New Beginnings Part I: A New Blog and Tea-Cured Salmon

Picture of a dragon
Enter the dragon (Image via Wikipedia)

Chinese New Year is a celebration of new beginnings and many Chinese take the saying “out with the old, in with the new” very seriously.

This year, the Year of the Dragon, is drumming up a little more hoo-ha–and will welcome quite a few more babies–than usual. In ancient China, the dragon was a symbol of the emperor’s authority and power, and is still considered the most auspicious animal in the Chinese zodiac. And its arrival on January 23rd is predicted to bring not only great success, but also unpredictability and drama.

If I was superstitious and followed Chinese custom accordingly, by New Year’s Eve I will have, among other things, done the following:

• Spring-cleaned my home from top to bottom to remove any traces of bad luck from the previous year (BTW, you’re not supposed to sweep during the New Year celebrations lest your good luck gets swept away!),
• Paid all my debts (still trying!),
• Resolved differences with family members, friends, neighbors and business associates (really, do I have to?),
• Bought new outfits in flashy shades of red or orange for my entire family (tempting but my husband would protest).

As you can see, I’m not very diligent about chalking up points for luck and prosperity.

Even though it appears I’m not going to rid myself of previously accumulated bad karma or even revamp my wardrobe, I have decided that it’s time to take a long hard look at my blog. Since my cookbook came out, I’ve felt that this blog in its current format doesn’t accurately reflect me or what I write about. Hence, I am planning to refocus and I’d like your input!

Some questions I’m pondering:

-What do you like/don’t like about my blog?
-What features or elements would you like me to add?
-Would you like to see more Cambodian recipes perhaps, or a glossary?
-Do you prefer traditional recipes or modern adaptations?
-Do you like the ingredient spotlight and homemade recipe departments? What other ongoing departments are you interested in?

But really, any and all suggestions you might have would be greatly appreciated. Please do tell all in the comments section!

That being said, I am not totally averse to having some good fortune in the coming year so I will be making yu sheng (raw fish in Mandarin), a dish popular in Singapore and Malaysia, for our mini New Year dinner.

This “salad” is usually eaten in restaurants and its make-up varies from place to place, but comprises an assortment of ingredients including: sliced fish (salmon, ikan parang (mackerel), or grass carp), carrots, daikon, sweet potato, jellyfish, candied fruit, pomelo, pickled ginger, pok chui (fried flour crisps), etc., all dressed with a sweet and sour plum sauce and spices.

curing mix
Salt, brown sugar, and tea leaves form the basis of my curing mix. You can also add a little sake or Chinese wine to turn it into a paste

When my parents first moved to the U.S., my mom decided to make her own version of yu sheng. While most of the ingredients are familiar, she did deviate a little. Instead of the traditional ikan parang [mackerel], she used fresh salmon. She pickled carrots and daikon to make them sweet, sour and importantly, crunchy, and skipped the pickled ginger altogether. Plus, she added what might make yu sheng purists cringe, iceberg lettuce, to bulk up the salad.

I came up with my own riff on yu sheng by making my own tea-cured salmon which is a nice counter to the sweet and sour flavors that may otherwise overpower this dish, and without the iceberg lettuce.

The tea-cured salmon method is below and the full yu sheng recipe is coming up in New Beginnings II.

In the meantime, I’d love your feedback for my new blog!

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Tea-Cured Salmon

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I tweaked this recipe from Chef Arpad Lengyel of Washington D.C.’s Teaism restaurant. I used a heady Ceylon tea my friend had brought back from Sri Lanka and the salmon absorbed the tea’s lovely earthy, smoky flavor. So while you can choose any tea you’d like, do think about how its fragrance and flavor will infuse the salmon. The Ceylon tea I used was almost like a fine dust, but in hindsight a whole leaf tea would’ve been much easier to wash off.

Time: 10 minutes, plus curing time

1 pound fresh skin-on wild salmon fillet, scaled, pin bones removed
1/2 cup salt
1/3 cup brown sugar
1/2 cup loose leaf Ceylon tea (use whichever tea you prefer: oolong, sencha, jasmine, etc.)

Mix the salt, sugar, and tea in a small bowl.

Find a non-reactive casserole dish or baking pan that will fit the entire length of fish and line it with plastic wrap, leaving several inches hanging off the sides. Lay half the curing mix on the plastic. Pat the salmon dry and lay it skin-side down on the curing mix. Sprinkle the remaining curing mix over the salmon, coating it evenly. Don’t forget the sides. (It looks like a lot of curing but after scouring numerous recipes, it seems necessary!)

