When I was growing up, fragrant yellow coconut rice was right at home sitting next to the roast beef and/or honey-baked ham during Christmas dinner.
Every year, my mum would make nasi tumpeng, yellow coconut rice served with a smorgasbord of Indonesian dishes. Come to think of it, the roast beef and the Bûche de Noël were probably an afterthought!
Mum’s first task was to make rice imbued with the fragrance and flavor of coconut milk and turmeric (nasi kuning or yellow rice, my recipe here). She would then mound the rice into a cone atop a bed of banana leaves folded in an intricate pattern origami-style. This “mountain” represents the numerous mountains and volcanoes that dot the thousands of islands that make up the Indonesian archipelago.
Around the base of the cone, Mum would arrange various foods that she’d prepared over the past week in neat piles: shredded egg omelet, ayam goreng, (fried chicken), empal (sweet and spicy fried beef), teri kacang (anchovy with peanuts), tempe orek (fried tempe), perkedel kentang (potato cutlets), and anything else that she fancied.
The cone mimics the holy mountain, once revered as the abode of ancestors and gods, and its height symbolizes the greatness of Allah. The rice’s golden hue symbolizes prosperity and wealth. The food at the base of the cone symbolizes nature’s abundance.
Traditionally, this feast was created in thanksgiving for an abundant harvest or a blessing that a family has received. Today, nasi tumpeng is still widely served to celebrate any special occasion, be it a birthday, a marriage, or even a successful business venture.
Without a doubt, nasi tumpeng fit perfectly into our holiday celebrations, a time of thanksgiving and hope for a prosperous New Year.
Buoyed by my own memories, I asked my friends if they had any fusion holiday traditions to share. They sure did!
According to Happy, Filipinos traditionally go to midnight mass on Christmas Eve. When they come out, the streets in the Philippines are usually lined with vendors selling tasty, freshly steamed treats. “People look forward to Christmas midnight mass because this is the only time the vendors sell these items this early in morning,” she says. The treats include “puto bongbong,” a purple rice flour treat steamed in a bamboo tube and served with shaved coconut; and “bibinka” is a rice flour and coconut milk treat, steamed in banana leaves and cooked in a clay pot.
“In America, it is common for families to continue cooking these treats during the holidays to remind them of the Philippines,” she explains.
Hiroko spends two days preparing a traditional Japanese New Year’s Day feast for family and friends. “For New Year’s Day, each food has meaning… We always start with these three as the root,” she says, describing the following foods: “kuromame,” black beans, which represent the hardworking ethic of the Japanese people; “kazunoko,” salt-cured herring roe, the thousand eggs symbolizing a wish for a large and prosperous family, and “gomame,” a tiny fish that reflects growth and good luck.
Every Christmas, Virginia’s family combines American traditions of turkey and ham along with their family tradition, Chinese Sticky rice, at the dinner table. “Inside the sticky rice, my parents would add … Chinese sausage, shiitake mushrooms, and dried shrimp,” she says. “For us, sticky rice represents family unity and togetherness — which is especially important now that my siblings and I live in different parts of the country.”
“Sticky rice is something I look forward to every year!” she says. (Find my recipe here.)
Tina, a Taiwanese who grew up in Guam, remembers spending New Year’s Day around a hot pot. “It brings the entire family together over one pot of boiling soup with a variety of ingredients,” she says. “Moreover, it’s a hot soup dish and simply appropriate for the cold winter.”
For Titania, congee and Chinese wine were staples to ring in the New Year when she was growing up in Indonesia. “We put preserved salty plum in the wine to create a unique salty and sour (from the wine) taste and we’d toast with that at midnight,” she says. “Then we would eat up the chicken and pork “bubur” (Indonesian-style congee) that my mom made to warm us up.”
By blending old and new, adding a dash of east meets west, plus a sprinkle of creativity, we can all design our own family traditions for the holidays. But regardless of what is served on the table or what gifts are under the tree, remember that being together as a family and sharing each other’s company should be number one on everyone’s wish list.
