also known as goji berries. So, somewhere up the line, this sweet was just dried fruits bound with a syrup, which evolved into the more easily created fried strips of dough which are then dotted with dried fruits and nuts.
And so, after all that, what is the meaning of “sachima” in Chinese? It ends up that this is merely a transliteration of those, um, sugary dog nipples.
This recipe is a combination of traditional Beijing-style eggy puffs tossed with a sticky syrup and a big handful of goji berries, nuts, raisins, and sesame seeds to punctuate it with brilliant colors and a variety of flavors and textures. It is simple to make, a delight to eat, and fortunately, involves no horses being sanded or dogs being molested.
Sachima – 薩其馬 Sàqímǎ
Makes 64 pieces about 1 by 2 inches in size
For the dough:
4 cups pastry or cake flour, divided
¼ teaspoon sea salt
5 large eggs, at room temperature
Fresh oil for frying (2 cups or so)
For the fruits and nuts:
½ cup goji berries, a.k.a. Chinese wolfberries (see Tips)
½ cup plump raisins
½ cup chopped toasted or fried peanuts, or ¼ cup each chopped peanuts and pumpkin seeds
½ cup plus 1 tablespoon toasted sesame seeds
For the syrup:
2 cups maltose (see Tips)
Spray oil as needed
¼ cup filtered water
- Place 3½ cups flour and salt in a medium work bowl and toss them together. Stir in the eggs, make a soft dough and then turn the dough out on a lightly floured board. Knead the dough, adding only as much flour as needed until it is supple and smooth. Form the dough into a ball, cover and let it rest for 20 to 30 minutes.
- While the dough is resting, pour the frying oil into a wok to a depth of about 2 to 3 inches and place the wok on the stove. Measure out the fruits and nuts, reserving 1 tablespoon of the sesame seeds for a garnish.
- Measure the maltose by heating the jar of maltose for a minute or two in a pan of hot water or in the microwave until the maltose runs freely. Lightly spray a measuring cup with oil, and then pour the maltose into the cup (see Tips). Immediately pour the still-fluid maltose into a medium saucepan; add the water, as well as the goji berries and raisins so that they can plump up. Bring the syrup to a boil and then let it simmer for about 5 minutes; keep the syrup warm.
- Lightly flour a board and cut the dough into four pieces. Shape each piece into a square and then roll each piece out to a ⅛-inch thickness, dusting the dough with a bit more flour as needed. Use a wide, clean pastry scraper or cleaver to cut each piece in half (no wider than the length of your scraper or knife) and then slice the dough into strips that are also ⅛-inch wide; the length doesn’t matter.
- Heat the oil under the wok over high until a wooden chopstick dipped into it starts to bubble, and then lower the heat to medium-high. Toss a handful of the strips to lightly to shake off most of the flour, and then scatter these gently into the hot oil. Fry the strips until they are puffy and golden brown–adjusting the heat as necessary — and then remove them with a Chinese spider or slotted spoon to a large work bowl. Repeat with the rest of the dough until all of the dough is fried.
- Use the spray oil to lightly spray a 16 x 8-inch square pan and a piece of foil that is a bit larger than the pan. Add the peanuts and sesame seeds to the fried dough. Use a silicone spatula to toss the fried dough as you pour in all of the warm syrup. Keep tossing the dough, scraping up from the bottom where the syrup will like to collect to encourage the dough to absorb some of the syrup while the rest coats each of the strips. Keep tossing and scraping until it becomes difficult to move the spatula.
- Scoop the coated strips out into the waiting pan. Use the spatula to lightly press down on the strips, back and forth, slowly and gently compressing the strips together, and then sprinkle on the reserved tablespoon of sesame seeds while the syrup is still a bit warm and sticky. Lightly press the topping down onto the strips with the spatula, using the oiled foil to protect your hands. Let the sachima come to room temperature, cover and refrigerate.
- When the sachima is firm, turn it out on a cutting board and use a large, sharp knife to cut it into small (1 by 2-inch) rectangles, or even smaller, if you wish. If you are not serving them immediately, wrap each square in plastic, place these in a resealable plastic bag, and keep them refrigerated; serve cold, as this helps to rein in the inherent stickiness. They will stay fresh for weeks, I think, but I can never leave them alone for that long.
