Chicken Biryani Three Ways

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Arman cooking in my kitchen 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amma’s Rice

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

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

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

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

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

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

Raita (recipe to follow)

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

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

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

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

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

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Turn off heat and leave pot on stove, covered.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Tender Tails

The Wong’s Oxtail Stew

 

Yes, it’s true. Asians love to eat just about every part of the animal. But in cultures where meat is spendy and animals are a livelihood, you can’t blame them for not wanting to waste any animal part or by-product. And besides oxtail is such a tasty morsel too. It may be made up of mostly bone and cartilage, but when combined with an assortment of veggies in a soup or stew, it’s a super way to stretch a small amount of very tasty and tender (albeit after hours of cooking) meat. The bones and marrow also produce a very rich and flavorful stock, thanks to the collagen released during cooking which renders the liquid deliciously thick. Oxtail turns tender only after a long simmer on the stove so if you don’t really want to hang out in your kitchen for 4 hours, a crockpot or pressure cooker is your best friend.

Rachel Wong, who got this recipe from her mom, told me to add in “as much ginger as I can handle” so I threw in 2-inches worth. Add more (or less) if you’d like!

Time: 15 minutes (prep) plus 4 hours (cooking)
Makes: 4 to 6 servings

2-1/2 to 3 pounds oxtail, trimmed of fat and joints separated
2-inches fresh ginger, peeled and cut into matchsticks
2 tablespoons dark soy sauce
2 tablespoons oyster sauce
2 tablespoons yellow bean sauce or paste
1 tablespoon sugar
1 to 2 tablespoons Shaoxing wine or dry sherry (optional)
Freshly ground black pepper to taste
2 green onions, finely chopped
3 tablespoons chopped cilantro

In a 4-quart pot or Dutch oven, bring 3 quarts of water to a boil. Throw in oxtail, and bring to a boil again.

Drain water to get rid of fat and return oxtails to pot. Fill pot with just enough water to cover oxtail. Add ginger, dark soy sauce, oyster sauce, bean paste, sugar, wine and pepper, and stir to mix. Cover and simmer over medium-low heat for 3-1/2 to 4 hours until meat is fall-off-the-bone tender.

Transfer to a serving plate and scatter green onions and cilantro all over. Serve with steamed rice or noodles.

Note: Yellow bean sauce, also known as brown bean sauce or broad bean sauce, is basically fermented soy beans (usually a by-product of the soy sauce-making process) mixed with salt and sometimes wheat flour. The mixture can be further mashed up to form a paste. Look for them in plastic bottles or glass jars at the Asian market.

Recording recipes … behind the scenes

When I first started working on my cookbook, I really didn’t know what to expect.

I was lucky enough to have a brief chat with Grace Young at the 2007 IACP conference in Chicago. The author of two family-based cookbooks, Grace gave me a behind-the-scenes overview of cooking with grandmas and aunties. Be prepared, was her number one advice.

And so I am.

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Some tools of the trade

Every time I pay a visit to someone’s kitchen, my bag is packed with the following arsenal:
-Measuring cups
-Measuring spoons
-Stopwatch
-Camera
-Notebook and pen
(I decided against a tape recorder though)

As you can imagine, it’s not easy juggling so much gear. I often feel like a character straight out of a Merry Melodies cartoon (though if I had to choose, I’d like to be the smart and feisty Road Runner … beep beep). Yes, it’s been comical–having to stop cooks at every step of the way to measure out the salt (2 teaspoons), the sesame oil (1 tablespoon), or the galangal (1-inch equals how many tablespoons minced??) And it’s not even funny anymore how many times I’ve had to fish packages out of the trash can to note down how many pounds of pork went into the soup.

Don’t forget that in between all this activity I’m taking photos (wait, hold that spatula in mid-air so I can capture your stir-fry motion!), and writing down notes (slice carrot on the diagonal not straight across), and timing (garlic is fragrant, add chicken to wok, start stopwatch now).

Everyone I’ve cooked with has been so very patient and they never fail to humor me. For this, I am very thankful.

