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.

Washing Rice/part deux

In response to my previous post, Marisha asked, “What is the effect of washing rice (besides cleaning it from dust)?” and “Do you know something about it from Japanese tradition?”

I have posed this question to several people from different ethnic backgrounds and it turns out that every answer is almost identical. In developing countries and in times past, rice was adulterated and contained dust, talc, bugs and other impurities that the act of washing removed. This habit has somehow stayed with us even in modern times and even though the FDA ensures that the rice we buy in the U.S. is perfectly safe to consume without repeated washing.

As it so happens, I was reading Linda Furiya’s latest book How to Cook a Dragon: Living, Loving, and Eating in China (Seal Press, January 1, 2009). It’s a candidly told food memoir detailing her years living abroad as an expat in China, punctuated with food and cooking of course,  as well as a tale of self-discovery. In one chapter, she vividly describes the soothing experience of watching her mom wash rice.

So to answer Marisha’s second question, I asked Linda if she remembers any Japanese rice traditions when she was growing up. Linda told me that her mom grew up in pre-World War II Japan eating brown rice, which was associated with poverty. Not surprisingly, Linda didn’t eat brown rice growing up and had her first taste in her 20’s.

Both her parents always washed their rice before cooking it. “I remember my dad took pride in washing the rice and having the water in the bowl run clear before my mom!” she says with a laugh.

Here is an excerpt from Linda’s book available from Amazon.com.

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Mom decided to make ochazuke (rice soaked with tea) for supper for the two of us. It was one of my favorite childhood comfort foods-homey, simple, and uniquely Japanese. She used to make it at times like these, evenings when Dad took Keven and Alvin to a baseball game, or after my older brothers moved out and my mom and I were often alone at dinnertime.

I watched silently as she rinsed the rice. I took comfort in the familiarity of her movements, as I had watched her go through this ritual hundreds of times before. She swirled the rice with her hand in a whirlpool motion, producing a pleasant swish sound as the grains hit the rice cooker’s metal bowl. I could have gone off somewhere in the house and done something else, but there was an unsettled feeling between us that I hoped we could resolve.

As she set up the rice cooker, Mom asked me to get the tall canister of green tea from the cabinet. I saw containers there that I hadn’t seen in years. There were Howard Johnson and Holiday Inn plastic ice buckets holding open sacks of confectioner’s sugar, brown sugar, and gravy flour. In the drawers were ashtrays used to store rubber bands and twist ties. As survivors of the Depression, and having experienced great loss in their lives, my parents kept and recycled everything. My mother always surprised me by wearing my old clothes that I had long forgotten, including the sweater she’d had on when I arrived for this visit.

We had some time before the rice would be done, so we went into the living room with our cups of hot tea. Usually Mom turned on the television to watch CNN, but she didn’t reach for the remote control. Instead she pulled a package of osembe (rice crackers) from the bottom shelf of her china cabinet. Each golden-brown disk, shiny with a soy sauce glaze, was individually wrapped to retain its freshness. The crackers were mouthwatering and crunchy, delicious with the green tea. We munched in silence.

Excerpted from How To Cook a Dragon: Living, Loving, and Eating in China, by Linda Furiya. Excerpted by arrangement with Seal Press, a member of the Perseus Books Group. Copyright (c) (2009)

Linda’s Recipe for Ochazuke

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Ochazuke means “tea and pickles,” but as long as you include the bonito flakes, rice crackers, nori, and pickles, you’ll create the essential seasoning base. The Japanese tea is a key ingredient, not an option. Linda prefers hoji-cha or genmaicha. If you want to make more of a meal, you can add cooked egg, scrambled with a drop or two of soy sauce and mirin (seasoned rice wine).

Time: 15 minutes
Makes: 4 servings

4 cups cooked rice (fresh or leftover)
6 cups hot green tea
1/4 cup bonito flakes
1/2 cup arare (rice cracker pellets) or crumbled rice crackers
1/2 cup nori (cut into 2 x 1/4-inch strips or purchased preshredded)
4 pickled plums
1/4 cup chopped takuen (pickled daikon)
1/4 cup chopped green onions
1/4 cup toasted sesame seeds
2 cups bean sprouts
Wasabi to taste
Leftover salmon (cut into small bits) or beef (sliced thin)

Divide the cooked rice among 4 bowls. Arrange the assortment of toppings in individual bowls. Create your own flavors by adding the toppings and seasonings to your liking. Pour hot tea over rice and toppings, enough to cover the rice. Allow the rice and tea to sit for about a minute so that the flavors will meld (and will warm up the rice if it has been refrigerated).