Fold the edges of the plastic wrap over the salmon and wrap it tightly, kinda like a present. Weigh the salmon down with something heavy – try a plate, brick, or some canned foods. Refrigerate the salmon for 3 days, draining the liquid that comes out and flipping it once every day (although I was not very diligent). If you can’t wait 3 days, some sources say a minimum of 24 hours would suffice.

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When the salmon is ready, scrape off the curing mix and rinse it thoroughly with cold water. Pat the salmon dry with paper towels and place it skin side-down on a cutting board. With your longest, thinnest, sharpest knife, slice the salmon diagonally off the skin. The sliced salmon will keep for about a week in the refrigerator.

If the salmon is too salty for your taste, rinse it as many times as necessary.

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Other Chinese/Lunar New Year dishes you might enjoy:

Chinese New Year Cake
Pumpkin Cake
Cantonese Cake
Longlife Noodles
Teochew Duck

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Lemongrass and Pandan Christmas Sugar Cookies: An Experiment in Asian-Inspired Baking

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Growing up, my family didn’t have a tradition of baking Christmas cookies. My mom would place several orders of Bûche de Noël (Christmas log cake) for our family dinner on Christmas eve and to give away to friends but nary a sugar cookie was in sight.

I never realized what I was missing until I moved to the U.S. where everyone I met seemed to have a favorite family Christmas cookie. My husband has fond memories of churning out pizzelles (even though his adopted family is of mostly German descent, go figure!) in a pizzelle iron with his sister. My church friend Karen introduced me to biscochitos, or Mexican wedding cookies, the official cookie of New Mexico. (*Note: a reader insisted that biscochitos and Mexican wedding cookies were not the same so I removed this. Do you have an opinion?). And Deb was baking glazed Lebkuchen (gingerbread cookies) months before Christmas, packing them into tins to “age.”

When my sis and I lived in the same city for a couple of years, we baked an assortment of Christmas cookies to share with our friends: Snickerdoodles, Mexican wedding cookies, thumbprint cookies, etc. But that arrangement doesn’t last long when one of us is married to a man in the military.

This year, I wanted to create my own Christmas cookie tradition, as often happens when you have a child. Isaac isn’t old enough to help in the kitchen but I figured I could do with a little practice in anticipation of the time he’ll be ready a few years down the road.

The wheels in my brain started whirring and then it came to me: Asian-inspired sugar cookies!

You might take one look at my methods and decide, Wow, that’s a lot of work! It’s not that I intentionally want to make my already-complicated life even more difficult. Trust me, there is reason behind the madness.

red sprinkles

As I surveyed the ingredients in my pantry and refrigerator, I made a mental checklist of yay or nay items. I nixed the idea of curried sugar cookies; too straightforward. Coriander and cardamom were common Scandinavian flavor profiles too and weren’t uniquely Asian. Then I pulled out the pandan leaves and lemongrass in my freezer. Hmm …

As you can see, I was just using what I had on hand. Considering we are moving again soon, it’s in my best interest to cook down my cupboards. I also had some bergamot oil which I know isn’t Asian-inspired, but I love Earl Grey tea so I thought, why not?

I adapted this recipe for the sugar cookie base and set to work. I divided up the dough into four parts so that I would not be fully committed to any one flavor. (Quadruple any of the amounts below if you’d like to make just one flavor.) As luck would have it, all of them turned out yummy. And chopping up the lemongrass and the pandan leaves wasn’t so hard, really!

In the end, it’s not just about the cookies. Although eating them is always part of the fun.

It’s about moms (and dads!), kids, and siblings whiling away a wintry afternoon, sharing a laugh as they cream sugar and butter in turn, and sprinkle candies on cookies. It’s about the joy of seeing a friend smile as they accept your prettily-packaged box of cookies. And there’s nothing like the sweet smell of cookies baking in the oven to spread warmth and cheer, and remind us that Christmas is here.