(These quotes were originally published in a 2007 Northwest Asian Weekly article)
Do you have a fusion holiday tradition to share?
This post is part of #LetsLunch, our monthly Twitter-inspired food bloggers potluck. This month, it’s holiday celebrations around the world.
Don’t forget to check out the Let’s Lunchers’ creations below (the list will be constantly updated). And if you’d like to join Let’s Lunch, go to Twitter and post a message with the hashtag #LetsLunch.
Annabelle’s Pecan Slices at Glass of Fancy
Emma’s Latkes at Dreaming of Pots and Pans
Grace’s Persimmon Salad at Hapa Mama
Lucy’s Ham and Cheddar Scones at A Cook and Her Books
Joe’s Orange Honey Cake
One of the greatest joys of traveling is bringing home loot, whether for yourself or for friends and family. Some travelers purchase objets d’art, others, clothes and accessories. Me? I almost always go for food and kitchen knick knacks.
I just spent three weeks in Singapore (for a friend’s wedding) and Viet Nam (for a two-week R&R with my hubby). And I have plenty to show for it!
I scored most of my finds in the lovely town of Hoi An on the Central Viet Nam coast. My husband and our friends attended a market tour and cooking class organized by the Morning Glory Cooking School and we were introduced to all manner of local fruit and vegetables, as well as kitchen gadgets.
A girl can’t have too many peelers, no? This Y-peeler, etc., is excellent for skinning cucumbers and shredding green papaya (I saw many street vendors wielding this same tool) but the main reason I bought it was because it can transform a lowly carrot into beautiful rosettes!
Here we have an unusual instrument that transforms morning glory–a.k.a. kangkung, a.k.a. water spinach–stems into sprightly blossoms. It works with spring onions too.
This instrument makes easy work of splicing the stems, a job I saw many street vendors tediously doing by hand with small, sharp knives. The stems are then soaked in cold water to allow them to “bloom” and curl before being scattered over soups or tossed into salads and rolls. (See this Wandering Chopsticks’ blogpostfor more photos.)
And my final toy is a peeler/slicer/knife, a gift from the cooking school! We used it to shred mango for our salad. I saw women using this versatile knife to shred lemongrass, banana blossoms (see below) as well as using it like a regular knife.
A quick search on the internet reveals this is a traditional Vietnamese knife called a cai bao (this link has a video that demonstrates its use but the selling price seems a little exorbitant to me) or dao bao, depending on where you look.
During the cooking class, we were taught to make vertical cuts into the mango flesh from the seed’s tip to its bottom using the knife’s edge. Then, I used the center blade (which kinda acts like a peeler) to scrape off the flesh which came away as shreds.
I’m thrilled to add these kitchen gadgets to my collection and can’t wait to use them. I didn’t see any of them at my nearest Asian market (which is 99Ranch) but I’ll try the Vietnamese markets next time.
Have you spied any of these tools at your local Asian Market? And have you brought home a unique kitchen gadget from a trip abroad? Do share!
Supposedly, summer bade us farewell several days ago.
The signs are all there: the sun dips lower in the sky, shadows lengthen, and the occasional nip in the air gently reminds me that summer is winding down and autumn is nudging its way in.
However, all around me, nature is playing tricks on me. Blackberries still peek out from their brambly bushes. The Seattle sky remains clear and blue, with daytime temps lingering in the 70’s. And the tomatoes in my dad’s garden continue to grow plump and heavy on the vine, their green hue merging into red.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not complaining. I’m relishing each day I can still bare my legs and zip out the door without a coat on. And with every satay stick I grill on the barbecue, I’m hoping it won’t be my last just yet.
This past Saturday, we took a ferry across the Puget Sound and spent a sunny day in Poulsbo where we ate fish and chips al fresco and my son chased seagulls around the marina. The next day, I turned my dad’s ripe tomatoes into a refreshing Burmese-style salad à la Alvina (remember Alvina?). It was a lovely way to commit the last flavors of summer to my taste memory.
Truth be told, I’m not ready to say goodbye.
And you, how are you stocking up on summery memories?
