Celebrating Lao New Year with Green Papaya Salad

We all know about Lunar New Year, celebrated most notably by Chinese and Vietnamese in January or February every year. However, under-the-radar new year festivities take place at the start of spring.

A banner welcoming everyone to celebrate Lao New Year at Lao Wat Buddhist temple of North Philadelphia.

Lao New Year is celebrated as a three-day-long festival from April 13-15 (it can vary and may occur April 14-16 according to some calendars). The 13th is the last day of the old year, the 14th is the “day of no day”, and the 15th marks the start of the new year. Catzie Vilayphonh, creative director of LaosintheHouse.com (a collaborative arts project that brings together the collective stories of Lao-Americans) puts it simply, “On the first day, we clean everything, on the second we don’t do anything and on the third, we celebrate!”

I asked Catzie to give me some insight into her new year experience, especially the foods eaten.

Unlike the Chinese, Laotians don’t celebrate with a lavish reunion dinner at home. Instead, families head to the closest Lao Buddhist temple (called a wat) to pray and seek blessings, to take part in cultural activities, and of course, to eat lots of good food. Here, they also follow an important tradition: splashing water on each other. “It’s a cleansing ritual signifying starting anew,” explains Catzie.

Catzie points out that because of schedules, and perhaps competing wats, Lao New Year is celebrated almost every weekend in April.

Girls dressed in traditional Laotian costumes line the parade during new year festivities

There aren’t any symbolic foods or traditions that usher in wealth and good luck, nor are there sound-alike ingredients for gold and long life. A practical people, Laotians eat everyday foods to ring in the new year. “There’s no one thing that we must eat,” says Catzie. “We’ll just eat everything that we like.”

As a teenager, Catzie, who was born in a Thai refugee camp and raised in Philadelphia, went along to the temple for one reason—the street food vendors who thronged the temple grounds.

Street vendors busy shredding papaya to make salad for the masses who visit the temple during Lao New Year

She describes some of her favorites:

  • Mieng kaham is an aromatic street snack. Sticky rice is dried, fried and smashed in a mortar with a pestle and pork broth is added to it until it becomes a sticky mush. You put the mush in lettuce and wrap it with lemongrass, toasted coconut, peanuts, dry roasted pepper and tomatoes.”
  • “There’s always barbecued meat on sticks—beef chunks on skewers, chicken wings, and lemongrass sausage (som sai gok) made with ground pork that’s allowed to sit for a day to ferment.”
Lemongrass sausage being boiled in a huge pot before being skewered and grilled
  • And probably the most well known Lao/Thai dish:“Lao papaya salad is made with just papaya (Thai papaya salad, som tam, has plenty of extras) and garnished with pork rind for extra flavor and texture. It’s served with cabbage which is used like a spoon to pick up the salad. It’s extra sour and extra spicy, not like Thai papaya salad!”
A special tool makes easy work of shredding green papaya

For those of us who are accustomed to gathering at mom and dad’s for Thanksgiving or Lunar New Year dinner, it might seem odd not to celebrate this important cultural celebration with a large family meal.

But eating together as a family is just as special any time of the year, not just during the holidays.

Catzie recalls annual visits to a cattle ranch as a little girl with her extended family—uncles, aunts and cousin–to pick a cow. The cow was slaughtered and butchered onsite and everyone brought home a share of the animal.

“That first meal was the best part. We had to eat certain parts (of the cow) right away and we had a big family meal (usually raw laab),” she reminisces. “Everyone took turns working and we all had a part to play.”

“Sitting down with the family all together and sharing the meal. That’s truly, authentically Lao.”

