Wednesday, May 23, 2012

food & heritage.

we don't mess around with soy sauce.

i'm first generation chinese.  that statement in and of itself doesn't necessarily mean anything, but there are certain differences between cultures that aren't as obvious; for instance, the use of recipes.  i may be totally presumptuous here, but i feel like recipes are distinctly european - many of the old school chinese folks you might talk to could never accurately tell you the exact ingredients in exact quantities that make up a dish, it's just something that they innately know and is passed on from generation to generation through repetition and practice.  i specify i'm first generation because my mom, for instance, doesn't understand the concept of recipes nor could she write one to save her life, even if it's for a dish she's been making since she was a kid.  i've been on a chinese food kick lately ever since finally making a day out my trip to flushing (i'll bring my camera next time), so i was thrilled, over the moon elated when i was able to find a few recipes online (!) for dishes i distinctly remember having had as a kid that i couldn't even begin to describe to you in english.

thus far this week i've already made winter melon soup, rice cake with pickled cabbage and pork and last night's dinner consisted of tilapia with scallion ginger sauce and crispy tofu with snow pea and mushroom stir fry.  if it sounds like i've gone a little nuts, let me assure you: i have.

trimmed snow pea ends.

crispy tofu.

the rice cake with pickled cabbage and pork was probably my favorite dish that i've had so far, but also because that dish holds very fond memories for me.  i didn't think to document that recipe as i was making it, but i'll likely be making it again soon enough with some adaptations to the original recipe, so i'll post that when the time comes around again.  in the meantime, the below recipes for crispy tofu with mushroom and snow pea stir fry and tilapia with scallion ginger sauce makes one heck of a solid chinese dinner any night of the week (don't forget the rice!).  the tilapia recipe is one of my favorite recipes for fish (any white fish will do) and one of the quickest to boot.  total win-win situation.  

baked white fish with scallion and ginger sauce
serves 2-4

1/3 cup dry white wine
dash of sugar
1/2 tsp lemon juice
2 tb soy sauce
2 tsp sesame oil
2 large (or 3 small) scallions, sliced thinly
1 tsp finely minced fresh ginger
1 tsp finely minced garlic
1 pound your white fish of choice (*see note)
thinly sliced scallions for serving

- heat oven to 400, and place your fish in walled baking dish.
- mix all other ingredients together in a separate bowl, and pour all over fish.  wiggle the fish a bit so the sauce can get underneath the fish in the baking dish.
- bake fish for 10-15 minutes or until fish flakes easily with a fork.  test fish first at 10 minutes, bake in increments of two minutes at a time until done.
- sprinkle sliced scallions on top right before serving.
- *note: you can use any cut of fish you'd like here, but if you're going for an authentic chinese interpretation, try baking a whole fish (cleaned and de-scaled).

crispy tofu with mushroom and snow pea stir fry
serves 4 (adapted from the kitchn)

for the sauce:
1 cup chicken or vegetable broth
3 tb low sodium soy sauce
1 tb rice vinegar
1 tsp sugar
2 tb corn starch

for stir fry:
3 tb vegetable oil, divided
4 tb corn starch
14 oz firm or extra firm tofu, cut into 1" cubes
8 oz package mushrooms (white or baby bella), roughly sliced
1/2 pound snow peas, ends trimmed
2 tsp minced garlic
1 tb minced ginger
2 scallions, cut into 1" pieces

- mix all sauce ingredients and set aside.
- in a separate bowl, toss tofu with corn starch to evenly coat all sides.
- heat 2 tb oil in a large skillet or wok over high heat, and crisp tofu by letting it "set" in the oil on each side until evenly golden brown.  remove from pan and keep warm.
- heat 1 tb oil in pan and stir fry the mushrooms until soft, then add snow peas and cook until slightly underdone, only about a minute.
- add in garlic and ginger, and stir fry about 30 seconds.
- stir the sauce from the first step just to re-incorporate ingredients, and pour into mushroom/snow pea mixture.  bring to a boil, and cook until sauce is almost at desired thickness (sauce will thicken additionally as it cools).
- toss scallions with mixture right before serving.


jenny gordy said...

My brother and sister and I worked for years as servers at a restaurant owned by a Korean family. I asked the chef/owner Jenny to teach me how to make spicy pork. She could never give me a recipe because she wasn't into the concept of recipes, and now I understand why. She just added a little of this, a little of that. Every time I've made it it's different. My husband totally prefers to cook that way, but for me it's not so easy!

When my sister-in-law, who's from China visited me in NY last year my bro took her to Chinatown in Manhattan. She hated it. It seemed nothing like "her China" to her. Different part of China I guess. So we made the trek to Flushing, and she and my bro were freaked out by how much it reminded them of Bejing (my brother lived there for a few years). We had the most amazing meal at this dumpy place, and it was awesome. We also ate Muslim street food that my brother says is popular in Bejing, and he had been craving it so bad since moving back to the states.

Thank you for these recipes. They look divine!

ilana kohn said...

that's funny about recipes. my bubbe (born & raised in poland), the best cook i know, doesn't use them either. it's always driven the family nuts, as we'd love to be able to save them for posterity but there are no real recipes to save! even jed has tried following her around the kitchen trying to get a handle on what she's doing. Impossible. maybe recipes are a more anglo european phenomenon? I know someone who would be great to ask about this, my buddy Sarah Lohman is a culinary historian. If anyone knows about this, it'll be her!

k. wang said...

jenny - i totally get what your sister-in-law means about chinatown! the chinatown in nyc is definitely one of the largest and most thorough chinatowns in the states, but it's missing a certain "gritty authenticity" to make it feel thoroughly chinese. also, and while this isn't an obvious difference but it's a huge one to those of chinese heritage (maybe even at the core of your SIL's sentiments), the chinatown in manhattan is more canton/hong kong based than flushing, which is more mainland china in its roots. i'm glad they got to go to both chinatown and flushing when they visited, it's definitely fun to see both the similarities and contrasts between each!

ilana - we need to talk to your friend sarah soon! i would love to pick her brain about this. funny, i used to have a good friend who was polish and we've tried following her grandmother around the kitchen (particularly when she used to make sour cherry pierogies) - similarly impossible. all we wanted to do was learn how to make them on our own without needing her around to make them for us! it'll never happen.

Belinda said...

That crispy tofu looks soooo delicious.

It's funny you should write about this, as a friend of mine (whose parents are both from India) and I (Danish mother) were talking about this last week. She was saying that her mother and grandmother never use recipes, and she called her grandmother (in India) recently to ask about a particular dish of hers that she wanted to prepare. Her grandmother found it very difficult to describe quantities to her because she doesn't use recipes or standard measurements. The dishes are all handed down from generation to generation and one just learns to cook them from watching and doing.

My Danish grandmother cooks similarly, and my mother cooks her traditional dishes from memory (but modern ones from recipe). I learned to cook them by observation and probably still could do it today if I ate those dishes (I'm not much into the rich, meaty Scandinavian dishes, though).

I think this method of cooking helps you to understand food better than following recipes all the time. I feel like when you use recipes you can easily forget how a dish is made because you always have the recipe to go back to. But when it's passed on and taught from memory, without measurements, perhaps you are forced to understand how different foods interact with each other. Just a thought.......