Merry Christmas everyone!

~~~

Experimental Christmas Sugar Cookies
Adapted from Easy Sugar Cookies on Allrecipes.com

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Cake flour produces a softer cookie with a finer crumb and I combined it with all-purpose flour (I used white whole wheat flour because that’s what I had) so that it would still stand up as a sugar cookie. You can make the cookies entirely with all-purpose flour if you desire. I also prefer natural cane sugar to white granulated sugar. I like its richer, almost molasses-like flavor. If you prefer a sweeter cookie, add up to ½ cup more sugar.

Makes: about 4 dozen cookies

2 cups cake flour
3/4 cup white whole wheat flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1 cup butter, softened
1 cup natural cane sugar
1 egg
1/2 teaspoon vanilla
2 tablespoons Lemongrass Confetti (see below)
1/2 tablespoon Pandan Juice (see below), or 1/4 teaspoon pandan paste (available at Asian markets)
1/8 teaspoon bergamot or other flavoring oils
Sugar sprinkles or other decorations

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees F (190 degrees C).

Combine the flours, baking soda, and baking powder in a small bowl and set aside.

In a large bowl, cream the butter and sugar until smooth. Beat in the egg and vanilla until well mixed.

Add the dry ingredients gradually, blending each batch in before adding more. Mix well.

Divide the dough into 4 balls and place in separate bowls. Add the lemongrass bits, pandan juice, and bergamot oil to each bowl respectively, leaving the fourth bowl plain. Knead each ball with your hands until the flavoring is completely mixed in.

Roll rounded teaspoonfuls of dough into balls, and place onto ungreased cookie sheets. Flatten with the back of the spoon and sprinkle with colored sugar or other decorations.

Bake for 8 to 10 minutes, or until golden. Let the cookies stand on the cookie sheet for two minutes before removing to cool completely on wire racks.

Rinse out cookie sheets, wipe down, and repeat until all the cookies are baked. (Don’t place dough on hot cookie sheets or they will cook unevenly and/or burn quickly.) Or refrigerate (up to 2 days) or freeze (up to a week) remaining dough to bake later.

Lemongrass Confetti

Trim about an inch from the hard root end of one plump lemongrass stalk and chop off the woody top where it just starts to turn from green to pale yellow. You should have 6 to 7 inches of lemongrass stalk remaining. Peel off the loose, tough outer layers to expose the tender white core, then bruise the entire length of the stem with a meat pounder, large knife, or heavy glass to release the aroma and oils. Cut the stalks crosswise into very thin ringlets (as thin as you can possibly cut them). Then rock your knife blade over the pieces to chop them into confetti-sized flakes. The tinier you can chop the lemongrass, the less chance you’ll be chomping down on hard bits when you bite into the cookie. Or whirl in a food processor. You should get about 2 to 3 tablespoons from one stalk.

Pandan Juice

Pandan leaves are considered the Southeast Asian equivalent of vanilla extract and are used to flavor cakes and kuehs in Singapore, Indonesia and Malaysia. You can find pandan leaves in the freezer section of Asian markets. They are occasionally available fresh. (Go here for an article on pandan leaves I wrote for Saveur magazine)

Rinse 6 pandan leaves and snip into 1/2 inch sections. Place the leaves in a small food processor with 2 tablespoons of water. Whirl until pulpy and wrap in a cheesecloth placed over a bowl. Squeeze out as much pandan juice as possible. You’ll probably have more than the required 1/2 tablespoon. You can boil it down in a small saucepan over low heat for a more concentrated flavor or just add the extra to a cup of tea.

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Asian-Themed Thanksgiving Recipes

Whew … I can’t believe that next week is already Thanksgiving! Can you?

In the last few weeks, I’ve noticed that my sticky rice stuffing post has been getting lots of hits. That’s another hint that Turkey day is near. So I decided to link to all my Thanksgiving-themed recipes in one blog post to make life easier for you. Enjoy!

 

1. Sticky Rice Stuffing

 

2. Pumpkin Custard

 

3. Turkey Congee/Jook
Just substitute the chicken for the turkey carcass and save some turkey meat for garnish!

 

4. Chinese-Style Savory Pumpkin Cake

 

5. Top 10 Leftover Turkey Tips

And here are more ideas from around the Web:
A comprehensive list of ideas and recipes from IMDiversity.com
Turkey and side dish recipes from Chinesefood.about.com
A modern Asian-American Thanksgiving celebration from Food and Wine magazine

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If you have any Asian-inspired Thanksgiving recipes, please share and/or link to them in the comments section. I’d love to hear about them!

Chinese New Year Cake

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New year cake and mandarin oranges are two standards eaten during Chinese New Year’s