Pat’s notes:

I used furikake, a Japanese condiment typically comprising sesame seeds, seaweed, sugar, salt. Look for a brand that doesn’t contain monosodium glutamate.

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As grandma always says, please share!

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A Not So Christmassy Christmas Cookie

IMG_0810 by you.

It’s amazing what you discover just by plugging words into Google.

Do you know what manju is? Well, in my books, it’s a Japanese confection that has myriad guises. It can be baked or steamed and filled with anything from azuki beans, lima beans to kabocha. According to Wikipedia, manju is also a Sanskrit word meaning “pleasing” or “sweet,” it is the Tamil word for “cloud,” as well as a popular name for females. Plus, Manchu (as in the people of Manchuria in what is today Northeastern China) comes from the Chinese Manju or Manzhou. Who would have thought?

Anyways, back to manju the Japanese confection. If baking is a holiday tradition in your family, or if you’d like to start the tradition, try this recipe on for size.

Yaki, or baked, manju is not your typical Christmas cookie–there’s no ginger, cinnamon or star shapes involved–but Katie Kiyonaga’s Auntie Shiz has been making them for the holidays for decades. Aunty Shiz makes a number of varieties with different fillings and in different shapes (including a brown-tinged sweet potatoe shape). Needless to say, each piece is an individual work of art.

Making manju from scratch takes quite a bit of work but you can hardly find them in stores anymore here in the U.S. I believe it’s worth all the effort to keep this recipe alive.

Happy Holidays everyone!

Japanese Sweet Bean Cookies (Yaki Manju)

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The recipe is deceptively simple because it doesn’t reflect the years and years of experience it takes to develop the know-how of when the dough is exactly the right texture, how to get the knack for rolling the manju so that there are no gaps between filling and dough. But keep practicing and you’ll eventually get it right.

Time: 1 1/2 hours
Makes: 3 to 3 1/2 dozen cookies

1/2 cup (1 stick) butter, softened
1 cup sugar
1 egg
2 egg whites
2 tablespoons light corn syrup
3 cups flour, or as needed
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/8 teaspoon salt
6 drops soy sauce for color (optional)
2 1/2 to 3 cups lima bean paste (recipe follows)

Glaze:
1 egg yolk
1/4 teaspoon evaporated milk (Carnation is the preferred brand)
3 tablespoons soy sauce

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees F.

In a large bowl, beat the butter and sugar together until light and fluffy. Beat in the egg and then the egg whites and beat until smooth and well combined. Add the corn syrup and mix well.

Stir in 2 cups of flour, the baking soda, and salt. Knead everything into a smooth dough with your hands. Sprinkle in the remaining cup of flour, a little at a time, and knead until the dough pulls away easily from the sides of the bowl and no longer sticks to your fingers. If desired, add the soy sauce and knead into the dough to color it evenly.

Pinch off a small portion of dough and roll it into a ball the size of a gumball (about 1-inch in diameter). Roll a small portion of the lima bean paste into a ball of the same size. Flatten the dough ball between your palms and cup it in one hand. Place the lima bean ball in the middle. Stretch the dough over the lima bean ball and pinch the ends together to cover the filling completely. Shape as desired into a ball or an egg-shaped confection with two pointy ends. Repeat with the remaining dough and lima bean paste.

Arrange the cookies on a lightly greased cookie sheet about 1 1/2 inches apart. Brush thickly with glaze. Bake for 10 to 15 minutes or until light golden.

Lima Bean Paste (Shiro An)
If you’re short on time, or patience, lima bean paste is available at most Asian markets well-stocked with Japanese merchandise. The beauty of making the paste at home is you can control the amount of sugar that goes into it. Lima bean paste keeps in the refrigerator for up to 1 week and in the freezer indefinitely.

