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!

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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.

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.

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.


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.


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!


My New Orleans Grandma

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The “Dead End” sign next to Mary de Veer’s house aptly reflected the mood right after hurricane Katrina struck. (Photo: Chris de Veer)

With the third anniversary of Hurricane Katrina coming up on August 29, 2008, let us remember the people who survived (and those who didn’t) the horrific events, many of whom are still trying to rebuild their lives. Regardless of where they are now, the people of New Orleans will never forget this natural disaster that changed their lives forever. And neither should we.

Here is my tribute to one survivor.

Mary de Veer

No, don’t worry, you’ve come to the right blog. Yes, you’re right. Mary de Veer is neither Asian, nor a native Louisianan for that matter. What she is is a spunky 86-year-old grandmother brimming with a wry sense of humor and wonderful stories aching to be told. That’s reason enough for me to want to tell her story.

And contrary to what you might think, she ain’t Dutch either. Her married last name comes from her late Dutch-American husband whom she met in her birthplace, Scotland.

On a recent trip to New Orleans, my husband’s friend Chris invited us to his uncle Denis’s 40th birthday barbecue which was held at his grandmother Mary’s house. Who could resist a genuine Southern barbecue?


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Chowing down on barbecue. Can you spot Mary?

When I was introduced to Mary, it took me a few minutes to register her accent. She was a petite waif of a lady and her gentle, sing-song voice sounded kinda Southern yet there was something different about its timbre. I turned to Chris and he clarified. “She was born in Scotland.” Mary’s hug, on the other hand, was as warm as any grandmother’s, Southern or not.

As is my nature, I offered to help in the kitchen. Mary quickly put me to task whipping cream for her famous trifle. While we worked, we chatted. Of course I wanted to know how she landed up thousands of miles away from home.

Mary’s journey to Louisiana is the stuff fairy tales are made of, set against the backdrop of World War II.

The year was 1941, and a certain Frederick Edward de Veer, a Louisiana country boy with Dutch roots, was stationed in Prestwick, Scotland where Mary’s brother lived. One weekend, the local parish church organized a dance and the priest had given the American army chaplain half a dozen tickets. Fred grabbed one. As Mary put it, “He was one of the lucky winners.”

And a winner Fred was. But wait, the rest of the story doesn’t play out as one might think. Mary did attend the dance but she didn’t even talk very much to Fred that evening. In fact, Fred got friendly with her brother, not with her. Mary wasn’t bothered. “American soldiers had a bad reputation as all soldiers from occupation forces do,” she explains. So it was definitely not love at first sight!

Perhaps it was all part of Fred’s plans.

Mary lived in Glasgow with the rest of her family and somehow Fred became a regular visitor whenever he could get off base. Mary and her sister took turns as his personal tour guides. For awhile, you couldn’t tell whom Fred liked more. “If I wasn’t home he would go out with my sister!” Mary notes matter-of-factly.

In the end, Fred chose Mary. However, Mary’s mother wouldn’t let them get married. She told him to go home to his family first and if their love endured across time and the Atlantic they would figure things out.

When the war ended, Fred went home to the U.S. and they corresponded for a year. “He never wrote a letter, he only wrote notes,” the ever facetious Mary says.

Obviously, whatever words of endearment Fred jotted down in those notes did the trick. Mary was soon on her way to New York on a passenger liner. Fred met her in the city and they journeyed together to New Orleans to meet his family.

A few months later, on January 25, 1947 (the birthday of the famous poet Robert Burns Mary points out), Mary and Fred were married.

The happy married couple settled into a house in New Orleans’ Gentilly neighborhood, one of many that had been built for returning soldiers. Over the next 20 years, they had 11 sons. As their family grew, Fred added more and more bedrooms. “Fred did all the work, I cooked,” says Mary.

With 11 boys and a husband to feed, quantity was key. When it came to food, Mary cooked lots of it and whatever was cheapest. “The boys were easy to please just as long as it tasted OK.”