My family doesn’t celebrate Chinese New Year in a big way. In fact, my dad has always insisted we are NOT Chinese. My siblings and I always took that statement with a pinch of salt, and we had a real giggle the day he got a phone call from an old classmate asking for Tan Giok Sin (his entire family officially changed their Chinese names to Indonesian names in the 1960’s to promote “assimilation”).

This year, I’ve been thinking about this holiday in a new way since our baby is due on February 16th, two days after the Spring Festival (another name for the new year as it also marks the transition of winter into spring) on the 14th. I expounded on my reflections in an essay to be published on Leite’s Culinaria on this date so I won’t repeat them here but I did try out a few new year recipes I’ve been craving, one of them being nian gao (literally “year cake” or as a homonym, “higher year”) made with Chinese brown candy/sugar and glutinous rice flour.

When I was growing up, my dad would come home with a gift basket of goodies from the office during Chinese New Year and nian gao was inevitably one of the items nestled among the luxury dried goods (mushrooms, scallops, oysters and other expensive unidentifiables), candies, sweetmeats and mandarins. Legend has it that nian gao was offered to the Kitchen God either as a bribe or so that his lips would be busy chewing on the sticky cake that he wouldn’t report unfavorably on your family to the Jade Emperor in heaven.  An unfavorable report meant bad luck for the household for an entire year and you didn’t want that!

I didn’t really like nian gao then—the circular cake was usually wrapped in lotus leaves which to my childhood nose had an odd musky smell, I hated how the brown sticky bits got stuck in my teeth, and besides the cake was far from sweet enough.

Funny how tastes change. I now love its mellow sweetness, and each slice coated with a light, crisp egg batter and a heat-softened sticky interior offers my mouth bites akin to delicate pillows of edible goodness.

New Year Cake (Nian Gao)

Adapted from The Wisdom of the Chinese Kitchen (Simon & Schuster Editions, 1999) by Grace Young

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The main ingredient, glutinous rice flour, is a symbol of cohesiveness; be sure you don’t use regular rice flour. Brown candy (peen tong in Cantonese) is a Chinese sugar sold in slabs about 5 x 1-1/4 x 1/2 inches. You can find them in 1 pound packages or sometimes sold loose in bins at Chinese herbal shops or Asian markets. Use soft golden brown sugar if you can’t find it. In Indonesia, nian gao is called kue keranjang (basket cake) or kue cina (Chinese cake) and are sold widely during Imlek, the Indonesian name for Chinese New Year. Instead of being dipped in egg and fried, the slices can be grilled and rolled in shredded coconut.

Time: 1 hour 30 minutes (30 minutes active) plus sitting overnight
Makes: 1 (6-inch) cake

3 slabs brown candy (peen tong), about 6 ounces
2 teaspoons vegetable oil, plus more for pan-frying
3 1/2 cups (16 ounces) glutinous rice flour
1 tablespoon sesame seeds
1 egg, beaten until frothy

Chop the brown candy into small pieces and place in a heatproof bowl. Pour 1 cup of boiling water over the sugar and set aside until it dissolves into syrup.

Grease a 6-inch, round, straight-sided baking dish with 1 teaspoon oil (or use cooking spray).

In a large bowl, place the flour and make a well in the middle. Stir in the cooled syrup and knead into a dough, adding about 1/4 to 1/3 cup more cold water. Knead for about 5 to 10 minutes until the dough is smooth, slightly moist and shiny.

Turn the dough out into the dish and pat down until it fills the dish evenly.

Sprinkle the sesame seeds on top and pour 1 teaspoon oil over, using your fingers to lightly press down on the seeds.

Steam the cake for 35 to 40 minutes over high heat until the cake starts to pull away from the sides of the dish. (Click here for steaming tips).

Carefully remove the dish from the steamer and place on a rack to cool. Cover loosely and let cool at room temperature until the next day.

Run a knife along the edges of the cake to loosen it and invert onto a plate. Flip the cake right-side up onto a cutting board and cut into quarters. Cut each quarter crosswise, not into wedges but into 2-inch wide strips and cut each strip crosswise into scant 1/4-inch-thick slices.

When ready to serve, coat a frying pan with oil and heat over medium until hot. Dip each slice into the egg and pan-fry in batches, cooking each side until golden-brown, about 2 to 3 minutes. Serve immediately.

Pat’s notes:
Nian gao is usually served over the course of the 15 days of the new year celebrations when family and friends come to visit. You can wrap it up in plastic and refrigerate for this time, if it lasts that long!

As grandma always says, please share!

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Celebrating with Yellow Rice (Nasi Tumpeng)

A few weeks ago, I was in Seattle to celebrate my dad’s 70th birthday.

cutting the tumpeng

That’s my mom and dad. The peak of the nasi tumpeng is sliced off first, in the same tradition as slicing into a birthday cake (Photo courtesy of Ricky Raynaldi)

My visit wasn’t a surprise–I was there on “business”–but the party was!

Preparing for the party of about 80 guests was quite an orchestration. My mom single-handedly prepared all the food, starting two weeks beforehand, and my sis, Mo, sent out Evites and tasked everyone with setup, decorations and Costco runs for the day.