- You may cut the recipe in half and use an 8 x 8-inch pan; measure out the half egg by beating it lightly and adding half of it (about 2 tablespoons) to the flour along with the other two eggs.
- The best goji berries are found in busy health food stores or Chinese herbalist shops.
- Maltose, a.k.a. malt sugar, is sold in Chinese grocery stores next to the sugar, usually in white plastic tubs. It appears as an amber-like solid that needs to be heated before it can be measured, so either warm the jar in a pan of hot (not boiling) tap water or heat it with short bursts in the microwave.
- Measure maltose out in a greased cup so the sticky syrup will glide out easily. (This is the only thing I remember from seventh grade home ec class.)
1. According to “Yanjing suishi ji” (燕京歲時記 ), a book about contemporary miscellany by Duncong Fucha, “Sachima are Manchurian pastries made from rock sugar and butter mixed with white flour into a shape like sticky rice that are baked using wood without ash; they are cut into squares and are sweet, rich, and delicious,” which shows that the recipe at that time is a bit different from what is made today. The word he uses for “pastry” – 餑餑 bóbó – is northern Chinese dialect and refers to a variety of pastries and breads. There is also speculation that these might have traveled from Central and South Asia over the Silk Road, since so many sweets there are composed of fried dough drenched in honey syrup.
Top photo: Sachima. Credit: Carolyn Phillips
British food writer Fuchsia Dunlop focused tightly on single regions of China in her first two cookbooks, “Land of Plenty” (Sichuan) and “The Revolutionary Chinese Cookbook” (Hunan). But in her latest endeavor, “Every Grain of Rice,” she expands her scope to easy comfort foods from a wide swath of China.
“Every Grain of Rice” is the perfect introduction to cooking the way Chinese people do at home, with simple, clear instructions opposite lovely full-color photographs of almost every dish. For those who are just beginning to admire Chinese food, this book could nudge them over the edge into hopeless devotion.
By Fuchsia Dunlop
W.W. Norton & Co., 2013, 352 pages
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The beautiful photography is enticing, helpful and very welcome, for the lack of ample illustrations was one of the few quibbles I had with Dunlop’s first book, “Land of Plenty.” Drawing on her experience as the first foreign student at the acclaimed Sichuan Institute of Higher Cuisine, her debut became an instant classic, enticing readers to succumb to the spell of central China’s chili-laden foods.
Dunlop is a wonderful guide to the cuisines of China. Rather than shy away from unusual vegetables or distinctly Chinese sauces, she educates her readers while spreading the gospel of good food by introducing exotica that become delicious once you get to know them. Dried shrimp, fava beans, fermented tofu, garlic stems, silk gourd, yellow chives, sesame paste, winter melon … these all get their moment in the sun here.
She gives bean curd, for example, a chance to shake off its tiresome reputation as bland hippie food. Although we in the West “still seem to think of tofu as some sackcloth-and-ashes sustenance for vegans and a sad substitute for meat,” Dunlop notes that in China, bean curd “is one of the most ubiquitous foodstuffs and wonderful when you acquire a taste for it. In its most basic form it may be plain, but then so is ricotta cheese.”
Simple as the dishes are — and with few exceptions they are so basic that even neophyte cooks should be able to attack these recipes with ease — they remain authentic. Most of these are stir-fries; the remainder encompasses meats, vegetables, soups, rice dishes and pastas, and every one of them is a familiar feature on Chinese tables. (She mainly covers recipes from southern China, with a few northern dishes thrown in for good measure.) Clear, reliable recipes are a hallmark of Dunlop’s cookbooks, and this one is no exception. Desserts, beverages and sweets rarely appear in ordinary Chinese family meals, and so they are not covered in this book.
Treasuring distinctions in Chinese food
A few of the recipes were recycled from Dunlop’s previous cookbooks, but that fits with her approach of introducing everyday Chinese dishes to the West. The ones from Sichuan and Hunan that have appeared before benefit from the additional attention paid to them here.
Sichuanese wontons in chili oil sauce, for example — a Chengdu classic — were relegated to a single paragraph in “Land of Plenty”; here they get a full page and a photograph that is sure to cause intense hunger pangs.
