Archive for January, 2009

Here’s a lesson I learned over the weekend: check the ingredients before you buy, or you might end up buying an innocent looking New Years snack tray:

Chinese New Years tray

and bringing this home:


It says: Candy, Melon, Coconut, Lotus Nuts, Lotus Roots, Water Chestnut, Carrct, Tangerine Nuts, White Sugars, Butter Floub.

First of all, I’m pretty sure you can’t just say “candy,” especially when one of the varieties is durian candy.  I love the stuff, but I would guess about 80% of people probably hate durian.  Second, I didn’t know lotuses and tangerines had nuts, but I haven’t studied lotus and tangerine anatomy recently.  Anyways, clockwise from the top they are: candied carrots, dried melon, “candy,” coconut flakes, lotus root, candied water chestnuts, more “candy,” dried tangerines and lotus seeds in one compartment, and then the durian candy in the middle.


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Literally- it’s Chinese New Years, the time when Chinese people eat go. In Mandarin it’s gao/gow but in Cantonese it’s go so the pun works.  These are usually sweet and vegetarian to begin with so no substitutions are required.

Last night I made a traditional new years recipe called leen (year) go (cake/pudding).  Usually you’ll see the Mandarin spelling– nian gao or neen gow.  Since it was Sunday and I was bored, I made my own version. Behold the yin-yang leen go:


The left side is red bean (mixed in), the right side is coconut.

Red bean side:
1/2 bar of sugar (sold in Asian stores; see pic)
1/2 cup water
1.5 cups glutinous rice flour (not regular rice flour)
1/2 cup dried red beans, rinsed and soaked overnight in 2 cups of water
1/4 cup sugar

Coconut side:
1 bar of sugar
2 cups glutinous rice flour (should be the rest of a 1 lb bag)
3/4 cup coconut milk
1/4 cup water
leen go ingredients
I made the red bean paste from scratch, thinking it was cheaper and better than canned, but somewhere in hour 5 of simmering them I changed my mind. Anyways… onto the recipe:

Get the red beans simmering waaaay before you plan to eat the leen go because they take forever to cook.  Pour the red beans and the soaking water into a pot, add 1/4 sugar, cover and simmer until they are soft enough to mash.  Mine took five hours and I repeatedly added more water.  This will depend on how tight your lid fits. When they start getting soft, keep just enough water so that they are covered, and when they are soft enough to mash, let the water boil off until there is a minimal amount left (slowly, without burning the beans).  Mash with a spoon and allow to cool. Mixture should be a paste consistency and it’s really not important that it’s smooth. Take out 2 teaspoons of paste and save for another use (more on that later).

right before mashing

Once that has cooled, cut up the 1/2 bar of sugar into smaller pieces (to dissolve easier).  Boil the 1/2 cup water and add the sugar, stir until dissolved.  Add to red bean paste and stir.  While that cools down, put the rice flour in mixing bowl.  Once the bean paste + sugar water mixture is lukewarm, add them to flour and mix until dough forms and strong resembles refried beans. Make the dough into a 1/2 yin-yang:

just the yin

For the coconut dough: break up 1 bar of  sugar and add to the coconut milk; heat mixture until hot enough to dissolve the sugar (1.5 minutes in the microwave for me, but watch carefully so it doesn’t boil over).  Add the 1/4 cup water and once the liquid is lukewarm, add to the rice flour. Make a dough much like the red bean side.  Pour mixture into the empty half of the pattern, starting with the fat end, and smear dough towards the smaller end with a knife.   Add the red/white dots of the yin-yang.  After I filled the bowl I had some excess coconut dough– more on this later.

before steaming

Steam the whole cake for 45 minutes.  The cake is supposed to pull away from the the bowl but mine never did.  Run a greased knife around the edge and invert to get the cake out.  Cut into pieces about 1/2 inch thick and serve.  You can eat it just steamed or pan-fried with a little oil in a non-stick pan.  Some people batter each piece in a beaten egg, then pan-fry.

pan-fried leen go, no egg batter

Excess dough and bean paste:  pinch the dough into balls so they make about 3 inch circles when rolled-out about 1/4 to 1/8 inch thick.  Place some of the red bean paste in the middle, wrap dough around it, and form into a sphere.  Dip in coconut flakes and steam for 10 minutes. Eat.

I forgot to save some red bean paste, so these are unfilled.

I forgot to save some red bean paste, so these are unfilled. Still good though.

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These are native to Shanghai (obviously) and I never got to try them before going veg.   But I’ve been hearing a lot about these, they seem to have a cult following on the interwebs, AND dumplings are a Chinese New Year food for luck so I thought I’d try my hand at making some.  There are three substitutions necessary for this recipe: gelatin, pork, and broth.  The Epicurious recipe calls for a long multi-step process but this version is much simpler. (If you’re Googling, they are also called xiao long bao in Mandarin or siu long bao in Cantonese).

