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.

 

 

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.

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.