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.

 

 

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.

 

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.

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.

 

 

5 gifts for the cook

gift with book and steamerLooking for the perfect gift?  If you have someone on your list who wants to learn to cook Chinese food, here are some suggestions for the novice to the more experienced cook. Of course, I would include The Hakka Cookbook that explains how to use the gift with detailed instructions on techniques, ingredients, and equipment as well as over 140 recipes for Chinese comfort food to special occasion festival dishes. Package a few items together for a Chinese cooking kit.

1. Wok. This is the ultimate all-purpose pan in the Chinese kitchen. Use the wok to stir-fry, deep-fry, braise, boil, and steam. For Western kitchens I would choose a 14-inch flat-bottom wok made from rolled steel or enamel-clad cast iron. Check with the Wok Shop. They will find the right wok for you and your stove. These hard working pans are bargain-priced compared to most high quality pans.  Also buy a wok spatula to make stir-frying easier.

2. Chinese cleaver. This is the equivalent of the French chef’s knife. It’s an all-purpose knife with the advantage of a wide blade that’s handy for crushing garlic and scooping up cut vegetables.

3. Chinese  metal steamer or bamboo steamer. These steamers can accommodate wide dishes often used to hold a whole fish, meats, and beaten eggs. Choose one about 11 to 12 inches wide for the most versatility. In a multilayer steamer you can cook several dishes at a time. Steaming is an easy and healthful way to cook. The Wok Shop as well as many Asian supermarkets sell these steamers. Also look for them online.

4. Staples of the Chinese pantry. Present an assortment of key seasonings, especially those that are not readily available in the supermarket, such as dark soy sauce, Chinese rice wine (shaoxing), fermented black beans or black bean and garlic sauce, ground bean sauce, Tianjin preserved vegetables, dried black fungus, and dried tangerine peel. Look at The Hakka Pantry starting on page 247 in The Hakka Cookbook for suggestions, descriptions, Chinese names, and shopping guidance. Or add one of my sauces, JADE Sichuan Peanut Sauce, that is ready to eat without cooking for a table sauce, salad dressing, or stir-fry sauce.

Fragrant Rice cooked in Chinese clay pot.

Fragrant Rice cooked in Chinese clay pot.

5. Chinese clay pot.  For the cook who has the basic equipment, consider giving a clay pot (also known as sand pot). Braise stews, simmer soups, and cook rice in these rustic pots that enhance the natural flavors of the ingredients. They also serve as handsome serving dishes. Best to buy these pots at an Asian cookware store such as the Wok Shop. Also available online.

Happy cooking and eating!

Garlic chives (aka Chinese chives)

Grass-like blades of Chinese chives add pungent garlic-onion essence.

I’ve been working my way through two pounds of garlic chives, also known as Chinese chives. I usually buy most of my produce at the farmers’ market, but sometimes they don’t have what I want. I needed about one cup thinly sliced garlic chives, probably four ounces would have been enough. So I went to the Asian supermarket 99 Ranch. The smallest package of garlic chives weighed in at two pounds. I was tempted to open the package and take out a small amount, but the package was taped shut and the package was already weighed and priced. Why do these big supermarkets package vegetables in such big quantities? Who wants 2 or 3 pounds of the same vegetable? If you own a restaurant or have a big family it might make sense, but I prefer to buy small quantities of several different kinds to eat throughout the week.

I bought the big package and made Noodles with Mushroom Pork Sauce (page 104), a wonderfully easy dish packed with flavor. It’s sort of like an Italian meat sauce with spaghetti, except this is Hakka style. Lots of stir-fried mushrooms, garlic chives, pork, and soy sauce make a dark savory sauce that spills over noodles and bean sprouts.

Now I have about 1 3/4 pounds of chives left. Luckily garlic chives are widely versatile. Use their pungent garlic-onion essence anywhere you use garlic and green onions which make a suitable substitute. The chives look much like grass with long green flat blades. Add them to stir-fried meats and vegetables, soups, dumpling fillings, and salads.

I have been making lots of Fried Eggs with Chives (page 80). This dish is so easy, it almost doesn’t need a recipe. It similar to an Italian fritatta, a golden fried egg pancake dense with  chives. You can make them any size, but I like to use a small pan like one used for omelets, because the eggs are easier to turn over.