Burmese-Style Tomato Salad
This tomato salad is loosely based on a Burmese salad Alvina once made for me. Her salad comprised shredded cabbage, chopped tomatoes, lime juice, dried shrimp powder, fried garlic, and the fragrant oil leftover from frying the garlic. I took a few liberties, borrowing some ideas from this recipe on Pranee’s blog. Because I already had store-bought fried garlic bits in my pantry (and yes, because I’m lazy) that’s what I used. But I can vouch for the deliciousness of frying your own. The how-to is available on page 126 of my cookbook (and elsewhere online).
Time: 10 minutes
Makes: 4 to 6 servings
2 tablespoons lemongrass vinegar
1 teaspoon canola oil
1 teaspoon fish sauce
3 medium tomatoes, cut into crescents
1/2 cup cherry or grape tomatoes, halved
1/4 small sweet onion, cut into thin crescents, soaked in water for 30 minutes to tame its bite
1 tablespoon fried garlic, plus more for garnish
1 tablespoon fried onions, plus more for garnish
1 tablespoon roasted pistachios (preferably unsalted), crushed, plus more for garnish
Chopped cilantro for garnish
In a large salad bowl, whisk the lemongrass vinegar, canola oil, and fish sauce together vigorously. Add the remaining ingredients and toss gently. Taste and adjust seasonings if necessary. Sprinkle with fried garlic, fried onions, pistachios, and cilantro, with or without abandon.
- Andalusian Tomato Gazpacho (mykitcheninprovence.wordpress.com)
- Green Tomato and Onion Salad with Freshly Grated coconut. (cheapeasydelicious.wordpress.com)
- Your Perfect Tomato Sandwich (emmycooks.com)
- Classic Tomato and Cucumber Salad (thenotsosupermama.com)
Since the launch of the paperback version of “The Asian Grandmothers Cookbook,” I’ve been doing book events and signings around town.
Rather than just talking about the book and the process of putting it together, I’d like to encourage everyone to emulate it and start recording their own family recipes for posterity. It’s no secret that I’m all for that!
- Don’t procrastinate! I can’t tell you how many people I’ve talked to have told me that their grandmother used to make this absolutely fabulous dish for them but they didn’t learn how to make it, their mom didn’t learn how to make it, and now that their grandma’s gone so’s the recipe. So don’t wait, do it today!
- Get organized. Before you start cooking, lay out all the ingredients on the kitchen table or counter and run through them together. Note them all down, together with the amounts (weight, cups, bundles). If possible, go shopping with grandma so you know what to look for and where it’s available. You’ll also pick up tips on selecting vegetables and meat. (Just don’t poke those peaches too hard!).
- Be prepared. When I cooked with a grandma, I brought my arsenal with me–measuring cups, measuring spoons, tape measure, timer, camera, notebook, and pen. I was always ready to pounce and intercept with cups and teaspoons before the cook could pour salt or soy sauce into the pot. You don’t have to be as anal, especially if you’re good at estimating. Just ask grandma to slow down so you can absorb what’s going on, and also so she can show you how many peppercorns are in her hand before she throws them in the pot. Jot down rough estimates like “sugar–about 1 tablespoon,” or “soy sauce–1 Chinese rice bowl.” You can translate everything into standard measurements later. In the end, the finite amounts don’t really matter because no matter how hard you try, no two cooks make the same dish exactly alike. Plus, you and your family will have your own preferences for how salty or sweet you like a dish.
- Video or audio record the cooking session. You won’t be distracted by trying to write everything down, and you can pay attention and enjoy the experience with grandma. Videos can also be useful for documenting steps or techniques, and they also serve as wonderful mementoes when loved ones are gone. And if you can get grandma to narrate the steps as she cooks, you can listen to the audio recording when recreating the dish on your own.
- Tag team. Have someone else record the video (this is a great sibling project), and ask them to zoom in when grandma is demonstrating a technique like caramelizing sugar or chopping lemongrass. This way, you can also be in the video cooking with your grandma. Or, your partner can take photos and you can take notes. It always helps to have two sets of eyes and ears!
