Braised mushrooms for the holidays

Braised mushroomsLooking for sides for your holiday dinners? Consider braised mushrooms. This versatile side will complement almost any holiday headliner such as turkey, prime rib, or roast pork.

I tasted this dish in Luodai, an easily accessible Hakka village, just outside of Chengdu, capital of Sichuan province in China. About 90 percent of the twenty three thousand residents are Hakka. The town is home to several large guild complexes, built with donations from Hakka from different provinces of China. These guilds serve as social halls with restaurants and meeting rooms. We dined at huge Hakka feasts at these guilds. Mushrooms appeared in all our meals. Hakka chefs briefly braised the local mountain mushrooms in a rich broth to emphasize their natural umami essence.

 

 

Braised Mountain Mushrooms

Use an assortment of mushrooms. Your farmers’ market or Asian grocery store will likely have a good selection.

Makes 4 to 6 servings as part of a multi-course meal

12 ounces assorted fresh mushrooms (oyster, king oyster, shiitake, button, beech, or enoki (limit enoki to 2 to 3 ounces)

1 small leek

2 tablespoons vegetable oil

2 tablespoons thinly sliced garlic

8 thin slices fresh ginger, lightly crushed

1 cup chicken or vegetable broth

2 tablespoons Chinese rice wine (shaoxing) or dry sherry
1 tablespoon soy sauce
1/4 teaspoon salt, or to taste

1/8 teaspoon ground white pepper

2 tablespoons water

1 tablespoon cornstarch

 

1. Trim off and discard the ends and any soft of discolored portions from mushrooms. If mushrooms are fairly clean gently brush off any debris. Otherwise lightly rinse mushrooms, drain well, and pat dry. Remove and discard stems of shiitake mushrooms. If the oyster and shiitake mushrooms are wider than 3 inches, cut in half through the caps. Slice the king oyster and button mushrooms lengthwise about 1/2-inch thick. If desired, cut the long king oyster mushrooms in half crosswise. Separate clumps of beech and enoki mushrooms into clusters about 1/2 inch wide and leave whole. Trim off and discard root end and tough dark green top from the leek. Cut leek in half lengthwise and rinse well under water, separating layers to remove any grit. Thinly sliced the leek crosswise.

2. Place a 14-inch wok or 12-inch frying pan over medium-high heat. When the pan is hot, after about 1 minute, add the oil and rotate the pan to spread. Add the garlic, ginger, and leek, stir-frying until leek is limp, about 30 seconds. Add the mushrooms (except enoki) and stir-fry until lightly browned, 2 to 3 minutes. Add the broth, wine, soy sauce, salt, and white pepper. Bring to a boil, reduce heat and simmer, stirring often until mushrooms are limp, 2 to 3 minutes.

3. Meanwhile, in a small bowl, mix the water and cornstarch. Add cornstarch mixture to pan and stir until sauce boils, about 30 seconds. Stir in enoki mushrooms, (if using). Transfer to a serving bowl.

How to stir-fry cucumber

Cool as a cucumber? Not this one, it’s hot. Most Westerners eat cucumbers cold in salads, pickles, and sandwiches. But Chinese often cook cucumber. When briefly stir-fried, cucumber surprisingly retains much of its refreshing cool essence and crunch.

Stir-fry the cucumber with poultry or shrimp. Or follow the recipe on page 202 in The Hakka Cookbook, Stir-fried Chicken and Cucumbers. A mild sweet and sour sauce lightly melds the chicken and cucumber together.

Or for a simple vegetable dish, consider stir-frying the cucumber with lots of fresh ginger shreds, and a bit of sugar, vinegar, and chile.

Hot Gingered Cucumber

You don’t need thin-skinned Persian, English, or Japanese cucumbers for this dish. Thick skinned cucumbers work just fine in this stir-fry. Partially peel the cucumbers, alternating strips of green skin and white flesh down its length. Slice the cucumber in half lengthwise, scrape out the seeds and slice each half lengthwise. Cut each cucumber quarter diagonally into 1/2-inch thick slices.

Makes 4 side-dish servings

1 large cucumber (12 to 16 ounces)

1 tablespoon vegetable oil

2 tablespoons thinly slivered fresh ginger

1/4 cup water

1 tablespoon rice vinegar

2 teaspoons sugar

1/2 teaspoon salt

Thinly sliced red or green chile rings to taste

Chopped cilantro, optional

 

1. Peel down the length of the cucumber, alternating a 1/2-inch strip of green skin alongside each peeled strip for a striped effect. Cut the cucumber in half lengthwise. With a spoon, scoop out and discard the seeds. Cut each half in half lengthwise. Cut each quarter diagonally into 1/2-inch thick slices; discard the ends.

