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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Luodai: ancient Hakka town

luodai lionJust outside of Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan, lies the ancient Hakka town of Luodai. More than 90% of the 23,000 residents are Hakka. Sichuan, a province in southwest China, is home to more than 3 million Hakkas.

ground red chilesAlthough, the government remodeled the town with picturesque Qing-style features to attract tourists, you can find the old village hidden in the back streets. Basins of crushed dried red chiles, mountain mushrooms, and vegetables fill the marketplace. Along the dirt pathways and lanes, small shops carry out their business. A woman delivers disks of coal for cooking.

Guangdong GuildThroughout the newer renovated section, tea houses, gardens, and small shops line stone-paved streets. Several large guild complexes built by Hakkas from different provinces serve as social halls. In my research tour in 2005, we ate at two of these Hakka guilds, the Jiangxi and Guangdong.

The Guangdong Guild was built in 1747 by the Hakkas. The host’s ancestors are from Meizhou, the same area as my own family.

Although the Hakka maintained much of their traditional cuisine, in migration they often adapted to their new homes, adding different ingredients, adjusting to local tastes, and creating new dishes.  In this province, known for it spicy chile-fired cuisine, the Sichuan influences assert themselves immediately in our meals.

steamed fish with green onionsCompare steamed fish served in two different provinces. In Meizhou, in the center of the Hakka heartland in Guangdong province, the fish is steamed with just a bit of soy sauce and green onions (recipe on page 39 in The Hakka Cookbook). The natural flavor of the fish predominates.

steamed fish with chilesIn Luodai in Sichuan province, the fish is steamed under a avalanche of fresh green peppercorns and sliced green chiles. The taste is definitely hot and spicy as many dishes are in Sichuan.

Our Hakka host explains that although the traditional Hakka flavor profile is not spicy, they added the chile pepper to their cooking to match the climate. Not all the dishes on our table were fiery hot; some emphasized natural flavors and balanced the chile-laden dishes. However, the meals in Sichuan were far more spicy than those we ate in Guangdong.

Even in China, we see the effects of migration in a simple steamed fish. As I travel more, I see the effect of migration and environment on the food we eat.

 

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The story behind the art

Alan Lau and his wife Kazuko Nakane in China.

Alan Lau and his wife Kazuko Nakane in China.

Some people voice disappointment over the lack of color photos illustrating every dish in The Hakka Cookbook. I love food photos, too. However, color photos cost a fortune to produce. I knew as a first time author, it would be hard to find a publisher willing to front a rather obscure book with a huge photo budget attached.

Steamed fish painting by Alan Lau

Steamed fish painting by Alan Lau

I had worked with food styling and photographing for decades and knew the time, cost, and frustration involved. I also knew like fashion, food photographs look dated quickly. So I envisioned the book with art instead of photos. I felt paintings would provide a more timeless elegance to the book. Also I have an artist in the family who could provide the art at a good price.

Painting by Alan Lau

Pomelo painting by Alan Lau

My brother Alan Lau, a Seattle artist, toured China with me on my scouting trip and constantly captured scenes and inspirations along the way. The large pockets sewn onto the front of his shirt were big enough to hold notebooks and pens for a quick sketch or to record words for a poem. He has several painting styles. Some of his paintings possess a free, playful quality that I love. Often he paints with abstract abandon. For the book, he painted with a bit more control since the book’s budget limited him to one tint color. His art weaves a lovely visual trail throughout the pages. Many of his original paintings and color versions did not make it into the book but you can view some here.

 

Red chile painting by Alan Lau

Red chile painting by Alan Lau

Alan studied sumi-e  (East-Asian brush painting) with Nirakushi Toriumi (Nanga School) in  Kyoto, Japan from 1972 to 1974 and later received a B.A. in Art from the University of California in Santa Cruz in 1976. In the book, you will find many samples of his art. You will find his pea and pumpkin painting in the header of this blog.  View this slide show to see how he creates his paintings in his tiny studio.

Thanks Alan for making The Hakka Cookbook look so beautiful!