The menu ranged from a Scottish dish here and there to typical Louisianan fare. The kids loved red beans and rice and Mary often fed the family grits at breakfast and sometimes supper. Other favorites were gumbo and jambalaya, one of the few Southern dishes she actually liked. Instead of crawfish pie, she made a tasty Scottish meat pie. Mary didn’t care too much for seafood but her kids would go crabbing and fishing all the time and bring the still-wriggling morsels back home for her to cook.

Today, Mary’s children, 13 grandchildren and six great-grandchildren are scattered across the U.S. Several live in New Orleans and within the state of Louisiana; her son Brian lives down the street.

Mary loves gathering her children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren together. They visit often, mostly for happy occasions like birthdays and holidays. However, one of Mary’s most recent memories is of the time they all rallied around her in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina that struck on August 29, 2005.

On that fateful day, Mary was sitting in her living room with her son Peter. She describes the events briefly in her own words.

“We were watching parts of our neighbor’s house being blown against our windows. The waters started to rise and we couldn’t get out the front as the oak tree had fallen into the front yard as well as the telephone pole.

We stepped out the back door into four feet of water. Peter made me put on a life jacket but I wasn’t afraid. We swam down the block. The water was about 5 or 6 feet high.

Peter didn’t know how to get me over the neighbor’s fence. Then we saw part of my privacy fence sail past us like a raft and we climbed on top of it and sailed to the end of the street. Then we went up the embankment.

We had planned on taking my car but the windows had blown in and there was glass everywhere. So we climbed onto Peter’s truck but Peter didn’t have his keys. So he had to swam back to the house to get them. He left me with the dog on the tailgate of the truck. The dog was bigger and heavier than me and he wanted to follow Peter. We were having quite a struggle (she laughs).

Peter came back with the keys and we drive a block away to the arena where we spent a night on the floor. Denis came and took us to the levee board offices and we stayed there for a week. We were allowed to stay there only because Denis worked there. It made me feel so bad. There were people behind us but they wouldn’t let them in.

Then we got word that we were going to Baton Rouge. We spent a week here, a month there, with family.

When I left the house, it (the water) was up to my chest. I knew everything was gone. I was absolutely in shock. I didn’t believe it had happened. My life was gone but I was still alive.”

A few weeks later, when people were allowed to return to their homes, Chris came with a crew of volunteers to strip the house where Mary had lived for 58 years.

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Mary’s house, post Katrina, is on the left. (Photo: Chris de Veer)

Mary stayed away. She couldn’t bear to set foot in the house. It was too painful for her, knowing all her important papers, as well as her family’s history had been washed away in the flood. (Thankfully Chris had digitized some old photos before the flood and Mary still had those to cling to.) The emotions Mary felt were familiar but no less painful. “I can’t say I was used to the feeling but I felt like that during the war when I was a young girl,” she explains.


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The street number framed by deer antlers Denis had placed out in front. (Photo: Chris de Veer)

Mary’s children congregated to clean up the house and salvage items. They went through the house and managed to save certain things including furniture (such as the coffee table and TV cabinet) that her husband had made. “He made them to last,” she says proudly. “All the store-bought ones were all gone.”

Other items like silverware, bowls, and plates were intact and just needed a little cleaning up from the mud. To this day, even after 3 years, some things are still covered in mud.

In August 2006, Mary moved to a rambler (her children all pitched in to buy it for her) in Tallow Creek in Covington on the North Shore, about 25 miles away from New Orleans. But things will never be the same. Everything that Mary was used to is no more. She misses the familiarity of the neighborhood and her independence, not to mention the memories ensconced in the house she lived in for all her married life. There isn’t a post office or grocery store within walking distance and Mary has to rely on her children who live a short distance away.



Mary’s new house in Covington is modern but devoid of the memories (Photo: Chris de Veer)

Yet Mary acknowledges that she’s one of the lucky ones and she knows she’ll get through it. “I guess you could say I’m a survivor.”

