Anatomy of an Asian Fête

Chinese Fete

When I offered to make a birthday dinner of any dish and/or cuisine, the request was for a chinese dumpling dinner for a family gathering over Labor Day weekend. Not content to roll a bunch of dumplings, boil them up, and call it good, I used the occasion as an excuse to pull together many different asian recipes that I’ve been cooking recently, or wanting to cook, and introduce the family to my obsession with trying to grok all asian cuisines after visiting China in 2009.

The thunderbolt that hit me in China was exposure to several *different* cuisines within China — saying “Chinese cooking” is just like saying “American cooking” — it depends on who is cooking, where they are cooking, and what their cultural background is. Since then I’ve studied more about the many different Asian takes on food preparations and ingredients (from India to Japan) to try to understand the things they share, as well as what made them different.

The birthday dinner audience consisted of adults and children, many of whom had traveled and eaten around the world (including the children) but may NOT have focused their attention on Chinese or asian cuisine. Also, for family gatherings, they were accustomed to straight-forward dinner menus consisting of a big plate of meat, one or two side veggies and/or starch, and a big salad for dinner.

As I indicate in the title here with the French word “Fête” this was NOT intended to be an authentic meal by any stretch. Along with the odd mish-mash of cuisines and ignorance of proper banquet service I sought to use familiar and local ingredients where ever possible: smoked salmon, instead of ham; lobster instead of crab, etc. The intention was to create a tasty meal that exposed some of the diners to new flavors and/or textures but was not completely unfamiliar, as much as to just create a tasty meal that included dumplings. I hope that I succeeded.

Amuse Gueule (French for a small appetizer, literally meaning “amuse the snout”)

I chose to begin the dinner with a demi-tasse cup of dashi stock with a spot of quality tamari sauce in it for three reasons: dashi is the foundation of all Japanese cooking and is an intriguing counterpoint to the western (and Chinese) foundation meat stocks, yet most people — even sushi restaurant regulars — do not know what it is; we gathered in a place where there was a treasure trove of beautiful old “china” demi-tasse cups (visual pun); and hot dashi in small amounts is delicious — no one would hate it, and many would be surprised at what fish flakes and seaweed can make. It also opened a flavor palate that would be echoed in many ways throughout the meal. It also helped to stall the dinner as we frantically plated the salads in the kitchen…

Momofuku Dashi

1 quart of water
one 3″ x 3″ (roughly) piece of dried kombu (kelp)
1 handfull of katsuobushi (bonito) flakes

Into a 2 quart pot, pour the cold water, place the kombu in it, cover, and set it on low heat. Allow it to slowly come to a simmer, during which time the kombu will expand quite a bit.

Once it begins to simmer, turn off the heat and set the covered pot aside for 10 minutes.

After 10 minutes, fish out the kombu, add the katsuobushi flakes, stir to make sure they’re all submerged, then cover and let set for 7 more minutes.

Strain the stock, refrigerate or freeze what you will not use that day. It will keep about five days in the refrigerator.

Tsukemono

Although not strictly a traditional Japanese pickle plate, I served a mixed plate of three salads, plus boiled edamame pods: daikon radish sticks with a umeboshi dressing sprinkled with shredded katsuobushi flakes; julienned kombu (used in the dashi) marinated and dressed with soy sauce – black vineger – sesame oil and topped with sesame seeds; Tibetan Tomato Salsa of lightly salted diced fresh tomatoes drizzled with sesame oil.

I thought that the different textures and flavors would help further “excite the snout” (as it were) as we headed deep into asian flavors.

Velvet Corn Soup

This recipe has intrigued me ever since I managed to find a *signed* copy of Barbara Tropp‘s masterwork of Chinese cooking translated for the western cook: The Modern Art of Chinese Cooking. It calls for canned creamed corn, but I could not imagine a chinese cook ever using this ingredient, and over Labor Day weekend Maine is awash in excellent fresh sweet corn on the cob. Therefore my version (below) is probably less “velvety” but I bet it features a bit more corn flavor plus the bright textural POP of the fresh kernels as you chew them.

Soup is normally a final dish served at in many Chinese banquets because it is thought to help aid in digestion of the various early courses. But, having abandoned any claim to authenticity, I felt that if this was served in the western style, as a light first course, it would be better received. The reaction was universally positive with the repeated comment — “I would never have known this was a Chinese soup!” To any cook the preparation of the soup (many ingredients prepped ahead of time and then thrown together in a flash and served) would immediately mark it as asian, at least in style. Plus there’s a fresh ginger component that probably is never found in western soups. But given that most people’s exposure to chinese soups is with Hot and Sour Soup, or Wonton Soup, this soup IS very different.