Everything was meticulously planned. To avoid any suspicion, we had a family dinner on Friday night to celebrate dad’s birthday, and Mo asked dad to come over on Saturday to help her put together her patio table.  I was very concerned that someone was going to give it all away, and ironically, I was the one who almost did! A gentle shoulder squeeze from my mom was all that stood between my big mouth and a ruined surprise.

The Saturday morning of the party dawned bright and sunny (not always a given during Seattle summers). It was a bustle of activity as we set up in the cabana next to the swimming pool in Mo’s condo.  I even managed to get my 7-year-old nephew to help with unmolding and arranging the desserts.

The amazing spread of food comprised: Sate Manis (sweet pork satay), Beef Rendang (curried beef), Ayam Goreng (fried chicken), Tahu-Tempeh (sauteed tofu and tempeh), Sayur Asem (sour vegetable soup), Krupuk (shrimp, fish and tapioca crackers) and seven different types of dessert including Longan/lychee Jelly, Kue Salat (sticky rice topped with coconut custard), and Durian Roll (a roulade filled with durian cream—yum!). And let’s not forget the keg of root beer, my dad’s favorite soda!

However, the highlight of the meal was the Nasi Tumpeng, turmeric-tinged yellow rice piled high into a cone and served with an assortment of dishes.

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Shredded egg omelet, cucumbers, sambal teri (anchovies with chilies and peanuts), telor belado (twice cooked egg with sweet chili sambal), tahu-tempeh, are just some of the foods that usually surround the base of nasi tumpeng (Photo courtesy of Ricky Raynaldi)


Mom went all out with the decorations, fashioning bell peppers, chilies, and onions into flowers, and arranging eggplant, cabbage and lettuce leaves around the gorgeous display.

At around 5 p.m., Mo lured dad down to the pool saying she needed to get dropcloths to protect her carpet.

From inside the cabana, I watched as my dad sauntered closer to the cabana, pausing to peer at the potted plants and flowers surrounding the pool.

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Mom leading a surprised dad into the cabana to meet his friends (Photo courtesy of Ricky Raynaldi)

As he walked through the door, everyone shouted in unison, “Surprise!”  And from the look on his face–eyes wide, eyebrows raised, jaw dropped–he didn’t suspect a thing!

Fragrant Yellow Celebration Rice (Nasi Kuning)

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(Photo courtesy of Ricky Raynaldi)

The foundation of nasi tumpeng is, of course, fragrant yellow rice. In Indonesia, this dish is traditionally served to celebrate a special occasion, be it a birthday, a marriage or even success at work. The height of the cone symbolizes the greatness of Allah or God, and the food at the base of the cone symbolizes nature’s abundance. The yellow tinge in the rice symbolizes wealth and high morals. When I was growing up, nasi tumpeng was served alongside roast beef at Christmas dinner, fitting perfectly into our holiday celebrations, a time of thanksgiving and hope for a prosperous New Year. But you can enjoy in place of white rice any time!

Time: 45 minutes plus frying shallots
Makes: 6 to 8 servings as a as part of a multicourse family-style meal

2½ teaspoons ground turmeric
1 teaspoon salt
1 cup warm water
1½ cups coconut milk
1 plump stalk lemongrass, bruised and tied into a knot
1 salam leaf
4 kaffir lime leaves, crumpled
2½ cups long-grain rice
2 cups water

Garnishes:
1 small red bell pepper, cut into strips
1 small cucumber, peeled and cut into coins
Fried shallots

Dissolve the turmeric and salt in the warm water.

In a large pot, bring the coconut milk, lemongrass, salam leaf, and kaffir lime leaves to a gentle boil over medium-high heat. Reduce the heat to medium-low. Add the turmeric water. Tip the rice into the pot and add the water. Bring to a gentle boil, stirring occasionally.

Simmer uncovered until all the liquid has just been absorbed, about 10 minutes. Reduce the heat to low. Cover and cook for 15 to 20 minutes, or until the rice is tender but not mushy; the rice grains should still be separated. If the rice is still hard, make a well in the center of the pot, add a little water, and cook a few more minutes. Halfway through the estimated cooking time, gently fluff the rice with a fork or chopsticks.

Let the rice cool. Fish out the lemongrass, salam leaf, and lime leaves and discard.

On a large serving platter, mound the rice into the shape of an upturned cone. Garnish with red pepper strips, cucumber slices, and fried shallots.

Chicken Biryani Three Ways

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I first met Jafar “Jeff” Siddiqui 16 years ago when I first came to the U.S. Jeff and his wife Kathy were my brother’s host parents. Every year, FIUTS, an organization at the University of Washington, plays matchmaker, pairing newly arrived foreign students with American families who are willing to host them for a week and help them transition to a new culture and country.

