Comfort food: mustard greens soup

mustard green soupOn a cold wet night, all I want is a bowl of Mustard Green and Pork Soup. The hot broth enriched with pork, garlic, fresh ginger, and pungent mustard greens sends warmth throughout my body and comforts my soul. With a scoop of hot rice, it turns into a whole meal in a bowl.

Ingredients Mustard green soupThe simple, bold, direct flavors come from just a few ingredients. Start by cooking pork, crushed garlic, and ginger slices in broth. If you have time, use chunks of pork butt or bone-in pork neck. Simmer until the meat is very tender. For a fast shortcut version, use ground pork seasoned with garlic, salt, and pepper. Poach chunks of the pork mixture in the broth, then immerse loads of mustard greens into the hot soup. It’s so easy, you don’t need a recipe but if want one, look at page 26 in The Hakka Cookbook.

I find almost any type of mustard green works. Buy Chinese mustard greens at the farmers’ or Asian market. Or choose leafy varieties found at the supermarket.

Sometimes I embellish the soup with the addition of sliced carrots and chunks of tofu, or replace the pork with chicken. In almost any variation, it is a feel-good meal.

 

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Recipes for Hakka lei cha

Lui cha and garlic riceLast year I wrote about a pounded tea known as lui cha (Hakka) or lei cha (Mandarin). I discovered this dish in Malaysia and Singapore where it has a reputation as a super food that cures all. Basically there are three parts to this healthy savory rice bowl: the herbaceous tea, rice, and toppings for the rice.

Recently, Louisa Lim of The Star Online (headquartered in Malaysia) wrote about eighty-year-old Yong Mow who still makes Hakka lei cha everyday. I am in awe. She must be a super woman. This dish requires lots of muscle and time to pound the tea in the traditional way. With a sturdy stick from a guava tree, she vigorously pounds fresh herbs, tea leaves, sesame seeds, and nuts in a ceramic bowl, adding water to make a creamy green tea. She also cuts and cooks fresh and preserved vegetables for the toppings that go over rice that she has cooked in hot sand until the grains are puffy. This dish is a labor of love.

My recipe for Savory Pound Tea Rice (page 119 in The Hakka Cookbook) is similar to hers, but a lot easier. I cheated. I used a blender. Guess I am a weakling. I tried the mortar and pestle but gave up when I couldn’t achieve a smooth mixture.  If you want follow Hakka tradition, here is a recipe adapted from Yong Mow’s technique for The Star Online.

The article also mentioned The Hakka Cookbook and my recipe for the sweet version of this tea found in Taiwan.

Enjoy the savory or sweet versions of this Hakka specialty. Or for modern new version try this Lei Cha Salad from The Star Online.

 

 

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Indo-Chinese fusion cuisine

Cumin BeefLast night I made one of my husband’s favorite recipes in The Hakka Cookbook, Stir-fried Cumin Beef (page 183). This recipe is a delicious example of creations from Hakka chefs from India. They invented a cuisine that merges Chinese techniques and ingredients with Indian spices. The result is fiery fusion that appeals to their Indian customers and made Chinese food so popular in India. Although it is not traditional Chinese Hakka food, I love the vivid, bold, spicy flavors.

The editor of Flavor and Fortune, Jacqueline Newman, first introduced me to this exciting cuisine at Tangra Masala, a restaurant owned by the Lo family in Elmhurst, New York. The flavors exploded in my mouth.

Later in the Toronto area of Canada, I discovered a large community of Hakka. Many of the chefs from India owned restaurants serving this Indo-Chinese fusion cuisine. Anthony Lin, owner/chef of the Danforth Dragon shared some of his recipes with me. I often make his cumin beef. Stir-fry thin beef strips and season with soy sauce, onion, garlic, ginger, and lots of spice, including cumin seeds and three forms of chile: chopped fresh chiles, dried chile flakes, and chile sauce. It is dry stir-fry without sauce, just lots of seasonings clinging to the meat.

For specifics follow the recipe on page 183 of The Hakka Cookbook. Or create your own version, tailoring the spice and heat level to your taste. Once I added slivers of red bell pepper to my cumin beef which added a shot of bright color. You can substitute chicken thigh for the beef.  Eat with lots of rice. Enjoy this culinary merger created by the Hakka chefs from India. You will love it!

 

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Cultural Ambassador of Seattle

Mayor's Art Awards 2014Recently, Alan Chong Lau, the artist for The Hakka Cookbook, received the Mayor’s Arts Award for Cultural Ambassador in Seattle.  Alan, who is my brother, is an artist and poet. Also he is Arts Editor for the International Examiner. Here he posts events so artists get recognized for their work. Hear his thoughts on art in this video.