Time: 3 hours plus soaking time
Makes: 4 cups

1 pound (3 cups) dried lima beans
2 cups sugar
Pinch salt

Place the lima beans in a large heatproof bowl and cover with boiling water. Soak for at least 3 hours, up to 12 hours.

Drain. Using your fingers, slip the skins off gently–they will pop off easily–and discard. Remove any sprouts. The beans might split but that’s okay.

The skins pop off with little effort

Transfer the beans to a medium saucepan and pour in enough water to cover the beans by an inch. Bring to a boil, skimming off any foam or scum that rises to the surface. Reduce the heat to medium and simmer for 1 to 1 1/2 hours, or until the beans are fall-apart tender and crumble easily between your fingers. Replenish the water as it evaporates so that the beans are submerged at all times (you will probably add 1 to 2 more cups of water), and stir often. If the beans scorch, they will turn an ugly brown and taste as bad as they look.

When the beans are tender, mash them with a potato masher or large fork until the texture resembles chunky mashed potatoes. Working in batches, use a wooden spatula to press the bean mixture through a sieve. Add a little water if the mashed beans are having trouble going through. The sieved bean mixture should now resemble smooth mashed potatoes.

The post-sieve lima bean mixture

Return the bean mixture to the same saucepan and add the sugar and salt. Cook over medium heat, stirring constantly. When the mixture starts to bubble, reduce the heat to low. Simmer for 15 to 20 minutes, stirring constantly to prevent the mixture from scorching. Run your wooden spatula through the paste and if the paste holds it shape and remains parted for a few seconds, it is ready. The paste will thicken as it cools anyway, so don’t worry about cooking it down until it’s really thick.

Parting of the yellow sea

Remove from the heat and cool before using as a filling for confections.

The thickened lima bean paste

Pretty and Proper Foods Accompany Japanese Tea Ceremony

table setting2 by you.

The beautiful table setting of a cha kaiseki meal

The moment I arrive, Hiroko Sugiyama starts to make tea. She pours water into her cast-iron teapot and sets it over her center stove to boil. So begins our chakaiseki (tea kaiseki) class. Sugiyama has been teaching the art of kaiseki, the formal meal served for the Japanese tea ceremony, since 2002. Sugiyama, who runs a culinary school out of her home, is a lifelong student of the Japanese tea ceremony.

Sugiyama, who runs a culinary school out of her home, is a lifelong student of the Japanese tea ceremony. “The tea ceremony is a clean, pure place, like another world,” she explains. “This time for me, it’s peace. It purifies the mind. It makes my worries go away, having a bowl of tea.”

Over the years, she has become an authority on the art of the kaiseki too.

Hiroko Sugiyama by you.

Sugiyama is a conscientious and patient teacher.

Dating back to late-15th-century tea ceremonies common in the temples of Kyoto, kaiseki cuisine was once strictly vegetarian due to its Zen roots. Modern kaiseki menus, however, feature fish and meat. Sake is served if a tea ceremony is not scheduled.

Every kaiseki meal has a theme. Today, our kaiseki meal christened Hagi (a wisteria-like flower) Chakaiseki is an ode to the matsutake mushroom now in season.

But Sugiyama has another reason for this vegetarian feast. “My mother passed away on Oct. 10, 11 years ago. You don’t use fish and meat on death anniversaries.”

In a kaiseki meal, exquisite care is taken in selecting dishes and ingredients. Fresh seasonal ingredients are prepared in ways that enhance their flavor.

Sugiyama has even obtained the right kind of water for her guests. “This is water from Mt. Rainier,” she jokes, but she is not far off. She has hauled spring water bottled in 10-gallon jugs all the way from Lynnwood, an hour’s drive from her Sammamish home, to make tea and dashi (stock).

Kombu (sea kelp) and katsuobushi, dry bonito flakes flown in from Tokyo, are boiled in the spring water to make both Ichiban dashi (first stock) and the weaker Niban dashi.

To begin kaiseki, we are each served a fragrant brew of yuzu, a Japanese citrus fruit, steeped in hot water. The meal we prepare and consume in the hours that follow is as pleasing to the eyes as the palate, all packaged within the beauty of tradition.

