Category: Culture

Decoding Chinese Food Pt.2

As promised, I’m back for the second installment of Decoding Chinese Food. If you didn’t get to see last week’s post.. Click Here. This week, I’ll talk about possibly confusing cooking methods and oddly named dishes.

Cooking Methods

Many of the most common or famous Chinese cooking methods can be confusing.

红烧(Red Braised)

In the west, braising involves searing meat, adding liquid, then slow cooking in the oven. In China, braising is the same, except the dish is slow cooked on the stovetop. Red braising is braising, except soy sauce and plenty of sugar is added until the sauce is sticky, thick and sweet.

水煮(Water Boiled)

When most people, including me, see this for the first time they’re probably imagining a healthy, but boring and bland dish. It is neither. Water boiling (usually beef and chicken) is a fairly popular SiChuan method that involves first water boiling (duh!) the meat, then drowning it in spiced and very spicy oil

鱼香( fish fragrant)

Despite the name, so called fish fragrant dishes do not include fish. The “fish fragrance” come from the addition of oyster sauce and fermented bead paste. This combination gives the dish, which would otherwise be a simple stir-fry, a whole lot more depth of flavour

烤 (grilled, baked…)

  

There is nothing really confusing about the term “烤” itself. Rather, it’s quite difficult what restaurants mean when they use the term. For example, 烤羊腿 could refer to roasted, baked or grilled leg of lamb. (menu translations are usually not accurate). Get this: when a Chinese restaurant offers “烤鱼”, it’s not refering to grilled, roasted or baked fish. Chinese “grilled fish” actually involves pan frying the fish, then stewing it in stock and hot oil like soup, except there’s very little liquid。

Misleading Food Items

I saved the best for last. There are some delicious and famous dishes with strange sounding, even disgusting names. Here are a few of the more important ones.

Lion’s Head (Meatballs)- 狮子头

No endangered animals were harmed in the making of these meatballs. These are one of southern China’s most famous dishes. They are huge, usually 4-5cm in diameter, pork meatballs. Sometimes crab or crab roe will be mixed in. The dish is usually red braised

猫耳朵 (Cat ears)

Asians are infamous for eating animals such as dogs and cats, but this dish does not contain cats, or even meat. It’s actually boiled pieces of dough,which can be served in soups and stir-fries. The dough is cut so that the pieces roughly resemble ears.

夫妻肺片 (Husband and Wife Lung slices)

Again, Chinese people love nose to tail cooking, but there are no lungs in this dish- human or otherwise. This dish is a popular SiChuan dish consisting of marinated (Chinese style), thinly sliced tripe and beef, which is then doused in plenty of hot oil.

麻辣炒手 (Spicy stir fried hands)

When I first heard of this dish, I was imagining a plate of spicy, stir-fried pork trotters. I was disappointed to find out 麻辣炒手 was actually wontons in peppery hot oil. I don’t know how wontons are supposed to resemble hands, but the name stuck

Well, that’s it for this post. I hope it was helpful and see you next week!

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Decoding Chinese Food Pt.1

Hi!!! It’s officially the New Year, well it’s been for about a week. School started last Tuesday and nothing’s been too busy. Last post, I wrote about my disappointing experience at Chow Kee Dim Sum and I realized that I made a few mistakes reading the menu.

This week, I’ll decode some of the most misinterpreted or mistranslated menu items,

1. 鲜 (xian) and 香 (xiang)

These terms roughly translate to unami and aromatic respectivitely. However, like most Chinese terms, one translation does not suffice. Most menus will actually leave these terms out of the translation, but here are some common uses:

鲜:describing the taste of fresh seafood, bright (when referring to sweets), well seasoned

          

香:fried or at least cooked in a lot of oil, pungent, savoury

 

2. 肉 or meat

Whenever 肉 or meat is used without the name of an animal before it ie 牛肉- cow meat (beef), it’s always pork. On menus, you will usually see items such as 回锅肉 (twice cooked meat) or 红烧肉 (red braised meat). Just know it’s always pork. This is usually not a big problem because translations usually clarify this; however, if you’re going to a local joint without English menus, this is good to know. Simple? well it gets more confusing. At dim sum places, some items will say 虾肉 (shrimp meat) or 鱼肉(fish meat). Do not be fooled, these items contain pork.

I hope everyone enjoyed this installment. I’ll be back next week with Pt. 2: Cooking methods and foods. Have a great week!!!!

 

 

Happy Chinese New Year!!!!!

HAPPY NEW YEARS!!!!!!!!!!!

