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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Mushrooms for Hakka recipes

king oyster mushroom, noodlesExplore the rich variety of mushrooms in Asia’s cuisine.  In China, these umami rich fungi delighted us with their versatility. In Luodai  a Hakka village near Chengdu in Sichuan province, we ate the local wild mountain mushrooms braised in broth and fried as fritters. In Yunnan province we sampled a dozen varieties in the famed mushroom hotpot.

Assorted mushrooms in Yunnan.

Assorted mushrooms in Yunnan.

In North America, some of these mushrooms are cultivated or imported from China. You will discover a wide variety in Asian supermarkets. I have always loved the dark, meaty, shiitake mushrooms. Dried shiitake reside in my pantry as a flavor-building staple.

A new discovery for me was the king oyster mushroom that goes by many names such as xing bao gu, shing bao goo, king trumpet, royal trumpet, or Trumpet Royale. With these big fleshy mushrooms their large, thick white bulbous stems predominate over their rather small light brown caps. Both stem and cap are edible. These mushrooms have a  firm, meaty texture that keeps their shape when cooked. Their mild flavor deepens and becomes more robust when cooked.

These large mushrooms are wonderfully versatile. In the Hakka Cookbook, I deep-fried them and served them with Sichuan Pepper Salt (page 68) and braised them in broth (page 70).

noodles with pork mushroom sauce 2In one of my favorite recipes, Noodles with Pork Mushroom Sauce (page 104), I diced and stir-fried the mushrooms with pork, shiitake mushrooms, and garlic chives to make a robust sauce for noodles. Recently I made a vegetarian version of this recipe by replacing the pork with more king oyster and shiitake mushrooms and vegetable broth for the chicken broth. I used Pearl River Bridge Mushroom-Flavored Dark Soy Sauce to intensify the flavor. To see the recipe, visit the Asia Society San Francisco Newsletter. The recipe was featured to promote an upcoming Off-the-menu dinner featuring Chef Martin Yan and me, discussing Hakka Soul Food at M.Y. China in San Francisco on March 3, 2014.  Hope to see you there.

Discover the delicious world of mushrooms. You’ll find great variety at the farmers’ market and Asian supermarkets. They are often interchangeable, although each variety contributes their own distinct personality.

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What’s cooking for Chinese New Year

Basin Feast (Puhn Choi)Khiung Hee Fat Choy! (Hakka dialect) May you have a prosperous New Year!  Chinese New Year arrives January 31 and families will gather for a special meal over the next two weeks.

Many will eat traditional meals filled with foods that sound like fortuitous words or whose shape or color symbolizes prosperity, unity, wealth, fertility, family harmony, or good fortune. Oranges, mandarins, and kumquats resemble gold. Lettuce signifies prosperity. Whole fish symbolizes prosperity. Spring rolls, with their shape of a gold bar, represents wealth. Shiitake mushrooms, a symbol of longevity, also relate to seizing opportunities. Whole chickens with head, tail, and feet indicate completeness. Green vegetables represent close family ties. You will find many recipes that use symbolic ingredients throughout The Hakka Cookbook. However, if you want to try something new, consider these special dishes I discovered in my travels for the cookbook.

Basin Feast (puhn choi, page 82)

We gasped when the waitress set a huge metal basin filled with a mountain of food before us. We were at Chung Shing Restaurant in In Tai Po, New Territories of Hong Kong, The pan was literally a wash basin layered with a multicourse feast. This one-pan feast is popular for family gatherings such as Chinese New Years and weddings because everyone eats from one dish which symbolizes unity. Guests gather around the basin and literally eat from top to down, working their way through the courses.

Vegetable Tea  (choi cha, page 113)

During the first ten days of Chinese New Year Loy Sye Moi makes Vegetable Tea  (page 113) which is basically an artfully presented healthy vegetable soup. She arranges eight different stir-fried greens in each bowl to create a pretty kaleidoscope of greens. Eight is a lucky number and represents good fortune. Each vegetable contributes a different flavor and texture. She pours a clear broth carefully over the vegetables and garnishes with spoonful of ground peanuts and sesame seeds.