Good Old Fashioned Trifle

Mary de Veer by you.

The trifle lasted long enough for me to take a picture of Mary with it.

Trifle is a traditional Scottish/English dessert usually comprising sherry-soaked sponge cake layered with preserves and custard. Typical of immigrants, Mary adapted the dish to suit her American family (I doubt instant jelly is a staple in Great Britain). Mary had already started losing her sense of taste even before Hurricane Katrina but it’s gotten worse since the storm, she says. “Nothing tastes the same.” Trifle is one of the dishes she can still make without much effort. While I was visiting, I was tasked with whipping cream and decorating the trifle. It’s really easy and doesn’t require a recipe. Just go with whatever amounts suit your fancy.

Sponge cake, lady fingers, pound cake, dessert shells, or jam rolls (stale cake holds up better, says Mary)
Sherry, brandy or rum
Frozen strawberries, thawed and drained, saving the juice to make jello (you can use fresh as well)
1 packet instant strawberry jelly
1 packet instant vanilla custard
Whipped cream
Canned pears or peaches

Line the bottom and sides of a large bowl or individual serving-sized bowls with the cake. Drizzle with a little sherry.

Spread the strawberries evenly over the sponge.

Cook the jelly according to the package directions (Mary likes quick-set jello) using the reserved strawberry juice. Allow it to cool before pouring it over the cake and strawberries. Put the bowl in the fridge to set.

Cook the vanilla pudding according to the package instructions and set aside.

When the jelly has just set (about 30 minutes to 1 hour), pour the custard over. It will dribble down the sides of the bowl but it’s OK.

When everything has set, spread as much whipped cream as you’d like over the trifle and decorate with strawberries, pears and/or chocolate shavings to your taste.

Serve chilled.

Rolling with Lola

“I’ll be making suman for my grandchildren tomorrow and I’ll save some ingredients to show you next week when you come,” Gloria Santos’s cheerful voice came through with a gentle lilt over the phone. Suman (sweet rice cakes rolled in banana leaves) are Gloria’s specialty, beloved by her grandchildren and her friends at her weekly prayer meetings.

Showing me into her tidy kitchen, Gloria went straight to business. She quickly set me to task, “You’ll help me stir the rice, ok?”

As Gloria wiped and snipped banana leaves down to size, I stood in front of the stove stirring the rice and coconut mixture, no skill required. Every once in awhile Gloria would peer over my shoulder and examine the rice mixture to see if it was done.


Once the rice attained the right texture, it was time to start rolling.


Gloria laid out a banana leaf parallel to her body, scooped a tablespoon of mixture onto the leaf and her dexterous fingers started rolling. In the blink of an eye the rice was neatly bundled in the banana leaf and she was on to the next one. “So easy, no?” After years of experience I’m sure it is, but my inexperienced fingers were not as nimble. Many torn leaves and misshapen bundles later, we were done. It was easy to tell my suman apart from Gloria’s. 



Can you tell which suman are mine?


Gloria was born in 1923 in the Manila suburb of Mandaluyong, and her youthful countenance and feisty spirit belie her several decades on this earth.

Growing up in the Philippines in the 1930s, Gloria never cooked–nor did any housework for that matter–at home. Like many middle class families of the time, maids did most of the work. “I just looked at what my grandma was doing. I didn’t know anything.”

During World War II, things changed drastically. Gone were the hired help and Gloria, aged 16, was the one doing the cooking. With wartime rationing, food was hard to come by. She remembers congee (rice porridge) being on the menu for breakfast, lunch and dinner. And it wasn’t always made with rice. “Rice was very expensive and we used any substitute we could find. We even used corn and ground it.”

This was also when, out of necessity, Gloria learned how to make her signature sweet. “I made suman and sold it to people because of the hardship.”