Just as they did with my brother, Jeff and his family graciously took me under their wing, and we’ve become lifelong friends.

My first few thanksgivings and Christmases were spent with the Siddiquis and we’d go over for other occasions, both special and casual. I devoured my first plate of roast turkey smothered with gravy and cranberry sauce at theirs, and I was introduced to Kathy’s chili and cornbread one lunchtime. And every so often Jeff would cook up dishes hailing from his native Pakistan. “This is NOT Indian cuisine!” Jeff would declare, not realizing I had spied a cookbook on the kitchen counter with the word ‘Indian’ emblazoned somewhere on its front cover. I knew better than to open my mouth so I’d stifle a giggle, roll my eyeballs, and continue eating my plate of chicken curry, dhal or whatever sumptuous spiced dish was on the table.

I’ve met the extended family from both sides–mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers, cousins–and I’ve watched their kids grow up. The oldest, Heather, is now a beautiful young woman of 17 and Arman is 13 and already taller than his dad.

So when I started working on my cookbook, I naturally asked the Siddiquis if the had any recipes to share. The kids were unanimous: Amma’s Rice, the name for their grandma’s chicken biryani.

Jeff’s mother, “Munni” Khursheed Ashraf, never recorded the recipe so all her children and grandchildren were left with were fleeting taste memories on their palates.

Last summer, Jeff’s sisters Fazi (who lives in Holland) and Samia (who lives in Seattle’s eastside suburb, Bellevue) recreated it in Samia’s kitchen, with Arman supervising of course.

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Arman cooking in my kitchen 

And lucky me, I got to cook Amma’s Rice twice: once with Arman and another time with Samia. Arman came with a recipe his Aunt Fazi dictated over the phone the night before (and a veiled warning from his dad not to disgrace the family); whereas at Samia’s, we cooked based on the recipe notes she took when her sister visited.

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Clockwise from bottom left: Lou (Samia’s husband), Samia, Jeff, Arman and Lena (Samia and Lou’s daughter) 

Although both versions had almost identical ingredients, there were subtle differences. I was fascinated that the same recipe could be interpreted in different ways by siblings.

Here’s what I observed based on my cooking sessions with Arman and Samia, and Jeff’s interjections:

-Fazi likes her biryani with lots and lots of butter–her recipe uses about 2-1/2 sticks of butter!

-Samia uses ghee instead of butter and likes to add a tad more spices–more peppercorns please! Samia prefers lamb in her biryani too.

-Jeff likes to cook his rice with more water: a ratio of 1 rice to 2 water, instead of Samia’s 1 to 1-1/2. He also likes more salt!!

– Both sisters use breast meat in their recipes but Jeff swears by tender, juicy dark meat.

My conclusion? This would make for a fun, non-scientific experiment among siblings. Pick a favorite recipe you remember your grandma or mom cooking and see how each of you interprets it. Drop me a comment with your results!

Amma’s Rice

“Amma” means mother and this dish is named for “Munni” Khursheed Ashraf, the late matriarch of the Ashraf/Siddiqui family. The recipe was never written down so her grandson Arman set out to recreate the recipe with his aunts Fazi and Samia one afternoon. Generally, chicken biryani is a sumptuous Pakistani/Indian dish often reserved for special occasions such as weddings, parties, or holidays like Ramadan. Samia remembers it as her mum’s go-to dish when expecting company. The preparation is rather lengthy but all the work is definitely worth it! Basmati rice with its thin, fine grains is the ideal variety to use. If unavailable, long grain rice is the next best thing; short grains result in mushy rice.

Time: 2-1/2 hours
Makes: 6 to 8 servings

3 cups basmati rice
1/2 teaspoon saffron threads
1/4 cup boiling water
1/2 cup plus 1 tablespoon ghee
2 medium onions, sliced thinly (about 4 to 5 cups)
1 head garlic, peeled and minced*
3-inch piece fresh ginger, peeled and minced*

Whole spices:
10 to 12 black peppercorns
8 whole cloves
Seeds from 8 to 10 cardamom pods
3 (3-inch long) cinnamon sticks

Ground spices:
2 teaspoons cumin powder
1 teaspoon coriander powder
1/2 teaspoon garam masala

2 teaspoons (or more to taste) plus pinch salt
2 pounds boneless chicken breasts or thighs, cut into 1-inch chunks (about 3 breasts)
1/2 cup yogurt, divided
1 tablespoon olive oil
4-1/2 cups cold water

Raita (recipe to follow)

Wash rice in 2 to 3 changes of water. Soak until required.

Place saffron threads in a small bowl and pour in boiling water. Soak until required.

In a (6-quart) wide-mouthed pot or Dutch oven, melt 1/2 cup ghee over medium heat. Fry onions until soft and translucent, about 5 to 6 minutes. Add ginger and garlic and fry for 30 seconds. Toss in whole spices and stir well. Add ground spices and 2 teaspoons salt, and stir for another 30 to 45 seconds.

When onions have turned yellowish, add chicken and mix well to coat. Cook and stir until chicken is no longer pink, about 8 minutes.