 

2. Set a 14-inch wok or 12-inch frying pan over high heat. When the pan is hot, add the oil and rotate pan to spread. Stir in ginger. Add cucumber and stir-fry to coat with oil. Add water and stir-fry just until cucumber is barely tender to bite but still retains some crunch, about 2 minutes. Add vinegar, sugar, salt, and chile to taste, stir-fry to mix. Pour into a serving dish and sprinkle with cilantro.

Mom’s black bean spareribs

 

My mom mixed bite-sized chunks of pork spareribs with a pungent mix of fermented black beans, garlic, and ginger. As the pork steamed, this combo of seasonings infused the pork with savory punch and filled the kitchen with mouth-watering aromas. In about an hour, with relatively little hands-on work, a succulent, intensely flavorful dish emerged.

Although the Cantonese also claim this dish, I prefer my mom’s more robust Hakka version. She used a generous measure of fermented black beans and often coarsely crushed them with the garlic and ginger to release their essence. She mixed the paste with soy sauce and the pork, then steamed the meat until meltingly tender.

Fermented black beans (aka preserved or salted black beans)

The fermented black beans (also called salted or preserved black beans), are small black soybeans fermented with salt and spices until soft and pungent. Add to meats, seafood, and stir-fries to contribute a distinctive funky, earthy flavor. Look for the beans in small plastic pouches or cardboard cartons in Asian markets.

Mom’s Black Bean Pork Spareribs

Ask the butcher to saw across the spareribs to make about 1 inch wide strips. Most Asian markets sell ribs precut into strips. Serve with hot rice to soak up the plentiful juices.

Makes 4 main-course servings or 6 to 8 servings as part of a multi-course meal

1 tablespoon soy sauce

1 tablespoon Chinese rice wine (shaoxing) or dry Sherry

1 tablespoon cornstarch

2 tablespoons fermented black beans, rinsed and chopped

1 tablespoon minced garlic

1 tablespoon minced fresh ginger

1 1/2 pounds pork spareribs, sawed across bone into 1-inch wide strips

2 tablespoons thinly sliced green onion (optional)

 

1. In a wide shallow heatproof rimmed dish that will fit inside a steamer such as a 9-inch Pyrex pie dish, mix soy sauce, wine, and cornstarch. (If desired, for a more intense flavor, lightly crush fermented black beans, garlic, and ginger in a mortar and to make a coarse paste. Skip this step for a chunkier texture.) Mix fermented black beans, garlic, and ginger with soy mixture.

2. Trim off and discard large pads of surface fat off pork. Cut ribs apart between bones. Add pork to soy mixture and mix to coat.

3. Set dish on a rack over boiling water in a steamer or wok. Cover and steam over high heat until pork is tender to bite, 50 to 60 minutes. If water evaporates before steaming is complete, add more boiling water as needed. Carefully remove dish from steamer. Skim fat from juices and discard. Garnish with green onions.

 

 

Foolproof rice without a rice cooker

Confession: I’ve never owned a rice cooker. For decades I have cooked rice as my grandmother taught me when I was just a little girl. I simply use a pan.

Popo filled a saucepan about one quarter full of Texas long grain rice. She filled the pan halfway full with water and swished her hand through the rice until the water became very cloudy. She carefully poured off the water, leaving the rice behind in the pan. She repeated rinsing the rice several times until the water was almost clear. After pouring off the water the last time, she added more water, just enough to cover the surface of the rice by about one inch. She used her index finger as a measure, the water should just reach the first line or joint of her index finger. She set the pan over medium-high heat. When the water came to a boil, she reduced the heat to medium-low and when most of the water evaporated and the surface of the rice was exposed, she covered the pan, and cooked the rice over very low heat for about 10 minutes. Cooked this way, the rice had tender grains that stuck slightly together. Often a golden crust would form on the bottom, a tasty treat for us kids. The drawback with this technique was that if the heat was too high or if the rice cooked too long at the last stage of cooking, it could develop a thick crust or burn.

Now, I eat far less rice than when I was young. I rarely eat the rice crust. To avoid waste and the rice crust I’ve simplified my rice cooking technique.

