It’s not my birthday, not Christmas, not Chinese New Year. It is almost Halloween, but not quite yet. On this most ordinary day of the year, I received a surprise package from Pikky Lim, one of our ADs. Her mother brought them over from their hometown of Sabah on the island of Borneo. Pikky (which my computer keeps auto-correcting into Pinky) must have told her mother my love for cooking and snacking. The package contains the best quality dried fish maw, dried anchovies and dried shrimp for cooking, and nuts and chips for snacking. There was also a box of tea from Sabah. I never told anyone about my nonstop snacking addiction; I guess my frequent trips to the office fridge and snack shelves speak for themselves. My hands are really busy right now, frantically taking turns to type and to shell peanuts before putting them in my mouth. These tiny red skinned Kudat peanuts are extremely yummy.
The package reminded me of my own mother sending me packages of snacks from Shanghai to the remote locations when I was 15 years old and homesick. I worked under the old Communist studio system where a film would take 6 to 8 months to shoot. There would be many rehearsals, both dramatic and technical, before each scene was shot. Film raw stock was considered more expensive than people and their time. Unlike my daughters, I never rebelled as a teen. I missed and wanted my parents. At the end of each shoot, I would haul fruits, nuts, cured meats or sometimes even a live chicken from the location back to Shanghai on a bus or truck or whatever vehicle the production put me on. My brother would bring a couple of friends to meet me at the Shanghai Film Studio, where they would balance all the things on their bikes, including me, and ride home. That was happiness for me.
Receiving food and bringing food to others has been my favorite kind of social exchange and communication in life. I have never been one to have much chitchat — somehow deficient in this most natural and wonderful ability. Feeding people and being fed by people is my way of making small talk.
I hope Pikky won’t mind, but I want to bring some of the dried foods back to my parents in Shanghai when I visit them next week. I will go home from the location like I used to as an adolescent, bringing them treats from another land.
Speaking of my parents, I missed Shanghainese food and made some traditional sweet and sour spareribs to quell the longing. It’s a dish served in all Shanghainese restaurants, mostly cold as an appetizer, but sometimes warm as a main course.
Sweet and Sour Spareribs
20 oz. Baby back spareribs, cut to small chunks
3/4 cup Shao Xing cooking wine
2 tablespoon Soy sauce
2 tablespoon Dark rice vinegar (also known as Zhen Jiang vinegar)
2 tablespoon Brown sugar or broken up rock sugar
5 – 6 Ginger slices
4 Crushed garlic
1/ 2 teaspoon Chinese peppercorn
Cooking oil for browning the spareribs
Corn starch to coat the spareribs before browning
Optional first step:
Boil a pot of water with a few generous slices of ginger and 1/4 cup of the Shao Xing cooking wine. When the water boils, add the spareribs into the boiling water. When the water boils again drain the water and rinse the spareribs. Let it air dry or pat dry with paper towel. This step removes the residual blood from the ribs and along with it any gaminess.
Many people skip the above step and go directly to the next step.
Marinade the ribs in soy sauce and the remaining cooking wine for 20 to 30 minutes.
Drain and keep the marinade. Dredge rib pieces in corn starch.
Heat a non-stick pan on medium high with the oil and add the ginger slices and garlic. Brown the rib pieces. When they are lightly browned, pour the marinade in the pan and cover the lid, let it cook for about 20 to 30 minutes, stirring occasionally. Open the lid and add sugar and stir some more. When the liquid is reduced to thick sticky sauce, add vinegar and continue to reduce the liquid to a sticky paste. Let cool before serving.
If you need more liquid to submerge the ribs before you close the lid, don’t add water, add a little more cooking wine.