Stir in 1/4 cup yogurt and mix well. Cook, covered, over low heat for about 30 minutes, or until water evaporates and oil starts to separate.

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Turn off heat and leave pot on stove, covered.

Drain rice well. Heat oil in a (4-quart) pot. Fry rice over medium-high heat for 2 to 3 minutes. Add 4-1/2 cups water, 1 tablespoon ghee and pinch of salt. Bring to a gentle boil, then simmer, covered, over low heat for 20 minutes. When rice kernels separate, rice is done. Set aside, covered.

Uncover chicken and spread pieces evenly in pot. Smooth 1/4 cup yogurt evenly over chicken. Layer cooked rice over chicken and yogurt as evenly as possible, smoothing down any clumps.

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Drizzle saffron liquid, including threads, over rice. Cover and cook over low heat for 20 minutes.

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Spoon chicken and rice into a large bowl with a low rim and mix thoroughly. Pick out cinnamon sticks and serve with raita and (store-bought) chutney.

Optional garnish:
Soak raisins in water for 10 minutes until they’re plump, and dry with a paper towel. Fry with a little butter and scatter over rice.

Notes:
*You can mince both the garlic and ginger at the same time in a food processor.

Ghee is butter that has been slowly melted so that the milk solids and golden liquid have been separated and yields a more authentic taste. Use butter if you can’t find ghee.

Samia recommends buying free range, organic chicken breasts because they have not been injected with water like many conventional brands you find at supermarkets. And you don’t want a watery biryani.

Raita
2 cups yogurt
1/2 teaspoon cumin powder
Pinch salt

In a small bowl, mix everything together with a fork until yogurt is smooth and there are no lumps.

Eating Silver and Gold–Chinese New Year Dumplings

There is a popular Chinese saying: “There is nothing more delicious than jiaozi.” Such an accolade no doubt points to the popularity of the simple Chinese dumpling. (Chinese dumplings come in many shapes and sizes but the most common are jiaozi and guotieh. They’re essentially the same dumpling– the only difference is how they’re cooked. See headnote below.)

No one can trace the origins of the dumpling definitively but it’s been around for over 2,500 years. Its evolution may have started when people living in the vicinity of the Yellow River learned to grind wheat into flour, and it became even more widespread when an official decree during the Han Dynasty produced a food item filled with mutton, chilies and medicinal herbs to help the poor get through the cold winter. Today, Chinese dumplings all over the world seem to adhere to one common denominator–a soft, pillowy pouch filled with pork and cabbage.

Chinese dumplings are a must for Chinese (or Lunar) New Year. The Year of the Rat (starting February 7th) is almost upon us and Chinese households across the globe will be making dumplings on New Year’s eve. Like all the foods and dishes eaten during the New Year, dumplings are full of symbolism. Thanks to their resemblance to shoe-shaped gold or silver ingots, they are believed to bring fortune and good luck. SILVER + GOLD = MONEY = PROSPERITY = WEALTH.

In northern China, families usually chop the meat and prepare the filling themselves. This symbolizes the chopping out of bad luck. Dumplings have always been regarded as some of the best food one can eat, so enjoying it at the intersect between the old and new years brings the past to a close and ushers in good luck for the coming year.

Generally, the dumplings are prepared before midnight on the last day of the previous year, a tradition Ellen Chou remembers well. “On New Year’s eve, you have the big feast. Then the women in the family prepare dumplings for New Year’s day breakfast.”

Born in 1942 in China’s Hubei province, Ellen fled to Taiwan with her family when the communists took over in 1948.

As a young girl, Ellen didn’t learn to cook. “My mom never went to school and her dream for me was to have as much education as possible so she chased me out of the kitchen,” she explains. Since Ellen’s mother dominated her kitchen, Ellen learned to make dumplings in school. “It was the first thing we learned in home economics,” she says. “I went to an all-girls school and we’d clear the ping pong table and everyone stood around it making dumplings.”

Ellen was kind enough to share her recipe for guo tieh or pot stickers, just like how she made it way back when, giggling with her schoolmates around the ping-pong table in Taiwan.

Happy Year of the Rat, everyone!!

Ellen Chou’s Pot Stickers

Pot stickers are a favorite Northern Chinese snack, the Chinese version of fast food if you will. That being said, it’s considered peasant food, made with pork and cabbage, two cheap and ubiquitous ingredients. The dumpling can be steamed, boiled or pan-fried. When it is pan-fried, it is called guotieh, literally pot sticker, because the bottom sticks to the pan and forms a crispy crust. When it is steamed, boiled or served in soups, it’s called jiaozi.