Soon after the war, Gloria graduated from college with a degree in education, met her husband, Benjamin, and got married. She started teaching at the age of 22, and between her growing family and her budding career, she had no time to cook. “I would give the maid money to go marketing and when I came home from work, the food was ready.”

In 1968, Gloria and her husband, with their three teenage children in tow, moved to the U.S. to escape civil unrest in the Philippines. Here, she had to juggle a job outside the home–first devising patient menus at the University of Washington Medical Center, and then teaching English as Second Language (ESL) to newly arrived Asian immigrant students in public schools–and feeding her husband and three children. Fortunately for her, it wasn’t too difficult to recall the cuisine she grew up with. “I asked my friends how to cook this and that, and I remembered from watching my grandma. I put the two together and I knew what to do.” Of course, Gloria is now a pro at cooking traditional Filipino dishes like adobo, kare kare and chicken tinola.

To this day, Gloria still cooks family feasts at Thanksgiving and Christmas. She spends a week cooking and preparing enough food to feed close to 40 people. Although she acknowledges it’s a lot of work, she’s unwilling to leave the important task to anyone else. “If other people bring the food, they’ll be late and we’ll all be hungry!”

Gloria also loves to bake, and has amassed an entire store room of cake pans and decorating tools in her Kirkland, WA home. In fact, she’s been busy baking from the day her first grandson, BJ, was born. “For 34 years, I made cakes for BJ. I made him Mickey Mouse, and many others.” She has baked a cake for every one of her five grandchildren’s birthdays, and now she intends to continue that tradition with her great-grand-daughter. She never strays from her favorite recipe: mocha chiffon cake with butter cream icing “If I change the recipe, people are not happy.”

Sadly, none of her children or grandchildren are interested in baking or learning how to cook Filipino dishes. “They only want to eat!” Gloria declares with a sigh. “Lola (grandmother), lola, I want to eat!” they always say when they visit, usually demanding dishes like pork chops and hamburgers. She likes to tease them. “I ask them, ‘You want some tongue (beef or pork tongue is considered a Filipino delicacy)?'” she says, with a playful glint in her eye. Their response? “‘Eew,’ they say.”

Gloria’s Sweet Rice Rolls Wrapped in Banana Leaves (Suman Sa Gata)

Suman refers to any cake that’s wrapped in banana or coconut leaves, whether made from rice, grain, or root. The ingredients are few and the method simple, but it is one of the oldest and most popular Filipino snacks. In Gloria Santos’s version, the banana leaves imbue a sweet, tropical fragrance and flavor to the coconut-soaked glutinous rice, or malagkit as it is called in Tagalog. Wrapping suman is a skill in itself and takes years of practice as Gloria can attest to–she’s been making them for decades. Today, her family and friends always look forward to unwrapping these neatly-bound bundles and biting into the moist mound of sweet goodness lying within. Don’t be discouraged if yours take a while to perfect.

Time: 2 hours (1 hour active)
Makes: 30 rolls

2 cups white glutinous rice
One and one-half 13.5-ounce cans coconut milk (2 1/2 cups)
3/4 cup sugar
1 teaspoon salt
2 to 3 banana leaves, fresh or frozen

Rinse rice 3 to 4 times until water runs clear. Drain.

In a 14-inch wok or 4-quart heavy bottomed pot, combine rice with remaining ingredients except banana leaves. Bring to a boil over high heat and reduce to medium. Simmer for 30 minutes, stirring constantly especially during the last 15 minutes of cooking. You don’t want rice to stick to the bottom of the pan and scorch. Reduce heat if rice mixture starts to burn at any point.

After about 20 minutes, expect the oil from the coconut milk to separate from rice mixture and coat wok with a thin film. The rice mixture will pull away easily from the sides of the pan. When done, rice mixture is shiny, almost dry and very sticky, like risotto. Let cool in the wok.

Wipe away any white residue on leaves with a damp cloth. Remove spine and trim to 4- by 7-inch rectangles with the longer edge going along the grain.