Despite the flurry of activity that goes on when I’m out “in the field,” I feel that it’s actually the easiest and most accurate way to record recipes. And I get to taste the–always yummy–results immediately.

That being said, let’s turn to my other route for gathering recipes. Friends and strangers alike have been very generous in sending me their family recipes. Some have been easy-to-follow, requiring minimal tweaks here and there, yet others have been quite amusing. Take this list of ingredients my friend Luwei emailed me for her mom’s bakso goreng (crispy fried meatballs) recipe:

Bakso Goreng
==========

(Luwei’s comments are in parentheses)
Ingredients:
– 1kg minced pork
– 0.5kg minced prawn (you can halve the prawns and add 0.25kg fish as well, which is my mom’s friend’s recipe, but my mom sticks with prawn only)
– 2.5oz cornstarch (this is the iffy part–not sure how they figured that out since they don’t measure!)
– 8 eggs (another iffy part–seems like a lot of eggs to me, but my mom seems quite comfortable with that number)
– fish sauce
– salt
– sugar
– optional: green onion and rehydrated dried cuttlefish, diced (for crunch, but I don’t like it, and my mom doesn’t use it)

Recipes like these are priceless :).

No measurements, or iffy measurements–I don’t know which is better. But therein lies the beauty of homecooking: everything’s fluid, a dish is perfect when your taste buds say it is, and ingredients vary according to what’s available in the fridge.

And of course, it’s my job to translate and test recipes to make it easy for even the most novice of cooks to follow. All it takes is patience, patience to add the salt teaspoon by teaspoon, or water 1/4 cup at a time, tasting every step of the way; and a keen eye for observation–hmm … does the mixture look too dry or too mushy?

Et voila, here it is, the bakso goreng recipe after a makeover.

Bakso Goreng or Crispy Fried Meatballs

Bakso goreng is originally a Chinese dish and was modified by Hakka immigrants to Indonesia. Halal versions use chicken or beef instead of pork. Instead of shrimp, try substituting with fish paste. The same mixture can also be used to stuff peppers, eggplant, or tofu, which can then be either steamed or fried. This variant is called Yong Tau Foo in Singapore and Malaysia. Bakso goreng is delicious eaten with rice and a side dish of vegetables for a meal, or as party poppers (appetizers you can easily pop in your mouth 🙂).


Time: 45 minutes
Makes: about 35 meatballs

2 pounds minced pork
1 pound shrimp, peeled and minced
2 eggs
1/4 cup cornstarch
1 tablespoon fish sauce
1 tablespoon salt
1 tablespoon sugar
1 teaspoon white pepper
1/2 cup green onions cut into thin ‘O’s (about 2 stalks)
2 cups canola oil

In a large bowl, gently mix all ingredients together using your hands. The resulting mixture will be moist and lumps well into balls.

In a 14-inch wok or skillet, heat oil over high heat until it registers 350F on a thermometer. Fry a small piece of pork mixture and taste to make sure it’s salty enough.

Shape pork mixture into golf balls (about one-inch in diameter). Grab a handful of the mixture and squeeze it out of the hole at the top of your fist. Scoop each meatball with an oiled tablespoon and drop it carefully into the oil. Make 6 to 8 meatballs per batch; do not crowd the wok. Deep-fry meatballs until golden brown and crispy, about 4 to 5 minutes.

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Lift meatballs from oil using a slotted spoon or wire mesh strainer, and drain on paper towels. Remove any debris from oil and continue frying meatballs in batches until done.

Serve with chili sauce and/or rice. 

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.

Adobo ahoy!

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Every Filipino family has their own adobo recipe. Lucky for the rest of us with none to claim as our own, these recipes are not a fiercely guarded secret. Just ask any Pinoy cook and they’ll be more than happy to share.

This recipe comes from Olivia Dyhouse (through her sister Juana Stewart), although I did sneak in a few more cloves of garlic. But that’s how it is with adobo: you can improvise and experiment to get just the right balance of flavors–especially sour to salt–that dances to the right tune on your tongue.

