baking, cooking, dessert, entrees, holidays, home cooking, huzhou, mysterious ingredients

What’s the Chinese Word For ‘Gobble?’

12.05.08 | 2 Comments

Like Moses’ plague of locusts, the Holidays are upon us. The Holidays mean different things to different people—gathering with loved ones and celebrating, shopping, avoiding loved ones and celebrating, watching sports or parades, drinking, and so on. American holidays seem to feel a little more special when you’re an expat. When it’s a holiday in America, people ask, “What are you doing for [insert holiday here]?” But when you live abroad, it’s “Are you doing anything for [insert holiday here]?”

That’s right—I don’t HAVE to celebrate your holiday. I do it because I want to.

If there was ever a holiday that cried out, “ellis! ellis! Celebrate me!” that holiday would be Thanksgiving. It’s a day devoted entirely to food. There are no underlying religious implications (well, very few) to make you feel guilty (we just have to live with the guilt of completely destroying the Native American way of life, a guilt everyone glosses over with an extra basting on the turkey), so basically everyone congregates with the sole collective goal of giving their intestines their yearly marathon.

Thanksgiving, unlike Christmas, is not one of the holidays that has infiltrated the Chinese culture (yet! You can bet that some evil commercial geniuses are wringing their hands with glee as they mastermind just how to get the Chinese people to give thanks that the Pilgrims came on over to America. Just watch—they will). So holding as ‘traditional’ a Thanksgiving as possible is not a given—it’s a challenge.

And oh, was I ready.

There are few things I enjoy more than planning and executing an elaborate meal with all sorts of unnecessary details. Did I really need to spend three hours shelling fresh walnuts when I could have bought a pack of walnut meat at the store? No. But that’s exactly why I’m going to spend three hours shelling fresh walnuts.

The Lay of the Land:
Kitchen: one hotplate with one wok and one metal pot; one microwave.
On loan: one one-foot square toaster oven; one additional hotplate and accompanying cooking vessels.

The Strategy:
Turkey: no turkey in China. Replacement: duh, duck legs! Duck recipe calls for shallots: no shallots in found. Replacement: leeks. Duck recipe calls for Earl Grey tea: imported Earl Grey tea too expensive. Replacement: Chinese red (black) tea.
Stuffing (technically dressing): two vegetarian diners, so must be vegetarian. Cannot recall ever eating stuffing, asked Gino, who recalled his grandmother’s stuffing, used as reference. French bread (available!), walnuts (see above), raisins, green apples (uncommon but available), butter (expensive but available), celery, onions, cinnamon and sugar for depth.
Cranberry Sauce: no cranberries in China. Replacement: pomegranate.
Pumpkin Pie: requires graham cracker crust. No graham crackers in Huzhou. Replacement: Wheat digestive biscuits. At least all shall get their fiber. Requires oven. Pray the pie dish you bought is not too big for the toaster oven. Pie calls for nutmeg. None found. Add extra cinnamon (which must be grated, as ground cinnamon does not appear to exist in Huzhou).

I started a week beforehand with the pomegranate sauce and pumpkin puree. This was the first time I had worked with pomegranates. I cut up four, soaked them, took out the seeds and discarded the pulp.

I then proceeded to juice them in my vegetable drainer with the bottom of a glass.

This was a rather slow process, as I’m sure you can imagine.

My hands were stained a shade of scabby purple-brown for five days afterward.

While the pomegranate juice reduced with oranges, sugar, and ginger, I gutted the pumpkins (the Chinese version, called nangua, or southern melon), cooked them in the microwave, and scooped out the flesh.

It needed to be pureed. No Cuisinart or blender. Solution: vegetable strainer! After picking out larger pieces of pulp, I took handfuls of the pumpkin innards and rubbed them repeatedly over the slats of the strainer, which separated the pulp from the flesh.

I’m sure you can imagine that this was also a rather slow process. But if we were going for speed, we would have picked up a subpar Chinese cheesecake at the bakery downtown, wouldn’t we have?


[Actually I prefer apple pie, but I don’t have a rolling pin for the crust.]


[Traditional tradition doesn’t interest me, actually. But it just seemed so much more appealing when it was a challenge.]

[I challenged myself.]

