Recipe: Sichuan Garlic Pork 蒜泥白肉

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Suan ni bai rou (蒜泥白肉) is one of those dishes I order every single time I go into a Sichuan restaurant. Thin slices of pork belly, cold, and marinated with a delectable soy-chili-garlic sauce. The direct translation is simple: garlic white pork.

I was inspired by Szechuan Impression’s version. (I’m convinced they have the best one in town!) A lot of online recipes call for brown sugar…but Sichuan chefs that I’ve spoken to are pretty adamant on not using sugar in their cooking.

Here’s my rendition.

For the sauce:
10 dried chili pepper seeds (or 2-3 fresh chilies, minced)
4 tbsp finely minced garlic
8 tbsp soy sauce
2 tbsp Sichuan pepper chili oil
6 tbsp rice vinegar
5 tbsp pork broth

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Dear Prince Charming

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Dear Prince Charming:

“I’ve quit my job. I’m going to travel,” I told the folks in my circle recently, my eyes feverish with the thought.

“I’m so happy for you hon. Do you,” all my friends – men and women – chimed.

“You should really be careful,” you said. “It’s not safe.”

We’ve only been on three dates.

Dear Charming. I’m tired of guys like you, men from kingdoms far away who see me as a damsel in distress; guys who think I need rescuing, boys who give me unsolicited advice on how to live my life, how to exercise, how to eat.

I don’t need you to ride into my life and save me. Take a look around at my kingdom. I’ve built it myself from the ground up and it’s been going strong for 23 years now. And right next door? There’s an army of fellow kings and queens who have always been there for me and will help me… when I ask them to.

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Mochi Doughnuts, Rabbit Cakes, Goldfish Jellies!

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Originally posted on L.A. Times Food

Name of shop: J.Sweets, inside Mitsuwa Marketplace in Torrance. It’s actually a conglomerate of different brands located in one section of the store. They are: Mochi Cream, Minamoto Kitchoan, Yoku Moku, Kobe Fugetsudo, Rokumeikan, Kyo-Hayashiya, Boul’Mich.

Chef: The confectionery shop is operated by Jalux Americas. They import sweets directly from various Japanese vendors.

What products represent the shop, and why?

Usagi from Minamoto Kitchoan: They’re limited edition, miniature pastries shaped like rabbits and stuffed with bean paste and yuzu. They come in gift sets; each box has 10 little bunnies, neatly arranged. It’s $28 for a set and they’re almost sold out for the year.

Hakuto jelly from Minamoto Kitchoan: The seasonal dessert is made from Hakuto white peaches from the Okayama prefecture. It’s in jelly form, shaped like a peach, and wrapped in delicate paper, as if the peach were made out of precious jewels. It might as well be; the product retails for $39 for three pieces.

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Be You. Stay True Blue.

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“So, what exactly do you do?”

I get asked this question a lot and have a difficult time answering it.

The thing is. I do a lot of things. I blog here. I do marketing for a start-up company. I edit a magazine. I freelance write for a couple of publications. I started a supper club back in January. I lead food tours. I own a food tour company. I write…a lot. Lately I’ve been consulting. I publish a lot of articles about Chinese food but I write about all sorts of other things too. Oh, and I do food photography. I hate labeling myself. I don’t like saying I’m a “Chinese food writer,” because that implies I only write about Chinese food. …Or even a food writer because that implies I only write about food.

Let’s make it simple: Hi. I’m Clarissa Wei. And I do me.

I keep my website named, “Clarissa Wei” because that’s my goal in life: To be myself and to make a living doing whatever I love. There are folks out there who are better than me in every single aspect. They can write better, they can market better, they can research better, they can speak Chinese far better than I can or ever will. My only asset is my identity — my unique range of skills and abilities I have accumulated and developed over the years. No one can be me, better than me.

And the me right now is into storytelling, food, Chinese culture, organic farms, writing, and cooking. Hence, all the jobs I have taken on.

That may change as I change. Sometimes I’ll be much more interested in writing than I am in food. Other days, all I want to do is research Chinese culture and eat Chinese food. What if, one day, I decide I want to get into politics? Or law? Or music writing? Or dancing? I want that to be okay.