To my mind, Dunlop’s attention to the roots of each dish is one of the most refreshing things about this book. She doesn’t speak generically about “Chinese food” — she tells you that a particular beef soup comes from Chongqing in Sichuan. Moreover, you get to experience her delight as she brings you along on a trip through her memories of Chinese dishes past and present, taking the time to explain why she loves them and how you should enjoy them as the Chinese do: with great enthusiasm.
It’s been close to five years since Dunlop’s last cookbook, and I’m happy to report that “Every Grain of Rice” is well worth the wait.
Top photo composite:
Fuchsia Dunlop by Colin Bell. Book cover courtesy of W. W. Norton.
Once in a great while, a little-known cuisine gets itself introduced to the English-speaking world via a well-written cookbook, and life for those who love to eat and cook changes for the better.
This usually has a lot to do with how sublime that cuisine is — a cookbook can crystallize whatever innate qualities make a particular food culture unique and unforgettable.
But what really matters is how much the writer loves that cuisine, how much she understands the people who make it and how much she is willing to submerge herself in this completely foreign approach to food. And no one does this better than Naomi Duguid, whose most recent book, “Burma: Rivers of Flavor,” opens the long-locked doors to Myanmar and allows us to partake of its exciting food.
By Naomi Duguid
Artisan Books, Workman Publishing, 384 pages
Much like the award-winning cookbooks Duguid co-authored with ex-husband Jeffrey Alford, this one moonlights with equal aplomb as a travel guide, a history book, an ethnographic study, a photographic essay and a guide to understanding a culture totally foreign to the West. Short chapters — often not more than a page in length — succinctly describe the intersection of Duguid’s personal experiences with the history and heritage of a remarkable people.
Several of Duguid’s cookbooks with Alford, such as “Seductions of Rice and Hot, Sour, Salty, Sweet,” also cover Southeast Asia. However, “Burma” is her first solo effort and the first one to concentrate on a single cuisine — to write it, Duguid lived in and traveled extensively through Myanmar — and she has managed to stick the mat here with a 10-point landing. And while the duo’s previous tomes are brilliant, cooking from them is seriously cumbersome because of their bulk. “Burma” is easier to handle and feels much more like a true cookbook, albeit one with beguiling pictures and stories about this secluded land. If Duguid’s photographs are to be believed, the Burmese are some of the most charming and beautiful individuals in the world. Their expressions are open and welcoming, and some are just flat-out endearing, such as the woman balancing a huge pumpkin on her head and a little girl shyly looking up at the camera with pale smears of thanaka paste on her face acting as a sunblock.
What’s stunning about this book is that the reader so easily gets sucked into another world, another time, another way of life. … even with the most cursory reading. And yet, the beautifully written essays and affectionate photos are just the superficial layers of this book, which is a cookbook, after all. Some of the dishes are glorious reinterpretations of what can only be interpreted as transmogrified newcomers to the land, such as an Indian-influenced semolina cake (page 276) and the very Chinese sticky-rice sweet buns with coconut (page 286); while others show startling originality, such as the herbed catfish laap (page 150), seasoned with a rainbow of aromatics and savory touches; or the banana flower salad (page 57) that cooks the mashed main ingredient to magnify its suggestion of artichokes and then balances that with crunchy seeds and nuts. Burma is clearly home to a cuisine so good that “delicious” seems like faint praise. Exquisite? Astonishing? Unforgettable? Words fail.
I write about Chinese food for a living, and I first picked up this book because Duguid and Alford have proved to be such consistently wonderful writers about the foods and culture of Asia. Once I cracked open the covers, though, something quickly struck me: The food of Burma was key to understanding heretofore hidden culinary treasures along China’s border with Southeast Asia. Whereas another one of their books, “Beyond the Great Wall,” looked at what is eaten by ethnic non-Chinese in the country’s landlocked regions, “Burma” takes us into a singular country that nevertheless shares many cultural and dietary roots with the minorities who live along China’s southern edge in the tropical highlands.