The serving ware and garnishes are as much a part of the kaiseki experience as the food. Dishes are systematically arranged, from the placement of plates, bowls and chopsticks to the patterns on the wares (facing bottom right).

Despite the multiple courses in the kaiseki progression, it is not a filling meal. And the appetizer-sized portions dictate nothing should be left on the plate.

Our first dish is chasoba-zushi, a sushi of green-tea soba rolled with cucumbers, shiitake mushrooms, yamagobo (similar to salsify), yamaimo (mountain potato), takuan (pickled daikon radish) and daikon sprouts, served on genuine Wajima lacquerware renowned for its durability and elegant beauty.

soba sushi by you.

 Chasoba-zushi may not be a sushi restaurant staple but it makes for an easy and satisfying dish at a cha kaiseki meal 

“It took me six to seven years to find this set,” says Sugiyama, reflecting the thought that goes into selecting serving ware that enhances both the aesthetics and seasonal theme of the meal.

The dishes are often garnished with real leaves and flowers, as well as edibles in the shape of plants and animals.

The wanmori (soup dish) is a perfect example. In traditional kaiseki, this course is the heart of the dinner. Sugiyama builds a landscape comprising a tofu dumpling studded with green edamame and red adzuki beans (the “mountain”) lying on a bed of mizuna (mountain greens) and garnished with a single shiitake and pine needles made from lemon zest. The bowl is lidded and served. “Open the lid to enjoy the scenery,” instructs Sugiyama. “Then lift up the bowl to smell the fragrance.”

According to Sugiyama, the third dish is always grilled (yakimono). “It is usually fish, but now matsutake (yaki-matsutake).” The soy- and vinegar-marinated matsutakes are grilled over binchotan charcoal that imparts a distinct smoky flavor.

Next, the shojin gomadoufu, a tofu-like sesame dish, is served in a pool of soy sauce and garnished with a delicate maple leaf. Made from sesame milk set with kuzu, an arrowroot-like thickener, this dish is like nothing I have ever tasted before. The delicate flavor of sesame fills your mouth as each bite melts like a pat of butter on your tongue.

sesame tofu2 by you.

Soft and silky shojin gomadoufu decorated with Japanese maple leaves

Petite rectangles of kabocha (Japanese squash) topped with a dollop of mustard are served swimming in a red and white miso broth. This is the takiawase (simmered dish). White miso is usually consumed in the winter, while salty red miso is popular in summer, says Sugiyama. “When seasons change, you change the ratio of miso. Since August is over and it’s a little cooler, you mix two to three kinds.”

kabocha by you.

The skin of the kaboch is peeled at random to create a pretty pattern

The kabocha is eaten with rice served in a lacquer bowl Ichimoji-style, with the rice sculpted into an ichi, or number one using a paddle.

ichi rice by you.

Ichi rice or number 1, signifying rice’s place in the Japanese diet 

The kaiseki progression usually includes diverse ingredients hailing from the mountains, fields, forests, rivers and oceans. Modern chefs tend to stray from this convention but still endeavor to strike a balance. The next dish of satoimo taro and green beans represents ingredients from mountain and field, and also serves to cleanse the palate.

At the meal’s conclusion, the tomewan (literally “stop bowl”) is konomono (Japanese pickles) made of seasoned Japanese cucumbers, eggplant and takwan.

With each dish, the presentation is flawless and the flavors dazzling. However, the underlying Zen influence keeps chakaiseki focused on the holistic experience, a peaceful place where host and guest are in harmony with each other and with the natural world.

The Hiroko Sugiyama Culinary Atelier is located at 22207 N.E. 31st St., Sammamish. For more information, call 425-836-4635 or visit http://www.hirokosdolly.com

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.

Belly belly good

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Chefs are going ga ga over pork belly.

Yes, this fatty, inexpensive cut is fast gaining favor and has risen on the trend-o-meter in the past couple of years. Here in Seattle, pork belly has top billing at fancy restaurants the likes of Tilth, Harvest Vine and Chez Shea.