- Taste as you go. Seasoned home cooks rely on their senses rather than standard measurements, having honed their taste buds, eyes, ears, and fingers to know what a dish is supposed to be like at different stages. When I cook(ed) with my mum, she would taste the dish at several different stages of cooking, and I’d taste right along with her. In addition to taste, try and learn other sensory cues. Don’t be afraid to ask how things are supposed to look, sound, smell, and feel at different stages of the recipe. Pay close attention and watch to see if grandma adjusted heat levels and cooking times based on these factors.
- Find out the story. The story behind a family recipe is just as important as the ingredients and technique. Ask grandma when she learned how to make the dish, and who taught her. Is it a special dish served during a holiday or a particular season of the year? What other dishes or beverages would she serve it with? Depending on the situation and the complexity of the dish, you can always sit down and do a separate interview instead of talking while cooking.
- Ask for feedback. Afterwards, make the dish on your own and ask for feedback. Does the texture feel right? Did you add so much cardamom that it overpowers the rest of the flavors in the dish? What suggestions does grandma have to improve it?
- Compile a family cookbook once you have enough recipes. It can be as simple as photocopied sheets in a binder, or you could go all out and produce a cookbook on a photo site like Shutterfly and blurb.com.
I can’t emphasize #1 enough so I hope you’ll start recording family recipes now. To encourage you further, I have 2 promo codes to give away for a blurb.com photo book (worth $40.95) so that you can create your very own family cookbook! All you have to do is leave a comment telling me what’s your favorite family recipe and why. **This contest ends October 1.
Or, you could come to one of my events in the Seattle area. I’ll be giving them out there as well.
* I requested blurb.com promo codes for free photobooks to distribute at my events, as well as family cookbooks from Shutterfly and blurb.com to share with my audience as examples of what they can create. I am not compensated in any way for promoting their Web sites.
One of the most common questions I get asked about my cookbook is: “Which one’s your grandma?”
My sad reply: “She’s not in there.”
I didn’t really know either of my grandmothers. My paternal grandmother, whom I called Oma, (I wrote about her in this post) lived in Indonesia while we were growing up in Singapore.
When I was little, Oma would stay with us for extended visits once in awhile and we would make the one-hour flight over to Jakarta once or twice a year. But the language barrier and her ailing health prevented us from developing a deeper relationship.
When I was 24, Oma passed away after being bedridden for many years. I only learned her name then: Sicilianti.
Popo was the maternal grandmother I never knew. As a matter of fact, I just found out that her name was Helli. Popo died of breast cancer when I was very young, before I could make any memories of her.
What I do know is that Popo was a fabulous cook and thankfully her culinary legacy lives on in my mother. However, when I asked my mother for a specific recipe for this post, she told me Popo cooked traditional Indonesian dishes but everything was kira kira, estimated, without ukuran, or measurements.
Over the years, I’ve envied my friends who had grandmothers who cooked for them, regaled them with stories, and gave them presents (ding ding!).
By the powers that be, “The Asian Grandmothers Cookbook” project serendipitously fell into my lap. What became a labor of love also somehow completed me, filling this childhood void.
Today, I am thankful for all the surrogate grandmothers I met during this amazing journey. These women shared their incredible stories with me, many gave me sage advice in and out of the kitchen, and a few still check up on me once in a while.
Above all, they have given me the most meaningful gifts—their treasured recipes that I will continue to cook for my family and pass on to my children.
“Many Grandmas’” Asian Pickles
This month, my kind #LetsLunch buddies are posting about grandma recipes in honor of my paperback book launch last month. Unfortunately, I don’t have one of my grandmother’s recipes to share but I decided to come up with a “many grandmas’” quick pickle recipe.
I learned some great pickle tips while working on the book. Grandma Nellie taught me to randomly strip the cucumber of peel for a pretty finish, and to salt the vegetables to draw out moisture and make them crunchier (although I never found much difference). She also showed me how to feather the edges of the cucumber so the pieces can absorb the brine chop-chop. (Slicing the cucumber paper-thin as I’ve done below has the same effect). And Grandma Ling used maple syrup (instead of the prepared ginger syrup she was used to back home) to sweeten her brine. Yet another grandma massaged her carrot and daikon sticks before pouring the brine over.
