At the start of the summer grilling season, I never fail to recall childhood backyard barbecues when the adults swilled cold beer and we children devoured sweet, fresh watermelon, juice dripping down our chins.
Instead of the ribs and hamburgers that were de rigueur in 1980s America (and perhaps even now), my mom (I call her Ma) churned out chicken wings soaked in honey-soy dressing, juicy pork chops grilled to caramelized perfection, and the star of the show: sticks of satay, bite-size chicken pieces marinated in sweet soy sauce spiked with a potent combination of lime leaves and lemongrass.
Ma’s grill feasts were so rich and flavorful I was often dismayed at the lackluster options–think pale, unmarinated chicken wings and flimsy hot dogs–offered at other barbecues.
The annual Smithsonian Folklife Festival has kicked off and runs from June 25 to 29, July 2 to 6 on the National Mall in Washington D.C. The spotlight this year is on China (and Kenya).
Every year, the festival’s highlights include food booths and cooking demos (at least for a food-lover like me!). While the food concessions are selling popular items like dumplings, lo mein and mapo tofu, the cooking demos are going off-the-beaten-path with regional fare: potato rice cakes from the Qiang ethnic community in West Sichuan, Miao-style poached sour beef and duck blood glass noodles. Hmm.
As it so happens, I was skimming my stack of old Gourmet (RIP) magazines and came across a travel article on Yunnan, a province in Southwest China. In the same vein, Yunnan cuisine is also relatively unknown in the U.S.
In the article, Chef Li Yun sums it up quite well. “Yunnan food has four characteristics. First is the sour flavor—mostly from vinegar, but also from local plants like sour pears and apples. Second is the chile flavor, la jiao, the hot red-pepper taste. Third is the pepper flavor (ma-la from Sichuan peppercorns). Fourth is the sweet flavor, mostly from sugar. What sets Yunnan apart is the melding of the four. In other provinces, one flavor leads. In Shanghai, for example, it’s the sweet taste.”
The accompanying recipe for gui ji or “ghost chicken” is a good example of this balance (although the sweet flavor is very subtle).
I have moved my blog over to SmithsonianAPA.org/PicklesandTea, produced in tandem with the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center. The Asian Grandmothers Cookbook blog will remain up but I won’t be posting here regularly. We’re migrating followers and the email list over to the new site but if you don’t want to miss a post please subscribe directly on Pickles and Tea!
Thank you very much for your support all these years and hope to see you at the other end!
We all know about Lunar New Year, celebrated most notably by Chinese and Vietnamese in January or February every year. However, under-the-radar new year festivities take place at the start of spring.
Lao New Year is celebrated as a three-day-long festival from April 13-15 (it can vary and may occur April 14-16 according to some calendars). The 13th is the last day of the old year, the 14th is the “day of no day”, and the 15th marks the start of the new year. Catzie Vilayphonh, creative director of LaosintheHouse.com (a collaborative arts project that brings together the collective stories of Lao-Americans) puts it simply, “On the first day, we clean everything, on the second we don’t do anything and on the third, we celebrate!”
I asked Catzie to give me some insight into her new year experience, especially the foods eaten.
Unlike the Chinese, Laotians don’t celebrate with a lavish reunion dinner at home. Instead, families head to the closest Lao Buddhist temple (called a wat) to pray and seek blessings, to take part in cultural activities, and of course, to eat lots of good food. Here, they also follow an important tradition: splashing water on each other. “It’s a cleansing ritual signifying starting anew,” explains Catzie.
Catzie points out that because of schedules, and perhaps competing wats, Lao New Year is celebrated almost every weekend in April.
There aren’t any symbolic foods or traditions that usher in wealth and good luck, nor are there sound-alike ingredients for gold and long life. A practical people, Laotians eat everyday foods to ring in the new year. “There’s no one thing that we must eat,” says Catzie. “We’ll just eat everything that we like.”