-half package of Gimme Lean sausage style (NOT the ground beef style)
-4 black mushrooms
-1 package vegan unflavored gelatin (I used Natural Desserts from Whole Foods)
-16 Nasoya egg roll wrappers (thicker and bigger than the wonton skins)
-1/4 tsp Better than Bouillon
-2 green onions
-2 cups water
-flour for dusting
soup dumplings ingredients
Get the water started to a simmer. Rinse mushrooms, toss into water, and add the bouillon.  Finely chop the white ends of the onions into rings and add to soup base.  (Do not discard the green parts.)  Snip the end of the sausage, um, “tube” and spoon out about 1.5-2 tsp sized balls of sausage into the soup (16 balls total). They should be the size of small meatballs. I cooked them with the soup to get rid of the “Jimmy Dean” taste of the sausage, and it worked pretty well. Simmer the whole thing covered for about 20 minutes.

After 20 minutes, fish the mushrooms out and dice them with kitchen shears.  Do this over the pot, OR reserve any water that comes out of the mushrooms and return it to the pot with the diced mushrooms.  Cook soup another 10 minutes.  Drain the soup into a bowl and add the vegan gelatin.   (Allow the drained meatball/mushroom mixture to cool).  One problem I had is that I couldn’t incorporate the gelatin without whisking, but this lead to about 1 inch of soup froth on top.  So I would suggest after whisking, smooth out the bubbles with a spoon before letting it set.

After the soup gelatin has set for a while (I put my outside in 9 degree weather to speed up the process), begin preparing the wrappers.  Don’t do this any earlier than you need to because the edges will dry out and be harder to seal.  The Nasoya egg roll wrappers I found to be large enough and thick enough, but you end up wasting the edges and I haven’t thought of a good use for excess (other than for patching).  Working on a floured surface, I used a glass bowl about 5 inches across and trimmed around it with a knife, doing 4 wrappers at a time.  After you get a few done, chop the green parts of the onions into small rings and add it to the meatball/mushroom mixture and put the whole thing in a bowl next your wrappers.  Don’t do cut all 16 wrappers at the same time; work in 4 batches of 4 to keep the edges from being exposed to air.

cutting the dough

Set up your steamer and get the water heating.  Then get started on the first set of dumplings:  Place about 1-2 tsp of soup gelatin (aspic, if you will) at the center of the dough, top with a sausage ball, and add some mushrooms and onions.  Bring together opposite ends of the wrapper and pinch, and keep gathering folds until there all the edges meet up at the top. Work fast and put the aspic in the fridge if you take a break; my aspic was melting fast at room temp.  Also your sausage-balls should be room temp or colder, or they will melt the aspic.  If you get any holes or the edges won’t meet up right, patch with the excess wrapper dough and some water.

gathering the dough

Steam about 4-5 on a rack, 10 minutes per batch. Traditionally this is done on a leaf of napa cabbage but I can’t stand napa cabbage (it’s like cooked lettuce, I don’t get it) so I spray-greased the metal steam rack and set the dumplings on it, and that worked fine.  If you have a bamboo steamer you can also use wax paper or foil squares. Remove from the steam g-e-n-t-l-y with a big asian soup spoon.

just finished steaming

These dumplings are served with a bowl of black vinegar and shredded ginger for dipping but I didn’t use this because the vegan gelatin adds a vinegar taste and I can’t stand ginger.   They’re fine by themselves.  The way to eat them is to place one in a spoon, take a small bite, suck the soup out, and then eat the rest.  Happy dumpling-eating!

inside the mysterious soup dumpling

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Year of the Ox

The Chinese calendar follows the moon, so it falls on a different day each year on the Western calendar.  This year it falls on Monday, January 26th, which is pretty early. The year will be 4076, and it is the year of the ox.  I have no idea what that actually means and I would imagine most Chinese don’t either. Anyways, this holiday marks two things: (1) Spring, and (2) when the married adults give the unmarrieds money in red envelopes (hong=red, bao=packet).  I’ve been milking this for 29 years now, and I’m starting to wonder when my dad’s siblings will stop giving him hong bao to give to me.

If you’re in the mood to celebrate:

Some phrases (all in Cantonese transliteration):
“Gong Hay Faht Tsoi” – Happy new year (literally “congratulations, prosper”)
“Sun Leen Fai Lohk” – Happy new year (literally “new year happiness”)
“Lay See Dow Loi” – gimme my hong bao already

Places to get Asian food in Portland:
*Hong Kong Market @ Congress and St. John. My favorite because they take pity on my meager Chinese, are open 9-7 every day, and they have a great selection of candy, frozen foods, dry goods.

*Sun Oriental Market- Congress St. between State and High Streets. Korean-owned but lots of Japanese, Chinese, Thai, Vietnamese, and Indian goods too.  Everything you need for sushi except the fish, but including sushi makers behind the counter.  They also have kitchen electronics and fabulous dishware.  The owners are also super-nice and will answer any questions you have. They also have an inordinate variety of miso mixes in the fridge.