I lost count of the many “aha!” moments I had as I read this book with ever-increasing hunger and fascination. As Duguid described the taste and the method for preparing the Burmese fermented soybean discs called tua nao, I started to draw a connection over the long, snaking, mountainous border Burma shares with China’s Yunnan province, where they have similar dousu balls used to make a heavenly bean sauce full of crunch and chilies. I was stunned by the simplicity of this connection — the discs even appear in a photo in “Hot, Sour, Salty, Sweet.”
Whatever their points of origin, the foods in “Burma” are alive with sparkling flavors and pungent aromas, and suggest a subtle web of influences undulating throughout the region. A dish of Burmese rice noodles called khaut swe looks for all the world like a bowl of hefen as served in Guangxi, its touch of five-spice powder sending a sly salute to China, while the curry in a plate of chicken speaks of an Indian chef somewhere upstream who introduced a spectrum of warm aromatics to the local cuisine.
With a complex past interwoven with the tastes and history of its many neighbors, Myanmar has a cuisine worth knowing, and Duguid has written a book about it that is truly worth treasuring.
Top photo composite:
Author Naomi Duguid. Credit: Laura Berman
Cover of “Burma: Rivers of Flavor.” Credit: Courtesy of Artisan Books
It’s a delicious mystery the way that certain food aesthetics seem to bridge space and time, uniting cultures that would seem to be light years apart. There are no reasonable explanations for this, no instances of immigration one way or the other, no record of any foreign-style restaurant setting up shop in a small country town and changing the course of comfort food for all time. But it happens.
One such instance is the way in which the most delicious foods of Chaozhou, on the north coast of Guangdong province, resonate with American soul food. The three-course menu below highlights that commonality of flavor.
A secret of Chaozhou cuisine
Tangy ribs are as popular throughout China as they are from Kansas City to North Carolina, and each region has its own take on the master recipe, but this Chaozhou version has to be up there in the ranks of the very best. Its secret? Sour plums.
These salty, dry and most definitely sour little rocks are turned from mouth-puckering tea snacks into mouth-watering jammy sauces here, the tartness hovering inside the sweetness and the fruitiness of the plums providing the necessary balance. But to transform these breakfasty flavors into something divine, garlic and ginger wake up the palate and make you start wondering whether there are any immediate direct flights to Chaozhou.
Fried Ribs With Ginger and Plum Sauce – 梅糕醬爆排骨 Sumeijiang bao paigu
Serves 4 to 6 as an entrée
For the ribs and marinade:
1 pound baby back ribs; leave the ribs whole or have your butcher cut them lengthwise in half
2 teaspoons sea salt
1½ teaspoons sugar
2 teaspoons Shaoxing rice wine
2 tablespoons grated ginger
2 cups peanut or vegetable oil
2 teaspoons chopped garlic
3 tablespoons Chaozhou-style plum sauce (meigaojiang) or Chinese plum sauce (sumeijiang)
1 tablespoon sugar
3 tablespoons water
2 green onions, chopped
- Rinse the ribs and pat dry; trim off any extra fat and discard. Place the ribs in a resealable plastic bag with the marinade ingredients, squeeze out most of the air, and then massage the marinade into the ribs. Refrigerate for at least a few hours and up to overnight.
- Drain the ribs in a colander set in the sink before frying so excess moisture won’t send the hot oil flying when you plunge in the rib. Heat the oil in a wok over high until a chopstick inserted in the oil immediately begins to bubble all over. Fry about half of the ribs at a time to keep the oil from cooling off too quickly. Stir and flip the ribs as they cook so that they brown evenly. Once they are nicely caramelized on the edges, use a slotted spoon to remove the ribs to a platter.
- Pour off most of the oil, leaving only about 2 tablespoons in the wok. Heat the oil again and add the garlic to the wok, stir-frying it for about 10 seconds to release its fragrance before adding the plum sauce, sugar, water and ribs. Quickly stir-fry everything together until the sauce thickens and becomes a nice gloss on the meat.
- Toss the ribs with the chopped green onions and serve with hot steamed rice and napkins.
Greens keep the balance
Just as in the American South, the people of Chaozhou know how to sensibly balance a rich dinner with slightly bitter greens. Below is simply a combination of the blanched leaves and a tasty broth, which gets a meaty flavor from mushrooms much like the traditional ham hock lends collard greens.