 

Last night in Shanghai was New Year’s eve. Usually, I would be at my grandparent’s place, like last year, but we stayed this year. My aunt arrived back from vacation in Japan two days ago, so we invited them for a New Year’s feast at our place. Thus, this year’s dishes are predominately Zhejiang/ Shanghai style. But, before getting into the food, there are a few traditions and etiquette rules that must be shared:

  1.   There must be 10 dishes- 10 in China, and many other countries, represents perfection. 10 dishes at the feast represents a perfect start to the New Year
  2. Flip your “福” posters or stickers upside down when hanging them- The character for upside down is homophonous to the character for come. 福 means wealth.
  3. …but NEVER flip the fish- Steamed whole fish is a must have at New Years since the character for fish is homophonous with the character for surplus. Flipping the fish is said to ruin it. Instead, ask the host to remove the spine, or just do it yourself.
  4. Leave the head and tail of the fish- Leaving the head and the tail or 有头有尾, symbolizes that everything you do will be complete from start to finish.
  5. Clean the house and get rid of old stuff: This is the same idea as spring cleaning

Ok, boring part finished, lets get to the food!!!!!!

Veggies

Ice plant with soy sauce- Ok, this is far from traditional, but we had really fresh ice plant and needed a light dish to combat all the meatiness to come.

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Stir- Fried Bok Choy with Tofu– Tofu and veggies are a tradition on my mom’s side of the family. We also happened to have some amazing homemade firm tofu

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Fat Choy with Mushrooms and Bamboo shoots– The characters for Fat Choy are homophonous with “get rich”. Bamboo shoots resemble a ladder, so let’s climb to success

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Julienned Potatoes

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Stir-fried Eggs and Tomatoes– A quick, delicious dish. The acid of the tomatoes helps cut through the richness of the following dishes

Soup

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Turtle Soup – Turtles are not exactly traditional, but they represent longevity. Plus, we still had 2 left from the three my grandparents sent

Meats

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Red Braised Pork– Another family tradition.

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Steamed Pork Trotters– Pork trotters represent the chinese proverb “脚踏实地 ”- feet on solid ground.

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Dry Wok Chicken– My dad needed a Hunanese dish in to be fully satisfied. With all the relative lack of spice in the other dishes, this one is a great kick

Steamed fish- Any whole fish will do. We steamed 2 pomfrets because that was freshest at the fish market, but perch or groupa is far more popular. Any recipe will do, as long as it doesn’t mess with the structure of the fish. We steamed ours with soy sauce.

Again Happy New Year, Happy Feasting and remember to watch CCTV New Year’s show!!!!

 

 

 

 

 

Happy Moon Festival

Hi!!!!! I’ve delayed posting this week because yesterday (today for the states) is Mid-Autumn Festival!!!!!

I am not going to say much because I did a post last year, but it was awesome. We spent the day with my aunt and had dinner at this delicious hot pot place. Unfortunately, due to the passing typhoon, there was no moon. We also ate moon cakes and celebrated my dad’s birthday!!!!

So, Happy Mid- Autumn Festival. Watch the moon and eat moon cakes!!!

Happy Dragon Boat Festival!!!!

Hi!!! Today- 6/9- is the 5th day of the 5th month of the lunar calendar, which means it’s Dragon Boat Festival. Admittedly, Dragon Boat is not as big of a deal as Mid- Autumn, but hey, it’s still a nice holiday.

Dragon Boat Festival

Dragon Boat Festival, or Duanwu Jie is actually over 2000 years old, making it one of China’s oldest. According to legend, back in the warring states period, a popular official named Qu Yuan  from the Chu Kingdom was banished for opposing his kingdom’s alliance with the Qin. He then lived for 28 years as a poet. However, the Qin ended up invading Chu’s capital and Qu Yuan drowned himself in the Miluo river in despair. His local admirers raced to try to find his body, but to no avail. Thus, they threw sticky rice balls into the river to prevent the fish from eating his body. Since then, people have chosen to comemorate this day. Of course, there are other theories, but this seems to be the most popular one (and the one my parents and I grew up with)

Celebration

As previously mentioned, Dragon Boat festival is not too big of a deal in the mainland. However, in some fishing villages, especially in Canton and Taiwan, there are dragon boat races. (read more here) I’ve never been to one, but I’ve heard they can be pretty spectacular. Other places also organize similar dragon boat races. There’s some in New York, Sydney and even in my old hometown of Memphis.

While racing boats is fun, most people are in it for the food. I’m talking about Zhongzi.

Zhongzis are basically packets of filled glutinous rice wrapped and steamed in bamboo leaves.  These are said to have originated from the sticky rice balls meant to feed fish. They have come a looooong way. Just like mooncakes, you can find zhongzis of all fillings and varieties. Even Starbuck has caught on

The most common  is a savory type filled with pork belly and salted duck yolk. They are a bit messy and complicated, so we don’t make our own, but there are plenty of great recipes online. Speaking of salted duck eggs, they are also for some reason part of the Dragon Boat menu. Coincidentally, I just wrote about them last post.

So that’s it for Dragon Boat. Remember to eat Zhongzi!

