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Chopped liver is a staple on many a Jewish family’s Hanukkah table, but why not try something different this year? I’d like to suggest a delicious alternative borrowed from China’s Muslims.
This savory dish is a classic in northern China and usually consists of thin shreds of lamb or beef flash-fried with lots of green onions and rich soy sauce. Over the years, I have adapted this traditional Muslim dish into something my family loves with a passion, substituting lots of fresh chicken livers for the meat. The result: a meal that makes my Chinese brother-in-law’s eyes roll back into his head with ecstasy.
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And pretty much the same thing happens to me, truth be told, because this is one of those perfect Chinese dishes in which flavors and textures bounce off one another like magic. A savory, lightly garlicky sauce binds the sweetness and silkiness of the scallions with the livers’ gentle bitterness and sublime softness. In fact, this is why I use the livers instead of lamb or beef: That extra depth and tangy undertone make the complex flavors even more intriguing. Plus, whenever my brother-in-law shows up, I know that I’ll have to put Chinese liver ‘n’ onions on the menu if I want to keep peace in the house and a smile on the face of our houseguest.
I’ll let you in on a few secrets that will guarantee you tender, juicy chunks of liver peeking out between the silky strands of green onion. First and foremost, the livers and the green onions have to be very fresh and of excellent quality, as they are the undisputed stars of this show.
Second, the livers have to be prepped correctly to remove both the stringy fibers that connect them to the chicken’s structure, and the bile and blood that can so easily overwhelm the livers’ delicate flavor. And finally, the proper application of the traditional Chinese principle of “fire and timing” (huŏhòu 火候) determines how much heat is applied at what stage and for how long, so that you too will be able to revel in this delectable classic.
Chicken Livers With Green Onions
Cōngbào jīgān 蔥暴雞肝
Serves 4 to 6
1 pound very fresh organic chicken livers
Plain rice wine (Taiwanese Mijiu recommended), as needed for marinade, plus two tablespoons
3 or more tablespoons cornstarch
12 or so very fresh green onions, cleaned well and trimmed
2 to 3 cloves fresh garlic
½ cup fresh peanut or vegetable oil
1½ tablespoons regular soy sauce
2 tablespoons sugar
1. Rinse the chicken livers in a colander under cool tap water and shake off most of the water. Working on one set of livers at a time, place the set on a cutting board and remove any surface fat. Gently grasp the cleaner of the two lobes and use a sharp knife to lightly scrape against the fibers connecting it to the other lobe or lobes, to separate them and to remove as much of the tough strings as possible. Then, gently scrape the fibers on the other end and discard the connective tissues. Cut the liver into even pieces, anywhere from 4 to 6 petals per set, and place them in a medium work bowl. Repeat with the rest of the livers until all of them have been cleaned.
2. Pour just enough rice wine over the livers to barely cover them, and then gently swirl the bowl around to distribute the wine. Allow the livers to marinate for about an hour to leach out the bile and blood, and then place the livers back in the colander and rinse them once more under cool tap water. Lightly pat them dry with a paper towel, place them in a clean work bowl, and toss them with just enough cornstarch so that they are all coated with a powdery surface, as this will protect the tender flesh from the searing heat of the wok.
3. While the livers are marinating, slice the green onions into 1-inch lengths, and then cut the white ends vertically in half so that they will be able to cook evenly and quickly. Peel the garlic cloves, remove the hard ends and any green shoots, and then chop them coarsely.
4. Heat a wok over high heat until hot and then pour in all of the oil; this step will help prevent the livers from sticking to the hot iron of the wok. When the oil starts to shimmer, add a handful of the coated livers to the hot oil and fry them on one side until golden, then flip them over and fry the other side. Remove the fried livers to a serving platter and repeat with the rest of the livers until all have been fried. If you have a lot of oil left in the wok, pour off all but about 2 tablespoons.