Place a banana leaf rectangle on a dry work surface with the smooth, matt side up (the shiny side has faint ridges) and longer edge parallel to your body. Drop 1 1/2 tablespoons of rice mixture in the middle of the leaf. Mold rice into a mound about 4- by 1 1/2-inches. Take the leaf edge closest to you and fold it over rice. Using both sets of fingers, tuck leaf edge under the rice and roll to enclose filling completely. Roll as tightly as possible into a compact cylinder. With the seam-side down, smooth your fingers across the cylinder to gently flatten and fold both ends under to form a snug packet. Place seam-side down directly in a steamer basket. Repeat until rice mixture is finished, layering packets neatly in a single layer and one on top of the other if necessary.

Set up your steamer.

Fill steamer bottom with a generous amount of water, about 2 to 3 inches, and bring to a rolling boil over high heat. Reduce heat to medium-high.

Place basket with rice rolls above. Cover and steam over medium-high heat for 45 minutes to 1 hour. You should see steam escaping from underneath the lid.

Cook’s tip: As steam circulates underneath the lid, water will condense and collect around the circumference of the basket. Drape a kitchen towel over the basket before covering with lid to prevent water from dripping onto the food.

Halfway through the cooking process, reduce heat to low and carefully take a peek at the water level and replenish, if necessary, with boiling water. Raise heat back to medium-high.

When done, turn off heat and wait for steam to subside before lifting lid. Lift it away from you to prevent condensation from dripping onto rice rolls or scalding yourself.

Carefully remove steamer basket and cool on a rack before removing rice rolls.

Cook’s note:

Banana leaves are available frozen in 1-pound packages (and sometimes fresh) at Asian or Latin markets. Partially thaw frozen packages first before prying the leaves open. Using a pair of scissors, remove what you need and refreeze the unused portion. Always remove dark brown edges and the tough spine. Before using, rinse under hot running water or dip into boiling water for 20 to 30 seconds to soften and make pliable.

Instead of folding the ends under, you can also tie the ends with kitchen twine or banana leaf threads torn along the grain to make a “sweet.”

The rice rolls keep at room temperature for 2 to 3 days. Do not refrigerate or they will harden.

You can find rice labeled “malagkit” at Asian markets, or substitute with mochi rice (Japanese sweet rice) if in a pinch.

Grandma says:
If the banana leaf tears while you’re rolling the packet, place another layer on the inside to “patch” the hole.

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

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

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.


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.


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.


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**.



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.


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.

Lo bak by any other name is still pork braised in soy sauce


Star anise or aniseed, adds an unmistakable flavor to this popular Chinese pork dish

One rainy Seattle morning, I had the pleasure of meeting up with not one, but two, grandmas! My friend Byron Au Yong arranged for me to meet his grandma, Ty Hee Tak, and his aunt Merla who is married to his first uncle Te See.

Merla, who lives in New Hampshire, was in town to celebrate Hee Tak’s “100th” birthday on October 1, 2007. I was told that Hee Tak was born in Anhai, Fujian province, China, in 1909. So I was more than a little confused since according to my calculations and the Gregorian calendar (i.e. the Western calendar), she was only 98 years old. Merla kindly explained. “She turned 99 by the Chinese calendar but you don’t want to celebrate 99 years (bad luck?) so you celebrate 100.” Ah, I get it … I think.

Nevertheless, it was a momentous occasion and the festivities were attended by Hee Tak’s three sons, three daughters, 22 grandkids and 17-1/2 great grandkids (one was on the way) who came from near and far.

The matriarch of the Au Yong family has lived a long and somewhat tumultuous life. Hee Tak migrated to the Visaya region in Southern Philippines when she was young (she can’t remember when) where she eventually became a Chinese teacher. Her late husband, Auyong Shu, was the principal of a Chinese school. When the Japanese occupied the Philippines during World War II, they managed to avoid persecution (the Japanese despised both the Chinese and the educated class) by escaping to the mountains. When the war was over, they decided not to teach anymore (as it still is now, teaching was a low paid and underappreciated profession) and started a business selling fabrics instead. In 1981, Hee Tak moved to the U.S. to join her children.