 

 

Bamboo Shoots- 笋

Hi!! How has your week been? Here in Shanghai, my schools had parent teacher conferences so I’ve been lounging around enjoying my long weekend. My mom and my brother, however, weren’t so sedentary. My brother is part of a club called Technovation Generation and they were on a charity trip to JiangXi to help set up a computer lab and library. (read more about the Charity here). When the got home last night, they brought back the usual load of dirty clothes, nice pictures, but also this…

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A nearly 10 kilo bamboo shoot….. that they dug themselves (with the help of some locals)

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As you’ve probably guessed, this behemoth will end up on our dinner table.

Bamboo Shoots

Chinese people have been eating bamboo shoots for hundreds of years, and for good reason. They are low calorie, low fat as well as high in fiber, potassium and surprisingly high protein. (read more here). There are two types of bamboo shoots:

Winter Shoots (冬笋)- As the name suggests, this variety is harvested in winter, between November and January. Winter shoots are the shoots that haven’t sprouted yet, so they are tender and slightly sweet. They are fairly small, under 1 kilo and usually used in stir fries and soups.

Spring Shoots (春笋)- Bamboo shoots don’t stay in the ground forever, enter Spring shoots. They come into season from March to May. Since Spring shoots are more mature, they are much bigger, but also tougher and tend to be bitter if not cooked properly. Spring shoots are best left for pickling and soups.

Preparation 

Just like how most fruits need peeling, so do bamboo shoots. The skin forms layers around the edible core and has to be removed. Needless to say, big shoots have a lot of skin

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Note: The edible part is also in layers, so to distinguish between the skin and meat, check for fuzz.

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That’s the final product. Of course we couldn’t prepare the whole thing in 1 meal, so we broke it down and froze part of it. As for the parts we did cook, the shoot was pretty mature and tough and we had to steam it before cooking it. Then, we ate it…

Stirfried bamboo with pickled greens and pork
Stirfried bamboo with pickled greens and pork
Perfect addition in oxtail soup
Perfect addition in oxtail soup

So that’s it for this week. For more info about bamboo shoots I suggest watching A bite of China Season 1 episode 1, it provides an overview of both types and is very interesting. Bye!!!

Lantern Festival

Today is February 21st, or more significantly, the 15th day of the first month of the Lunar Year. It’s the lantern festival- the official end of Chinese New Year. In short, the celebrations have come full circle.

As with most Chinese festivals the Lantern festival or 元宵节( yuan xiao jie) is accompanied by a retinue of legends. I’ll share my favorite- one involving a depressed servant girl. Back in the Han dynasty, there was an imperial servant girl called Yuan Xiao. One day, an imperial advisor found her in the garden preparing to drown herself in a well. When he asked what was wrong, she said she hadn’t been able to see her parents since working at the palace and would rather die than face separation. Thus, the two hatched a plan to reunite Yuan Xiao with her parents. The advisor set up a fortune telling stall and told every customer the same fortune: On the 15th day of the new year, the fire god will send a red fairy to burn down the city. Yuan Xiao then dressed as a red fairy and delivered the “news”. Not surprisingly, the people freaked out and the emperor asked the advisor what to do. The advisor said each house must beg the fairy for mercy, prepare glutinous rice balls (汤圆), and hang red lanterns so the city appeared on fire. The day came, everyone did as the advisor said, and the city didn’t burn down. Yuan Xiao’s parents came to the palace to look at the lanterns and reunited with their daughter. The emperor loved the celebration and decreed that it should be repeated every year. Since Yuan Xiao made the best rice balls, the emperor named the holiday (and rice balls) after her.

Of course, that’s just one, very unplausible, story. Other versions attribute the festival to Buddhist rituals, sun god worship and maybe even a rebellious general (read more here).

How to celebrate Lantern Festival?

Lantern festival is actually quite simple. Eat tang yuan with family and look at lanterns

About those Tang yuan

 

Tang yuan are boiled glutinous rice balls that are usually filled with pastes. The most common fillings are red bean paste, lotus seed paste and peanut butter, but they can also be savoury- filled with meat and veggies. Their roundness is supposed to represent family unity and eating them brings good luck. I don’t have my recipe, but I found a few good ones here, here and here

…. And the Lanterns

As the name Lantern Festival suggests, lanterns are a big deal. Most cities have one or more lantern displays featuring lanterns of every shape, size color imaginable. There were a couple of big ones in Shanghai. Unfortunately, I was busy, so no pics. Here are some from previous years though:

 

Another fun activity is lantern riddles, although those take some serious Chinese language skills to understand.

Happy Lantern Festival! I’ll be back next week with some cupcakes

Chinese New Years Dinner!!!

February 7th was New Years Eve which meant EPIC NEW YEARS DINNER!!! Usually this would entail my uncle and grandparents spending pretty much the entire day preparing a feast of amazing traditional Hunanese dishes.

