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.

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Chicken larb and purple sticky rice

When I first started researching my cookbook, I decided I wanted to include as many different Asian Pacific American communities as possible. This hasn’t always been easy as there are some communities I am not very well connected with. Case in point: the Laotian community. Fortunately, a contact put me in touch with a Lao gentleman who is a community leader and a deacon at Our Lady of Mount Virgin Catholic Church in Seattle’s Central District where the local Lao community gathers for mass every Sunday. I showed up one Sunday morning and he introduced me to two ladies who agreed to show me how to make some of their traditional dishes. They belonged to two distinct Lao hill tribes–Yi Thao was Hmong and Keo Choulapha was Khmu.

When I told Yi I wanted her to show me how to cook some family recipes, she wrinkled her nose and said the food her parents ate was very bland. “Chicken boiled with vegetables, tofu, pumpkin grown in the garden boiled with water … very healthy food,” she said. It was obvious she equated healthy with tasteless. After I circumvented egg rolls (the Hmong are descendants of an ancient ethnic group that lived in China before migrating to Southeast Asia in the early 19th century, so egg rolls may not be too far off but I wanted something a little closer to typical Lao cuisine), we finally settled on chicken larb.

The following week, I met with Yi, a young mother of 4 kids ranging in age from 15 to 24. Yi is what I would call a “chili padi” (those tiny Thai bird’s eye chilies that are so spicy they could make a grown man cry), a bundle of energy packed into her petite 5-foot frame. The moment I arrived, she ushered me into her kitchen and started bustling around doing a dozen things all at once.

The first thing Yi did was pop a small skillet onto the stove and pour sticky rice grains into it. She was dry roasting the grains to make roasted rice powder, an essential ingredient in chicken larb (also spelled laap, larp or laab.) Roasted rice powder is available at Asian grocery stores but Yi prefers to make it herself since it’s so easy. Besides, the hardest part of the process was her husband’s job–pounding the toasted rice in a mortar and pestle. All she had to do is sift the powder to get the smoothest grains. Aah … the beauty of delegation.

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Larb is the unofficial national dish of Laos and is also very popular in neighboring Thailand. You’ve probably seen this Lao meat salad on the menu at Thai restaurants. Larb can be made with chicken, beef, duck, pork or even fish, and some prefer to eat the meat raw (not the poultry of course). It is usually served at room temperature with sticky rice.

Sticky rice is a staple for Lao people and is traditionally eaten out of a woven basket, with fingers. Hence to keep fingers clean and rice out of the various dishes, the dishes are not [excessively] wet or oily which explains why Yi’s larb recipe uses no oil and very lean chicken breast meat.

I have never observed the Lao way of making sticky rice but I dare venture a guess that Yi’s method was a little unorthodox. First, she boiled half a (14 oz) package of black sticky rice in a pot of water until the liquid turned a murky grayish purple. After straining the black sticky rice (and to my surprise, throwing it away), she soaked the white sticky rice in the black sticky rice “juice” for about half an hour. “Just for the color and to make pretty,” she explained. “You can mix white and black rice together but I don’t like it.” The resulting rice was dyed an attractive purplish hue.

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Then she steamed the rice in a special sticky rice steaming basket and pot set which looks like an inverted cone-shaped hat balanced on a spitoon.

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Traditionally, the basket is woven from bamboo but Yi prefers one that is made from plastic. Halfway through the steaming process (about 15 minutes), she removed the basket and in one deft movement she flipped the rice mound upside down and replaced the basket on its base to continue steaming.

In between soaking and flipping rice, Yi was also chopping herbs for the larb. In no time, she threw the larb together and dinner was ready.

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Before we started eating, Yi showed me how to mould the sticky rice into a ball and pick up some of the larb. Somehow or another, I managed to get everything into my mouth without spilling and embarrassing myself.  

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Chicken larb (Lao meat salad)

Yi usually buys lean chicken breast meat and cuts out all the fat before mincing it herself (with a cleaver!) because she finds ground chicken often too fatty. But if you don’t fancy all that work, use the leanest ground chicken breast you can find. All the herbs below are available at Asian grocery stores and each brings with it a unique flavor to the dish. But I have seen larb recipes using only cilantro, spearmint and green onions as greens, so if you can’t find them all, the dish will still taste good even if not totally authentic. To identify some of the lesser known herbs like saw leaf or rau rahm, food writer Andrea Nguyen has a great reference page on her web site: Vietworldkitchen.com.

Time: 40 minutes (mostly prep work)
Makes: 4 servings

1-1/2 pounds lean ground chicken breast
1 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon MSG (yes, many Asian home cooks still use it but it’s totally optional)
1/3 cup roasted rice powder (available in Asian markets or you can make your own by roasting raw rice in a dry skillet over the stove till brown. Then grind in a coffee grinder or mortar and pestle)
1/2 cup cilantro stems and leaves, reserve half the leaves for garnish and chop the remaining stems and leaves finely
4 green onions, cut the green tops into “O’s and slice the bottom 2 inches thinly lengthwise for garnish
1/2 cup saw leaf herb (also called cilantro or Mexican coriander), chopped finely
1/2 cup spearmint leaves, torn into small pieces
6 kaffir limes leaves, chopped finely
1/2 cup rau rahm (also called Vietnamese coriander), chopped finely
6 bird’s eye chilies, chopped (or to taste)
2-inches unpeeled galangal, minced
2 stalks lemongrass, outer skin removed, trimmed, and minced
1 teaspoon crushed dried red pepper
2 teaspoons fish sauce
Juice of 1 large lime (about 2 tablespoons)

Heat a medium wok or skillet until it is very hot and add the chicken and stir fry without any oil. The chicken will stick to the pan at first, but its juices will come out and the meat will loosen. Add salt and MSG if using. Stir fry for about 6 to 7 minutes until chicken is no longer pink and fully cooked but not too brown. Transfer meat to a big bowl and let cool for about 5 minutes.