I think, too often, we’re so caught up into the school of personal branding that we’re terrified of stepping outside of our self-determined label in fears of a) being judged and b) being counterproductive. From an efficiency standpoint, it makes sense. You want to specialize. That’s how you get hired.

But I want to set up a system in my professional life that’s extremely flexible, where I can dabble in whatever interests me at that time and be able to support myself financially. These are my aspirations.

After all, I don’t have a career. I have a life. And life, I’ve reasoned, is too short for me to just be anyone but myself.

Shi Hai Restaurant

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Animal-shaped dim sum is nothing new. But rarely do you see anything of the sort in Los Angeles.

And so, when I spotted these gems on ChiHuo’s Instagram feed and knew I had to make my way over. Don’t be deceived. What’s inside might confuse you. Hint: It’s not pork. Watch the video below, of me porking out (hehe) to see…

The restaurant has an interesting selection of dim sum. There’s baked durian pastry (third photo down) and a heart-shaped pastry with waterchestnut gelatin (forth photo down) sandwiched in the middle.

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These Gorgeous Flowers Are Made Out Of Sugar

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Originally posted on LA Weekly

Standing in front of a coffee shop in Huntington Beach, Shaile Socher is taking a photo of the potted succulents on the table. It looks like a typical centerpiece. “I won an award for this piece at the San Diego Cake Show,” she says.

It’s made out of sugar and the detailing is exquisite. Everything down to the texture and the color of the plant is lifelike. The leaves are plump and fleshy, shaded so that they look hauntingly realistic. You can’t even tell it’s not a real plant — unless you touch it.

Socher gently brushes her fingers against the string pearls on the plant. “I’ve never seen these in real life,” she says. “I made them based on a photograph.”

A bookkeeper by day, Socher is an award-winning sugar artist and teacher. She has been making flowers and succulents and berries out of gum paste for over a decade now and is remarkably adept at realism. The paste is a homemade combination of powdered sugar, egg whites, Crisco and Tylose powder, a gumming agent. The texture is similar to fondant; it’s extremely pliable and sweet.

Socher’s flowers, like her succulents, are breathtaking. Everything is accounted for: The leaves are intricately veiny, the tips of the stamen look like they have pollen on it, the petals look soft, like silk, as if they would bend in the wind. They don’t. It’s merely an illusion.

“The whole idea is to roll the paste really thin,” Socher says. The leaves are made from pressing the gum paste against a mold. The stamen is fashioned from string, painted with egg whites and then gently dipped in cornmeal so that it looks there’s pollen on the tips. Petals are made from pure gum paste, rolled out paper thin and then shaped into waves for depth. Everything is built on wires. Egg whites are the glue of the craft and the paint is called petal dust.

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A Slice Of Tohoku in Los Angeles

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I like to wander the town alone and pretend I’m a tourist, camera in hand and with an open-minded but sensible wallet. It’s a mentality that takes me around the world without ever having to leave the Southland, soaring and wheeling over towns and provinces, nooks and crannies, into the hearts and minds of people I normally wouldn’t interact with. Los Angeles, after all, is a city teeming with relatively new, unassimilated immigrant hubs. And what better way to burn off my wanderlust?

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Artisanal Tofu From Meiji in Gardena

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Originally posted on the LA Times

Fresh tofu is manna from the heavens and impressive in its austere simplicity. If you can get your hands on a new slab, all you need to do is take a spoon and give it a little taste. No heat or additional adornments are necessary; the natural sweetness of the soy is enough to hold you over and wish for seconds.

“I like to just put it over spaghetti,” Koki Sato says. “Yes. Just spaghetti.”

Sato’s family owns Meiji Tofu in Gardena, which specializes in non-GMO soymilk and tofu. They’re the only Japanese tofu maker in the greater Los Angeles area. Sato is the son of the owner, head tofu maker, and has been behind the reins of the business for 14 years now.

It’s 6 a.m. in the morning on a Sunday and Sato, wearing a baseball hat embossed with the phrase, “Soyfresh,” has been in the back room of his tofu shop since 5:30 a.m. This is considered a late start. On weekdays, Koki begins his workday at 2 a.m.

The entire operation takes place in a teeny tiny store on Western Avenue in Gardena. There’s one machine and enough room for two, maybe three, people to walk around.

