It’s funny. Ever since I graduated from college, I’ve been reading and purchasing more non-fiction books. I guess it’s the same mentality I’ve been adopting towards life. I’m afraid if I don’t make an effort, I won’t learn anything anymore.
One of the books in my Kindle repertoire (ah, gone are the days of bookshelves) is Cheryl Tan’s A Tiger in the Kitchen. I’ve only read the first couple of pages but she starts out talking about how cooking in the kitchen was never a priority growing up. Her parents wanted her to pursue a career in law and when she decided on majoring in journalism, her family did a collective sigh of disappointment.
My story is eerily parallel to Tan’s. Except my mom actually cried.
Since the moment I enrolled in NYU, I’ve always challenged my family’s view of what’s proper. a) I don’t have a conventional career. b) I’m obsessed with Chinese food.
Now, I’m always slightly envious of food people who grew up in the kitchen. Though I’ve made considerable self-taught improvements… people in my family still cringe whenever they see me wield a knife.
But boy, I can make a mean omelette.
The thing is, there’s a stigma against restaurant work. In high school, I really wanted to work at a fast food restaurant in the mall. I was forbidden from applying. It was too “lowly” of a job. I regret not taking more of an initiative.
For the immigrant parents who sacrificed everything for a white collar job, working and obsessing over something as “menial” and “everyday” as food is pointless. In fact, both my parents had no idea how to cook until they had a family of their own. My mom, who basically grew up in an equivalent of a hospital of Tainan, was well-off enough to afford a cook. And on my dad’s side, my grandmother was working as a single mother raising a brood of five children. Hiring a cook, though not really economical, was necessary. Plus, labor was cheap back then.
Even I grew up with a cook.
Growing up, it was my mom…who actually screamed whenever I got near the kitchen knives or anything remotely dangerous…like a stove (I know). I wasn’t even allowed one of those Easy Bake ovens. I remember only being able to wrap dumplings on the dining table (after I practiced with Play-Doh) and during rare occasions, help her make rou geng 肉羹, a glutinous Taiwanese noodle dish with grounded meat boiled in cornstarch. My task: to carefully lower the cornstarch-covered meatballs in the boiling water.
But that was the extent of it.
Today, we have a nanny who doubles as a cook for the family and a babysitter for my aging grandmother.
It’s all very ironic. In the Chinese culture, it’s shameful if a woman doesn’t know how to cook by the time she’s married. But in modern times, it’s a waste if an unmarried woman spends her time laboring away in the kitchen.
The thing with Chinese food is that it’s steeped in tradition. There’s a lot of intricacies and as I’ve learned through my research this week, a lot of folklore and superstition that correlates with how dishes are prepared. A whole fish and chicken represents unity. Uncut noodles equates to longevity. And it’s not just empty symbolism. There are sayings that correlate with each dish, homonyms that are not only witty – but ancient.
These are traditions even my parents can barely recite. My grandmother and the nanny know them well, but dismiss them as irrelevant and just plain superstition. It’s all a shame really. Chinese food is just food: it’s a necessity, a normal thing.
You can see this just through the restaurant culture in China. Unlike in America, chefs are rarely glorified. Street food vendors, though they whip up arguably some of the best grub in the world, go through lifetimes without ever landing a spread on any publication. For the longest time, the closest thing China had to fine dining was Hong Kong food. But note the British influence.
Perhaps I’m too big on preserving culture and tradition, but thankfully there are tons of books out there on Chinese cuisine and folklore I have yet to read. The problem is that the good ones are all in Chinese.
Time to brush up on that.
“Hyakunen-Cha Tea is an authentic reproduction of an original recipe from the 12th century. The count doctor from the Fujiwara Dynasty first created this tea based on the five primary elements and flavors contained in the Pharmacology Chinese Medicine. Hyakunen contains 27 kinds of herbs, mushrooms, and seaweeds which passed down from generation to generation yet improving with time.”
It’s huge in Japan and very elusive in the States.
My dad has been obsessed with this brand of tea for a little bit more than a year. And because I got shipped box loads of this stuff while I still lived in New York, it’s been my go-to drink tea when I’m not feeling like overdosing on caffeine. (There’s only 2% caffeine) Compared to just straight tea leaves, the formulation is rather impressive. It comes in three blends: blue, red and black with 24, 27 and 34 ingredients respectively.
From what I can gather, the red is formulated to help prevent diabetes and the black focuses heavily on mushrooms.
The red: “Those ingredients of the red box may help prevent facial lines (wrinkling), freckles, age spots, dry mouth, diuretic, sore limbs caused by arthritis/gout, muscle pain and chronic aches. It may also aid coughs secondary to asthma, allergies, weight-control and diabetes, the tea is useful for stabilizing blood sugar levels” (Beauty Beyond Skin).
The black: “With the addition of ginseng and Ling-Zhi, the black package tea with its thirty herbs, mushrooms, and seaweed helps with weak constitution, may improve or strengthen the immune system, and increase energy levels. It is also thought to help with the recovery for women from giving birth. It may even have anti-carcinogenic properties.” (Beauty Beyond Skin)
Some forums claim it’s a god-send for acne and congested skin.
I can’t vouch for the health benefits because I don’t drink it regularly enough, but the taste is reminiscent of oolong but doesn’t leave a bitter taste in your mouth. I’m a big tea drinker. Green tea, oolong, green tea with puffed rice are my staples. But Hyakunen-Cha, which, when directly translated means “One Hundred Year Tea” (yay three years of high school Japanese classes), is the tastiest. It has a thick smokey yet slightly sweet flavor that doesn’t overpower.
They go for about $30 for a large box: 30 huge tea bags that end up making a pitcher worth of teas.
My family meals are big on seafood. Here are some staples around our lazy susan:
The abalone is cooked in chicken broth and fished out to serve plain.
The cod is toasted and seasoned with salt and pepper.
Until I moved to New York for college, I had Chinese food every single day of my life. There wasn’t one day I didn’t have rice and my parents made a point to incorporate soup, greens, meat and fruit in every single meal. Truth be told, there were many things I ate that I’ve never seen anywhere else in the states. A lot of the produce and products they get are from Asian supermarket, imported directly from Taiwan or in today’s example — purchased from my family’s “vegetable lady.” Well I’m back in California for a while so here’s an attempt to decode some the dishes around my family’s lazy Susan.
This dragon beard vegetable cannot be purchased in supermarkets. My parents get it from a family friend who plants the vegetables herself. The dish is made with garlic and water. Dragon beard is the shoot of the chayote plant and widely planted in Taiwan.
This can be purchased in the supermarket, but according to my mom, it’s too 粗 (cu), or rough. So like most of her vegetables, this particular stalk comes from her “vegetable lady” who plants the stuff herself. The red color is natural and the dish is also made with sauteed garlic and water.