Photo credits: Fawn Grant
Pictures taken at Lao Wat Buddhist temple of North Philadelphia, 2012

~~~

Sheng’s Papaya Salad

Recipe excerpted from Cooking from the Heart–The Hmong Kitchen in America (University of Minnesota Press, 2009)

Photo credit: Robin Lietz.
Photo credit: Robin Lietz

The country of Laos comprises three main ethnic groups—Lao (60 percent), Khmou (11 percent) and Hmong (6 percent). Papaya salad is a dish that’s prepared by all but this particular version comes from Sheng Yang who is Hmong. In Lao, it’s called thum bak hoong, and in Hmong, see taub ntoos qaub. This papaya salad is probably rather different from what you’ve had at a Thai restaurant—it’s earthier and more complex than its Thai counterpart thanks to fermented shrimp and crab pastes; it also lacks the usual accoutrements like crushed peanuts, garlic, snake beans, etc. Leave out the funky pastes if you prefer, and by all means add peanuts if you’d like.

Makes: 6 servings

4 cups shredded green papaya or 4 medium sized carrots
2 to 4 garlic cloves (depending on your taste)
1 to 3 Thai chili peppers (depending on desired heat)
1 to 2 tablespoons fish sauce
½ tablespoon shrimp paste (optional)
½ tablespoon crab paste (optional)
1 tablespoon sugar
1 teaspoon MSG (optional)
Juice and some pulp of 1 lime
6 cherry tomatoes
3 cups shredded cabbage (optional)

Some Asian markets sell shredded green papaya or you can shred it yourself using a special shredding tool available at Asian markets. If preparing this dish with carrots, scrub them well and cut off top ends. Peel into long, thin strips with a vegetable peeler and set them aside.

Remove the papery skin from the garlic cloves and put into a large mortar. Remove the stem ends of the chilies and add the chilies to the garlic. With a pestle, pound the garlic and chilies until they are mushy. Next, add the green papaya or carrot strips, fish sauce, shrimp and crab pastes (if desired), sugar, and MSG (if desired). Squeeze the lime juice into the mixture, discarding the seeds. Use a spoon to scrape some of the lime pulp into the salad. Pound together a minute or two, turning the mixture over with a spoon. Continue until the flavors are extracted and mixed but the papaya strips still retain their shape.

Cut the cherry tomatoes into quarters and mix them into the salad. Put ½ cup of the cabbage on 6 individual plates and top with the salad mixture.

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Lemongrass and Pandan Christmas Sugar Cookies

stacked cookies

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 weddign cookies, the official cookie of New Mexico. (*Note: a reader was adamant that biscochitos and Mexican wedding cookies were not the same so I removed this reference. If you have an opinion please comment below!). 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 didn’t last long because we moved away.

Two years ago, when my son was a year and some, I decided I wanted to create my own Christmas cookie tradition. These lemongrass and pandan cookies were the result of my experimentation (read my original post here).

To make them festive for the season, I sprinkled the cookies liberally with colored sugar. Stacked, wrapped in cellophane, and tied with a bow, they make a lovely edible gift. Or, invite your girlfriends over for a spot of afternoon tea to escape the hecticness of the season and a plate piled with cookies will be a welcome–and pretty to look at–treat on your table. 

Have fun baking cookies and Merry Christmas everyone!

~~~

Lemongrass and Pandan Christmas Sugar Cookies

Adapted from Easy Sugar Cookies on Allrecipes.com

cookeis in a row

Cake flour produces a softer cookie with a finer crumb and I combined it with white whole wheat flour (that’s what I had but you can use all-purpose flour too) 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. If you can’t find fresh lemongrass, try dried lemongrass bits available at some herb and spice shops or lemongrass paste available at some supermarkets.

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
1/4 cup Lemongrass Confetti (see below)
1 tablespoon Pandan Extract (see below), or 1/2 teaspoon pandan paste (available at Asian markets)
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 2 balls and place in separate bowls. Add the lemongrass bits and pandan juice to each bowl respectively. 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 so you’ll probably need 2 stalks for this recipe.