As a teenager, Catzie, who was born in a Thai refugee camp and raised in Philadelphia, went along to the temple for one reason—the street food vendors who thronged the temple grounds.
She describes some of her favorites:
“Mieng kaham is an aromatic street snack. Sticky rice is dried, fried and smashed in a mortar with a pestle and pork broth is added to it until it becomes a sticky mush. You put the mush in lettuce and wrap it with lemongrass, toasted coconut, peanuts, dry roasted pepper and tomatoes.”
“There’s always barbecued meat on sticks—beef chunks on skewers, chicken wings, and lemongrass sausage (som sai gok) made with ground pork that’s allowed to sit for a day to ferment.”
And probably the most well known Lao/Thai dish:“Lao papaya salad is made with just papaya (Thai papaya salad, som tam, has plenty of extras) and garnished with pork rind for extra flavor and texture. It’s served with cabbage which is used like a spoon to pick up the salad. It’s extra sour and extra spicy, not like Thai papaya salad!”
For those of us who are accustomed to gathering at mom and dad’s for Thanksgiving or Lunar New Year dinner, it might seem odd not to celebrate this important cultural celebration with a large family meal.
But eating together as a family is just as special any time of the year, not just during the holidays.
Catzie recalls annual visits to a cattle ranch as a little girl with her extended family—uncles, aunts and cousin–to pick a cow. The cow was slaughtered and butchered onsite and everyone brought home a share of the animal.
“That first meal was the best part. We had to eat certain parts (of the cow) right away and we had a big family meal (usually raw laab),” she reminisces. “Everyone took turns working and we all had a part to play.”
“Sitting down with the family all together and sharing the meal. That’s truly, authentically Lao.”
Photo credits: Fawn Grant Pictures taken at Lao Wat Buddhist temple of North Philadelphia, 2012
Sheng’s Papaya Salad
Recipe excerpted from Cooking from the Heart–The Hmong Kitchen in America (University of Minnesota Press, 2009)
The country of Laos comprises three main ethnic groups—Lao (60 percent), Khmou (11 percent) and Hmong (6 percent). Papaya salad is a dish that’s prepared by all but this particular version comes from Sheng Yang who is Hmong. In Lao, it’s called thum bak hoong, and in Hmong, see taub ntoos qaub. This papaya salad is probably rather different from what you’ve had at a Thai restaurant—it’s earthier and more complex than its Thai counterpart thanks to fermented shrimp and crab pastes; it also lacks the usual accoutrements like crushed peanuts, garlic, snake beans, etc. Leave out the funky pastes if you prefer, and by all means add peanuts if you’d like.
Makes: 6 servings
4 cups shredded green papaya or 4 medium sized carrots
2 to 4 garlic cloves (depending on your taste)
1 to 3 Thai chili peppers (depending on desired heat)
1 to 2 tablespoons fish sauce
½ tablespoon shrimp paste (optional)
½ tablespoon crab paste (optional)
1 tablespoon sugar
1 teaspoon MSG (optional)
Juice and some pulp of 1 lime
6 cherry tomatoes
3 cups shredded cabbage (optional)
Some Asian markets sell shredded green papaya or you can shred it yourself using a special shredding tool available at Asian markets. If preparing this dish with carrots, scrub them well and cut off top ends. Peel into long, thin strips with a vegetable peeler and set them aside.
Remove the papery skin from the garlic cloves and put into a large mortar. Remove the stem ends of the chilies and add the chilies to the garlic. With a pestle, pound the garlic and chilies until they are mushy. Next, add the green papaya or carrot strips, fish sauce, shrimp and crab pastes (if desired), sugar, and MSG (if desired). Squeeze the lime juice into the mixture, discarding the seeds. Use a spoon to scrape some of the lime pulp into the salad. Pound together a minute or two, turning the mixture over with a spoon. Continue until the flavors are extracted and mixed but the papaya strips still retain their shape.