Soybeans come from Ohio, sourced from a company called Kanematsu, where the beans are GMO-free and planted with organic practices. At Meiji’s, they are soaked overnight, and then put through a squeezing machine that makes them into soymilk. The milk is then strained, divided into containers, and hand-coagulated using drops of nigari – or deep-sea water.

It sounds simple, but different varieties of tofu require different ratios of coagulant. The firmer the tofu, the more nigari is needed. Also, different breeds of soybeans yield different flavors. The permutations are endless and Koki himself is a fan of experimentation.

He tells a story of a man he only knows as Mr. Oh Momo, a top tofu maker in Japan who made a visit to Meiji because he had heard there were people making Japanese tofu in Los Angeles and decided to check it out.

“Mr. Oh Momo is a tofu scientist,” Sato says. “He taught me how to wash the soybeans and how to soak it. Different soaking times will produce different flavors. Another factor is temperature.”

Sato eventually made a pilgrimage to Japan to shadow Mr. Oh Momo and, inspired, started his own line of experimental tofu at Meiji.

“When I designed this tofu, I wanted to give people something they’ve never used before,” Sato says, referring to a product he calls Supreme Tofu. Supreme Tofu is meant to be consumed simply. Add a scoop of jam or honey and eat it with a spoon. Its consistency is akin to pudding. This was done on purpose.

“Honestly. I just really love pudding,” Sato admits.

Each day, Sato cranks out 500 to 600 tofu bricks and 50 to 75 gallons of soymilk using 180 to 200 pounds of soybeans, a tiring five-hour-long process that’s overseen by Sato and his brother, Kurato.

Deliveries are made around town and then Meiji closes its doors at 1 p.m. The day is then repeated six times. Tuesday is their only day off.

The Sato family’s efforts have not been overlooked. “The biggest moment of my tofu life was when I found out Providence [restaurant] was using my soymilk,” Koki Sato says. Sweet Rose Creamery is another favorite customer. They use Meiji’s milk for their dairy-free ice cream.

The family business primarily distributes to Japanese supermarkets in the area and sells their product through GoodEggs, a farm-to-home grocery delivery service.

It’s a small-scale operation but the quality is unbeatable. Their soymilk is undeniably thick and creamy. Dilute it for a more conventional experience or, make your own tofu with it. “I sell it thick on purpose because I want to give my customers a chance to make their own tofu,” Sato says.

His tofu, raw, is remarkably sweet. No sugar has been added; it’s all in the bean and production process. He also makes a version that comes out a beautiful, pastel green. It’s edamame tofu. The bright, green hue is completely natural. It comes from the edamame beans – baby soybeans that are plucked before maturity. The differences are subtle; edamame has a slightly nuttier flavor. Sato recommends consuming his products as soon as possible for optimal flavor.

“Tofu is not a tasteless health food,” Meiji’s Instagram feed screams. That seems to be their guiding philosophy.

“It shouldn’t be just, ‘I eat tofu because it’s healthy,’” Sato explains. “It should be ‘I eat tofu because it’s delicious.’”

Click through the slideshow for more photos: 

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Behind The Scenes at Szechuan Impression

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I love writing about ancient Chinese dishes. These are the type of posts that get me riled up. I can spend hours curled up reading deeper into the historical context of certain dishes.

Originally posted on LA Weekly

Szechuan Impression opened its doors two months ago in Alhambra, one of the latest in a wave of Sichuan restaurants that have graced Los Angeles in the past year. Behind the latest hot eatery are owners Kelly Xiao and Lynn Liu. “Lynn is really good at cooking. I’m really good at eating,” Xiao jokes.

The women, who used to be affiliated with Chengdu Taste down the street, started Impression as a passion project. Their goal: to give folks an impression of the Sichuan they grew up in.

“We want to push forward Chengdu’s favorite dishes, not just the familiar ones.” Xiao says. Chengdu is the capital of Sichuan and the hometown of both Xiao and Liu. “We only have a couple of typical Sichuan dishes that most people in America are familiar with.”

She points to the kung pao chicken, boiled fish fillets, and braised beef on the menu. “These are the three classic traditions,” she says. “We don’t even have mapo tofu.”