So here is my quick pickle recipe lassoing tips, tricks and ideas learned from all the grandmas (including my mum who is grandma to my son) in my life together with my own adaptations.
Time: 15 minutes plus standing and brining
Makes: 1 pint
2 large seedless cucumbers (European or Persian cucumbers would be lovely too)
1 medium carrot
1/2 cup rice vinegar
1/2 cup water
1/4 cup sugar
2 tablespoons maple-flavored agave syrup (I used *Wholesome Sweeteners brand. You can also use maple syrup, regular agave syrup or honey, but start with less and adjust the amounts to taste)
1 clove garlic, smashed
Pinch crushed chipotle chilies
Halve each cucumber lengthwise. Place one half flat-side down on your cutting board, and using a vegetable peeler (a ‘Y’-peeler works great), slice the cucumber lengthwise into paper-thin strips. Repeat with the rest of the cucumbers.
Peel the carrot. Using a lemon zester, make nicks at equal intervals down the length of the carrot. Slice the carrot crosswise into thin slices. The slices will look like flowers.
Place the vegetables in a colander and toss with 1/2 teaspoon salt. Let them sit over the sink while you prepare the brine. (Skip this step if you’re in a hurry. I don’t find much different if you don’t salt the veggies first).
In a small bowl, mix together the vinegar, water, maple syrup, sugar, ¼ teaspoon salt, garlic, and chilies. Microwave on medium-high for 30 seconds. Stir the brine, making sure all the sugar has dissolved. Taste and adjust the seasonings if desired. Go read a chapter in a book while you let the brine cool.
Rinse the vegetables and shake dry. Toss them into the bowl with the brine, mix well and chill for at least one hour. Serve with fried rice, noodles, or munch on it throughout the day. This is a great snack if you’re pregnant too!
*I didn’t purchase the Wholesome Sweeteners maple-flavored agave syrup but I use it because I like it, not because it was free.
This post is part of #LetsLunch, our monthly Twitter-inspired food bloggers potluck. This month it’s a tribute to grandmas and their recipes.
Don’t forget to check out the Let’s Lunchers’ creations below (the list will be constantly updated). And if you’d like to join Let’s Lunch, go to Twitter and post a message with the hashtag #LetsLunch.
Charissa‘s Apple, Pecan & Raisin Gluten-Free Depression Cake at Zest Bakery
Cheryl’s My Tanglin Ah-Ma’s Gambling Rice at A Tiger in the Kitchen
Emma‘s Irish, Polish & Korean Grandmothers’ Recipes at Dreaming of Pots & Pans
Jill‘s Stuffed Cabbage at Eating My Words
Karen‘s Semifreddo at GeoFooding
Linda‘s Taiwanese Oyster Omelet at Spicebox Travels
Lisa‘s Polish Potato Cake at Monday Morning Cooking Club
Lucy‘s Grandma Kitty’s Biscuits at A Cook and Her Books
Renee‘s Chinese Grandmother’s Tofu at My Kitchen And I
“With a smile and the warmth of
… a cup of tea, you caught me”
In black ink scrawled across college ruled paper, these simple words are strung together like precious pearls gracing a debutante’s soft neck. They offer a fleeting taste of the entire pie–a heartfelt poem of several stanzas that arrived in the mail, charged with the emotion of separation, the faint scent of a faraway place lingering between the lines.
Tea, like grey Seattle skies and the inconsistency of constancy, has always been a part of our lives. My husband claims he fell in love with me when I served him a cup of tea at my brother’s house all those years ago. We gave away sachets of jasmine tea at our wedding. And on many a cold, wintry evening, when the chill seeped deep into our bones, we’d share a hot pot of tea to thaw ourselves out.
On this day, my husband and I celebrate 10 years of marriage. Our hearts proudly bear the battle scars.
As newlyweds in England, I, lonesome and failing miserably at being a wife in a foreign land, fled home to Singapore to seek comfort under my mother’s wing and the familial company of old friends. He thought I was never coming back. I did.