Pandan Extract

Pandan (also called pandanus or screwpine) 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 10 pandan leaves and snip off sharp tips and hard bases. Snip into 1/2 inch sections. Place the leaves in a small food processor with 3 to 4 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 have more than the required 1 tablespoon. You can boil it down in a small saucepan over low heat for a more concentrated flavor or just save the extra for making other desserts or add some to a pot of tea.

~~~

Today’s post is part of the monthly Let’s Lunch Twitter blogger potluck and we’re featuring festive and edible foods! For more Let’s Lunch posts, follow #LetsLunch on Twitter or visit my fellow bloggers below (please check back throughout the day for additions): 

Lisa’s Chocolate Almond Tree on Monday Morning Cooking Club
Anne Marie’s Ornament Sandwiches on Sandwich Surprise
Betty Ann’s Mini Bibingka on Asian in America
Lucy’s Peppermint Candy Tray at A Cook and Her Books
Tammy’s Chewy Gingerbread Cookies at Insatiable Munchies
Vivian’s Festive Gingerbread Cookies at Vivian Pei
Linda’s Merry Kale Trees at Free Range Cookies
Annabelle’s Pecan Caramels at Glass of Fancy
Linda’s Ottolenghi-Style Eggplant with Tahini and Pomegranate at Spicebox Travels
Nancie’s Bûche de Noël at NancieMcDermott

Mango-Banana Bread–A Perfect Post-Nap Treat

mango chunks
Mango chunks add tropical delight to a simple banana bread recipe

My parents aren’t natural storytellers (perhaps I should ask more often?) but every once in awhile a gem from their childhood pops up. Like this one story my mum recently told me: Ma remembers always waking up from her afternoon naps to the intoxicating aroma of freshly-baked-or-cooked something wafting in from the kitchen. To get her and her siblings to fall asleep with the least amount of fuss, Popo, her mother and my grandmother, would promise her and her siblings a treat when they woke up. The post-nap delights ranged from roti bakso (savory meat-filled buns) to kue mangkok (“cup”cakes), and all were delectable.

While Ma and my uncle and aunts wriggled restlessly in their beds anticipating what lay in wait for them when they woke up, I envision Popo (whom I only know from photos) hard at work in her tropical kitchen. As she rolled and flattened soft balls of dough, she’d occasionally wipe sweat from her brow with a hanky she stuffed into her bra strap. Taking a teaspoon in hand, she’d scoop a mixture of pork, candied winter melon, and green onions into the middle of each dough disc. Gently, she’d bring the dough edges together and wrap it up into a neat oval package as she listened for rogue sounds coming from the children’s bedroom.

When Ma and her siblings woke up in a couple of hours, the buns would be out of the oven and ready to be grabbed by little hands and devoured with squeals of delight.

All this I see in the sepia tones of my mind’s eye, imagining what my mom’s childhood was like and what Popo was like.

Inspired by this perfect anecdote, I decided to recreate this experience for my son with my own post-nap treat.

One Tuesday afternoon after Isaac goes down for his nap, I busy myself in the kitchen. I want to bake banana bread but I only had two bananas (three at first but one was so ripe it fell splat on the floor when I accidentally dropped it). Desperation incites innovation and digging around my kitchen, I discover two bright yellow mangoes, ripe and ready to eat, in my fridge.

Bananas and mangoes are both tropical, I convince myself, they’ll couple very well in a quick bread recipe!

mango
The easiest way to peel and chop a mango is to first slice off the flesh, skin and all, on either side of and as close as possible to the seed. Holding the skin-side down in one hand, cut a grid into the flesh without slicing through the skin. Then turn the skin inside out and pop the cubes off the skin.

As I prepare all the ingredients, I hear a squawk. My heart sinks, it’s been barely 30 minutes since Isaac went down! Sure enough, the little guy emerges from his room, his disheveled hair in a post-nap Mohawk. I panick for two seconds before realizing, wait, he can help me bake! All kids love to measure ingredients and mix batter don’t they?

Isaac has never really shown much interest in helping me in the kitchen and I’ve never forced him. But this time, I drag his stool into the kitchen and try and talk up the mother-and-son baking experience.

“This is going to be so much fun! You can measure the sugar, flour and butter, and mix everything together. Come help mommy in the kitchen.”

“I don’t want to. I want to watch TV!”

“But baking is so much fun! Don’t’ you want to help mommy?”

“I don’t want to! I want to watch TV!”

A few volleys back and forth ending with a promise of “Thomas the Tank Engine” later, Isaac steps up onto his stool. He starts by scooping sugar into the mixing bowl. Then he helps me add the butter and proceeds to “cream” the mixture with a wooden spoon. After two or three turns around the bowl, he declares, “I’m done!” He hops off the stool and goes off to play with his airplanes.

Isaac mixing
Isaac took some time out from the laborious task of creaming butter and sugar to smile, or rather grin, for the camera

Nothing I can say henceforth can cajole him back into the kitchen.

Feeling dejected, I finish mixing the batter and shove the loaf pan into the oven.

As I sit down to wait for the bread to bake, I realize how silly I was for getting frustrated. Did I really expect everything to go according plan? Hah, it was definitely wishful thinking on my part.

If there’s one important lesson to take away from raising a toddler, it’s that you should always expect the unexpected. It builds character and encourages a flexible outlook on life. And sometimes results in a new favorite recipe!

~~~

Mango-Banana Bread

mango banana bread vertical

Simple and straightforward, the original banana bread recipe came to me on the back of a bag of flour many years ago when I was in college. It’s been my go-to recipe ever since. Over the years, I’ve mixed it up a little: varying the ratio of white to brown sugar, using a combo of all-purpose and whole wheat flour (I add some applesauce or yogurt to moisten it up), substituting butter for shortening, etc., etc. And the sweet smelling loaf—crusted in a shiny mahogany veneer–comes out lovely every time!

