Monday, June 9, 2008

Gathering around a hot pot

This was our steamboat feast last night, ostensibly to mark the Duan Wu Jie, but really, do we need an excuse to get together to pig out?

Just an hour before dinner, Mum and Second Sis were busy with the last minute addition to the menu – home-grown lady’s fingers (okra) stuffed with Mum’s home-made fish paste. She prepared seven – one each.

Hey, we only have so many okra plants in our garden, you know.

Anyway, there aren’t many pictures of the event because the photographer was too hungry, and no camera’s image stablelizer feature can compensate for the shakes and shudders induced by a fiercely growling stomach.

But thankfully, steamboat dinners are a regular event at home, and we had one similar one on the third day of Chinese New Year. Although it was for five instead of seven, we had the usual mainstays of our meal. Pork…

… prawns, seasoned with a healthy dose of grated ginger …

… squid …

… and savoury tofu, cut into small pieces.

Other mainstays are a variety of vegetables, some sort of noodles, and beancurd wraps and beancurd balls stuffed with fish paste (yong foo chook and yong tau pok), pictured in the previous post. Essential to the meal are dips, which add flavour and zing to the food. We usually have three or four different types of dips around, one of them a spicy chilli sauce.

We use a Thai charcoal steamboat pot that’s not too big, which is good, as that means not too much soup will evaporate during the continuous boiling during dinner.

Brother usually takes care of starting the fire. He heats pieces of charcoal over a gas stove, and when they are sufficiently hot enough, he transfers them into the pot, which is placed in out bathroom, and proceeds to coax them into a high enough heat, with the aid of a hair dryer.

Then, the pot – with its raging charcoal and some soup that’s already gurgling away – is transferred gingerly to the table.

We fill the pot with more soup (vegetables, an old chicken and Chinese herbs boiled over many hours under Mum’s watchful gaze), add a bit of wolfberries (gei zhee) and the yong foo zhook and yong tau pok, and let it come to a boil.

Then we all dig in and eat away, always making sure to make space around the table for the Leftover Brigade.

When I’m away and I think of family dinners, I always invariably have a picture of this hot pot in the centre of our old round table, with all the fresh goodies waiting to be cooked, and everyone digging into a communal pot, serving food to others.

It is much more than just a meal, for it has a strong social element to it. So it is not surprising then that we’ve tried to replicate it some 9,000 miles away from home, among friends!

The fish balls and meat balls might have been store bought; ditto the fish paste (although we did the stuffing of the foo zhook and tau pok ourselves). The pot might have been a bit too big, running on a portable gas stove. But it was all good! We made the soup from scratch, like Mum, and the thinly sliced beef was from a Korean market and quite heavenly. We ate slowly, savoured the many bottles of wine at our disposal, and let the pot and conversation warm up a cool February night.

Sunday, June 8, 2008

Bak zhang, steamboat and other seasonal goodies

Today (Sunday June 8, 2008) is the fifth day of the fifth month of the Chinese lunar calendar, which is the Duan Wu Jie (端午节), also known as Dragon Boat Festival. For many, the occasion is marked chiefly by the making and eating of zhang (zongzi, 粽子) – glutinous rice and a variety of stuffing wrapped in bamboo leaves, and then steamed or boiled.

The quick and dirty history behind the festival is as follows. Upright Chinese scholar quits corrupt government. Wanders the country getting in touch with the people and writing beautiful poetry. Country’s capital falls to barbarians; scholar depressed; commits suicide by drowning as a form of protest against inept government (that’s what happens when you can’t join the opposition and contest in elections). People distraught. They throw glutinous rice into river so that bad creatures won’t eat dead scholar, under the theory that fragrant rice is better than rotting flesh. So, nowadays we eat bak zhang to remember this upright scholar. Well, actually, we eat them because they ARE YUMMY.

Anyway, for the full history behind the festival (and why folks race dragon boats during this festival), there’s always the most accurate, reliable and up-to-date onlinepedia in the world ☺.

I was going to write this very long post on the adventure of asking Mum to teach me how to make bak zhang, and the whole time-consuming process, but, sorry J, I got lazy. Basically, preparing the ingredients was not a problem; wrapping the bak zhang, however, proved too much for me. I just couldn’t get my fingers and hands dancing nimbly enough to produce a self-respecting version that has a semblance of some pointy corners, or learn how to tie them up properly to withstand the boiling. I was also so slow that in the time I took to make six, mum finished 30.

Most of mine turned out like the worst kind of politicians – shapeless, slippery and totally disintegrating when subjected to heat. Only two of my six survived the watery inquisition. Ancient scholar would have been fish feed if he had to depend on me.

There are today a gazillion varieties of savoury and sweet zhang on the market, but we eat a very simple version of the savoury bak zhang, with pork…

… oysters and chestnuts.

We have in the past added mushrooms, and most classic recipes for the savoury type will call for some (or all) of the following ingredients – Chinese sausage, salted eggs, dried shrimp and boiled peanuts. But our preference follows our family’s more stripped down taste buds.

We are also having a family dinner tonight to mark the occasion – a steamboat (or hot pot, or da pin low as the Cantonese call it) feast for seven. Mum started making her fish paste yesterday …

… so we’ll have homemade bean curd sheets and beancurd balls stuffed with fish paste (yong foo zhok and yong tau pok, below) as well as the usual assortment of seafood, pork, home-grown vegetables and noodles.

Sis is bringing frog’s legs and pork kidney to liven things up. It’s not quite the season, but San Francisco Bay Area Dungeness crabs would have been perfect!

I now have to go to the gym to train for tonight’s food fest!