Merla See 

Merla’s story starts in the Philippines. She was born in the Philippines in 1934 to Chinese parents who migrated from Fujian in the 1920s. On September 21, 1972, then President Marcos declared martial law over the entire country. With the rising tide of violence and lawlessness, thousands of Filipinos fled the country, Merla and her family among them.

Like Hee Tak who couldn’t even boil water when she got married, Merla admits she didn’t learn how to cook until later in life. “I looked at cookbooks and that’s how I learned.” Even then, she cooked very simple dishes. Thankfully her children and husband were “not too choosy,” she says. “I just cooked up a big pot. (With) four boys and a girl, just as long as there’s meat they liked it!”

Despite having lived in the Philippines for many years, both Hee Tak and Merla cooked mainly Chinese cuisine. And when asked what’s their favorite dish to cook for family, both women said “lo bak,” which is pork braised in soy sauce (also known as red cooked pork), not to be mistaken with  “lor bak go” which is radish/turnip cake. According to Merla, the words “lo” and “bak” signify water and meat coming together. [Update: A Cantonese friend recently told me that “lou” means “to braise” … makes sense, eh? This same friend also uses a combo of sweet and salty soy sauce in her family recipe.]

Merla points out that the famous Filipino dish, adobo, is a variation on this Chinese meat and soy sauce dish. And not surprisingly, Adobo is one dish Merla does make. With the addition of vinegar, a more distinct flavor comes out, she explains.

Soy sauce braised pork (a.k.a. lo bak,  le dao yu,  dao yu bak, etc.)


Every Chinese family has their own version of (and so it seems, a different name for) this dish. Merla used to make it with “san zhen bak,” three layered pork, which we call pork belly. But over the years, health concerns came to the forefront and she now prefers to use leaner cuts of meat. Instead of salty soy sauce, my mom used to add Indonesian sweet soy sauce and hard boiled eggs to the mix. My point is, let your creative juices flow, substitute beef, chicken or other cuts of pork, as well as vegetables.  


Active time: 15 minutes

Makes: 6-8 servings


1 tablespoon vegetable oil

1 tablespoon sugar

1-1/2 pounds pork butt, cut into 1-inch cubes

1/2″ ginger root, peeled and sliced into thin coins

3/4 cup chicken stock

1/4 cup soy sauce

1 tablespoon Chinese wine or sherry

2 whole star anise (optional)

2 bay leaves (optional)

White pepper to taste


In a medium pot, heat oil over medium heat for about a minute (you want it hot but not smoking)and add sugar. Stir until sugar melts and brown globules form. Add pork and ginger and stir fry until no longer pink, about 4 to 5 minutes. Add the rest of the ingredients and bring to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer for 1 hour or until meat is very tender. Taste and adjust seasonings. Serve hot over rice.

Burmese Pork Curry

Myanmar, or Burma, as many people still call this pie slice-shaped country by the Indian Ocean  (the CIA Fact Book explains the name change by the military junta in 1989,) has been in the global public eye of late. We’ve read the headlines, we’ve seen the images: a saffron sea of monks flooding the streets of Yangon (or Rangoon), said monks running for safety as uniformed soldiers turned their bullets and batons on the unarmed crowds, and the tired lines that have creased detained opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi’s delicate face.

As significant as these latest events are, mine is not a political blog so I won’t elaborate on the political turmoil ravaging this small Southeast Asian country. However, I do believe Burma deserves to be in the headlines but for a very different reason. I’d like to draw your attention to a less controversial subject–food. Burma’s distinct cuisine is hitherto unknown to many of us in the Western hemisphere; that’s very unfortunate and needs to change.