Time: 10 minutes prep, 50 minutes baking
Makes: 1 loaf

3/4 cup granulated raw sugar or brown sugar (I really like Wholesome Sweeteners brand)
1/3 cup butter, softened
2 eggs at room temperature
1-3/4 cup all purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 very ripe honey (Altaufo) mango, peeled, seeded, chopped and mashed (about 1 cup)
2 large bananas, mashed

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Grease a 9 x 5 x 3-inch loaf pan.

In a medium mixing bowl, cream the sugar and butter with a wooden spoon. Add the eggs and beat well.

Sift flour, baking powder and soda and salt and add to the creamed mixture. Stir in the mango and banana and mix until just blended. It will be lumpy but don’t fret.

Pour the batter into the greased pan and bake for 50 minutes or until a toothpick inserted into the middle comes out clean. Cool in the tin for about 10 minutes before turning the loaf onto a wire rack to cool completely before slicing (if you can wait!).

~~~

Indonesian-Style Pineapple Tarts for Chinese New Year!

The snake may not be my favorite animal but I just learned a very interesting factoid about the Year of the Snake which starts this Sunday, February 10, 2013. Just as a snake sheds its skin, this is a good year for making dramatic transformations, whether it’s changing jobs, pursuing a lifelong dream, or discarding destructive relationships and negative influences in our lives.

Now, I actually have a new appreciation for this slithery reptile.

I don’t have any earth shattering changes in my life to share (although I did promise myself that this is the year I find direction for my writing), however, I will tell you about my favorite new year treat—pineapple tarts!

Pineapple tarts!!
Singapore-style pineapple tarts (Photo credit: chernwei)

Pineapple tarts and cookies are popular in Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia. And even Taiwan lays claim to a similar pineapple cake. They come in different shapes and sizes, flower shapes being favored in Singapore and Malaysia, whereas simple golf ball-shaped cookies are preferred in Indonesia.Taiwanese cakes, on the other hand, are square or rectangular. Unfortunately, these Asian-style pineapple tarts are not quite de rigueur in the U.S. but that might change!

pineapple cakes . 01
Taiwanese pineapple cakes (Photo credit: 7_70)

Like all other popular new year foods, there’s a reason why pineapple tarts are served in most Chinese households (in the above regions) during the “visiting” season, the first 15 days of the new year when it’s customary to visit family and friends.

The Mandarin word for pineapple is feng li (鳳梨) which means “phoenix pear,” or more commonly, huang li (黃梨), wong lai in Cantonese and ong lai in Hokkien (also Fukien). This means “yellow pear” and phonetically sounds like “good luck comes.” So eating this sweet cookie will bring good luck as well as sweetness in the upcoming year.

Pineapple
There’s a reason (or two) why pineapples are considered auspicious (Photo credit: Wolfharu)

Since moving to the U.S., I haven’t  indulged in pineapple tarts too often. But a few weeks ago, my mum offered me some kue nastar (the Indonesian name for them) her friend Linda had made. Oh … my!  Tante (Indonesian for auntie) Linda’s kue nastar are seriously the best I’ve tasted in a really long time—each cookie is a ball of soft, crumbly pastry encasing a golden orb of pineapple jam that achieves its mellow sweetness from good quality pineapples slow-cooked with just enough sugar.

I asked  my mum if Tante Linda would teach me how to make them. Mum made a quick phone call to her and I had an appointment in her kitchen the next week!

Tante Linda is from Jambi (it’s both the name of the province and town) on the Indonesian island of Sumatra. She’s proud to say that Jambi pineapples are the sweetest and most flavorful she’s ever tasted. Tante Linda loves her hometown pineapples so much that every time she goes home, she asks her sister to make and pack containers-full of pineapple filling for her to bring back to the U.S.. Making these pineapple cookies with the Jambi pineapple filling gives her a nostalgic taste of family and home.

ingredients
Dutch butter (brought back from Indonesia) in the red can which Tante Linda calls colloquially”Wijsman” (see ingredient list in the recipe below), is one of the ingredients she had laid out on the counter when I arrived at her home.

I must warn you that Tante Linda didn’t do much measuring when I baked with her, instead relying on her many years of experience and her sense of touch and feel. The recipe below comes from her sister who Tante Linda claims is the better baker.

I’ll be darned if her sister can bake pineapple cookies any lovelier than these!