Cut the cherry tomatoes into quarters and mix them into the salad. Put ½ cup of the cabbage on 6 individual plates and top with the salad mixture.
For this month’s Let’s Lunch challenge, we were tasked with making three-ingredient recipes. Now I’ve seen and attempted five-ingredient recipes but three ingredients? That’s a tough one.
As often happens in life, things organically fell into place.
Last month, I wrote a story on building a gluten-free pantry and I was intrigued by all the alternative flours available for baking. Almond meal in particular caught my eye. I love almond flavored anything. I can still remember little-girl-me at weddings scraping off the marzipan frosting from the cake slices we were served (yes, I attacked my family’s share as well) and leaving the (yucky) fruitcake behind.
In adulthood, my almond obsession continues: I swoon for sweet frangipane tarts and I can devour a dozen delicate amaretti cookies at one sitting. And then there are Chinese almond cookies. I don’t remember having them in Singapore but as a college student in Seattle, I’d often buy them at the Chinese bakery in Chinatown in addition to the barbecued pork buns and egg tarts that offered a taste of home. When I was researching The Asian Grandmothers Cookbook, I saw many recipes in old cookbooks but it never occurred to me to make them at home. Until now.
By chance, I came across this honey almond cookie recipe. Another coincidence occurred when fellow Let’s Luncher Grace of HapaMama.com resurfaced an old blog post about Chinese almond cookies in commemoration of Chinese Almond Cookie Day on April 9 (who knew?).
The almond cookie I came up with tastes similar to Chinese almond cookies but are softer and chewier, lacking the crunch of the true specimen (visit HapaMama.com for Grace’s version of a more traditional Chinese almond cookie). But I’m not complaining: This cookie is mighty tasty considering it’s gluten-free, has no refined sugars, and takes barely10 minutes of active time. Plus, it fulfilled the three-ingredient challenge!
Gluten-Free Almond Cookies
This is a basic, basic gluten-free cookie recipe made with almond meal. If I weren’t restricted to just three ingredients, I’d add vanilla, baking soda (1/4 teaspoon) to give it more rise, and some almond extract (1/4 teaspoon) for a more almondy flavor. Oh and crown each cookie with an almond sliver to pretty them up some more! Almond meal is basically ground blanched almonds. It’s a pricy package–$8.99 per pound but it’s very useful in gluten-free baking. Even if you’re not gluten-free, try replacing some of the wheat flour with almond meal in a favorite cake or muffin recipe–you’ll reduce total carbs and give yourself a good dose of Vitamin E and manganese.
1/4 cup salted butter, softened
1/4 cup honey
2 -1/2 cups almond meal
Turbinado sugar for sprinkling (OK, so I cheated and added a 4th ingredient, but it’s only for decoration!)
In a medium bowl, mix the butter and honey until well blended. Add the almond meal and mix until a soft dough forms. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate for about 30 minutes or so until the dough firms up a little.
Preheat oven to 350 degrees F and line two cookie sheets with parchment paper.
Take dough out of the fridge and roll into 1-inch balls with damp hands. Place them on the parchment and flatten with the back of a wet spoon. Sprinkle turbinado sugar with or without abandon!
Bake for 8 to 9 minutes or until the edges turn golden brown. Remove from the oven and let cool for about 10 minutes before removing to a cooling rack. The cookies will be soft so handle with care.
Enjoy immediately or store in an airtight container.
**Addendum: if you refrigerate the baked cookies, they’ll be firmer and in my opinion, taste even better!
Today’s post is part of our monthly Let’s Lunch Twitter blogger potluck and we’re featuring 3-ingredient recipes!
For more Let’s Lunch posts, follow #LetsLunch on Twitter or visit my fellow bloggers below:
Deb and I have only communicated via email and social media, but when I heard she was coming to town, I eagerly volunteered to help. I was delighted to discover that Deb is every bit as lovely in person!