But the Chinese version has an illustrious name: The Dish That Secured the Country. The story goes that at the end of the Southern Song dynasty (roughly the year 1279), Kublai Khan’s overwhelming forces crossed the Yangtze River and forced the army of the 8-year-old emperor Duanzong to retreat from Hangzhou all the way down the coast to Chaozhou.
Taking refuge in a shrine at Chaoyang, the temple monk had little on hand to nourish these starving men, so he took the only greens he had — some sweet potato leaves — and fed them to the hungry young emperor, who ate them delightedly, regained his strength, and returned the favor by giving this dish its illustrious name.
Soupy Greens – 護國菜 Huguo cai
Serves 4 to 6 as a side dish
1 very large bunch of sweet potato leaves (see Tips)
A head of maitake mushrooms, also known as hen-of-the-woods (straw mushrooms are traditional, but any flavorful variety will do)
3 tablespoons toasted sesame oil
1 tablespoon finely chopped fresh ginger
¼ cup rice wine (mijiu rather than Shaoxing here)
4 cups chicken broth
Sea salt to taste
1. Pick off only the tender leaves and reserve; discard the stems and tougher leaves. Wash the tender leaves and shake dry. Roll the leaves up tightly like cigars and then cut them into very thin julienne strips before chopping them finely. (You should have around 4 cups minced greens, more or less.)
2. Clean the mushrooms, remove and discard any tough stems, and tear them into small pieces.
3. Heat the oil in a wok over high heat until it starts to smoke and add ginger; stir-fry this until it just begins to brown and then add the mushrooms. Stir-fry these until the mushrooms are golden all over. Drain off as much oil as possible back into the wok before placing the mushrooms in a large (4-cup) serving bowl.
4. Heat the wok again with whatever oil still remains and add the sweet potato leaves. Quickly fry them for about 10 seconds, pour in the chicken stock and bring the stock to a boil. Taste and adjust the seasoning, pour over the mushrooms and serve while very hot.
Sweet potatoes: From top to bottom
Traveling down from the leaves to the roots of a sweet potato plant is a journey that good cooks in Chaozhou and the American South make with happy frequency, so the entire vegetable is used by these two eminently practical peoples who know how to waste nothing.
What we have here is a close Chinese relative of the American traditional sweet potato pie. The mashed tuber most beloved in Chaozhou cuisine is tropical taro. As with the pie, the roots are mashed and sweetened with a bit of fat added for flavor. Easy to make and a huge hit even with kids, this is an updated classic sweet from the kitchens of Chaozhou.
Steamed Taro Pudding With Ginkgo Nuts – 白果芋泥 Baiguo yuni
Start this recipe at least a day before you wish to serve it.
Serves 6 to 8 as a dessert or sweet
For the ginkgo nuts:
½ cup (or so) prepared ginkgo nuts (see Tips)
Boiling filtered water
½ cup fresh peanut or vegetable oil for frying
3 tablespoons sugar
2 tablespoons Meiguilu or other white liquor, optional
1 tablespoon lard or unsalted butter
1 cup filtered water
For the taro:
1½ pound (or so) large, fresh taro root, or about 1 pound frozen and peeled (see Tips)
6 tablespoons lard or unsalted butter, softened
½ cup sugar
½ teaspoon sea salt
For the sauce (optional):
3 slices candied ginger, finely chopped
¼ cup filtered water
2 tablespoons agave nectar
1. Place the ginkgo nuts in a colander and pour a potful of boiling water over them to freshen up their flavor. Drain them well and pat the ginkgo nuts very dry with a towel. Heat the oil in a wok until it shimmers and then add the ginkgo nuts for a few minutes until they puff up and start to turn golden in places. Drain off the oil and place the nuts in a small work bowl. Toss in the 3 tablespoons sugar and optional Meiguilu, cool to room temperature and refrigerate overnight.
2. The next day, put on a pair of gloves if you are working with raw taro (see Tips). Peel the taro and cut off both ends, as well as any bruises or discolored spots. Cut the fresh or defrosted frozen taro into pieces around ½-inch thick. Steam the taro for 40 to 45 minutes over high heat until it is soft and flakes easily. Cool to room temperature. (This can be done ahead of time.)