5. Add the whites of the green onions and the garlic to the hot oil and fry them for a few seconds to release their fragrance. Toss in the fried chicken livers, soy sauce, 2 tablespoons rice wine and the sugar, and keep tossing them until most of the liquid has been evaporated and the livers are cooked through; taste and adjust the seasoning as desired. Add the onion greens and toss again. When the greens are just barely cooked and still a bit crunchy, scoop everything out onto a serving platter and serve hot.
Top photo: Chinese Muslim-style chicken livers and green onions. Credit: Carolyn Phillips
Not too long ago, I was treated to an authentic Shanghainese dinner by the great cookbook author Florence Lin. We dined at a restaurant in the eastern San Francisco Bay Area, a place that shall remain unnamed for reasons that will soon become obvious.
After we sat down, Mrs. Lin chatted quietly with the chef, and in a few moments we had Nanjing saltwater duck, braised gluten and a warm and perfectly balanced smoked fish appetizer arrayed in front of us. We were soon diving into a tender and flavorful braised pork shank with its creamy skin, fish with pine nuts and flash-fried pea sprouts that were bathed in nothing but fresh oil, a sprinkle of salt and fat bulbs of browned garlic. Dainty desserts followed, an assortment of little handmade gifts presented to us with smiles and hot tea.
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It was a revelation. But contrast this with the dinner I was served there a few months back without a famous person beside me to impress the chef: a lukewarm and decidedly inauthentic bowl of hot-and-sour soup, fatty and flavorless pork in aspic and an insipid plate of poached tilapia coated with a gummy sauce. After this sorry repast in the near-empty restaurant, the understandably idle chef came by to complain about how tough business was.
In a way, I understood. After all, it used to be that Americans were satisfied with pseudo Chinese food. But our growing population of wealthy Asian immigrants, coupled with the heightened sophistication of American diners, has changed up the game. Pseudo just doesn’t cut it anymore. As famed restaurateur and author Cecilia Chiang noted recently to me, there is simply no good place (meaning Chinese, of course) to eat around here – meaning that if these retrograde places wish to survive, they will have to step up to the challenge.
Chinese restaurants shouldn’t be all over the map
China’s culinary traditions are the best in the world, but you would never know it from what passes for the lion’s share of American “Chinese food.” Part of the problems is that too many restaurants serve dishes that are literally all over the map of China, as can be seen in the enormous menus they often foist on their customers; sometimes even Japanese and Thai dishes get thrown into the mix for no good reason. As a result, everything is available and little of it is worth eating, and the kitchen therefore has to depend upon canned foods and an enormous stockpile of ingredients that eventually spoils, even if stashed in the deep freeze. The owner then tries to cut even more corners to mitigate his losses, and an already ugly cycle gets even uglier.
Contrast this with the way you get to eat in Taiwan, China and Hong Kong: Almost every place, from palatial restaurants to the tiniest mom-and-pop stalls, focuses on a distinct provincial cuisine — and sometimes even a single dish — and because of that, the foods are fresh, tasty, honest and absolutely authentic.
On the off chance that some hometown specialties or seasonal delights are offered here in the States, they are often hidden in the Chinese menu or scribbled as afterthoughts on the wall with no English translations. After all, the thinking goes, why bother with customers who won’t be interested anyway?
But the truth is that on eGullet, Chow and other online epicurean gatherings, as well as in knowledgeable restaurant reviews and on Yelp, whoops of delight are heard and long lines suddenly form whenever a terrific Chinese place opens up, while mediocre eateries are treated with the contempt they deserve. There is therefore no longer any room in this urbane digital age for laziness or condescension.
Follow this 12-point guide
As a dedicated worshiper of great Chinese cuisine, I hereby nail the following 12-point thesis on the front door of that hopeless East Bay restaurant in hopes of an epicurean Reformation:
- For the love of Buddha, cook with pride from a specific area of China.
- List these dishes in English with no excuses.
- Do not assume that Americans will not like certain ingredients. Just like Chinese diners, some of us will and some of us won’t, but offer them anyway.