After two marathon shopping trips on Monday and Tuesday, I was ready. Tuesday night I started the high-fiber wheat digestive biscuit crust. Butter, biscuits, sugar. Mix, press into pie pan. I forgot to parbake the crust, but oh well.

My aforementioned rolling pin issue was solved with a can of sweetened condensed milk.

This was the first time I had tasted sweetened condensed milk, and I am now convinced that it is the Nectar of Heaven. I fell to my knees and thanked the Pilgrims for leaving their home, enduring months on a festering floating wooden prison, starving, freezing, and surviving a generally bleak existence so that I, warm, pampered, and well-fed, could enjoy the thick, sugary, waistline-busting sweetened condensed milk nearly four hundred years later.

Thank you.

I mixed the condensed milk with the pumpkin puree

grated some cinnamon

threw in two eggs, some ginger and a pinch of salt, and poured it into the awaiting pulverized digestive biscuits.

The best part was that there was too much filling to fit in the dish, leftover digestive biscuits, and some extra condensed milk.

I was on a sugar high for the next six hours, and no, that is not an exaggeration.

When Thursday finally rolled around, I got to work on the duck and stuffing. (I know, it’s dressing if it’s baked outside the bird, but I’m going to call it stuffing because ‘dressing’ sounds like a bottle of Newman’s Own, which is not available in China.)

Slice bread with a pocket knife (no serrated knife). Toast in toaster oven.

Cut into cubes. Do not sneak extra pieces because it’s not a real French baguette.

Brown duck to get some duck fat.

Duck fat: the magical elixir. The sweetened condensed milk of the animal kingdom, perhaps?

Those legs were sizzling and popping all over the place. It was great.

Add leeks to duck fat for duck sauce. Take extra duck fat, put in another pan, add butter and cook celery and onions for stuffing.

Add all the things that need to be added. Spend five minutes converting milliliters to ounces only to realize it doesn’t matter because you can just pour it into the damn measuring cups.

I was in a zone; there’s no perspective in The Zone.

Let things stew. Pace around because you want to cook something. Realize you could have made something else with the extra time, except not really because there are no other cooking accoutrements left in the kitchen. Hope that all the kitchen equipment plugged into the power strip will not blow a circuit or a fuse or whatever those things are. Reluctantly clean the kitchen and wash dishes for the fifth time.

And wait until your guests show up an hour late.

But they came bearing food. Nellie made this really fabulous and evil addicting cornbread that wasn’t cooked all the way through the middle, which, in my opinion, is one of the most appealing ways to eat bread. She also made a blueberry tart, and her friend Lulu brought a lovely assortment of nuts and munchy things. Guen made some lovely mashed potatoes and Gino, in his infinite culinary prowess, brought a bottle of wine.

While I cooked the duck in batches, we sat around and talked and ate munchies.

Food was ready around eight. It’s holidays like this that make me wish I had a second stomach. But I kind of wish that on a more daily basis.

My duck, all finished in the orange leek honey tea sauce.

It’s very pretty. But let’s not talk about how a bunch of the sauce spilled over the top of the tray and all over the floor and Gino’s chair as I carried it from the kitchen to the table. Because that would be embarrassing. You know what would also be embarrassing? To mention how I dropped my whole leg of duck into my lap and conveniently greasing my jeans. There’s no need to mention that, either.

Here is my plate. I had two of these, plus about seven additional pieces of cornbread.

After a bit of a rest, I brought out the pumpkin pie, which actually turned out pretty good. It tasted more sweet potato-y than pumpkin-y, which was fine, though it was a bit too sweet. The recipe I had referenced for the pie had called for 14 ounces of sweetened condensed milk, which I added, but it was way too much. I tried to add pumpkin in to balance it out, but ran out of pumpkin.

But it was still good. As was Nellie’s blueberry tart. Is there such thing as too much dessert? I think, no.

So no one went home hungry, and I considered it a success.

Until about one AM that night/morning, when suddenly my body launched an all out assault on everything I had ingested. All night and into the morning when I was vomiting, I prayed that it was just me. Please do not tell me that I just poisoned all my friends.

I poisoned my friends. I feel awful. We cannot figure out what it was. It wasn’t the duck, since the vegetarians got sick. I washed everything well, cooked everything long enough. I don’t know. To my friends, who can’t read this anyway because my site is blocked in China: I am sorry. I am very, very sorry.

And please let me cook you a Christmas dinner.

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