With a population of almost 47.5 million spread across 657,740 sq km of land, Burma has many neighbors, being wedged in between Bangladesh, India, China, Thailand and Laos. So it’s not surprising their cuisine bears influences from these countries, as I discovered during my first Burmese meal at San Francisco restaurant Burma Super Star. Among my favorites: the knockout tea leaf salad (Lephet Thoke), served deconstructed on a giant plate then tossed with flourish at our table, comprised “fermented” tea leaves (the server would not elaborate on the origins beyond “we import it from Burma”), garlic bits fried to a crisp, roasted peanuts, tomatoes, shredded cabbage, dried shrimp and split yellow peas; a combination of tang and salt blossomed on my tongue, courtesy of lime juice and fish sauce as I chewed and crunched through every tasty bite. And their biryani arrived aromatic and vermillion-tinged, a milder riff on the classic Indian dish with its more cinnamon and clove-y notes in stark contrast to the usual up-your-nasal passage effect of chilies and cumin. As you can imagine, my senses were all agog.

Like many avid home cooks, the moment I tasted the remarkable flavors, I wanted to try making it in my own kitchen. There aren’t many Burmese restaurants, certainly none in Seattle where I live, but I knew that Burmese home cooking had to be thriving somewhere on this continent. So I was thrilled to have the chance to chat with my friend Manda Mangrai’s mom Alvina who lives in the Bay Area. (Manda, by the way, is the very talented pastry chef at Marjorie in Seattle.)

Born in Rangoon in 1936, Alvina is half Burmese and half English (Burma was a British colony until independence in 1948). Like many middle-class families in Asia, she had servants and cooks who took care of all the household chores. Alvina was a kitchen neophyte until she and her husband moved to the U.S. with their four children in tow in 1972. “I learnt how to cook in the U.S. because I was missing my food,” she said. “I was asking other people from Burma (in the Bay Area) for cooking tips.” With an excellent critic by her side–i.e. her husband–she was able to recreate her favorite dishes for her five children (and growing contingent of grandchildren which presently numbers 5.5–one is on the way), and even impressed her relatives visiting from Burma!

Alvina explained it very simply, “The more you cook the better you become.” Wise words of advice for any aspiring cook.

In any case, considering how basic and supermarket-available the ingredients are, as demonstrated in the Burmese curry recipe Alvina gave me below, it’s easy to keep experimenting until you get it just right.

Burmese Pork Curry

I have to admit, Alvina gave me this recipe over the phone so I wasn’t sure if it would work without tweaking. But when I cooked it in my kitchen, *boom*, the flavors all came together. You can substitute the pork with any meat of your choice–beef, chicken or shrimp–and for a one-wok meal, throw bite-sized vegetable pieces such as pumpkin, cauliflower or potatoes into the pan together with the meat. The curry itself is not too spicy as the Burmese tend to have side dishes and dips made from chilies and shrimp paste to turn up the heat. The paprika is added more for color than heat, so if desired, substitute up to 1 teaspoon of the paprika with chili powder.

Makes: 4-6 servings

2 pounds boneless pork (I used pork butt), trimmed and cut into one-inch cubes

2 teaspoons turmeric powder

1 tablespoon fish sauce

1 tablespoon light soy sauce

1 tablespoon chopped garlic (about 3-4 cloves)

1 tablespoon grated ginger root (two-inches peeled and grated)

1/4 cup canola oil

2 medium onions, diced (about 2 cups)

2 tablespoons paprika powder

Cilantro leaves to garnish

In a medium bowl, marinate pork with next 5 ingredients. Mix well (your hands are the best tools for this but beware, your nails will be stained ochre by the turmeric so use gloves!) and set aside.

In a large skillet, sauté onions over medium heat in oil until translucent and a little brown at the edges, about 3 to 4 minutes. Add paprika and mix until onions are coated evenly.