Add roasted rice powder, herbs and spices, crushed dried red pepper, fish sauce and lime juice. Mix well and taste. You should taste a nice balance of heat (chilies and red pepper), tartness (lime juice) and salt (fish sauce). Don’t be afraid to add more of anything to get the flavor balance just right. Garnish with reserved cilantro and green onions and serve with sticky rice.

Top 10 leftover turkey tips

Once thanksgiving has come and gone, and the food coma has dissipated (hopefully!), one is faced with the next big thing–leftovers.

Who doesn’t love turkey leftovers? I do! But having overdosed on one too many turkey sandwiches and turkey tetrazzinis, I’m looking for a turkey leftover makeover. My solution? Reincarnate the turkey in Asian-style dishes.

Just like grandmas and mothers everywhere are experts at improv in the kitchen, let your creativity run (turkey) wild. Hint: you can use leftover turkey in just about any recipe that calls for chicken bits.

Here’s my top 10.

10. Turkey stock

Place the turkey carcass in a big stockpot, cover with enough water, add some herbs and spices–I pop in a few smashed cloves of garlic, diced onions, a few ginger slices, peppercorns, and two to three stalks of green onions tied in a knot– and voila!

9. Turkey macaroni soup

One of my favorite comfort foods! Add shredded turkey, sausage slices (ballpark sausages will do) and a cup or two of frozen veggies to the stock above, and boil some elbows of macaroni . To serve, top with squares of Spam (you can fry them up first if you’d like), fried shallots and green onion ‘O’s. 

8. Turkey lumpia

Shredded or chopped turkey tastes yummy rolled into a lumpia or egg roll with all the usual accoutrements. Dip in plum sauce … mmm … turkey and plum sauce … mmm … Try this recipe from food blog Pinoy Cook.

7. (Curried) turkey salad

Ever heard of Coronation chicken? Well, neither had I before I lived in England. It’s basically precooked chicken mixed with mayonnaise, curry powder, nuts and apricots/or raisins, and served between two slices of white bread (duh, it’s a sandwich!) or on a bed of lettuce. I know it sounds funky, but it tastes really good. Have a go at a turkey version by improvising on the original recipe or trying this Allrecipes.com one.

6. Turkey with nutmegged kecap manis gravy 

This is a gravy my mum makes for Indonesian steak (basically the meat’s marinated in kecap manis or Indonesian sweet soy sauce) but I bet it tastes great with roast turkey too! 

Fry 1 finely minced shallot and two cloves of garlic, minced, in a couple of tablespoons of butter until golden brown and fragrant. Add about a quart of turkey stock (#10), 1 to 2 tablespoons of tomato paste (my mum uses tomato ketchup) and 1/4 cup kecap manis, and bring to a boil. Lower heat and add 1/4 cup milk. Stir and simmer for about 20 minutes. Add 1 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg (or to taste), and salt and white pepper to taste. Drizzle gravy over turkey slices and rice.

5. Turkey stir-fry with vegetables

Add bite size pieces of turkey to almost cooked stir-fried veggies. Give everything a good stir and serve.

4. Turkey sticky rice casserole

Pork is usually the staple in this popular Chinese dish but why not use turkey bits instead? Throw the turkey, lap cheong (Chinese sausage), water chestnuts, shrimp and sticky rice into a rice cooker and it’ll be ready in no time! Or if you are a stickler for tradition, cook it in a claypot.  Try this recipe from Epicurious.com.

3. Turkey Tom Ka Kai

Instead of chicken, add turkey (toward the end of cooking time though) to this yummy Thai sour soup made with coconut milk, galangal, kaffir lime leaves and  lemon grass. Replace the chicken stock with turkey stock (#10) too. This recipe was given to me by Rin Nedtra, owner of Sea Siam Thai Restaurant in Miami, FL.

2. Turkey noodle soup

Here’s that indispensable turkey stock (#10) again! Boil your favorite noodles–egg, rice, or mung bean–and serve in seasoned stock. Top with turkey slices and your choice of vegetables–I recommend bok choy.

And now for my #1 way with turkey leftovers … drumroll please …

10.Turkey congee

Using the turkey stock (#10), making turkey congee is as easy as 1-2-3 and can be eaten for breakfast, lunch or dinner. Light and filling, it’s the perfect antidote to the previous day’s gluttony.

Combine strained stock and rice in a stockpot (about 8 cups of stock to 1 cup of uncooked rice.) Bring to a boil and stir. Reduce heat to low and simmer, covered, until consistency of oatmeal, about 1-3/4 hours. Stir frequently during last 1/2 hour of cooking, adding water if necessary. Season with salt or soy sauce. Ladle into individual bowls and serve topped with shredded turkey, and your choice of green onion ‘O’s, chopped cilantro and chung choy (preserved turnip.) 

Drop me a comment if you have any other un-Thanksgiving leftover recipes to share!

Happy Thanksgiving everyone!!

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

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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.

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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.)

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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.