Fried Eggs with Chives: Lightly beat 2 large eggs with a little salt and spoonful of water. Set a 6- inch frying pan over high heat. When the pan is hot, add 1 tablespoon of oil, then 3/4 cup thinly sliced garlic chives. Cook just until chives are bright green and wilt, then stir the wilted chives into the beaten eggs. Return the pan to high heat, add 2 tablespoons more oil, then the egg mixture. As the egg sets up, lift up the cooked edges to let the raw egg flow underneath. When golden on bottom, turn the eggs over to brown the other side. Slide onto a plate and eat with a bowl of hot rice for a simple supper.

What are your favorite ways to use garlic chives?

 

Curious about bitter melon?

In the summer, my father used to grow one of his favorite vegetables, bitter melon (foo gwa).  You might see it in farmers’ markets now.  Their appearance prompts curious questions. They don’t look much like melons, their shape is more like a slender gourd or a plump cucumber. Their green skin is furrowed with deep wrinkles and their interior is filled with a white pithy mesh of seeds.

Like their name implies, they are bitter. Although Hakka and many Asians love their strong numbing bite, it may be an acquired taste for the uninitiated. I confess, even though I love bitter in many forms, I find this vegetable stronger than I like. Some cooks claim certain techniques mellow the bitterness. Some simmer the melon uncovered in broth, so the bitterness can dissipate. Marie Chang from Toronto adds tomato to the braising sauce to add some sweetness to balance the bitterness of the vegetable in her recipe (page 163).

Those who love this vegetable celebrate and savor its bitterness. Also many eat it for its health benefits. With all its claims, you might call it a super food.  It is often referred to as a plant insulin and can help lower blood sugar. Perhaps that’s why my father ate so much bitter melon, he had diabetes. It is also high in iron, potassium, calcium. It claims to combat cancer, viruses, colds, psoriasis, and high cholesterol.

To stuff bitter melon: cut melon in rings, remove seeds and pith, and fill cavity.

My father, like many Hakka, liked to stuff the melon. He cut the melon crosswise in rings, removed the seeds, and filled the cavity with a pork filling. He poached it in broth to make soup. See my father’s recipe in the cookbook on page 24. In Hong Kong, I ate a new version stuffed with glutinous rice, Chinese sausage or bacon, and Tianjin vegetables (page 74).

The stuffed rings are most commonly poached in broth, pan browned and braised, or steamed. You can also slice the melon and stir-fry it. Or imbed thin slices in a frittata-like omelet (page 80).

The next time you see this funny looking vegetable, be adventurous and give it a try. You might like it.

Fermented black beans

The key ingredients in black bean and garlic sauce are pungent, earthy fermented black beans and garlic.

The secret to adding robust, savory, salty nuances to food comes in the form of small black beans. These flavor capsules are soy beans fermented with salt and spices until pungent and aromatic. Called fermented black beans, salted black beans, preserved black beans or dou chi or dul see, they magically add a remarkable depth of flavor.

For instance, my mother often stir-fried cauliflower with fermented black beans. She would rinse the beans, then mash them with garlic with the end of the wood handle of her cleaver to make a coarse paste. She would mix the paste with minced fresh ginger and a little soy sauce. Then she would stir-fry the sauce with ground beef and cauliflower. The sauce contributed a earthy pungency to the somewhat bland cauliflower The recipe is on page 27 of The Hakka Cookbook. If you’re in a hurry, use a purchased black bean and garlic sauce found in many supermarkets. I find the Lee Kum Kee brand to be a good, widely available brand.

Chinese comfort food, Cauliflower and Beef in Black Bean Sauce

Look for fermented black beans  sold in plastic bags or round yellow cartons in Asian markets. The fermented black beans keep almost indefinitely stored airtight in the refrigerator. I also love a few black beans sprinkled over steamed fish or pork. Add a spoonful to stir-fried meat and vegetables. It is remarkably versatile and so delicious.

How to make wontons

Ready to make wontons? Start with a great filling. I have a delicious option in The Hakka Cookbook, page 148. Ground pork is flecked with dried orange peel (use fresh, if you don’t have dried). Tianjin preserved vegetables (use soy sauce as a substitute) contribute a savory saltiness.  And chunks of water chestnut pebble the filling with crunchy texture. Use the mixture as a filling for wonton or pat it into even layer and steam to make a juicy pork hash, Chinese comfort food.

