Chinese, cooking

There’s Nothing Like Eating with Chopsticks

06.12.08 | 1 Comment

I’m just going to get this whole thing started without any introduction. So consider that sentence as your greeting—just follow along and you’ll catch on pretty fast.
There are a lot of upsides to being done with college, the biggest being that it’s over. My school and I had a rather turbulent relationship, and I always considered graduation to be like our divorce. Now that we’re divorced, I’m home, which isn’t exactly what every college grad aspires to, but it’s only for a few months before I move to Beijing. The great thing about home, though, and the Second Greatest Thing About Being Done With College, is that home has a fully-equipped kitchen.
A kitchen—at last! During all the school breaks, I used to come home and just bury myself in recreated Chinese dishes, cakes, breads, and curries, trying to make the most of the kitchen before I heaved myself on a plane back to the East Coast for another semester of academic, social, and culinary torture. To keep myself sane at school, I spent time that could have been used on work to troll the Internet for recipes, saving dozens a day to my bookmarks bar, or to daydream about what I would cook.
I take an enormous amount of pleasure in cooking for my family. My mom is always telling me, “You don’t have to cook for us, you know.” And I always reply, with a little irritation, “Mom, I cook because I want to, not because I feel a sense of indentured servitude.” That usually keeps her off my back for a few days. Since she and my dad work, when I’m not home, their diet consists of frozen pizza, salad, and the occasional curry from jarred simmer sauce.
When I’m home, they brag to their friends about the things I cook for them. And since they’re adventurous eaters (though the Pork Belly Incident was like trying to feed peas to a stubborn toddler), they’ll enthusiastically eat anything I make. It’s fulfilling to give them a good dinner and plenty of tasty leftovers the next day.
But here’s my secret: I actually cook for my family because I’m selfish and a bit of a control freak. Since I’m obsessed with eating and good food, I want to make sure that I’m not eating a rotation of basic pasta or chicken every night, and I want to make sure that whatever we’re eating is made MY way—kneaded, risen bread; sauces that simmer for two hours; high-fiber tortillas; less oil, more spice.
And, selfishly, a lot of what I make is Chinese. Ever since my epic semester in Beijing (see www.waiguo-ren.blogspot.com), I have become highly addicted to Chinese food. Not the Panda Express Orange Chicken Sweet and Sour blah blah ‘Chinese food,’ but the real stuff. If I had my way, I’d eat Chinese food every day. I’m always nursing a strong yen for Chinese food, and when I’m home, the most reliable way to temporarily sate that craving is to cook the food myself.
Since my semester in Beijing was one of the happiest times of my life, emotionally and gastronomically, I have spent the past year, trying to recreate Beijing in my Phoenix kitchen. And I’m getting pretty good at it. I even prefer my mapo tofu to some that I’ve had in authentic Chinese restaurants. So when I make Chinese food for my family and friends, I’m really making it for me, to take a part of me, even if it’s just my tastebuds, back to Beijing for the fleeting moment of a flavor’s shadow.
Last Saturday, my mom and I, stiff and sore-assed, arrived home after the week-long drive from Boston to Phoenix. By Monday, I was back in cooking shape, and true to form, made a Chinese repast. Untrue to form, however, I didn’t plan it out much or make a marathon trip to the Ranch 99 Chinese supermarket. I bought a pack of tofu and went freezer diving, digging through the sedimentary layers of ice-encrusted strawberries, two freezer-burned artichoke hearts, turkey chorizo (I can’t remember my parents ever eating chorizo), and cryogenically frozen naan breads. I struck gold with over half a pound of thin-sliced lamb.

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So I flipped through a Chinese cookbook from Nana and found a lamb recipe as well as one for steamed egg custard. I also added two other dishes from my regular rotation: mapo tofu (spicy bean curd) and baby bok choy in oyster sauce. My Chinese dishes get better every time; each time I’m just a little closer to China.

Steamed Egg Custard
from The Complete Encyclopedia of Chinese Cooking by Kenneth Lo
1 tablespoon oil
½ cup ground beef or pork, tightly packed
3 tablespoons chopped scallions
2 teaspoons soy sauce
4 eggs, beaten
1 ½ cups water
large pinch of salt (I used chicken stalk instead of water and salt)

Heat the oil in a pan, add the meat, scallins and soy sauce and stir-fry for 2 minutes. In a bowl, mix the eggs with the broth. Place the meat mixture in a heatproof serving bowl and pour the egg mixture over the top. Cover and steam for 15 minutes or until the custard is firm. Serve hot.

Sauteed Lamb with Scallions
from The Complete Encyclopedia of Chinese Cooking by Kenneth Lo
2 tablespoons soy sauce
½ teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon pale dry sherry (like Shaoxing cooking wine )
½ cup oil*
½ lb lean lamb, very thinly sliced (beef can be substituted if preferred)
1 tablespoon red wine vinegar
1 tablespoon sesame oil
½ teaspoon Sichuan or black peppercorns
2 garlic cloves, minced
½ lb scallions (2 bunches)

Mix together 1 tablespoon of the soy sauce, the salt, sherry and 2 tablespoons of the oil. Add the lamb slices and leave to marinate for 5 minutes. Mix the remaining soy sauce with the vinegar, sesame oil and pepper in a small bowl.
Heat the remaining oil in a pan. Add the garlic and stir-fry until browned. Shred a afew of the scallions and set aside for garnish. Cut the remainder into 2-inch pieces and add to the meat together with the vinegar mixture. Stir-fry for a few seconds. Serve hot, garnished with the reserved scallions.

*I used significantly less oil and the dish was still delicious.

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