- Use good-quality peanut or vegetable oil in your cooking, and always use fresh oil for stir-fries. That means that instead of sneaking old oil into your dishes to save a few pennies, you should sell the gunk in your deep-fat fryers to recyclers. Honestly, this stuff tastes disgusting and is very unhealthy.
- No more MSG or “chicken essence” bouillon in the food. We can taste that too and it reeks of apathy. Instead, use good stock to amp up the flavor.
- Give us fresh or frozen bamboo shoots and water chestnuts, not canned. Toss out the tinned mushrooms, baby corn and other cheapo garbage, and stop clogging every dish with cornstarch. You don’t cook that way in China, so why do it here?
- Buy good quality meats and seafood; if cost is a problem, put a little less in a dish or increase your prices a bit, but please feed us well.
- Offer meatless dishes that are just as tasty as the other items; China has a rich tradition of vegetarian cuisines, so there is no reason not to make them available.
- Please explain things to your customers. Tell us what is in each dish if we ask. If your waitstaff does not speak English, have the ingredients and description on a list you can show us.
- Become obsessive about cleaning up the kitchen, bathrooms, dining areas and around the perimeter.
- While you are at it, put in ambient lighting, consider redecorating, get rid of the cardboard boxes everywhere and invest in some nice background music. This shows pride of place and makes your customers feel welcome.
- Treat non-Chinese and Chinese customers with equal respect. Courtesy means as much to us as good food, and you will see our happy (and hungry) faces again and again.
Top photo: Author Carolyn Phillips. Credit: J.H. Huang
Custard is treated with special respect in South China. Sweet or savory, steamed or baked, simple or fancy: This is the place where eggs ascend to culinary heaven. I don’t know what it is about that place and chicken ova, but the Cantonese have a knack for bringing out the best in one of the most basic of foods.
Take this dish, for example. On the surface it looks, I admit, rather boring. This is little more than eggs mixed with broth and steamed. It is then cut into squares and fried, and a sauce is dumped on top. I know. Yawn.
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But whenever I prepare this dish for guests, it completely disappears, no matter how many times I multiply the recipe. Not only that, but if I have to leave the table before the dish reaches my place, I won’t get a taste. I will see lots of happy faces when I return, but that’s about it.
Why is this so good? Well, the custard is lightly seasoned and then fried in a simple coating of cornstarch. That cornstarch is a touch of genius, because it allows the outside to crunch up and the eggs to billow out, turning the little yellow squares into golden balloons. Then, I make a lovely mix of at least three kinds of mushrooms seasoned with lots of fresh ginger, rice wine, soy sauce, rock sugar and green onions. All of that flavor is the perfect complement to the crunchy yet understated custard.
These powerful tastes and chewy textures bounce against the custard in a culinary marriage made in heaven. Finally, a pretty ring of crispy bok choy forms a wreath around the edge of the platter. Truth be told, my guests sometimes allow me a bite or two of the boy choy’s leftover leaves as a consolation prize.
Fried custard with mushrooms
Xiānggū dàndòufŭ 香菇蛋豆腐
Serves 4 to 6
For the custard:
8 large eggs
1¾ cup cool seasoned mushroom or chicken broth
½ cup cornstarch
Frying oil, as needed
For the bok choy:
2 tablespoons fresh peanut or vegetable oil
1 teaspoon sea salt
1 pound baby bok choy, trimmed, cut into halves or quarters, and washed carefully
For the mushrooms and sauce:
2 tablespoons fresh peanut or vegetable oil
2 tablespoons julienned fresh ginger
3 green onions, trimmed and finely chopped
2 garlic cloves, finely chopped, optional
8 ounces mixed trimmed mushrooms (such as black, oyster, king, enoki, gold, porcini or whatever looks good in the market) cut into 1-inch (or so) pieces
¼ cup rice wine (Taiwanese Mijiu recommended)
2 tablespoons regular soy sauce
2 teaspoons rock sugar
½ cup unsalted stock
1 green onion, trimmed and chopped, for garnish
1. The custard can be steamed a day or two ahead of time: First, lightly beat the eggs with the stock. Prepare an 8-by-8-inch square or 8-inch round pan (depending upon the size of your steamer) by spraying it with oil. Pour the egg mixture through a strainer into the pan. Set the pan into a steamer over medium-low heat, cover and steam the custard for 15 to 20 minutes, or until the custard is set in the center. Remove the custard from the steamer, let it cool to room temperature, cover and refrigerate until chilled. Cut the custard into 1-inch squares. If you are using a round pan, don’t worry about the strange-shaped pieces; they can be fried first and placed in the bottom of the serving dish, where no one will notice them.