Velvet Corn Soup
ER adaptions indicated in brackets

6 Tbsp chopped ham or 1/4 to 1/2 pound crab meat [1/4 pound chopped smoked salmon]
2 large egg whites lightly beaten until they just froth
2 Tbsp cooking oil
3 Tbsp chopped scallions
2 tsp minced fresh ginger
2 Tbsp chinese rice wine or dry sherry
4 cups chicken stock
1 can cream-style corn [5 ears sweet corn, kernels cut off, cobs scraped]
1 Tbsp cornstarch dissovled in 2 Tbsp cold stock

Garnish with sliced scallions or chopped fresh coriander [I also added lobster tail medallions on top]

Serves 4 in full bowls, 8 – 12 in small “rice” bowls.

About 10 – 15 minutes before serving have all ingredients at hand.

In a heavy pot over high heat, add the oil until it starts to shimmer. Add the scallions and ginger and turn the heat down to medium. Stir until fragrant, about 10 to 15 seconds, then add the meat. Stir briskly for 10 seconds, then add the wine. Stir to combine and allow the alcohol to steam off — about 10 seconds — then add the stock and the corn.

Heat to a “near-boil” over medium heat, stirring often enough to keep the settled bits from burning on the bottom.

Once it is near boiling, turn the heat to low, taste and adjust for salt (if necessary), then add the cornstarch slurry. Stir to incorporate for a minute or two, then dribble in the egg whites in a spiral around the pot so that they cook in threads without being broken by stirring until they’re completely cooked. When the whites are white, stir to incorporate, ladle into warm bowls, and serve.

Dumplings

Not content to offer one type of dumpling, I chose three different meats wrapped in dough prepared three different ways: Chinese pork jiao zi — boiled and fried; Chinese lobster shu mai — steamed; and Chinese pork bao zi — steamed, and all of them from scratch, including the wrappers.

For the jiao zi I turned to my favorite pork and fennel filling recipe from Serve The People by Jen Lin-Liu, which is more of a memoir than a cookbook, but one of its most evocative sections describes how she learned to make a standard boiled dumpling with an older woman she meets in her institutional cooking class. In China, anyone over the age of 40 has definitely lived through periods of violent social upheaval (for an illustration, read Chinese Lessons by John Pomfret), and the older they are means that they have literally survived an increased number of violent episodes through their life. Imagine if the Holocaust were only one of three or four equivalent episodes that tore apart Europe since WWII began — that’s the history of post-revolutionary China. Pre-revolutionary China was no cake-walk either…but fewer Chinese are alive today who witnessed it.

Throughout the class Ms. Lin-Liu had tried to break through to learn about the history of Chairman Wang (as she calls the older woman), but it’s only when Lin-Liu offers to help Chairman Wang prepare a meal of dumplings that the stories begin to come out. Preparing food together with people, just as much as eating meals together, helps to connect us and understand each other, and that’s one reason I love this recipe — it also tastes terrific.

Zhurou Huixiang Xianggu Jiaozi

2 eggs beaten and cooked scrambled with 1 tsp of veg oil
1 egg
3/4 pound ground pork
1/2 cup water
1/3 cup soy sauce
1/2 tsp salt
1 Tbsp toasted sesame oil
2 tsp finely minced garlic
2 tsp finely minced fresh ginger
1 Tbsp finely minced scallion
1 bulb fennel, finely diced
1 cup finely shredded cabbage (preferably Napa)
  [optional:
4 shiitake mushrooms (fresh, or dried and reconstituted in hot water) finely diced
1/4 cup dried shrimp]

80 dumpling wrappers (store-bought Gyoza wrappers, or home-made — see below)

Mix pork and water vigorously with chopsticks, or something that can really cut the liquid into the meat, about 50 strokes in one direction (to open and align the meat fibers). Add the egg and mix vigorously another 30 strokes. Add the soy sauce, salt, sesame oil and mix again. The meat should now be like cake batter. Add the garlic, ginger, and scallions. Blend instead of beat. Then stir in the fennel, cabbage, and cooked eggs, [mushrooms, and dried shrimp] until everything is evenly incorporated. It is now ready to be stuffed into wrappers.

Fold the wrapper over a teaspoon or so of filing then pinch the edges to seal them and make crescents. Set on a floured sheet pan.

When you are done, you can refrigerate for a few hours if you’re not going to cook them right away.

Drop into vigorously boiling water until the bottom of a pot is covered in one layer of dumplings. Cover, bring the pot back to a boil, and cook for five minutes.

If you would like fried dumplings, place boiled dumplings in a non-stick or well-seasoned pan with a dribble of sesame oil, and set over high heat. When the begin to crackle, check to see how brown they are getting, and them flip to brown the other side. They are ready to serve once the other side is browned, about 5 minutes over high heat.

Eighty dumplings IS a lot unless you are entertaining 10 or more people (or four hungry nieces)…but you can freeze them before you boil and throw them into boiling water right out of the freezer.

Jiaozi Pi (Dumpling Wrappers)

4 cups all-purpose flour
up to 2 cups water

Mix flour with a stream of water until the dough just comes together in a ball. It should be pliable but not too wet, which will make them hard to roll out.

