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The Namesake of Lion-Head

25 Mar

On a Chinese food blog authored by a well known chef and food historian in Taiwan, I finally found the origin of this bemusing and slightly odd name.  Here it is:

These meatballs were originally served to the emperor and the aristocrats, and considered quite a fancy treat.  It had a different name back then: Sunflower Treasure, as it was served to the rich and famous during the occasion of viewing sunflowers in bloom.  But soon the politically savvy at the time found a even better name for it, as the flag of the dynasty featured a lion, and the meatballs at the time were the size of wash basin— hence the “lion-head.”

Once this delicacy was introduced to the commoners, the size had quickly shrunken to fist size, since no one had that kind of abundant access to pork.

 

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Antonio Carlos Jobim in My Kitchen

31 Aug

Most of my cooking is decidedly Chinese.  The reason is simple (other than the fact that I am Taiwanese-Chinese): It is the only way I get to eat what I crave. 

 My very first residence in San Francisco was the bottom unit of a 2-story flat located in the Sunset district—18th Ave and Taraval— to be exact.  And the kitchen, due to its position in the back of the house, was shunned from all natural light even on the sunniest days in San Francisco.  To lighten up the mood while constantly cooking in an overcast room, I would bring music with me into the kitchen.  That’s when I discovered Bossa Nova to be the best musical sous-chef for me. 

Somewhat like falling in love, it is quite ineffable how this is the case, but Antonio Carlos Jobim’s Finest Hour is simply the best album to accompany me when I chop, mince, boil, and taste. 

 I usually start with Águas de Março to get into the mood for prepping.  The playful melodies make my fingers dance and my hips sway, as I romance myself a very Portuguese afternoon in the otherwise plain kitchen. 

And by the time Stan Getz’s sax takes over in the second verse of Girls from Ipanema— I don’t know anything about Jazz and most likely never will— I am usually in the middle of seasoning my food.  By the first verse of Corcovado,  that’s when everything comes together for tasting. 

I admit to being a bit of a diva when I cook, preferring to be the only one in the kitchen.  But I always make room for Antonio Carlos Jobim.

Ghetto Grill 2.0

17 Jun

On a lazy Wednesday night (which goes for most of the weeknights, as the operative word here is “lazy”), M.B. decided to give our ghetto grill a new look.  Although I say “our” grill, I really can’t claim much credit since all I got to contribute was a series of “oooohs” and “ahhhhs” and some minor coloring.

The grill is now ghetto fabulous

On the same night, simultaneously, the show “Work of Art” debuted on Bravo.  In between commercial breaks I would pop my head out to see Godzilla and the SF skyline coming to life, then back on the couch to see a bunch of self- important phonies trivializing art by competing like they were in a sporting event.

China Chow went from the IT girl of early 90s to the host of this pompous, cringe induced "art" show... My deepest condolence.

Thank you but no thank you.  I’ll take Mothra on the mural of a yakitori grill over some over exposed incompletely screen printed death portrait of a live person playing possum ANY DAY.

Ingredient: Sichuan Peppercorn (花椒)

9 Jun
Sichuan peppercorn

So what makes Sichuan cuisine so delicious?  The answer lies with its unique use of a special spice that produces a tingly, numbing effect, combined with spiciness, creates a singular taste no other regional cuisine can match.

Sichuan peppercorn, also known botanically as the outer pod of the tiny fruit from a plant called Zanthoxylum, used to be banned for import by the US government as it may carry a certain bacteria that is harmful to native citrus crops.

The ban has since been lifted, and I am happy to say that I just ordered a bag from an online spice shop. 

 Depending on its potency, I’d recommend all the first-time handlers with this spice to be cautious, as “a little (can go) a long way.”

The Story of a $3.00 Grill

6 Jun

In this episode of The Little Kitchen That Could, we are switching the gear a bit.  And it’s literally “we,” as I actually have a contributor in this special edition— my boyfriend.

So M.B. decided that he was craving some yakitori, the Japanese grilled chicken on a skewer over hot charcoal, and instead of yelping for a yakitori restaurant in San Francisco, he would like to make them himself.

After hours of diligent research on the internet, a crazier idea was born— “we should just build our own grill.”