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However, this year, everyone decided to take it easy so the excitement of prep work wasn’t there. I was a bit disappointed but nevertheless, the dinner was pretty epic. We managed to have 10 dishes on the table. I will share some of the highlights.

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Recipe: Spicy Fish Head Soup

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Recipe: Stir-fried Peppers and pork

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Recipe: Egg Dumplings in soup

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Recipe: Dry-wok chicken

Recipe: Bone Soup

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Stir-fried cabbage

There is nothing special about this dish, but stir-fried greens are a must at any dinner. Thus I included it on my menu

After dinner, it was spent eating fruit while watching the CCTV New Years show!!!! How was your new year?

Happy Chinese New Year!!!

Hi!!!! It’s Monday, which means only 4 days until I leave for Chinese New Year break.(The acutal New year starts on the 8th) Now that I get to go to my grandparents house, Chinese New Year is my favorite holiday. So excited!!!!

Chinese New Year is arguably one of the most important holidays for Chinese people. Like all new years, it celebrates the start of the new year. However, unlike Western New years, it celebrates the start of the Chinese Lunar calendar and festivities last for 15 days. It’s a long holiday, so I’ll just cover the most important traditions

Family Reunion

Family is central in Chinese culture, so not surprisingly, family reunions are a key part of Chinese New Year festivities. Chinese families will typically gather at their ancestral home towns and these gatherings can get HUGE!!!! Also, now that China is urbanized, a lot of traveling is involved. In 2015, an estimated 3bn trips were made.

Lucky Money

This tradition is probably every child’s favorite. At the reunion, children recieve red envelopes filled with money from relatives. These packet can range from a few dollars to hundreds, but are always even. These are said to bring wealth and luck in the New Year.

Fireworks/Firecrackers

Go to any Chinese village during New Years and chances are, it will sound more like a warzone than a celebration. The Chinese love their firecrackers. Traditionally, they were said to scare away evil spirits, but  today, it’s more for show. When I went last year, my uncle bought over ten kilos worth of firecrackers and fireworks. It was AWESOME. Unfortunately, they are banned in many cities.

Food

Food, like family, is central to Chinese culture. On New years Eve, the most common way to celebrate is with a banquet. The entire day of the banquet will typically be spent cooking and all the best food put forward. However, in recent years, more and more families are taking celebrations to restaurants. While the exact foods vary from family to family, there are some significant food traditions:

Meat

In the past, most Chinese families were too poor to afford meat on a regular basis. When they did, chances are it was on Chinese New Year. Now that meat is commonplace, the tradition continues, only, with more meat

Fish

The Chinese word for fish is a homonym to the word for surplus. Thus, preparing a whole fish has become a tradition. When eating the new years fish, it is customary to leave the head and the tail. This symbolizes having a surplus from the beginning to the end

Niangao- glutinous rice cake

Nian gao means sticky cake, but it is a homophone for high year. Thus, it is eaten on new years day to welcome a prosperous year

Buddha’s Delight

Buddha’s delight refers to a black, flosslike alge. It is a homophone for getting rich… no need for explanation there

I hope that was helpful and interesting. I leave on Friday and unfortunately there is no internet at my grandparent’s place. Don’t worry, I’ll post updates when I get back. Be prepared for some amazing food. Happy New Year!!!!!

 

Hairy Crab!!!!!!!!!

I don’t like fall, the the weather gets weird, all the good fruit is out of season and everyone gets the cold. Despite this, I still look forward to it. Why? Hairy crab season!!!!!!!!!! Every year from the end of October to mid-November, millions of Chinese (mostly Shanghainese) feast upon these little crustaceans. Luckily for me, my aunt sent 5 fresh and very much alive crabs just yesterday. YAY!!!!!!

What are they?

Hairy crab or Chinese mitten crab are freshwater crabs native to east Asia. They live most of their lives in estuaries, then mate and head toward the sea to breed. The average crab’s body is about the size of a human palm, with males slightly bigger than females. Their body is greyish green with distinctive hairy claws. They are prized for their roe all over east Asia. A large, female crab from Yangcheng lake can cost up to 200 USD/kg. It’s expensive, but don’t worry, cheaper crabs can be found everywhere, from subway stations to kiosks. Elsewhere, they are considered invasive species.

How to eat them

For those whose cooking is less than ideal, good news. All it takes is 20min in the steamer to cook delicious hairy crab. For pairing, some ginger, vinegar and a small glass of yellow wine will do. “Extra ingredients corrupt flavor.” Do not be put off by the lack of meat, the prize is the roe. Also, unless you’re an experienced eater, don’t wear your best clothes when eating them. The roe drips bright orange oil and the meat gets everywhere. Luckily, many restaurants will shell the crab for you

Happy Hairy Crab Season!!!!!!!!! 🙂