*Mitpheap Asian Market: 61 Washington Ave. I went there once when it first opened and it was pretty tiny with not a lot of stuff.  The Press-Herald did a writeup on the owner awhile back.

Vientiane: Noyes @ Brighton. Went in here once; it was rather small and most of the dry goods had dust on them. Most of the stuff is Southeast Asian (i.e. Thai or Vietnamese). On the bright side, it’s connected to a restaurant you can also get fresh food there too.

*Haknuman Meanchey: 803 Forest Ave. Haven’t been here yet. Noticed it for the first time today while coming back from snowtubing in Windham. Will follow up.

New Year's munchies. All veg!

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Rooster Sauce

More officially known as Sriracha, but “rooster sauce” is much easier to say.  Key to many Asian dishes. It comes in several varieties, the most common being a smooth ketchup-consistency one that comes in a squeeze bottle and is often found on the table at Asian restaurants. In addition to chilies, it contains sugar, salt, garlic, and distilled vinegar, so it’s not a pure chili taste.

my sister's bottle of sriracha

My favorite variety is the chili paste with seeds and all called sambal oelek. This one doesn’t have flavors added to dilute the goodness of pure chilies.  It also comes in a chili-garlic flavor, which is what I usually stock in the fridge.  They’re all made by the same company (Huy Fong Foods out of California) so it also has the rooster on the outside.  All are pretty widely available at grocery stores, not just Asian ones.

sambal oelek

There’s a hilarious King of the Hill episode (not that they all aren’t hilarious) where the Asian community is trying to get the Hills to join their country club as the token whites.  They introduce Peggy to the maker of the hot sauce and she says to him “You look much younger on the bottle.”  And he replies “There’s a rooster on the bottle.”

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There are  a couple of Chinese brands out there that put out mock meats in a can (mmm….).  Behold:

Chai Pow Yu (Chai = vegetarian, pow yu = abalone):  Veggie abalone, which doesn’t taste anything like abalone (which actually tastes like a cross between clams and the non-tentacle part of calamari).  It’s just fried bits of seitan.  The labels have gotten progressively Western-friendly since I was little, so that’s encouraging.  You can eat it plain or add it to rice noodles, fried rice, or ramen.  Good stuff, especially the curry flavor:


Veggie duck.  I don’t know what that label translates to since “duck” is ngap (the ng sound is made by pressing just the back of your tongue to the roof of your mouth so your nasal passages are closed off).  I’ve had real duck; this doesn’t taste anything like it. Also it’s a little grainy, which if I recall correctly, duck can be.  Not my favorite mock meat product.  Some brands (yes, there are multiple ones) put this odd bumpy texture on it, maybe to simulate duck skin? I don’t know but it’s not pleasant.  I can’t think of any uses for this other than as a side dish to rice.  Oh, apparently there’s a wikipedia page dedicated to mock duck (warning: photo is NOT appetizing):


Chai Tseung (tseung = sausage).  Vegetarian sausage.  Not sure where the “cha’rng” comes from; there’s no “r” sound in Cantonese.  Can’t remember if I’ve ever tried this.

available at Amazon.com!

Veggie Chicken: Also has the unappealing bumpy texture.  If I recall correctly, ridiculously salty.


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There are a lot of rumors and stereotypes about the kinds of animals Asians eat.  Most of them are true-ish.  Like dogs– yes, some Chinese people eat dog meat, but it’s definitely not widely consumed.  I remember my mom pointing out a dog meat restaurant when we were sightseeing in Beijing in 1998.  I think the closest analogy would be rabbit meat here.  Or maybe something rarer… like possum….

Anyways the AP reported yesterday that 2,300 endangered monitor lizards were rescued from a storage facility in Malaysia.  Along with 319 owl carcasses and 22 bear paws, they were bound for shipment to China where they would eventually end up on dinner plates.

Unfortunately this is an example of where species protections have put a cost premium on that species, which adds fuel to the argument against treaties like CITES that prohibit the trade of protected species.  It’s not a fair argument because those in favor of species protection have to counter with evidence that protections prevented a greater number of animals from being poached, and it’s a lot harder to prove a negative than to point to a carcass.

I’m ashamed to say that the Chinese are often the consumers of the ill-gotten goods.  Part of this is because of the status-symbolism of exotic and expensive foods, combined with the persistent belief in folk remedies that involve random animal body parts.  I think the other part of the problem is that people just don’t think about where there food comes from, and this problem exists all over the world.  Growing up we’d occasionally order sea cucumber at restaurants (tastes like pickles but more rubbery) and it wasn’t until much later that I found out (1) sea cucumbers are animals, and (2) consumption by the Chinese is depleting stocks around the world.  Chinese demand is also driving the endangerment of abalone, shark, turtle, and plant species as well.  See? Dog ain’t looking so bad after all…

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