Considering how readily available it is frozen or as take-out, why would one even attempt to make pot stickers at home, with dough made from scratch at that! Let me tell you: pot sticker skins really make the dumpling and nothing beats the texture of homemade skins. Store-bought skins, like fresh pasta sheets, are thin and flat. Pot sticker skins should have some heft to them and are thicker in the middle to endure the heat of cooking and protect the filling.

Time: 1 to 2 hours (depending how nimble your fingers are at making the pot stickers)
Makes: about 40

DOUGH:
2 cups all-purpose flour
3/4 to 1 cup lukewarm water

FILLING:
1 pound ground pork (2 cups)
2 cups finely chopped napa cabbage (half a medium cabbage)
1 stalk green onion, finely chopped
1 teaspoon minced fresh ginger (about 1/2-inch)
1 tablespoon soy sauce
2 teaspoons plus pinch of salt
1/4 teaspoon white pepper
1 teaspoon sesame oil
3 tablespoons vegetable oil

In a large mixing bowl, combine 2 cups flour with 3/4 cup water. Mix well with a wooden spoon until it starts to come together, adding more water if necessary. With your hands, form dough into a rough ball. You want the dough to be pliable but not stick to your fingers. Sprinkle a little more flour if dough is too wet. The dough won’t feel smooth at this point. Set the dough ball in a bowl, cover with a damp towel and let it rest while you make the filling.

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Place cabbage in a medium bowl and sprinkle 2 teaspoons salt. Mix well. Taking a handful of vegetables at a time, squeeze water out. Or wrap cabbage in batches in a cheesecloth or non-terry towel and wring dry.

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In a large bowl, combine pork, cabbage, green onions, ginger, soy sauce, salt, white pepper and sesame oil. Mix well with chopsticks or a set of clean hands. Set aside.

Make the wrappers. Knead dough for several minutes until it is smooth all over. Divide it into 4 balls. Knead each ball individually for about 30 seconds. Roll each portion into a log about 5-inches long and 1/2-inch in diameter. Pinch off 9 or 10 even walnut-sized pieces. Dust with flour as needed.

Roll each piece into a ball and flatten into a disc between your palms. Place flattened disc on a well-floured surface. Starting at the bottom edge of the disc, use a Chinese rolling pin* and roll from the outside of the circle in. Use your right hand to roll the pin as your left hand turns the disc anti-clockwise. So the sequence goes: roll, turn, roll, turn. Roll each disc into a circle about 3-inches in diameter. Don’t worry about making a perfect circle. Ideally, the wrapper will be thicker in the middle than on the edges.

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Spoon about 2 teaspoons of filling into the center of wrapper. Fold wrapper in half over filling to form a half-moon pocket and pinch shut**.

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Repeat until all the dough or filling is used up. Set pot sticker down firmly on a parchment-lined tray seam-side up so that dumpling sits flat.

Heat an (8- to 10-inch) non-stick skillet over medium-high heat. Swirl 3 tablespoons vegetable oil into the bottom of pan to coat evenly. Place about a dozen dumplings in a single layer seam-side up in the skillet and brown for 1 minute.

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Add 1/2 to 3/4 cup water to the pan, depending on its size. Cover immediately and steam 9 to 10 minutes, until all the water evaporates. The bottom of the pot stickers should be golden brown and crisp but not burned. Remove pot stickers with a spatula and serve on a plate with bottom side up. Serve with dipping sauce (recipe below).

*Chinese rolling pins are skinnier and don’t have handles. They’re available in Asian markets, or get a 3/4-inch wooden dowel from a hardware store.

**The simplest way to seal the dumplings is to pinch the edges shut so that you have a flat seam. It will look like a turnover. If you are good at crimping, you can create a “pleated” edge. Pinch the middle of pocket to seal. Starting from the outer right edge of the back flap of wrapper, make 3 pleats facing the outer edge while working your way toward the middle. Repeat on the left and continue pressing edges together until entire curve is sealed.

Grandma says:
-To keep or make ahead, freeze pot stickers in a single layer on a tray until firm (about 15 minutes will do) so they don’t stick to each other when placed in a plastic bag. Freeze for up to a month. Do not defrost before cooking. Simply increase cooking time to 15 minutes.

-To reheat cooked pot stickers, swirl 1 tablespoon oil in the bottom of pan. Set pot stickers and pour in 2 tablespoons water, cover and steam until heated through.

-Since weather can affect how dough comes together, the ratio of flour to water  for the dough may not be 2 to 1 as suggested. Use your judgment to determine whether the mixture is too wet or dry and add flour or water as needed.

Soy-Ginger Dipping Sauce

Makes: 1/2 cup
1/4 cup soy sauce
1/4 cup rice vinegar
1/4 cup cilantro, chopped (about 1 tablespoon)
1 stalk green onion, finely chopped (about 1 tablespoon)
1 teaspoon grated fresh ginger (about 3/4-inch)
1/4 teaspoon chili sauce, or to taste
1 clove garlic, smashed

Mix all ingredients in a small bowl. This will keep in a sealed container in the refrigerator for several days.