As a longtime supporter and promoter of the arts community, he has earned their respect and support. I saw evidence of this community love at our book signings in Seattle. Book signings are not easy to set up. Many stores are not interested unless you are an established best seller. Once you get an event scheduled, it’s difficult to predict if anyone will be in the audience. Due to Alan’s contacts, many stores and galleries hosted book signings for The Hakka Cookbook. His many friends showed up at our events. We got the biggest turnouts and book sales for events in  Seattle. No doubt, it was due to Alan’s good will. Even in other cities, often someone in the audience would stop by and say “I’m a friend of Alan’s.”

Congratulations Alan! You deserve to be Cultural Ambassador of Seattle.

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Chinese summer squash, loofah

loofah squash, peeledLast month I saw a friend in the farmers market who had just bought some loofah squash. She told me how much she loved it. Her enthusiasm prompted me to buy some. Loofah squash (aka angled loofah, silk squash, Chinese okra) is long and slender with a rough dull green skin. Protruding ridges run down the length of the squash. Inside, the flesh is white and soft which turns silky, slightly sweet, and delicately refreshing when cooked.

Until I wrote The Hakka Cookbook, I rarely cooked this Chinese summer squash. When my friend Fah introduced me to her recipe Loofah Squash in Egg Flower Sauce (page 216), I discovered its sweet silky nature when gently braised. In Hong Kong, I ate Steamed Loofah Squash with Toasted Garlic Crowns (page 81). Click here to see a food video on this recipe.

Lately, I have discovered it’s firmer nature when stir-fried. I do not add a lot of liquid so the squash does not soften as much. I find this vegetable tastes light, clean, and refreshing, just right for hot summer days.

Loofah and ChickenStir-fried Loofah Squash and Chicken

If desired, omit the Chinese sausage and step 2. In step 4, increase the oil to 2 tablespoons.

Makes 2 servings as a main-dish or 4 to 6 servings as part of a multi-course meal

1 boned and skinned chicken breast half (8 oz.), sliced into thin strips

2 teaspoons soy sauce

1 teaspoon cornstarch

1 teaspoon plus 2 tablespoons vegetable oil

1 pound angled loofah squash (about 2 large squashes)

1 Chinese sausage (lop chong), thinly sliced

1 tablespoon thinly slivered fresh ginger

1/2 teaspoon salt, or to taste

3 tablespoons Chinese rice wine (shaoxing) or dry sherry

2 tablespoons chopped cilantro

 

1. Mix the chicken with the soy sauce, cornstarch, and 1 teaspoon oil.

2. Trim ends off squash. Peel off ridges and skin if tough (if skin is tender, you can leave some on for firmer texture.) Cut squashes diagonally into 1/4-inch thick slices.

3. Set a 14-inch wok over medium-low heat. Add Chinese sausage and cook, stirring occasionally, until sausage is browned, 4 to 5 minutes. Lift out sausage and place in serving dish, leaving the fat behind in pan.

4. Return the pan to high heat. When the pan is hot, add 1 tablespoon oil and rotate pan to spread oil. Add chicken and stir-fry until lightly browned, 2 to 3 minutes. Lift out the chicken and add to sausage.

5. Return the pan to high heat. Add 1 tablespoon oil to pan. Add ginger, squash, and salt. Stir-fry to coat squash with oil. Add the wine and stir-fry until squash is barely tender-crisp, 2 to 3 minutes. (If squash is not tender and begins to burn, add 1 to 2 tablespoons more water and continue stir-frying). Stir in sausage and chicken, Sprinkle with cilantro and scoop into serving dish.

 

 

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Asian eggplant

Chinese eggplantIt’s time to eat eggplant. In northern California, I find Chinese and Japanese eggplants are the best in the summer and early fall. Look for the freshest in farmers’ markets or try Asian grocery stores. Unlike the large plump, rounded pear-shaped eggplant favored by North Americans, both these Asian varieties are slender. They contain few seeds and hold their shape when cooked.

Chinese eggplants may grow to more than twelve inches long with a smooth lavender to dark purple skin. Japanese varieties tend to be shorter with a blackish-purple skin. Because these Asian varieties are less seedy, their flesh feels creamier and smoother when cooked. When stir-fried or braised, the pieces hold together, especially when attached to the skin, rather then collapse into a shapeless mass.

Eggplants act like sponges. They soak up the flavor of the seasonings and foods they are cooked with. This characteristic makes them highly versatile.