A trip to the hardware wonderland, Home Depot, opened my eyes to the world of grills and barbecues.  Maybe it would be easier to just buy one.  There is a long aisle of fancy grills priced up to $400, doing whatever a chef’s heart desires.  As we temporarily set our minds on a $24.99 tabletop grill— the price seemed to justify skipping the whole shebange of building one— we learned that it was a gas only grill.

One of the things that makes yakitori so tasty is the charcoal and omitting that would make this whole project pointless.  So back to building one ourselves, which is a way cooler idea anyway.

Here is our $3.00 grill.  To assemble it, put one cinder block on top of another:

2 cinder blocks, $3.00. Fire extinguisher, $19.99.

Starting the grill was a bit challenging.  The cinder blocks do not have holes in them, which does not allow air to pass through.  But once the fire gets going, it is going (which took about 45 minutes and lots of liquid charcoal lighter):

We used lump charcoal, which is natural and burns much cleaner than briquette

Our assortment of skewers:

Beef, yakitori skewers, and mushrooms

Giant fresh water prawns

And we grilled and grilled…

And we ate and ate…

So the story of a $3.00 grill is a successful one.  Not only we had a feast of grilled kebabs, we are damn proud of our ghetto grill.  As obsessed as America is with grilling, from Bobby Flay’s face all over TV to that dancing commercial for Weber (took me some time to figure out what they were selling.  Cool commercial, though, I ain’t hatin’), has anyone wondered, how did people do it back in the day?  Like, how did people cook their meat before titanium was discovered, before propane gas was available?  And in every fancy backyard, there need be an equally fancy grill.  To Americans, a grill is a symbol of status.  An attitude to life.  An opening line to brag.

To me, it’s just food.  Good food.  And helluva lot of fun.

A Family Tree of Palates

28 May

If you are familiar with the political history of Taiwan, my home until the age of 14, then you will understand the culinary diversity found in this wonderfully small island.  In 1949, the Chiang Kai-shek government fled mainland China, bringing close to 2 million of soldiers and civilians to Taiwan, all with various provincial backgrounds.  And among them were my grandparents.  

My grandma (nai-nai) from my dad’s side was a native of Sichuan, and thanks to her, I was exposed to the tingly-numbing Sichuan peppercorn early on.  My dad’s dad (yen-yen) came from Zhejiang, a province known for delicate preparation and vibrant, seasonal ingredients.

My mom’s mom (po-po) was a nurse during WWII in the city of Tianjin, a metropolis in Northeastern China.  As a kid I loved her pickled carrots and cucumbers, and the delicious noodles with pork and bean paste, known as zajiang mien.  Granddad (gong-gong) from my mom’s side hailed from a small village in the province of Hebei, where everyone knows how to roll out dumpling and bun doughs blindfolded.      

Raised by his Sichuan mother, Dad was trained to take on spicy food from a young age.  His twice-cooked pork is a must-learn on my list to master.  And although Mom never entered the kitchen before marrying Dad (and quite a few years after, too, as Dad would just cook for them both), she quickly discovered that she is blessed with a sharp palate and high aptitude after a few attempts at cooking.  Mommy is the best chef I know, also the chef I aspire to be one day.

So for me, it is rather difficult to sum up Chinese food in a few words given how differnt the style can be from one region to the next.  The most accurate way to describe “my” Chinese cooking is perhaps the word “homemade.”  No they may not be the dishes you find in your local Hunan Garden or the likes, but they are what I eat at home.  That’s why I want to share, so maybe you can enjoy such delectables and call them your homemade, too. 🙂

Ingredient: Preserved Vegetable, Zha Cai (榨菜)

26 May

Zha cai, out of the jar, not cut

So what is zha cai?  As its vaguely translated name suggests, it is a type of preserved vegetable.  The vegetable is a variant of mustard, sometimes referred to as Chinese mustard (no way!), and its leafy part is considered a rather fancy dish usually stir-fried with dried scallops and served at banquets.  

The root of this mustard is the part where zha cai comes from.  It is harvested and compressed down to yield all liquid, as “zha” in Chinese literally means compress.  It is preserved by salt and stored in clay jars.  The taste?  Crunchy and salty, which makes a great condiment for many things, such as the Sichuan style wontons

 Another famous dish zha cai is well known for is the pork zha cai noodles, as fried pork and zha cai is served over soup noodles.