Then came the arrival of a child we waited five heartbreaking years for. Silly us. We had absolutely no clue what we were in for. The sleep deprivation. A super-fussy baby whose wails could rival the queen of the banshees. To “cry it out” or not to “cry it out.” Did I mention the sleep deprivation? That baby is now a beautiful toddler, and a beacon who shows us the way and reminds us why we’re journeying.
Over the years, oh, how the seams of our relationship have heaved and ho’ed under the strain of having a spouse who’s just as obligated to his country as he is to his family. One transatlantic move, three cross-country moves (and counting), and two run-ins with the USCIS later, like rock that’s weathered by wind and rain, we’ve been through rough times but we’re not broken. We’re just transformed.
We’ve come a long way, but the journey is not yet over.
Sadly, at this milestone, we’re separated by 11-1/2 hours, 6,720 miles, 2 continents, and a damn war that won’t go away.
So here I am, raising my cup of tea to a decade of married life, with a plateful of mochiko chicken on the table and an Omar-shaped hole in my heart.
Mochiko Fried Chicken
My husband eats just about everything I cook but his eyes light up and he gushes every time I make mochiko chicken. This is one recipe from my cookbook that he didn’t mind me testing over and over and over again. I can almost guarantee that it’ll be one of his first requests for a home-cooked meal when he returns from his year-long deployment. In his honor, I’m sharing it with you today so you can share it with your loved ones near and far.
I made this dish my own by using tapioca starch (Southeast Asian cooks prefer this to cornstarch) which I think gives the chicken a crispier edge and nira (Japanese chives) instead of green onions.
Time: 45 minutes, plus marinating
Makes: 4 to 6 servings as part of a multicourse family-style meal
2-1/2 to 3 pounds bone-in chicken thighs
2 eggs, lightly beaten
1/4 cup soy sauce
1/4 cup mochiko
1/4 cup tapioca starch (or cornstarch)
1/4 cup sugar
Small bunch nira (or green onions), chopped (1/4 cup)
2 cloves garlic, minced
Vegetable oil for shallow frying
Debone the chicken, and reserve the bones to make stock. Cut the meat into 2-inch chunks.
In a large bowl, mix together the eggs, soy sauce, mochiko, tapioca starch, sugar, nira, and garlic. Tumble in the chicken and toss to coat evenly. Cover and marinate in the refrigerator for at least 4 hours, or preferably 12 hours.
Bring the chicken to room temperature before frying.
Line a plate with paper towels. In a large heavy skillet, heat about 1 inch of oil over high heat until it becomes runny and starts to shimmer. Reduce the heat to medium. Using tongs or cooking chopsticks, carefully lower thickly coated chicken pieces one at a time into the oil. You are shallow-frying, so the pieces will only be half submerged. Fry in a batch of 7 to 8 pieces (don’t overcrowd the pan) until both sides are crispy and evenly golden brown, 2 to 3 minutes on each side.
Remove the chicken with a slotted spoon, shaking off excess oil, and drain on paper towels. Use a slotted spoon or a wire mesh strainer to remove any debris from the oil and repeat until all the chicken is cooked.
Serve hot with freshly steamed short-grain rice, or cold as an appetizer or picnic food.
I’m so happy to announce that the paperback version of The Asian Grandmothers Cookbook is now out.
To celebrate this special occasion, I produced a book trailer using photos from the book, a soundtrack, and Windows Live Movie Maker. Et voilà, you can feast your eyes on many delicious recipes featured in the cookbook.
I also decided to create a Favorite Recipes page. Many friends have asked me, “Which are your favorite recipes?” I know how overwhelming it can be to navigate through a cookbook with over a hundred recipes so I came up with a list of recipes that have found their way into my permanent cooking repertoire.
If you live in the Greater Seattle area, I’ll be at several events over the next few months. Do pop by and say, “hi!” Here’s a list of events where you can buy copies of the book, and of course, I’ll sign your book if you’d like!
That’s all for now, until next week, cheers!