2. About 20 minutes before serving, prepare the bok choy by heating a wok over high heat until it starts to smoke. Add the oil and salt and swirl them around together. Add the bok choy and toss until the vegetables are just barely cooked and still crunchy. Remove them to a serving platter and shape them into a nest around the edge.
3. Toss the cubed custard in the cornstarch. Shake off the excess. Heat a large, flat frying pan over medium-high heat. Add the oil to a depth of about ¼ inch. When a speck of cornstarch added to the oil immediately bubbles up and disappears, start with the less pretty pieces of custard and add just enough pieces of the custard to the pan so that they are not crowded. Fry them on one side until golden, turn over, and when completely golden, remove from the pan and place them in the center of the bok choy nest. Repeat with the rest of the custard until done.
4. While the custard is frying, make the mushroom sauce: Clean the wok and heat it over high heat. Add the oil and then the ginger, green onions and garlic, and toss these together for about 10 seconds to release their fragrance. Add the mushrooms and toss them all to coat the mushrooms with the oil. As the mushrooms start to brown, add the rice wine, soy sauce and sugar. Toss more, taste and adjust the seasoning. Toss in the stock and keep the wok moving until the sauce has thickened. Pour this on top of the custard. Serve immediately.
Top photo: Cantonese fried custard with mushrooms. Credit: Carolyn Phillips
One of the most classic dishes in the Hakka repertoire, salt-baked chicken is also incredibly delicious. Rarely available anywhere outside of the homes of good Hakka cooks (read: grandmas), this is a dish to master and enjoy.
Like so many other recipes from this ethnic group in South China’s hill country, it is both clever and startlingly flavorful. But despite the fact that the bird is packed solidly in a thick layer of rock salt as it cooks, it doesn’t get unbearably salty because the salt doesn’t penetrate the wrapping. Instead, a tight cocoon of lotus leaf and parchment paper seals in all of the juices, so you are left with what can only be described as the essence of chicken. As you unwrap layer after layer, tendrils of steam curl out, greeting you with the scent of nothing less than a perfect roast bird dusted with a few aromatics and the haunting aroma of lotus.
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Truth be told, there is little reason why restaurants should be so lazy about this dish because it really isn’t that difficult. Yes, it does require lots of rock salt, but that can be used over and over and over. Yes, the chicken needs to be wrapped, but that is pretty much the extent of the labor required. And yes, it does mean that a great-quality bird is called for, but charge a little more, I say, and let diners order the dish ahead of time.
Or, you can just give up on ever finding a properly made salt-baked chicken and make it at home.
Long ago, this dish was served by wealthy Hakka salt merchants, whose cooks would actually bury the chickens in hot salt without any wrappers, rinse them off before serving, and offer a sauce on the side for dipping. About 200 years ago, someone came up with the idea of shrouding the bird in layers of paper to keep the salt out and the juices in.