The first part follows Popo’s directions. Start with a pan that has thick sides and bottom, preferably with a nonstick finish. This is important. It is easy to burn the rice in thin pans. I usually use a 2-quart pan. Fill the pan with long grain rice such as Thai Jasmine to a depth of 1 to 1 1/2 inches deep. Remember rice may almost triple in volume so allow room for expansion. Rinse the rice several times until the water is almost clear, then after draining the last time add more water until it measures about 1 inch deep over the top surface of the rice. Bring to a simmer over medium-high heat. Once it simmers, cover the pan and reduce heat to low and cook 15 minutes. Remove from heat and let stand covered about 5 minutes. Then you are ready to serve tender grains of rice, evenly cooked throughout the pan.

 

Easy Chinese steamed fish dinner

Chinese steamed fish and riceNeed a quick, no-fuss, healthy dinner? Steamed fish, rice, and green vegetables is my go-to meal that cooks in one versatile pan—a Chinese multi-layer steamer. With relatively little effort, I am rewarded with a complete meal highlighted by moist succulent fish.

The origin is Chinese. In a Hakka restaurant in Meizhou, China, we ate a steamed whole fish, very simply seasoned with a bit of ginger, rice wine, soy sauce, and green onions (page 39 in The Hakka Cookbook). Throughout China, we ate different variations of steamed fish, sometimes with fermented black beans, chiles, red peppers, and pickled mustard greens. In Meizhou, we also ate rice steamed in small clay bowls (page 270 in The Hakka Cookbook). I merge these two in this easy, quick meal. Chinese stacked steamer

With a big Chinese steamer this meal cooks efficiently in about 30 minutes.  I use a  self-contained multi-layer metal steamer. You could also use two stacked bamboo steamer racks over a 14-inch wok. Cook bowls of rice on one layer and fish on the top layer. When both are done, plunge vegetables into the boiling water in the base pan and cook briefly, then drain. Look for the steamers at the Wok Shop, Asian cookware stores and Asian supermarkets, and online. Choose steamers or bamboo steamer racks at least 11- to 12-inches wide to accommodate wide plates.

Steamed Fish and Rice for 2

In this easy version, I often use a piece of fish fillet. You can also use a small whole fish and increase the seasonings. Season fish as you like: choose from shiitake mushrooms slivers, sliced chiles, dried hot chile flakes, pickled mustard green slivers, lemon slices, fresh herbs. If desired, lightly mix the cooked green vegetables with Chinese oyster sauce and sesame oil to taste.

2/3 cup white long grain rice

12 to 16 ounces fish fillet such as rock fish, salmon, or halibut

1 tablespoon Chinese rice wine (shaoxing)

1 tablespoon soy sauce

1 tablespoon thinly slivered fresh ginger

1 tablespoon fermented black beans, rinsed (optional)

Salt to taste

1 green onion, thinly sliced or slivered, included tops

6 to 8 ounces Chinese green vegetable such as Chinese broccoli (gai lan) or yau choy (ends, trimmed and cut in 3-inch lengths), or baby bok choy (cut in halves or quarters lengthwise)

1 tablespoon vegetable oil or sesame oil

Cilantro leaves (optional)

 

1.  Fill the base of a Chinese metal steamer half to two-thirds full of water or a 14-inch wok (if using bamboo steamer racks). Set wok over a ring if it has a round bottom to stablize.  Bring water to a boil over high heat.

2.  Rinse 1/3 cup rice in fine wire strainer; drain. Place rice in a small Chinese rice bowl (about 1 cup size). Fill bowl with 1/3 cup water. Repeat for second bowl. Repeat if you want additional bowls of rice. Place rice bowls in one steamer rack. When water boils, set filled steamer rack over water, cover and steam about 15 minutes.

3. Meanwhile rinse fish and pat dry. Place fish (skin-side down, if attached) on shallow heatproof dish (such as a 9-inch Pyrex pie pan) that will fit inside a steamer. Drizzle fish evenly with wine and soy sauce. Sprinkle evenly with ginger, black beans, and salt. Sprinkle white part of onion over fish. Set fish in second steamer rack.

4. After rice has steamed 15 minutes, set steamer rack with fish on top of rack with rice. Cover fish. (In a wok, you may need to add more boiling water as it evaporates.) Continue steaming until fish looks almost opaque in thickest part, 8 to 10 minutes for about 1 inch thick piece and rice is tender. In a wok, you may need to add more boiling water as it evaporates. When fish is done, lift off both steamer racks and set the stacked racks on a towel-covered counter. (Be careful, steam is very hot.) Keep steamer racks covered and allow fish to rest.