Savory Pounded Tea Rice (lui cha fan, page 119)

A heartier variation of vegetable tea is made by the Ho Po clan, a Hakka subgroup  who serve it for Chinese New Year. This version includes rice and a pounded herbaceous tea. I first tasted this healthy rice bowl in Singapore and later Amy Wong from Malaysia shared her recipe with me. A bevy of vegetables, tofu, and peanuts blanket a bowl of garlic rice. Pour a tea, made from pounding fresh green herbs, dry tea leaves, nuts, and seeds, over the rice and mix together for deliciously wholesome rice bowl. It’s a healthy and energizing way to start the new year.

 Taro Abacus Beads (wu tiuh pan jue, page 125)

In Singapore I encounter Taro Abacus Beads. Their name comes from their shape which resembles the pierced disks on a Chinese abacus, an ancient, low-tech adding machine. Hakkas often cook this dish for Chinese New Years to bring wealth in business. These chewy pasta disks resemble a springy, sticky version of Italian gnocchi. Taro replaces potato and tapioca starch replaces wheat flour typically used in Italian gnocchi. The Hakka version has a nuttier flavor and chewy texture. Stir-fry the boiled taro abacus beads with vegetables or cloak with a mushroom pork sauce.

Whatever you cook, Khiung Hee Fat Choy! May you have a delicious, prosperous, and happy new year!

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Sweet soy chow mein (aka red noodles)

Sweet soy chow meinWhile in Toronto, I had heard about Hakka red noodles. It was a special dish that the Hakka from India made. The name is a bit misleading, because they don’t look red, the color is closer to black-brown. The taste is sweet and savory. Although no one could explain the origin of the name, the noodles were seductively delicious.

In India, Hakka cooks stash a bottle of a special sweet soy sauce (hung mee or red sauce) in their refrigerator to make a sweet noodle dish known as hung mee chow mein. It is basically chow mein–stir-fried noodles with vegetables and meat. What distinguishes it from the common variety is a thick syrupy  sauce that is dark, aromatic, sweet, and salty. The sauce is similar to the Indonesian kecap manis which can be used as an alternative. kecap manis

To make this Sweet Soy Chow Mein (recipe on page 178 in The Hakka Cookbook), stir-fry slivers of meat and vegetables, then add cooked noodles and sweet soy sauce (recipe follows) or purchased kecap manis. The sauce will coat the noodles with a dark, glossy sheen.

Sweet Soy Sauce

This sauce is easy to make. Simply boil soy sauce with brown sugar and aromatics until thick and syrupy, almost like honey or pancake syrup. Measuring the sauce will help you attain the right consistency. The salty soy sauce balances the sweetness of the sugar so the results taste savory rather than like dessert.

1 piece dried tangerine peel (2 in. wide)

1 stalk fresh lemongrass

3 thin slices fresh ginger

1 1/2 cups water

3/4 cup dark soy sauce (also called black soy sauce)

1 cinnamon stick

1 star anise

1. Soak the tangerine peel in hot water until soft, about 15 minutes; drain. Trim off and discard leafy tops of lemon grass. Cut the stalk in about 3-inch sections. Lightly crush lemongrass and ginger with the flat side of a knife blade.

2. In a 3-quart pan over high heat, bring tangerine peel, lemongrass, ginger, water, soy sauce, sugar, cinnamon, and star anise to a boil. Reduce heat to medium-high and boil gently until the liquid is greatly reduced and slightly syrupy, about 20 minutes. Pour through a wire strainer set over a 1-quart glass measure. Discard solids. The sauce should measure about 1 1/3 cups. If greater than 1 1/3 cups, return to pan and boil, uncovered, until reduced to the amount. Or if the amount is less than 1 1/3 cups, add water to make that amount. Use or store in refrigerator up to 6 months.

 

 

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Happy holidays!

2013 was a wonderful year for The Hakka Cookbook. Thanks to the many people who supported the project, reviewed the book, sponsored events, and bought the book. A few highlights:

  •  Named “Best Chinese Cuisine Cookbook in the World” by the Gourmand World Cookbook Awards in Paris.
  • Appeared in the New York Times in a story by Mark Bittman.
  • Within a year, a second printing of The Hakka Cookbook was ordered.
  • The greatest reward of all was meeting so many Hakka all over the world (chee gah ngin).

Thank you all.  I wish you and your families Joyful Holidays!  May 2014 be filled with Good Health, Good Food, and Good Friends!

 

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