Hakka Salt-Baked Chicken
Yánjú jī 鹽焗雞
Serves 4 to 6
For the chicken:
6 pounds coarse salt (ice cream salt is perfect)
1 smallish chicken (no larger than 4½ pounds)
For the dry rub:
1 teaspoon dry-fried salt and pepper (see recipe below)
½ teaspoon five-spice powder
½ teaspoon ground sand ginger (see Tips)
¼ cup thinly-sliced fresh ginger (unpeeled OK)
3 green onions, trimmed
1 large dried lotus leaf, soaked in hot water until pliable, optional
For the sauce (optional):
¼ cup rendered lard
1 teaspoon dry-fried salt and pepper
½ teaspoon ground sand ginger
1. Before you start prepping the chicken, place the coarse salt in a rimmed baking tray and heat it in a 550 F oven (or as high as it will go); it should be red hot by the time you are ready to use it.
2. Clean the chicken thoroughly, rinsing it out under cool tap water and wiping it dry (inside and out) with paper towels. If you are using the giblets, rinse and pat them dry. Cut 2-inch-long incisions under each wing and then poke the outer two segments of the wings into the body so that the wing drumsticks lie flush against the body and protect them from burning. Place the chicken breast-side up on a work surface and press down firmly on the breast to flatten it so that the chicken is as compact as possible. Mix the salt and pepper, five spice powder and sand ginger together in a small bowl. Sprinkle half into the chicken carcass and rub it around; add the optional giblets to the chicken and then tie the ends of the legs together with butcher twine. Rub the outside of the chicken with the rest of the spices too.
3. Prepare a 30-inch wide sheet of parchment paper, spray it with oil and also have two 30-inch-wide sheets of foil ready. First, dry the lotus leaf, if using, and wrap the chicken in it. Then turn it upside-down on the oiled parchment paper and wrap the chicken up tightly. Turn this again right-side up and wrap it in a sheet of foil — sealing the edges as much as possible — before turning upside-down on the last sheet of foil and again sealing the edges to keep all of the juices in and the salt out.
4. Select a large sandpot or covered casserole that easily holds the chicken with room to spare for the salt. Place a trivet in the bottom of the sandpot and very carefully pour about a quarter of the very hot salt into the bottom. Arrange the wrapped chicken in the center (breast-side up) and very carefully cover it completely with the remaining hot salt. Cover the sandpot and place the pot on the stove; the heat under it should be between low and medium-low so that the salt stays hot and the chicken slowly bakes. Cook the chicken for 90 minutes this way, remove the pot from the burner and let it cool down until you can touch the pot and bird without being burned. When you open the pot up, pour off at least half of the salt and then lift out the chicken to a rimmed plate. Unwrap the chicken layer by layer, discarding any salt that is sticking to the wrappings. When you get to the parchment paper, carefully dust off any salt before opening up the lotus leaf; there will be lots of juices in there, so be sure and keep them all in the plate. Check the chicken’s doneness by piercing the thickest part of the thigh with a chopstick; the juices should run very clear. (Any meat that is still stubbornly pink can be cooked quickly in the last step with the sauce.)
5. To make the optional sauce, melt the lard in a wok and add the salt-and-pepper and the sand ginger. Drizzle in any juices from the chicken and bring the sauce to a boil. The traditional way to serve this chicken is to cut off and hand-shred the meat and skin; if you like to chew on the bones, pile them in the center of your serving plate so that they won’t be seen. Toss the meat and skin with the hot sauce until every piece is coated, and then arrange these on the serving plate. Serve hot or very warm with steamed rice and a simple vegetable dish or maybe a soup.
Dry-fried salt and pepper: Coarsely grind about 2 tablespoons of black pepper and place it in a dry wok (this means no oil). Add about 2 tablespoons coarse sea salt. Mix these together over medium heat, tossing often, until the pepper starts to smoke a bit and the salt is gray. Scoop it out into a bowl, cool to room temperature, and store in a covered jar. This can be used as a simple dip for things like fried chicken or sprinkled on popcorn or any other place where a bit of salt and spice would make life better.
- Sand ginger is a member of the ginger family; its English name is a direct translation of the Chinese name, shājiāng 沙薑. Rarely sold fresh, the sliced dried roots are often available in Chinese grocery stores in the spice aisle or in Chinese herbal medicine shops.