5.  Add more water to pan if pan is less than half full and return to boil over high heat. Add vegetable and cook until bright green and barely tender, about 2 minutes. Drain, place vegetable in a serving bowl.

6.  Sprinkle remaining green onions over fish. In a small pan over high heat, cook the vegetable oil until very hot and pour over green onions and fish. If using sesame oil, do not heat. Sprinkle fish with cilantro. Serve fish with rice and vegetables.

Searching for Hakka restaurants in Bangkok

On past trips to Thailand, I had never found any Hakka restaurants. I knew Hakka lived in Thailand, but most Chinese I had met previously were Teochow. Through my book, I had met a Hakka who grew up in Bangkok. Luckily when visiting Thailand a few months ago, my new Hakka friend offered to give me a tour of Bangkok’s Chinatown.

Piang Ki Pochana
Tel: 02 221 6024

As we explored the streets bustling with Chinese New Year shoppers, we decided to try a hidden, old time Hakka restaurant in the area. Piang Ki Pochana is tucked into an alley on the way to Wat Kusolsamankarn and The Hakkas Association of Thailand. This tiny hole-in-the wall restaurant specializes in Hakka dishes. We ordered the tofu skin stuffed with minced pork, steamed stuffed tofu, pork belly with picked vegetables, and red-hued stir-fried rice noodles. Our favorite was the paper-thin tofu skin wrapped around a bit of minced pork and fried until extra-crisp. We dipped the crispy morsels into a sweet sauce infused with bits of pickled garlic.

Library at the Hakka Association of Thailand

Afterwards we visited the Hakka Association that includes an event hall and a small library. The library contains Hakka books and publications, most are written in Chinese. If you’re ever in Bangkok, check it out.

A few days later, we tried another Hakka restaurant Aiew Hin Pochana, a short BTS ride outside of city central.

Aiew Hin Pochana
Tel: 086 9456261

At this small homey restaurant we dipped small fried spring rolls filled with pork and water chestnuts into a sweet garlic-infused syrup (photo below).

Pork-filled spring rolls at Aiew Hin Pochana

Their version of pork belly moi choy was dark and succulent. Pork-stuffed tofu chunks, pan-browned on one side and braised in a clear sauce, flecked with red yeast had a mild flavor (photo below).

In our limited tasting of Hakka food in Bangkok, I was surprised to find the dishes rather mild in flavor, especially in the local environment of very spicy Thai cuisine. I need to try more dishes to get a bigger picture of the Hakka restaurants in Thailand. The red yeast rice (kuk 紅 米 麴 ) was present at both meals. These tiny dark red particles are a fermentation by-product of the red yeast growing on cooked non glutinous rice. It adds a deep red color and faint mineral flavor to rice wine, soups, sauces, and fermented bean curd.

Anyone have recommendations for Hakka restaurants in Thailand? Perhaps Hakka cooking only remains in home kitchens. Love to hear from you.

A popular New York Times recipe

Last week in the April 1, 2017 edition of  The New York Times digital feature “Our Ten Most Popular Recipes Right Now” I was surprised to find Stir-fried Pork and Pineapple from The Hakka Cookbook (page 92). A friend had alerted me to the publication. The recipe had come from an article that Mark Bittman had written in 2013 after he had visited my kitchen to cook with me from The Hakka Cookbook. Here’s the original story.

I had eaten this easy dish in a Hakka tea house in Taiwan. Stir-fry pork strips with fresh pineapple chunks, bits of crunchy black fungus, and hot chile slices. The dish reminds me of a purer, leaner, fresher take on sweet and sour pork. Give it a try.

Chinese New Year long life noodles

roosterHappy New Year! Khiung Hee Fat Choy! 恭禧發財!  On January 28, 2017 we celebrate Chinese New Year. This year will be the Year of the Rooster.

Food plays an important element of this celebration. Many traditional New Year dishes using ingredients with auspicious symbols and meanings appear on the new year’s table. Many family favorites also appear at the dinner.

I adapted this noodle recipe for the family potluck. The noodles symbolize long life. These noodles can be made ahead, served at room temperature, and are highly transportable. The easy sauce that dresses the noodles is adapted from Fresh Ginger-Onion Sauce on page 66 of The Hakka Cookbook. I have used the zesty sauce on noodles and added a few crunchy vegetables to make a room temperature side dish. This sauce is often served with Steeped Chicken (pages 22, 23), Salt-Baked Chicken (page 64), or Salt-Poached Chicken (page 226). For a festive meal, serve the noodles with one of these Hakka chicken preparations.