~~~

Indonesian Pineapple Cookies (Kue Nastar)

kue nastar ready

Tante Linda takes quite a few liberties with this recipe but it’s the recipe she learned from, adding her own flourishes along the way. If you’d like to dress up these little beauties, you can push in a whole clove for a hat (they’ll look like tangerines!), or shower them with shredded cheese.

Makes: about 100 cookies
Time: 1-1/2 hours

500 grams margarine (2 cups, Tante Linda uses Imperial brand)
150 grams salted butter (2/3 cup, Tante Linda swears by H. J. Wijsman & Zonen Preserved Dutch Butter which she says makes the cookies fragrant and tasty, “wangi dan enak” )
4 egg yolks, plus 1 for glazing
100 grams sugar
600 to 700 grams (5 to 6 cups) all-purpose flour (Tante Linda uses Gold Medal brand)
4 to 5 tablepoons powdered milk (Tante Linda uses Dancow, a brand from Indonesia. I’ve also seen recipes with custard powder too)
Pineapple Filling (recipe below)

In a large mixing bowl, combine the butter, sugar and egg yolks. Using a hand mixer, mix on low speed for 5 to 7 minutes, until the mixture turns fluffy and pale yellow.

butter_sugar_eggs

Add the powdered milk and mix by hand for another minute or two until well incorporated.

powdered milk

Add the flour gradually into the mixture and mix with your hands until it forms a sticky pastry dough that’s a little drier than cookie dough but not as dry as bread dough. Tante Linda didn’t weigh the flour but kept adding more until the dough felt “right.” She likes hers soft, “empuk” so she used closer to 600 grams, but if you’d like a crispier pastry, feel free to use more flour (closer to 700 grams).

pouring in the flour

Pinch a piece of dough and roll it into a ball between your palms about the size of a marble (about ½-inch in diameter). Hold the ball in the palm of one hand and use your finger to flatten it into a circular disc 1-1/2 to 2 inches in diameter.

Scoop about ½ teaspoon of pineapple filling (or more!) into the middle of the disc and fold the dough up and around so that the ends meet. Pinch the dough to seal, trying to encase all the filling within. Don’t worry if some filling peeps out. Roll between your palms into an even ball slightly smaller than a golf ball and lay on an ungreased cookie sheet. Repeat until all the dough and filling are finished. You will need two cookie sheets.

waiting to be glazed

Preheat your oven to 350 degrees F.

Beat the remaining egg yolk in a small bowl and brush the tops of the cookies with a thick layer of yolk. Bake for 20 to 25 minutes or until shiny and golden, rotating the cookie sheets halfway for even browning.

glazing2

Scrape the cookies loose from the cookie sheet while they’re still warm. Cool on a cooling rack or on the sheets.

scraping cookies

Pineapple Filling

nastar filling

Tante Linda says that Jambi pineapples are very sweet and don’t require much sugar hence this recipe only calls for 3/4 cup sugar. Taste the mixture halfway and add more sugar if you’d like. Making the filling is quite a tedious process but you can make it up to a week ahead and refrigerate it. Or try using a slow cooker. A friend tried this method out with great success. You can confidently leave it alone to simmer (she said it took about 4 hours), checking on it only occasionally. You can also add cinnamon sticks or cloves to spice up the filling.

Time: 4 hours

3 ripe pineapples
150 grams (3/4 cup) sugar

Peel the pineapples and dig out the eyes. Cut into chunks or slices, discarding the core, and grate by hand (better) or use a food processor (you won’t get as much texture but it’s a whole lot easier!).

Combine the pineapple and sugar in a large, wide-mouthed pot and cook over a very low flame, stirring occasionally so it doesn’t stick to the bottom of the pot, for about 2 to 3 hours. Halfway through cooking, taste the pineapple filling and add more sugar if desired.

The filling is ready when all the liquid has evaporated, the color has transformed from bright yellow to dark ochre-almost brown, and has achieved the consistency of a very dense jam.