Impression’s menu is 67 items long. Ingredients are handpicked by Liu and brought in daily, and a portion of the menu is centered on seasonal vegetables. The rest are dishes that are currently trending in Chengdu. The Leshan cross-legged beef, for one, is one of Xiao’s favorite. It’s offal cooked in an herbal broth, paired with a chile sauce for dipping on the side.

Called leshan qiaojiao niurou in Chinese, it was invented in the 1930s during a time when there was a lot of sickness among the Chinese population. In the city of Leshan (which is near Chengdu) an herbal medicine man noticed that people were throwing beef offal into the river. He thought it was a shame, decided to retrieve it, and cooked it into an herbal soup. This soup proved effective into preventing illnesses and it rose in popularity. Lines formed and those who didn’t have seats would just eat outside and sit cross-legged on the streets — hence the name, cross-legged beef.

The menu reads like a Chinese storybook. Cross-legged beef is one of many examples. Another one is the ice jelly dessert, known as bingfener, which dates back to the Qing Dynasty and is made from the nicandra physalodes plant and has a texture kind of like Jell-O. It’s clear and plain but accented with fermented rice and brown sugar water for flavor, and Impression tops it off with a sprig of mint. “I like to tell people the fullness of life requires a little sweetness after spice,” Xiao says.

Legend has it that a little girl, who was known for her sweet disposition and looks, discovered the ice jelly. She lived in what’s currently Pengshan County in Sichuan, and was picking pears when the pulp of the nicandra physalodes fruit accidentally fell into her bag. When she got home, she noticed the clear pulp, tasted it, and added in brown sugar and water because the jelly in itself didn’t have much flavor. The girl started selling the dessert and soon enough, Pengshan County became known as the place to buy ice jelly from a little girl named Wei Yuan.

“We really want to teach people about the culinary traditions in Sichuan,” Xiao says. “This is authentic Sichuanese food made by Sichuanese people.”

That Sichuanese force at Impression is Tony Lai, a long-time Chengdu chef and a graduate of The Sichuan Institute of Higher Cuisine. “Sichuan cooking is all about feeling,” Lai says. “It’s hard to write it down in a recipe. You have to use smells and temperature as indicators of when to put in certain spices. Lai has been around food his entire life; his father was also a Sichuanese chef.

Lai’s kitchen is stockpiled with containers of spices, most of which have been directly imported from Hanyuan, a county in Sichuan known for its peppers and spices. And yes, Impression has a stockpile of Sichuan peppercorns.

“The Sichuan peppercorn is an acquired taste,” Xiao admits. The peppercorn is a spice unique to Sichuanese cooking. It’s actually not even a pepper at all; it’s in the citrus family. The spice looks like miniature pearls, cracked and crumbly, colored purple and brown. There’s a lemony undertone, and if you get a big enough mouthful, it will numb your tongue.

Xiao is especially conscientious of people’s reaction to the peppercorn, especially first-timers. “A lot of people are scared of it, but it’s a part of Chengdu,” she says.

And Chengdu is represented well in her restaurant. “A lot of people think Sichuan food is just hot and numbing. But a good Sichuan restaurant has a combination of flavors in their dishes,” she says.

She adds: “If you go to Chengdu, you taste all of Sichuan.”

And if you go to Szechuan Impression, you’ll taste all of Chengdu.

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Szechuan Impression: 1900 W. Valley Blvd., Alhambra, CA

Forest Play

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Yay! I have quality photos now.

Over the years, whenever I’ve been asked for a headshot for an event or panel or class, I’ve always had to stage selfies and send over crappy, grainy iPhone photographs. Special thank you to the talented Karen Shih for making me look presentable.

Not that I’m a fashion blogger by any means…but cool facts:

I had the pleated red dress custom-made in Shanghai. Shanghai has a really booming tailoring industry. All you need to do is find the right vendor, give them a photo of a outfit of your choice, and they’ll make it for you for a bargain price. (I’ve had friends get entire tuxedos made there.)

And that duo-tone dress, second and third photo down? That was purchased from the ancient city of Lijiang from a Naxi-owned shop. Naxi people are an ethnic minority group in China. A lot of them are concentrated in Yunnan and the best part? Women are the head of the family.

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