For wonton, wrap the filling in a square pasta-like wonton skin, available in supermarkets and Asian grocery stores. There are many ways to fill wonton. My three-year grand daughter proved that to be true as she created her own technique for filling them. When boiled, it doesn’t make much difference. When I wrote the recipe to make wontons, I tried to find the technique that would be the most easily understood without photos. Unfortunately, the publisher had no budget for photos but you can see them here.

Place filling in center of wonton skin. Fold skin over filling to make a triangle. Pull ends down and seal tips with a little beaten egg.

For fried or boiled wontons, try this method: Place a wonton skin on a flat surface with a corner facing you. Cover the remaining skins with plastic wrap to keep moist (this is important, if they dry out they will crack when folded). Mound 1 level teaspoon of the pork filling in the center of the wonton skin. Fold the bottom half of the skin over the filling to make a triangle. Moisten one side corner of the base of the triangle with a little beaten egg. Now this is where it gets tricky without visuals. Pull the side corners down below the filling and overlap; press to seal. They should sort of resemble a tortellini with a triangular flap. I wanted to say “resemble a nurse’s cap” but nurses no longer wear white starched caps with wing-like flaps.

Place filling in center of wonton skin. Gather wonton skin up and around filling. Squeeze gently so filling sticks to wrapper.

If this seems too complicated, you can simply drop the filling in the center of the wrapper. Bring the wonton skin up around the filling, gather the skin around the filling and gently press the moist meat to the wonton skin so it sticks. I think this method is better for boiled wonton, but they can be fried. They’re just not as pretty as the first method when fried.

The filled wonton can be placed on flour-dusted baking sheets. Cover them so they don’t dry out. When done filling the wonton, cook, refrigerate for up to 8 hours, or freeze. When solid, pack the frozen wonton in containers, ready to boil whenever you need a quick meal or snack.

 

 

 

A lesson in soy sauce

Power to women! A few days ago, I gave a master class on Hakka Cuisine at the WCR (Women Chefs and Restauranteurs) National Conference in San Francisco.  This group of professional women in the restaurant business celebrated their 20th anniversary. It was an honor to meet such smart, strong, and supportive women. They reminded me of Hakka women, known for their hard-working characteristics and strength.

In my class, I provided a short tasting on different types of soy sauce, a primary ingredient in Hakka dishes. I thought I would share this information with you. Soy sauce is a seasoning liquid brewed from naturally fermented soy beans and wheat. It gives a deep flavor and rich color. The basic types are:

Soy sauce types: all-purpose soy sauce: Kikkoman or Pearl River Bridge Light Superior Soy Sauce; Koon Chun Black Soy Sauce; ABC Sweet Soy Sauce (kecap manis)

1. All-purpose soy sauce.  I simply call it soy sauce in the book. The Japanese soy sauce, such as Kikkoman has a higher percentage of wheat which mellows the sauce. Chinese soy sauce, such as Pearl River Bridge Light Superior Soy Sauce, contains a higher percentage of soy beans which produces a stronger flavor.  In Asia, this type may also be called light (not referring to sodium), white, or thin soy sauce.

2. Dark or black soy sauce. This soy sauce ages longer and is blended with a little molasses which lends a slight caramelized sweet finish. It is darker and has a stronger flavor which enhances the color of stews and braises. For a quick substitute, use 2 parts all-purpose soy sauce and 1 part molasses.

3. Sweet soy sauce. Often used in Southeast Asia. This dark, thick, syrupy sweet soy sauce is blended with palm syrup. The Indonesian version is called kecap manis. The Hakkas in India make a similar sauce and call it red sauce. They boil soy sauce, sugar, and fragrant seasonings such as ginger, lemon grass, tangerine peel, star anise, and cinnamon until the sauce is thick and glossy (recipe on page 269). Add the dark, intense, sweet sauce to noodles, stews, meats, and stir-fries, or use as a dipping sauce. For an quick alternative for cooking, mix equal parts dark (preferable) or all-purpose soy sauce and packed brown sugar.