We spent the day of the event (we were expecting 150 people!) prepping, prepping, and prepping.
Here is a slideshow with some highlights:
I’m sure many of you are dying to try your hand at bento “box-ing” so I asked Debra to give us some guidance on putting one together. Note that her focus is on kids’ bento boxes.
1. What are the most important elements of a bento box?
It’s all about balance and using foods that span 5 different colors: red, black/brown, white, green, yellow. With those colors it is deemed that you have a balanced meal
Have a variety of foods, whether in texture, cooking methods (boiled, stir-fry, fried) as well as types of food
Make it visually pleasing
Pay attention to nutritional value and portion sizes. Have smaller amounts of each food but a greater variety (see above, they are closely linked)
And my Japanese friends say “LOVE” is in the box
Usually rice or a carbohydrate (bread or pasta are fine too!) takes up to at least 1/3 of the box for a girl and up to half for a boy
Protein is also important. Sometimes boys will get 2 kinds of protein
Otherwise, meat, fish and chicken are often seen as okazu–side dishes–so they share equally in portion size with vegetables, fruit, etc.
2. What tips can you share with us newbies?
Look at a bento box as a food sampler of sorts
Concentrate on the colors
Have a few neat picks so that you can create a kabob, for example: skewer a turkey meatball, steamed broccoli and a cherry tomato and brush all with a glaze of teriyaki sauce (find cute picks and more bento accessories on Amazon.com!)
View this as a good opportunity to give your child some new foods in smaller amounts
Stock up on silicon cups and put mini salads in them: pasta, leafy greens
Prepare ahead of time: Have several (see-through) containers of precut and cooked veggies, corkscrew pasta, cut fruit, mini-meatballs
Good leftovers equal a good lunch so make more than you need for dinner. The point is to re-fashion it creatively
Definitely add a small treat (try Deb’s matcha mochi cupcakes below)
For me, there are almost no ‘no-no’s.
3. What’s the difference between an adult’s and a kid’s bento box?
Mainly the difference is volume. There are also differences in volume between bento boxes for men and women. Men’s boxes have an interior space that can contain about 30% more food. Also the types of food that go into the box could be heavier on protein and carbs for men, and more fried foods as well.
As far as presentation is concerned, it still has to be pleasing to the eye. The Japanese say “me de taberu” they eat with their eyes. The same care is given to a 5-year-old’s lunch as is to a 15 or 50-year- old. A bento box for an adult may be less cute, but it will still be attractive.
From My Japanese Table (Tuttle Publishing, 2011) by Debra Samuels
“Thai sweet rice (glutinous) flour doesn’t work in this recipe. The best results are with Koda Farms Mochiko. I first learned about mochi cupcakes when a Boston friend who is married to a Japanese-American man. She got the recipe from her mother-in-law’s Buddhist Temple Community cookbook from Los Angeles. It has since been tweaked several times by other cooks.” ~ Debra
Makes about 16
3 cups (one 1-pound box) Koda Farms Mochiko (sweet rice flour, available at Asian Markets and some Whole Foods Markets)
2 teaspoons baking powder
1/4 teaspoon salt
2 teaspoons matcha (green tea powder)
3/4 cup canola oil
1 cup sugar
1 1/2 cups milk
1 can (15 ounces) sweet adzuki beans (optional)
Set the oven at 375 degrees F. Line a muffin tin with paper or foil cups.
In a bowl, combine the rice flour, baking powder, salt, and green tea. Whisk well.
In another larger bowl, mix the oil and sugar. Add the eggs and milk and whisk vigorously.
Add the rice flour mixture and mix with a rubber spatula until completely blended.
Fill the cupcake papers half full with the batter. Add a scant tablespoon of the adzuki beans. Spoon a little more batter over the beans. This should come just below the tops of the papers.
Bake the cupcakes for 20 to 25 minutes or until they begin to crack. Set on a wire rack to cool.