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Asia Society Hakka dinner

 

Martin Yan at Asia SocietyA few days ago, the Asia Society Northern California sponsored an event on Chinese Soul Food: Hakka Cuisine at M.Y. China in San Francisco featuring Chef Martin Yan, who wrote the forward for my book, and me. Robert Bullock, Assistant Director for Programs Northern California, proposed the idea almost two years ago. When we got a date from the globe-trotting celebrity Martin Yan, we were able to pull together an off-the-menu dinner program. So many people helped–Asia Society, M.Y. China, and A.F. & Co. They organized and publicized the event. Hanson Li of Saison Restaurant donated wine.

M.Y. China vegetable carvingMartin Yan and his chefs Tony Wu and Kin Fong and I collaborated on the menu. I was impressed that the chefs had studied my book and were able to convey an authentic Hakka flavor to the dinner. Even the intricate vegetable carving by Executive Chef Tony Wu reflected the mountain home of a Hakka village. With the exception of the bitter melon palate cleanser and the dessert, the menu reflected recipes from the book. Let me share the evening with you.

M.Y. China Pork BellyAfter Martin and I talked about Hakka history and cuisine, the meal opened with a Hakka classic, Pork Belly with Preserved Mustard Greens (kiu ngiuk moi choi). This dish epitomizes traditional Hakka characteristics: robust flavors, hearty satisfaction from the rich pork, and salty savoriness from soy sauce and preserved vegetables. M.Y. China’s rendition melted in my mouth. Individual portions were presented in small clay pots. To make this dish at home, see pages 42 to 44 in The Hakka Cookbook.

Bitter Melon M.Y. ChinaFor a innovative palate refresher, M.Y. China chefs created a new dish made from bitter melon, a popular vegetable in Hakka cuisine. I was a bit surprised when Executive Sous Chef Kin Fong suggested serving the bitter melon raw. Traditionally the bitter vegetable is cooked. It is often stuffed with a meat filling, then braised or poached. Slices may also be stir-fried. The chefs shaved raw bitter melon into paper-thin slices, blanched them briefly, and served them cold in an ice bowl. A scattering of edible flower petals and a dressing of acacia flower honey and wasabi elevated a humble vegetable to royalty status. The bitterness of the vegetable was toned down by blanching and balanced with the sweetness of the honey. Although Chilled Bitter Melon is not a traditional Hakka dish, it fit the meal beautifully, refreshing the palate and cutting the richness of the preceding pork belly.

Salt-baked Chicken M.Y. ChinaOne of the most famous Hakka classics is Salt-baked Chicken. In China, the chicken is rubbed with seasonings, wrapped in paper, and cooked in a hot salt. The chicken emerges juicy and aromatic. Outside of China, most restaurants and home cooks do shortcut versions, either rubbing the chicken with salt and steaming or poaching the chicken in salted water. The results more closely resemble Cantonese white-cut chicken. M.Y. China took no shortcuts and cooked the classic version in salt, a rare treat. They showed the guests the whole chicken, partially wrapped in paper and nestled in the hot salt. Then they returned to the kitchen to cut the chicken and brought it out with a ginger and scallion sauce.  For a recipe for the home cook try my version on page 64.

M.Y. China cumin beefCumin Beef is creation of Hakka chefs from India who created a new fusion cuisine to appeal to their Indian customers. It blends Chinese cooking techniques and ingredients with Indian spices. In this dish, beef is stir-fried with cumin seeds, chile, and soy sauce for a cross-cultural fusion of enticing flavors. M.Y. China used American Kobe beef in their version. This is an easy dish to make at home, see recipe in The Hakka Cookbook on page 183.

M.Y. China gai lonThe simplicity of the Chinese broccoli (gai lan) with Sweet Rice Wine (page 230) balanced some of the stronger flavors of the meal. The same basic recipe could be used with other vegetables.

 

 

M.Y. China almond royaleM.Y. China ended the meal with Almond Royale with Ginger Syrup, a sophisticated variation of the Chinese pudding. A fresh zesty ginger syrup floated atop and seeped into an almond-scented panna cotta-like base.

The evening ended with noodle dances by the M.Y. China chefs. Imagine pulling noodles Gangnam-style.

Heartfelt thanks from a very grateful author to all who made this event so special and help me share the taste of Hakka soul food.

 

 

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