Try them in braised dishes such as Braised Eggplant, Pork, and Mushrooms on page 93 of The Hakka Cookbook or view a food video of the recipe at grokker.com

Eggplant SticksIn Garlic-Chile Eggplant Sticks, page 56 to 57, the soy-braised eggplant sticks maintain their shape. Serve them as a cool or hot first course or vegetable dish. Consider them for a cool appetizer for a hot summer evening.

 

The slender eggplant can be sliced into short sections, split in the center and filled, so they somewhat resemble eggplant sandwicheseggplant sandwiches. Use your favorite filling or try this one. In the Singapore Stuffed Vegetable and Tofu Soup, page 106, pan-brown these pork and fish-filled eggplant sandwiches, then poach in broth with other filled vegetables and tofu.

Although you can often find Asian eggplants year round in Asian supermarkets, try them now while they are in season to get the freshest and best quality. They should be firm with shiny skin.

 

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In the news

Hakka t-shirtAlthough it is almost two years since The Hakka Cookbook was released, we are still getting noticed by some press, even international.  Thanks to the writers and editors. Check out:

July 24, 2014. Global Times. Sweet and sour cooking classes by Li Ying. This is an English online version of Global Times from Beijing. In the article, the writer quotes teachers and authors about teaching Chinese cuisine. Scroll to near end of article to find my photo and quotes.

2014 Number 92. The Art of Eating. Short List, page 46. In this magazine that calls itself the Authority on Food, Wine, and Taste, the editor listed The Hakka Cookbook on his Short List of books. Only available in print.

 

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Sweet bitter melon pickles

bitter melonI admit I am not a huge fan of bitter melon. But when transformed into these pickles, I changed my mind. Crunchy, sweet and tangy, with a slight bitter finish, these pickles converted me.

My inspiration came from the Asia Society Event, Chinese Soul Food: Hakka Cuisine. Last spring I consulted with Chef Kin Fong at M.Y. China in San Francisco about the dinner. Most of the menu was inspired by my recipes from The Hakka Cookbook. However, the chef wanted to do something new with bitter melon, a common ingredient in the Hakka diet. He suggested raw paper-thin shavings of bitter melon served with acacia honey and nestled in an ice bowl. Bitter Melon M.Y. China

I was a bit surprised.  Bitter melon is commonly cooked, usually stuffed and poached in broth for soup, stir-fried with meat, or stuffed and braised. I had never considered eating bitter melon raw and cold. As I thought more about the concept, it began to make sense. The sweetness of the honey and the cool temperature might temper the bitterness. Served in ice bowls, it would serve as unique palate cleanser.

bitter melon picklesAll the way home from our planning meeting, I thought about bitter melon served cold and sweet. How would bitter melon taste pickled? I have a recipe for Pickled Mustard Greens in The Hakka Cookbook (page 147). Why not substitute bitter melon for the mustard greens in the recipe? My experiment worked! I loved the pickle’s crisp bite. The sweetness softened the bitterness. They are easy to make and stay crunchy for weeks in the refrigerator. It’s a simple way to preserve surplus melons.

Sweet Tangy Bitter Melon Pickles

Bitter melon (foo gwa)  are in farmers’ and Asian markets now. They don’t look like melons, their shape is more like a slender gourd or a plump zucchini. Their green skin is rutted with bumpy furrows and their interior is filled with white pith and seeds.

Makes about 2 cups

2 medium bitter melons (about 12 ounces)

2/3 cup rice vinegar or distilled white vinegar

2/3 cup sugar

1/2 teaspoon fine sea salt or table salt

1. Trim ends off melons. Cut melons in half lengthwise. With a spoon scoop out and discard seeds and white pith. Cut the melon halves crosswise in 1/4-inch thick slices to make about 2 cups.

2. In a 3- to 4-quart pan over high heat, bring about 1 1/2 quarts water to a boil. Add the bitter melon. Stir to separate slices and cook just until bright green, about 30 seconds. Drain and immerse in ice water to cool quickly.

3. In a large bowl, mix the vinegar, sugar, and salt until the sugar dissolves. Stir in drained bitter melon. Cover and let stand at room temperature overnight. Transfer bitter melon and liquid to smaller containers. Cover and chill, stirring once, until the pickles are crisp, sweet, and tangy, 2 to 3 days. Keeps in refrigerator for a few weeks.