- Lotus leaves are also sold dried here in Chinese grocery stores; the leaf here is my own addition, as it adds nice flavor to the chicken, but can be left out for traditionalists and those who don’t have a Chinese market nearby.
Top photo: The bird, with its seasonings for Hakka chicken. Credit: Carolyn Phillips
Potstickers have become commonplace at Asian and fusion restaurants in the States, but most patrons of such establishments have no idea that the dumplings they’re scarfing down are pale shadows of the little masterpieces made in places like Tianjin.
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A city on the Bohai Sea, Tianjin serves as Beijing’s seaport. Cooks in this seaport do fantastic spins on northern Chinese foods, borrowing many ideas from such sources as its large Muslim population and turning them into delicacies like these filled pasta that are beloved by China’s cognoscenti.
Potstickers in Tianjin are amazingly good partially because the ethereally light wrappers are handmade and also because the filling is so juicy and flavorful that only a touch of dipping sauce is needed. Contrast this with the potstickers served up in most Chinese joints outside of China, which are usually little more than previously frozen pork dumplings with boring fillings and leaden skins. These commercially made things have little to recommend them, and I avoid them like the plague.
Once you’ve eaten handmade guotie (or wor tip as they’re called in Cantonese), you will fall in love, too, with thin pasta that melts in your mouth, acting as little more than a gossamer hankie on three sides for the juicy, flavor-packed pork hiding within. But, as with all great potstickers, the greatest draw are its bottoms crusted a golden crunchy brown.
In China, potstickers are long and thin, with both ends open so that the juices can run out and join in forming the crispy crust. These are perfect either for breakfast with a hot bowl of congee, or as an afternoon snack, or as part of a dim sum feast. They even can be made ahead of time up to the last step, which means they are great for entertaining.
You may have noticed that these are called “lacy.” That is because there is one other thing that sends these potstickers into the culinary stratosphere: a crispy filigree surrounds them, making them look magical and even more enticing than you probably thought possible.
Lacy potstickers — 冰花鍋貼 Bīnghuā guōtiē
Makes 24 potstickers and serves about 4
For the wrappers:
2 cups regular Korean flour or all-purpose flour (see Tips)
½ teaspoon sea salt
4 teaspoons rendered lard or shortening
½ cup boiling filtered water
Extra flour for rolling out the dough
Small bowl of cool filtered water
For the filling:
1 pound ground pork (30% fat recommended), preferably a heritage breed such as Berkshire
1 teaspoon Chinese mushroom seasoning or sea salt (see Tips)
½ teaspoon sugar
1 teaspoon regular soy sauce
2 tablespoons Shaoxing rice wine
2 tablespoons chopped cilantro
1 green onion, trimmed and finely chopped
2 tablespoons peeled fresh minced ginger
For the lace:
1½ tablespoons flour
1½ tablespoons wheat starch (see Tips)
¾ cup cool filtered water
¾ cup fresh peanut or vegetable oil for frying
1. First, make the wrappers: Pour the flour into a medium work bowl and toss in the salt. Cut up the lard and toss it with the flour. Pour all of the boiling water into the flour mixture and mix with chopsticks until the dough becomes flaky. Use your hand to knead the now cooler dough inside the bowl until it sticks together, and then turn it out on a flat surface. Knead the dough without adding any more flour; it will take about 5 minutes to form a smooth, gentle dough. Place the ball of dough in a clean plastic bag and let it rest for at least 15 minutes to relax the gluten.
2. Turn the pork out onto a clean chopping board and use a heavy cleaver or knife to chop it until it is fine and a bit sticky; turn the meat over every once in a while and fold it in on itself so that every morsel gets whacked completely. Place the meat in a medium work bowl and add the rest of the filling ingredients. Use your hand to stir them around in one direction to fully incorporate them, and then pick the meat up and slam it back into the bowl around 10 times to make the meat bouncy and resilient. Divide the filling into 24 pieces and roll these into small balls or cylindrical shapes.