Fresh Ginger-Onion Long Life Noodles

If desired, add 2 tablespoons Chinese black vinegar (Chinkiang) or rice vinegar to the sauce for a slight tang.

Makes 6 to 8 side-dish servings

Noodles:

1 pound dried Chinese wheat noodles

3 or 4 stalks celery, thinly sliced on the diagonal

1 red bell pepper, cut in thin slivers

Fresh Ginger-Onion Sauce

1/3 cup minced peeled fresh ginger

3 tablespoons minced green onions, including green tops

1 tablespoon minced garlic

1/3 cup vegetable oil

2 tablespoons soy sauce, or to taste

1/2 teaspoon kosher salt, or to taste

 

1. For the noodles: In a 6 to 8 quart pan over high heat bring about 3 quarts water to a boil. Add noodles, stir to separate and cook until noodles are barely tender to bite, 5 or 6 minutes. Drain and rinse with water well. Drain well and place in a large bowl. Add celery and red pepper.

2. For the ginger-onion sauce: In a 1 1/2 to 2 cup heatproof bowl, mix the ginger, onion, and garlic. In a small pan over high heat cook the oil until it ripples when the pan is tilted and is very hot, 1 to 2 minutes. Pour the hot oil over the ginger mixture (it will bubble vigorously) and mix well. Add 2 tablespoons soy sauce and 1/2 teaspoon salt.

3. Pour Ginger-Onion Sauce over noodles and mix well. Add more soy sauce and salt to taste, if desired. Serve warm or cool.

 

Holiday gift: The Hakka Cookbook

large version of cover of The Hakka Cookbook

Best Chinese Cuisine Cookbook 2012 by Gourmand World Cookbook Awards

Need a holiday gift for your Hakka children or foodie friend? Consider The Hakka Cookbook. It’s a perfect and unique gift especially for Hakka who want to learn more about their history, heritage, and cuisine. The book tells the story of the migration of China’s “guest people” known as the Hakka. It follows my journey to discover my own Hakka identity as I travel and interview Hakka throughout the world. These transplanted Hakka share their stories and their food. Through the easy-to-follow recipes, cook your way to the Hakka soul.

Ask your local bookstore to order The Hakka Cookbook for you. Or buy online. Check this link for sources and details. Online retailers such as Amazon (North America, France, Germany, UK, Japan, and Canada) and Kinokuniya Online Store Bookweb (Southeast Asia) have sold the book in the past.

Easy winter melon soup

Winter melon soup

 

Winter melon soup sometimes appears at Chinese banquets, often steamed and grandly served in a whole melon. You don’t need to wait for a banquet to eat this delicious, soothing soup. It’s easy to make a simple version of this Chinese classic at home.

winter melonLook for the frosty white-tinged green-skinned melons with snowy white flesh at farmers’ markets and Asian supermarkets. The melon’s size can equal that of a large watermelon so it is often cut and sold in chunks. When simmered in broth the flesh softens into delicate morsels with a mild, soothing, refreshing taste.

This Hakka home-style version uses ground meat for a quick weeknight soup. Feel free to embellish with bits of ham, seafood, or mushrooms.

Easy Winter Melon Soup

Makes 6 servings as part of a multi-course meal

8 cups chicken broth

6 slices fresh ginger, lightly crushed

2 pounds winter melon

1 large carrot, sliced 1/4-inch thick (optional)

8 ounces ground pork, chicken, or turkey

1 tablespoon minced garlic

1 tablespoon cornstarch

1 tablespoon Chinese rice wine (shaoxing) or dry sherry

1 tablespoon soy sauce

About 1/4 teaspoon salt

1/2 cup chopped cilantro

 

1. In a 4-quart pan over high heat, bring broth and ginger to a boil.

2. Meanwhile, cut skin off melon and scoop out and discard seeds. Cut melon into about 1-inch chunks. Add melon and carrot to broth. Bring to a boil, reduce heat to low, cover and simmer until melon is almost tender when pierced and translucent, 10 to 20 minutes.

3. Meanwhile, mix pork, garlic, cornstarch, wine, soy sauce, and 1/4 teaspoon salt. Drop 1/2-inch wide lumps of pork mixture into soup. Bring to a boil, cover and simmer until pork is no longer pink in center of thickest part, about 5 minutes. Remove ginger slices, if desired. Skim off fat and discard. Add salt to taste and cilantro. Ladle  soup into bowls.