 

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Stuffed tofu deconstructed

stuffed tofu, deconstructedIn my last post, I wrote about one of the Hakka classics stuffed tofu (nyiong tiu fu in Hakka). Although it is a beloved Hakka favorite, it doesn’t appear often on the weeknight dinner table simply because it does take time to carve cavities into the tofu and to fill them.

Amy Wong from Malaysia showed me a quicker alternative with the same flavors. Her deconstructed version goes together in minutes. She makes a typical pork filling but instead of stuffing it into chunks of tofu, she stir fries the meat and adds the tofu chunks to make a crumbly savory hash. It has the flavors of stuffed tofu but takes a different form in a loose random presentation.

Look for my version of her recipe on page 123 of The Hakka Cookbook. However, it is easy to make this Stir-fried Tofu and Pork Hash without a recipe. Prepare your favorite mixture for the tofu filling or Fah’s Pork and Shrimp Filling. Cut the tofu into chunks and drain for about five minutes. I use about one pound tofu to eight ounces filling. Stir-fry the pork filling in a little oil with garlic until the mixture is crumbly and lightly browned. Add the tofu and soy sauce to taste. Stir-fry until tofu crumbles slightly and begins to brown. Garnish generously with sliced green onions. Vary seasonings to your taste. This fast version will soon become a family favorite in your weeknight line-up.

 

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Hakka classic: stuffed tofu

stuffed tofu, Hakka Restaurant

One of the Hakka classics, stuffed tofu (nyiong tiu fu in Hakka), was a creation of migration. When the Hakka came to Southern China, they wanted to make the dumplings they had eaten in the north. However, they couldn’t find the wheat flour needed to make the dumpling wrappers. So they improvised and placed the filling into what was available—chunks of tofu (aka bean curd). The stuffed tofu was cooked many different ways: browned and braised, deep-fried, steamed, or poached.

The original filling was pork because that was what was available to these inland-bound people. When they migrated to the coast, seafood was sometimes mixed with the pork. Hakka versions of stuffed tofu almost always contain some pork that deepens the flavor. This pork addition distinguishes it from Cantonese versions which commonly use a light fish mousse-like paste as a filling. One Hakka from Singapore told me that by comparing the Cantonese and Hakka versions of stuffed tofu, you can see the differences between the two cuisines. The Hakka like stronger, more robust flavors and heartier dishes. The Cantonese profile is lighter with more subtle, delicate flavors.

Singapore stuffed tofu, chiles, and bitter melon in broth

Stuffed tofu, chiles, and bitter melon in broth as served in Singapore

The highly versatile savory filling for stuffed tofu appears in many guises. Cooks fill chiles, bitter melon rings, mushrooms, and eggplant with pork mixture. It is even used to fill wonton. There are endless variations.

In The Hakka Cookbook look for Braised Pork-Stuffed Mushrooms (page 61), Stuffed Bitter Melon in Tomato Sauce (page 163), Stuffed Bitter Melon Soup (page 24), Braised Fried Tofu with Pork (page 76), Singapore Stuffed Vegetable and Tofu Soup (page 106), Uncle Henry’s Stuffed Tofu Triangles, and Natalie Com Liu’s Tofu Topped with Pork.

Fah's Pork and Shrimp FillingOne of my favorite fillings comes from my friend Fah Liong, who migrated from Indonesia to California. In Fah’s Stuffed Tofu Triangles (page 215), she mixes pork with chopped shrimp, shiitake mushrooms, green onions, and fish sauce. She stuffs the filling into slit-like pockets cut into triangles of tofu and steams or poaches the triangles in broth.

You could also mound the filling onto tofu squares or fill vegetable cavities. Vary the seasonings and proportion of pork and shrimp to suit your tastes.

Fah’s Pork and Shrimp Filling

Makes about 1 cup, enough to fill about 1 pound tofu

2 dried shiitake mushrooms, each about 1 1/2 inches wide

4 ounces peeled, deveined shrimp

4 ounces ground pork

2 tablespoons thinly sliced green onion, including green tops

1 tablespoon Asian fish sauce

2 teaspoons cornstarch

1/4 teaspoon salt

1/8 teaspoon white pepper

1. Rinse the dried mushrooms and place in a small bowl. Cover with hot water and soak until soft, 20 minutes to 2 hours, depending on thickness. Squeeze out excess liquid. Remove and discard mushroom stems and finely chop the caps.

2. Finely chop the shrimp. In a bowl, mix the mushrooms, shrimp, pork, green onion, fish sauce, cornstarch, salt. and white pepper. Use to fill tofu and vegetables. Pan brown and braise, steam, poach, or deep-fry as recipe suggests.

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