But Asians who grew up on this humble cut have long enjoyed its succulent, full-fat flavor. Usually braised for hours on the stovetop — whether prepared the Chinese (red-cooked pork), Vietnamese (thit kho) or Indonesian (babi kecap) way — pork belly speaks of comfort food and brings us home to mama.

Pork belly, however, is not unknown to the American palate–it’s the part of the pig cured and smoked for bacon. The raw, unsmoked version comes with or without the skin and is commonly sold at Asian markets. With its increasing popularity, you should be able to special order pork belly from your local butcher, or try online sources like Flying Pigs Farm or Niman Ranch.

To make Asian braises, skin-on pork belly is essential to create the rich, velvety texture we’re used to, although other preparations may render the skin leathery and inedible. Not many pork cuts can withstand long braising, pork belly being one of the exceptions. In fact, braising is the typical way to cook pork belly, the slow, even heat transforming it into pure unctuous pleasure. Stop there or pan-fry or roast the belly to a crisp in the oven for a delicious crackle and crunch with each bite.

Ah … another reason why we love grandma and mum’s cooking!

Buying belly

Buy belly pieces between 2 and 3 inches thick and choose pieces that come from the front belly as opposed to the back belly for a good balance of meat and fat. How to tell? Look carefully at the layers and select a slab that is about 50/50 lean meat to fat.

Here is a Vietnamese braised pork belly (thit kho) dish adapted from a recipe Cathy Danh learned from her aunt.

Vietnamese Braised Pork Belly (Thit Kho)

Thit kho is one of those dishes rarely found at restaurants but eaten in all Vietnamese households, usually served with a canh (soup) dish for dinner. A meal during Tet (Vietnamese Lunar New Year) would be incomplete without a kho (as these savory-sweet braised dishes based in a caramel sauce are called), and this pork and egg dish is a favorite among Southern Vietnamese. Coconut water (sometimes called juice) is not to be confused with coconut milk. It’s available in clear plastic bags in the frozen section, or canned in the drinks section.

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Boneless, skin-on pork belly (actually uncured/unsmoked bacon,) with the ideal ratio of lean meat to fat, or pork leg (rind-on) are traditional cuts for thit kho; but be warned, the resulting dish is not for the faint-hearted. For a lighter version, substitute the leaner Boston butt or use a mix of cuts. But try not to use all lean meat, the unctuous skin and fat is essential for the rich, velvety texture of this dish.

Time: 2 hrs
Makes: 4 to 6 servings

1-1/2 tablespoons sugar
1 tablespoon water
2 pounds pork belly (skin-on) or Boston butt (or 1 pound of each)
3 large garlic cloves, sliced
2 medium shallots, sliced (about 1/2 cup)
3 tablespoons fish sauce
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1-1/2 cups coconut water, strained of any meat
6 eggs (or 12 quail eggs), hard-boiled and shelled

Using a sharp knife, scrape off any stray hairs from the pork skin and cut meat into chunks 1-inch thick and 1-1/2 to 2-inches long.

In a 4-quart heavy bottom pan or Dutch oven, heat sugar and water over medium-high heat. Stir continuously until sugar melts. Continue cooking for another 10 to 12 minutes; syrup will form globules, turn a light golden hue and eventually caramelize into a thick amber liquid. You will smell a “burnt sugar” smell.

Add pork and raise heat to high. Stir for 1 minute to render some fat. Add garlic and shallots, and sauté 5 minutes until pork is browned but not cooked through. Lower heat to medium. Add fish sauce and pepper and sauté 1 minute to evenly coat meat.

Add coconut water. The liquid should barely cover pork. Bring to a boil. Add eggs, cover and simmer over low heat for 1 hour (1-1/2 hours or longer if you want your meat melt-in-your-mouth tender), stirring occasionally to ensure eggs and meat are evenly coated with sauce. Pierce meat with the tip of a knife to test for tenderness. If at anytime the sauce drops to a level lower than one-third of pork, add water, 1/4 cup at a time.

Remove from heat and let stand for 10 minutes. Skim fat off surface with a ladle. (If you can wait, refrigerate overnight and allow fat to congeal on surface, making this task much easier.) Reheat over medium-low heat, taste sauce and adjust seasonings. Serve hot with steamed rice.