Here are some variations on adobo I’ve picked up from my research:
-Some cooks add coconut milk, either right at the beginning in the pot, or at the end when the cooking is done.
-For a thicker adobo, try mashing chicken liver to add to the mixture.
-I found a soy sauce-less recipe in “More Family Favorites” a community cookbook compiled by Lakeside Christian Church in Chicago in the early 1970s. Turns out that soy sauce is a later modification thanks to Chinese influence on Filipino cuisine. Traditionalists insist that adobo be seasoned with salt. Aunty Neneng only adds about a tablespoon of soy sauce to her adobo. “Just for color,” she explains.
-This same cookbook revealed a very interesting variation: Chicken Adobo a la Monta. It calls for adding 1/2 cup pineapple cubes, 1/2 cup halved cherry tomatoes and 1 tablespoon butter to the mix.
-Garlic-lovers will surely love this. Before pan-frying the chicken pieces (see recipe below), sauté more smashed garlic cloves in the oil first. Add one finely sliced medium onion and cook until soft. Set aside and add the sautéed garlic and onions to the finished dish.

Many Filipino cooks swear by Datu Puti brand vinegars–cane, palm or coconut–which are readily available at any Asian food store. Even if you can’t find it, never fear! Any distilled white vinegar and even apple cider vinegar (we all know apples and pork go super together!) work well. Or experiment with more non-traditional French sherry or Japanese rice vinegars for an adobo with your name on it.

Please drop me a comment if you have a special adobo story or recipe to share!

Chicken Adobo

You could call adobo the Philippines’ unofficial national dish, yet it’s more often eaten in homes than in restaurants. There are many types of adobo–chicken (traditionally the legs are used but you can use breast too), pork (loin, spare ribs), beef (stew beef chuck), and liver, too. The frying adds a crispy finish to the meat but you can skip this step if you are ravenous … or just lazy! Adobo keeps well and is one of those dishes that taste better the next day.

Time: 1 hr 15 minutes
Makes: 8 servings 

8 whole chicken legs (about 4 pounds), cut into drumstick and thigh sections
1-1/2 cups distilled white vinegar
1 cup water
6 cloves garlic, peeled and smashed
2 bay leaves
1/2 tablespoon whole black peppercorns, crushed  
3/4 cup soy sauce
3 tablespoons oil
2 stalks green onions, cut into “O”s for garnish (about 1/2 cup, optional)

In a large (6 quart) nonreactive pot or Dutch oven, combine all ingredients except soy sauce and oil and bring to a boil over high heat. Reduce heat and simmer, covered, for 20 minutes.

Add soy sauce and stir to coat chicken evenly. Simmer, covered, another 20 minutes until chicken is cooked through. Transfer chicken to a plate, shaking off as much excess liquid as possible. Pat pieces dry with paper towels.

Raise heat to medium-high and boil sauce until reduced to about 1 cup, about 10 to 15 minutes. Let sauce cool. Remove bay leaves and skim fat from surface.

In a large (10-inch) skillet, heat oil over high heat until hot but just before smoking. Sauté chicken in 4 to 5 batches, turning pieces halfway, until browned evenly on both sides, about 5 minutes.

Transfer chicken to a rimmed platter, pour sauce over. Serve hot with sauce-drizzled rice.

1-2-3-4-5 Sticky Spareribs

This recipe is a hybrid of two recipes given to me by Jonathan H. Liu and my friend Ivy Chan. Jonathan, an American-born Chinese, has been learning how to cook from his mom so that he can make the dishes he grew up with. He now has a good repertoire of simple, reliable stand-bys. He declares this dish has “one of the best ease-of-preparation to tastiness ratios.”

1-2-3-4-5 Sticky Spareribs

If you’ve ever thought that Chinese recipes were complicated, this dish dispels all preconceptions. Not only is it easy to remember, it’s almost effortless to prepare. To feed more people, just increase the ratios in proportion to the meat. For a tangier taste, switch the proportions of vinegar and sugar. Try it with beef short ribs too.