Add pork to skillet, turn heat to medium-high and mix well. Cover and cook over medium-low heat for about 45 minutes to an hour until meat is tender. Adjust the heat if necessary, you don’t want the meat to burn.

Check seasoning and add salt if necessary. Garnish with cilantro leaves and serve with steamed jasmine rice.

(yes, I forgot the cilantro leaves!)

Aunty Pearlie’s Cantonese-Style Steamed Cake

Aunty Pearlie is not related to me by blood; she is, in fact, my friend Ivy’s mother. In Asian culture, we call our friends’ parents “aunty” and “uncle” as a form of respect. This was a concept my husband, let’s call him hungry_ hobbit (yes, he loves Tolkien!), could not fathom. When we were dating, I explained this cultural quirk to him and he asked if he could call my parents by their first names instead. I spoke with my parents and they agreed, seeing as he was American and all. The funny thing was, hungry_hobbit was still uncomfortable since he knew my parents were not used to their childrens’ friends (let alone boyfriends) calling them by their first names, so he ended up not calling them anything at all! Their conversations went something like this:

Mum: Good morning, *hungry_hobbit*. How are you?

Hungry_hobbit: Hello err (pause) … I’m fine.

Mum: Have you eaten, *hungry_hobbit*? (Our lives center around food so we always ask this question when we greet each other)

Hungry_hobbit: No. Have you and ermm … **mumble mumble** … (his head nodding toward my dad) had breakfast?

And so the conversation would go …

Thankfully, now that hungry_hobbit has settled into being the perfect son-in-law, he calls them comfortably by their first names.

Anyway, back to Aunty Pearlie. Aunty Pearlie is originally from Hong Kong, and moved to the U.S. in 1967. Her parents owned a butcher shop in Hong Kong which employed 13 employees. Together with her and her 11 siblings, plus her parents and a grandmother and grandaunt, there was a lot of cooking to be done in her household. (Yes, the employees were fed too!) Thankfully, they had two maids who cooked up two big meals a day and Aunty Pearlie observed them with a keen eye in the kitchen. Considering the family business, there was always a gamut of meat to choose from: chicken, duck, pork, goose, fish, etc.

Aunty Pearlie was visiting Seattle from Ohio and I asked her to share some of her favorite recipes. She obliged and I now have her recipes for sweet and sour pork, minus the glow-in-the-dark sauce served at many Chinese American restaurants, cold white chicken (both to come!) and this Cantonese-style steamed cake below. It’s a very simple recipe and while Auntie Pearlie dictated, I went through the motions. I used a stock pot with a steamer insert but for other ideas and tips on steaming see my previous post: My rise as steam queen.

Cantonese-style steamed cake

This sponge cake is quite like an angel food cake but uses whole eggs instead of just the whites. Sometimes you can find it at dim sum restaurants as ma lai go. Aunty Pearlie likes to make it in a round pan because she says, “The Chinese believe round means smooth for everyone. Square has sharp edges which means stubborn.” Try it with whipped cream, the way Aunty Pearlie’s grandkids like it!

Important: do not leave the batter to stand, the steamer must be ready when the batter is done.

Makes: 8 servings

4 eggs

1 cup granulated sugar

1 cup all-purpose flour

Fill the bottom half of your steamer with water, cover and bring to boil over high heat. Turn down heat to medium.

Meanwhile, in a medium bowl, beat eggs and sugar with a hand mixer until all the sugar dissolves. About 2 minutes. Test with your fingers to see if any granules remain.

Add flour and beat until pale and fluffy, about 4 to 5 minutes. Pour batter into an 8″ round glass casserole or soufflé dish.

Place in steamer rack. Cover the top of the steamer with a kitchen towel (to catch condensing water droplets). Place the lid on top andsteam for 20 to 25 minutes or until cake has puffed up and surface looks like it’s covered with moon craters. Insert a knife into the middle and it should come out clean.

Cool completely before cutting into slices.