3. Use 1 tablespoon lard or butter to grease the inside of a 3-cup heatproof bowl. Place the ginkgo nuts and their sugar in a wok along with the filtered water and quickly boil the water down until only about ¼ cup remains. Strain the syrup into one small bowl and the ginkgo nuts in another until they are very cool. Arrange the ginkgo nuts attractively in the coated bowl, as this will be the top of the pudding when you turn it out for serving.
4. Use a food processor to mash the taro root with the lard or butter, sugar, salt and ginkgo syrup until the taro is smooth and silky. Carefully scoop the taro pudding into the bowl with the ginkgo nuts. Do this by spoonfuls at first, patting a thin layer on top of the nuts so that the pattern is not disturbed. Then add the rest of the taro to the bowl and pat it down evenly. (The pudding may be prepared ahead of time up to this point, covered and either left in a cool place for up to 8 hours or refrigerated for longer.)
5. Steam the pudding (lightly covered with foil to keep out any water) over high heat until heated through, about 20 minutes if the pudding was not refrigerated and 30 minutes if it was; err on the side of steaming longer, as you want the center hot. While the pudding is steaming, make the ginger sauce, if you want, by simmering the chopped ginger with the agave syrup and water for about 5 minutes until it is lightly thickened; cool.
6. To serve, use oven mitts or dry kitchen towels to turn the bowl upside-down onto a rimmed, round serving dish, where the pudding will collapse into an attractive puddle. Pour the optional sauce over the pudding and serve hot by spooning it into bowls.
- Use only sweet potato leaves, which are shaped like arrowheads and are a glossy green. They are from the Ipomoea family and are related to morning glories. Leaves from more familiar potato varieties – such as baking or Irish potatoes – are from the nightshade, or Solanaceae family, and are poisonous.
- Hen-of-the-woods mushrooms can be found in Western and Asian markets, where they are sometimes called maitake (Japanese) or wuronggu (Chinese).
- Chinese cooking wines can generally be divided into two basic types that are easily found in most Chinese markets: the familiar brown Shaoxing that often comes in square bottles and smells like a combination of Chinese mushrooms and sherry, and the colorless and much more subtly flavored mijiu (literally “rice wine”), the best of which comes in green bottles and is made in Taiwan.
- Ginkgo nuts are most easily found in vacuum packs in the refrigerated section of Chinese groceries. Peeled and cooked, they look like little yellow or beige footballs. These keep very well if left unopened in the fridge. Once opened, though, use them up within a few days, as they will get moldy.
- If you’ve never had ginkgo nuts, you’re in for a wonderful surprise, for they possess a delicate perfume that is unlike anything else I’ve ever encountered. The nuts are also slightly bitter, which is why they are blanched, fried and then macerated in sugar overnight; this also gives the nuts a better texture, as they puff up in the hot oil and form a slightly tougher skin that softens again from the sugar.
- Taro is available either fresh or frozen. It comes in two sizes: large and small. You want the large, starchy, football-shaped tubers for dishes like this. Called lifu yu 荔甫芋 in Chaozhou and elsewhere in South China, these are the mature roots.
- If your skin is at all sensitive, be sure and wear disposable or kitchen gloves when working with raw taro, as it can cause a very irritating rash, especially between the fingers. And yes, I always wear gloves because this really itches.
Photo: Chaozhou fried spareribs. Credit: Carolyn Phillips
China has three great holidays — in early spring there is the celebration of the Lunar New Year, the Dragon Boat Festival in midsummer and the Moon Festival in autumn — but the rest of the Chinese year is sparked with other days of remembrance, thanksgiving and celebration. Double Ninth Festival (on Oct. 23 this year) is a traditional favorite not only because it honors the elderly, but also because of its delicious combination of sweet cakes and chrysanthemum tea.
Tradition holds that Double Ninth is the perfect day to climb high hills, admire the chrysanthemums that are in full bloom and sip tea or wine made from those flowers; in the best of all worlds, these three are done at the same time. Signs of great changes in the seasons can be seen in the world around us; one old Chinese saying tells us that this is when wild geese gather and fly south, sparrows dive into the sea and turn into clams, and chrysanthemums bear yellow flowers.