Time: 45 minutes
Makes: 4 to 6 servings

2 pounds pork ribs (spare ribs or country-style, cut into chunks)
1 tablespoon alcohol (Chinese Shaoxing wine or sherry)
2 tablespoons vinegar
3 tablespoons sugar
4 tablespoons soy sauce
5 tablespoons water

In a large wide-mouthed heavy-bottomed pot or Dutch oven, combine the rice wine, vinegar, sugar, soy sauce, and water. Add the spareribs and bring to a boil over high heat. Reduce the heat to medium and simmer for 40 to 45 minutes uncovered, stirring occasionally.

If the meat dries out and starts to burn, add water, 1 tablespoon at a time. The ribs are ready when the meat is tender and glossed with a sticky, reddish-brown glaze and the liquid has been absorbed. Serve with freshly steamed rice and a vegetable side dish.

**Addendum

If there’s still a lot of liquid at the end of the cooking time (this can happen if the meat contains a lot of water), remove the meat and raise the heat to high. Cook until the liquid turns into a thick, sticky sauce. Add the ribs back into the pot and toss to coat. You can also broil the ribs on high for 3 to 4 minutes to create a nice burnished crust while you reduce the sauce.

In memory of a chef-dad, plus his from-scratch black bean sauce

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Cathy Chun stir-frying vegetables to use with her dad’s black bean sauce recipe

Not everyone grew up on the tasty goodness of mom’s or grandma’s cooking.

Cathy Chun is a valid case in point. Her late father, David Chun, reined in the kitchen. And everyone, including Cathy’s mom, was happy with that arrangement.

Ironic as it was, Cathy’s dad was the first son in his family. The antithesis to the stereotypical, pampered, first-born son (FBS) in a Chinese family (more often than not, a FBS is showered with attention, isn’t expected to lift a finger, and lo and behold if he steps into the kitchen!), David spent a lot of time in the kitchen as a boy and learned to cook.

Cathy and her siblings were the happy beneficiaries of their dad’s talents in the kitchen. Food was the medium he used to show his love, she explained. “He was not expressive emotionally but he made sure we ate good food.”

On a surprisingly sunny day in autumnal Seattle, I was cooking at Cathy’s house with her sister Carol who was visiting from Hawaii. Cathy wanted to show me how to make her dad’s black bean sauce–from scratch!–and a couple of other dishes from their family cookbooks.

Yes, they had not one, but three, family cookbooks!

In 1988, Cathy’s family published a family cookbook entitled Potluck at Popo’s followed by the sequels Just One More in 1989 and Once Again at Popo’s in 2002. When Cathy was growing up in Hawaii, her grandmother, whom she called Popo, hosted numerous potluck parties to celebrate birthdays and other special occasions. Relatives stretching across five generations would gather at Popo’s house, each family bringing a favorite dish. Eventually, they decided to compile these dishes into several cookbook volumes for posterity.

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As we chopped asparagus and peeled shrimp, Cathy and Carol bantered and reminisced about their dad and their childhood.

Turns out that not only was their dad a superb cook, he was a meticulous one too.

Carol remembered how, wielding a pair of tweezers, he would pick the tiny hairs off pork destined for the pot, and pull the pin feathers off the chickens he was about to cook. And he could always be found on Thanksgiving morning cutting bread into cubes to roast in the oven for croutons and stuffing. Boxed versions never passed muster.

The conversation meandered organically: we discussed all the different things you could do with spam and Vienna sausages–staples in Hawaii, of course–and whether rice is better cooked on the stove or in the rice cooker. Cathy explained it simply. “I grew up on rice made in a pot.” And that’s how she’s always liked it.

In the end, it all boils down to what you’re used to. Yet another quirk–Cathy’s dad never used a wok and “his cast iron skillet was always on the stove,” she recalled. This might explain why her favorite kitchen accoutrement is the skillet.

Through osmosis, Cathy incorporated many of her dad’s tips and tricks into her culinary repertoire. And the ever-sentimental daughter still keeps his sharpening stone on her kitchen counter as a reminder of the loving father who nourished her both physically and emotionally.

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For the recipe and useful tips and tricks Cathy’s dad used in the kitchen, go here.