I was forced to cook at the age of 11 or 12. At that time, my parents were sent down to the countryside as a part of their cultural revolution reeducation. My brother and I were left to be in charge of our own survival. Five families of workers and peasants had moved into our house when I was seven or eight. It was a way for the government to redistribute housing from the bourgeoisie to the proletariat. In the beginning, I didn’t like these people who invaded our home and occupied our best rooms. But after a few years I became friends with the children of the invading families. When my parents were away, they kept an eye out for my brother and me. I don’t remember ever feeling cooking was a chore. I wanted to cook. The more the better. Cooking meant there was food to eat. There were times when I would only cook a pot of rice, and we would eat with the crispy pork lard residue. It really sounds worse than it was. When the pork we got from the market was too fatty, we would cut the fat into tiny cubes and make lard. The crispy residue was truly delicious over rice.
My mother sent my brother and me letters everyday. And in every letter she would bid me to be extra careful about hot oil splatter that could blind me or ruin my face. That was such a deep fear in her that she continued to write about the danger of hot oil spatter to me even when I was well into my 20s. I was thousands of miles away from her and had problems much worse than she could ever imagine, but her worst nightmare was still the hot oil splatter blinding her young daughter.
However, my mother’s fear was not entirely groundless. The key to stir frying is a red hot wok and smoking hot oil. For dinner today, I went back to my roots and cooked four Chinese dishes. Since I have cooked Chinese food all my life, I usually do it by feel and improvise with what I have at hand.
Chinese Mountain Yam with Braised Tofu and Celery:
1 6 inch long Chinese Mountain Yam (山药or怀山）
1 celery heart
1 braised firm tofu or baked firm tofu
8 ounces cashew nuts or macadamia nuts
3 slices of peeled ginger
1 teaspoon of corn starch
3 tablespoon of water or chicken broth
1 tablespoon oyster sauce
1 teaspoon or less of salt
1 to 2 tablespoon canola oil depending on how healthy you want to be
Slice all vegetables into desired similar sized pieces.
Mix the corn starch, water and oyster sauce in a small bowl.
Heat the wok on high heat, drop in the ginger, when ginger is dry pour in the oil.
When the ginger is sizzling in the oil, put in the vegetables and stir for about 3 minutes or to desired tenderness.
Pour in the oyster sauce mixture and stir for a few second until the corn starch is translucent. Turn off fire and put in the nuts.
Baby Bok Choi with grape tomatoes:
18 to 20 baby Bok Choi, washed and patted dry
4 slices of peeled ginger
4 to 5 cherry or grape tomato
1/2 cup of chicken broth or water
1 teaspoon of salt
Heat the wok, put in ginger, then the oil.
When the ginger is sizzling put in tomatoes for 30 seconds.
Take out the tomatoes and set aside before putting in the Bok Choi.
Stir for about 3 to 4 minutes.
Pour in the water or chicken broth and close the lid for about 1 to 2 minutes.
When the broth is dry the Bok Choi is ready.
Stir in the tomatoes to make it pretty.
Or you can skip tomatoes all together.
Beef Shank & Beef tendon Stew with Carrots:
1 pound of beef shank, 2 tendons, or you can use just the beef and no tendon
1 brown onion, chopped
2 carrots, chopped
1 cup of spinach（optional)
1/2 cup of cherry tomatoes (optional)
1 cup of cooking wine
1/2 cup of soy sauce
1/2 cup of dark soy sauce
3 cups of water or beef broth
5 star anise
5 slices of ginger
1/4 teaspoon Chinese peppercorn (花椒)
1 tablespoons of oil
Cut the beef shank and tendon to 1and1/2 cubes.
Heat the oil in a wok on high, put in peppercorn and ginger.
Stir and let sizzle for about 30 seconds, add onion and stir until soft.
Mix in the beef shank and the tendon, stir for 3 minutes.
Add wine, soy sauce and water/broth.
Close lid and simmer for 2 1/2 to 3 hours before adding the carrots.
Cook another 30 minutes. Before serving, add spinach and cherry tomatoes.
Baked Pumpkin and Maple Syrup:
1 small pumpkin
1/2 cup of Joseph’s sugar-free maple-flavored syrup
Olive oil spray
Peel and cube the pumpkin into desired shape.
Spray olive oil and bake for 1 hour or until tender in a baking pan at 375 degree
Pour in the maple syrup and toss until pumpkin is coated with syrup.
This pumpkin dish is not authentically Chinese. The Chinese way to cook the dish is to steam the pumpkin with Gouji Berries and some brown sugar. My children prefer the baked version and their wishes are my command.