Rice wine scented with chrysanthemums is rarely seen anymore – for no good reason that I can determine – but the blossoms can be turned into the most impeccable tea. Look for flowers that are grown in Hangzhou in Jiangsu province. Their fragrance is legendary, and they produce a tisane that is almost honey-like; it’s sweet and luxurious on the tongue, the essence of autumn.
Double Ninth Festival has unique cakes for each region
Although these pastries have been around for thousands of years, Double Ninth Cake may be much more difficult to locate outside of China, which is a perfectly good reason to make it yourself. Each area of China has its own version of cakes that fit this holiday. In Jiangsu province, for example, a fluffy mixture of sweetened rice flour is steamed to make a pastry called songgao, or “loose cake.” But the Hakka-style example here from Taiwan is much simpler and, to my taste buds at least, much tastier.
This is a charming confection of layers flavored with brown and white sugars, with a touch of banana extract to give it that quintessential Taiwanese flavor. It looks terribly difficult and sophisticated, but the truth is, this is a snap to make. All you have to do is mix up two thin batters of little more than rice flour, water and sugar, and then these are steamed in layers … nine to be exact, which makes this a perfect snack for Double Ninth.
One thing to note is that instead of sticky (or glutinous) rice flour, as is used in mochi, the recipe calls for non-sticky rice flour, which provides a softer, more delicate texture that practically melts on the tongue.
Versions similar to this can be found throughout coastal southern China, as well as in Southeast Asia. On the Chinese island of Hainan, for example, fragrant pandan leaves are used instead of the brown sugar, and this confection ends up with alternating layers of white and a brilliant emerald green.
Follow Chinese tradition and offer your friends some slices of cake, sip some chrysanthemum tea together, warm your toes in the fleeting autumn sun and welcome the coming days of cold weather and hot foods.
Hakka-style Nine Layer Cake – 客家九層糕 Kejia jiucenggao
Serves 8, generously
2½ cups Indica rice flour (see Tips)
2½ cups cool filtered water
6 tablespoons white sugar
¼ teaspoon banana extract (optional)
½ cup dark brown sugar (Korean black sugar is excellent)
1. Mix the rice flour and water together in a large measuring cup until you have a smooth slurry.
2. Pour 1½ cups of the slurry into a 32-ounce measuring cup, and stir in the white sugar and optional banana extract.
3. Stir the brown sugar into the remaining slurry until the sugar is more or less dissolved.
4. Select a square or round cake pan (anything from 8 to 9 inches wide is perfect) that fits easily into your steamer. Line the bottom of the pan with parchment paper and spray the inside of the pan lightly with oil. Place the pan in the steamer and raise the heat under the steamer to high.
5. Starting with the brown sugar slurry, pour ½ cup of the slurry into the cake pan, moving the pan around so that it even coats the bottom of the pan. Be sure that the steamer and pan are level so that you end up with even layers. Cover the steamer and cook that layer for about 2 minutes, or until the surface is solid.
6. Pour 6 tablespoons of the white slurry on top of the brown layer, again moving the pan around so that it coats the bottom evenly. Cover the steamer and cook the cake for another 2 minutes. Repeat these two steps, alternating the brown and white slurries, until you have finished it all up; you should end up with nine even layers.
7. Cover the steamer and steam the cake over medium-high heat for 15 minutes, adding more water as necessary to the steamer. Turn off the heat, remove the cake, and let it cool to room temperature. Then loosen the cake by pulling gently the edges toward the center of the pan, and empty the cake out onto a serving plate. Cut the cake into diamonds, arrange the pieces attractively and serve.
- Indica (long grain) rice flour can be found in most Chinese grocery stores, where it is also known as zailai mifen 在來米粉.
- The best-tasting banana extracts are the more natural ones found in health food stores.
- Korean black sugar is an extra dark variety with a pronounced caramel flavor; it is generally found only in Korean grocery stores.
- Give each slurry a quick stir before you pour it to ensure that the sugar doesn’t sink to the bottom.
- Store the finished cake for a day or two at the most at room temperature. Cover it well.
Top photo: Hakka-style nine layer cake with chrysanthemum tea. Credit: Carolyn Phillips