Let the filling cool completely before making the pineapple cookies or storing in an airtight container in the refrigerator for later.

~~~

Happy Year of the Snake and Gong Xi Fa Cai!

Recording Family Recipes

My mum recently showed me how to make ayam buah keluak (chicken cooked with black nuts), one of my favorite childhood dishes–it was much easier than I expected especially since the nuts are available already peeled and processed here in the U.S.

Since the launch of the paperback version of “The Asian Grandmothers Cookbook,” I’ve been doing book events and signings around town.

Rather than just talking about the book and the process of putting it together, I’d like to encourage everyone to emulate it and start recording their own family recipes for posterity. It’s no secret that I’m all for that!

To get you started, I came up with a list of tips. (Thanks to Emily Ho for some great ideas in her article on thekitchn.com).

  1. Don’t procrastinate! I can’t tell you how many people I’ve talked to have told me that their grandmother used to make this absolutely fabulous dish for them but they didn’t learn how to make it, their mom didn’t learn how to make it, and now that their grandma’s gone so’s the recipe. So don’t wait, do it today!
  2. Get organized. Before you start cooking, lay out all the ingredients on the kitchen table or counter and run through them together. Note them all down, together with the amounts (weight, cups, bundles). If possible, go shopping with grandma so you know what to look for and where it’s available. You’ll also pick up tips on selecting vegetables and meat. (Just don’t poke those peaches too hard!).
  3. Be prepared. When I cooked with a grandma, I brought my arsenal with me–measuring cups, measuring spoons, tape measure, timer, camera, notebook, and pen. I was always ready to pounce and intercept with cups and teaspoons before the cook could pour salt or soy sauce into the pot. You don’t have to be as anal, especially if you’re good at estimating. Just ask grandma to slow down so you can absorb what’s going on, and also so she can show you how many peppercorns are in her hand before she throws them in the pot. Jot down rough estimates like “sugar–about 1 tablespoon,” or “soy sauce–1 Chinese rice bowl.” You can translate everything into standard measurements later. In the end, the finite amounts don’t really matter because no matter how hard you try, no two cooks make the same dish exactly alike. Plus, you and your family will have your own preferences for how salty or sweet you like a dish.
  4. Video or audio record the cooking session. You won’t be distracted by trying to write everything down, and you can pay attention and enjoy the experience with grandma. Videos can also be useful for documenting steps or techniques, and they also serve as wonderful mementoes when loved ones are gone. And if you can get grandma to narrate the steps as she cooks, you can listen to the audio recording when recreating the dish on your own.
  5. Tag team. Have someone else record the video (this is a great sibling project), and ask them to zoom in when grandma is demonstrating a technique like caramelizing sugar or chopping lemongrass. This way, you can also be in the video cooking with your grandma. Or, your partner can take photos and you can take notes. It always helps to have two sets of eyes and ears!
  6. Taste as you go. Seasoned home cooks rely on their senses rather than standard measurements, having honed their taste buds, eyes, ears, and fingers to know what a dish is supposed to be like at different stages. When I cook(ed) with my mum, she would taste the dish at several different stages of cooking, and I’d taste right along with her. In addition to taste, try and learn other sensory cues. Don’t be afraid to ask how things are supposed to look, sound, smell, and feel at different stages of the recipe. Pay close attention and watch to see if grandma adjusted heat levels and cooking times based on these factors.
  7. Find out the story. The story behind a family recipe is just as important as the ingredients and technique. Ask grandma when she learned how to make the dish, and who taught her. Is it a special dish served during a holiday or a particular season of the year? What other dishes or beverages would she serve it with? Depending on the situation and the complexity of the dish, you can always sit down and do a separate interview instead of talking while cooking.
  8. Ask for feedback. Afterwards, make the dish on your own and ask for feedback. Does the texture feel right? Did you add so much cardamom that it overpowers the rest of the flavors in the dish? What suggestions does grandma have to improve it?
  9. Compile a family cookbook once you have enough recipes. It can be as simple as photocopied sheets in a binder, or you could go all out and produce a cookbook on a photo site like Shutterfly and blurb.com.

I can’t emphasize #1 enough so I hope you’ll start recording family recipes now. To encourage you further, I have 2 promo codes to give away for a blurb.com photo book (worth $40.95) so that you can create your very own family cookbook! All you have to do is leave a comment telling me what’s your favorite family recipe and why. **This contest ends October 1.

Or, you could come to one of my events in the Seattle area. I’ll be giving them out there as well.

~~~

* I requested blurb.com promo codes for free photobooks to distribute at my events, as well as family cookbooks from Shutterfly and blurb.com to share with my audience as examples of what they can create. I am not compensated in any way for promoting their Web sites.

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

stacked cookies

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

cookeis in a row

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.

~~~

Chinese New Year Cake

IMG_8073[1]
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

IMG_8086[1]

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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