3. Mix together the lace ingredients until smooth and then pour them through a fine sieve into a measuring cup.
4. Shape the rested dough — it should be as soft as an earlobe — into a rope 24 inches long and cut the rope into 24 one-inch pieces. Roll each piece into a small ball and dust it lightly with some flour. Cover the balls with a clean tea towel as you go. Working on one piece at a time, flatten a ball on a lightly floured board with your palm to form an even circle about 2 inches in diameter. Then (if you are right-handed), hold this circle near the center between the thumb and forefinger of your left hand while you wield a Chinese rolling pin (which is like an inch-thick, 12-inch dowel) with your right hand. Roll the circle out gently and evenly, pressing down in the center of the circle with the rolling pin and rolling in and out 2 times before turning the dough 45 degrees. Keep rolling and turning the dough this way to form a circle 5 inches in diameter. The wrapper should be smooth, elastic, and even. Lightly dust it with some flour and cover it with the towel. Repeat with the rest of the dough until you have 24 wrappers.
5. Now, wrap the potstickers one at a time by placing a wrapper flat on your left hand while smearing one of the meatballs down the center to form an even layer of meat about ¾ of an inch wide. Wet the edges of the wrapper with some cool water and pinch the edges together, leaving a ¾-inch opening at both ends. Lightly crimp the edges in a wavy pattern, if you like. Cover the filled potsticker with a tea towel and repeat with the rest of the wrappers and filling until all are filled. (The potstickers can be frozen at this point in a single layer on a baking sheet lined with plastic wrap. Place them in a freezer bag once they are hard. They can be used without defrosting — either steamed as directed in Step 6 or pan-fried as in the directions below for regular potstickers.)
6. Prepare a two-layer bamboo or (preferably) stainless steel steamer by spraying the bottom with oil and bring the water underneath it to a boil. Place the potstickers inside the steamer baskets so that they do not touch each other and steam the potstickers until done, about 7 minutes. Remove the potstickers from the steamer. (The potstickers can be prepared ahead of time up to this point and then reheated in Step 7 right before serving.)
7. Fry the potstickers just before serving: Heat a flat-bottomed frying pan (preferably nonstick) over medium heat until the edges of the pan are very hot. Depending upon the size of the pan, pour in some oil (about 1½ tablespoons per potsticker) and swirl it around. Arrange as many potstickers in the pan as will fit without squeezing, but they should touch each other. Then, pour the lace batter (about ½ tablespoon per potsticker) into the pan; immediately start swirling the pan around nonstop so that the batter forms a thin layer all around and between the potstickers. Once the lace has formed, loosen the edges of the lace with a thin spatula and turn the potstickers out upside-down onto a serving plate. Repeat with the rest of the potstickers, oil, and batter until done. Serve immediately with a dipping sauce of your choice (see Tips).
Regular potstickers: You can make regular potstickers easily with this recipe: just omit the lace and the steaming. Instead, pour some oil (about 1½ tablespoons per potsticker) into a hot, flat frying pan sitting over medium heat. Arrange as many potstickers in the pan as will fit without squeezing, but they should touch each other. Then, pour filtered water (again, about 1½ tablespoons per potsticker) into the pan and immediately cover it with a tight-fitting lid. Fry-steam the potstickers for around 5 minutes, or until you can hear by the popping oil that the water has been absorbed. Remove the lid and continue to fry the potstickers until their bottoms are a golden, crispy brown. Loosen them with a thin spatula and turn them out onto a serving plate with the brown bottoms on top. Serve hot.
– Regular Korean flour works best here, as it has the right amount of gluten to make soft, supple wrappers with good texture.
– Wheat starch is available in Chinese grocery stores in the flour aisle under the name 澄粉chéngfěn.
– Mushroom powder is optional, but it adds a nice layer of seasoning.
– I buy organic white shortening by Spectrum that is non-hydrogenated, and so much healthier. It’s a good substitute for lard because it doesn’t taste of butter.
Top photo: Lacy Tianjin potstickers. Credit: Carolyn Phillips
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