Let dough ball rest covered (in a ziplock bag is perfect) for at least 30 minutes, up to 8 hours.

To roll out, divide the dough into 4 equal parts, then roll each part in your hands to make a tube. Cut each tube in half and roll each half some more. Cut 10 coins from each half-tube as you need them, keeping the other half-tubes covered so they don’t get a dry skin. Using a small rolling pin, roll each coin into a flat circle about 3 inches in diameter and stuff immediately. You probably will need to use a lot of flour to keep them from sticking, but don’t over-flour them or the edges will not seal and you will open your boiling pot of water to find jiaozi soup instead of individual dumplings floating on top…

My second dumpling would be a seafood shu mai — or siu mai, either of which means “cook and sell” — which usually has a shrimp and pork filling, but since Maine shrimp were out of season, I thought lobster would be a great substitute. First, shu mai skins are different, either egg based (like the store-bought Gyoza skins or “WonTon wrappers”), or translucent made out of rice flour and/or wheat gluten and/or potato starch. The latter call for unusual ingredients, so I usually go for the egg-based wrappers, which are basically just like fresh pasta, only rolled into circles for stuffing instead of strips for cutting. For the filling I like to use the “Ha Gow” recipe from The Frugal Gourmet Cooks Three Ancient Cuisines.

(The Frug is kind of a “forgotten soldier” of the modern food revolution, which may be due to the sexual abuse charges leveled against him (never proven but settled out of court), or the fact that the cheerful enthusiasm he projected on his PBS series was kind of annoying (“Apples!”). I find that although his scholarship is slap-dash, his westernized recipes are first rate, and I value my Three Ancient Cuisines for lots of good and simple meals.)

Ha Gow Filling
makes about 40 dumplings

1/2 pound raw shrimp [or other shellfish]
1/4 pound cooked shrimp [or other shellfish]
2 oz. uncured pork fatback, chopped coarsely
1/4 cup coarsely chopped bamboo shoots
1/4 tsp white pepper
1/4 tsp grated fresh ginger
1/2 tsp salt
1/2 tsp sesame oil
1 Tbsp chopped scallion
1 egg white
1 Tbsp dry sherry
1 Tbsp cornstarch

Place all ingredients in a bowl and mix thoroughly, ideally with your hands to create a smooth and firm stuffing — about 2 minutes.

Basic Siu Mai Dough
from The Dim Sum Book by Eileen Yin-Fei Lo

makes between 80 and 100 skins 2.75″ square

3 cups all-purpose flour
1 tsp baking soda
4 large eggs
1/4 cup water
1/4 cup cornstarch for dusting

mix until it comes together, using just enough water to make a ball. Knead until smooth and elastic, then rest six hours covered, or better overnight in the refrigerator.

Roll dough as thin as possible, allowing dough to rest covered each time it is doubled in size. A broom handle is helpful when lifting and flipping the dough as it gets very thin.

[I would use a pasta machine to roll to the thinnest setting, then try to get 80 sections a bit thinner before stuffing.]

If you don’t get this dough thin enough it will not be tender (which isn’t terrible, but will be less “authentic”).

The Ha Gow shape is a crescent “cats paw” but shu mai are open “purses” where you place the filling into the middle of a rolled out circle of dough, then you pull the dough up around the filling leaving the top open. If you want to get fancy you can sprinkle finely diced ham or smoked salmon on top of the finished purses. Obviously, because they have an open top, these dumplings must be steamed (for about 6 minutes).

The last dumpling is a basic baozi, which is a steamed yeasted-dough filled with some delicious savory filling. When we were in Shanghai we ate these every day because they cost about $0.15 (1 RMB) each, were available on almost every street hot out of the steamer, and were almost always really really good. (And in Shanghai they’re almost always filled with vegetables, not meat, which keeps their price low.) They are very much a “street food” that you can eat out of hand.

Baozi Dough and Filling
makes 24 buns

2 pkgs fast-rising yeast
1/2 cup lukewarm water
1 Tbsp sugar

Mix in a measuring cup and let it get foamy on top to proof, about 10 minutes.

Add proofed yeast mixture to a mixing bowl with
1 cup warm milk
4 1/4 cups all-purpose flour

Mix until it becomes a dough, knead a few minutes until smooth, then cover to rise until doubled, about 1 hour.

Punch doubled dough and let rebound about 30 minutes.

Cut into 24 pieces, roll into disks about four or five inches in diameter, place a teaspoon full of filling in the middle and fold the dough around it, pinching the top together.

Set shaped dumplings on a tray, covered, to rise again, about 30 minutes. In the meantime prepare a steamer to be ready to cook them.

Place buns in the steamer on a cabbage leaf, or scrap of wax paper or it will stick to the bottom, and steam for 15 minutes.

Baozi Filling

1/2 pound cooked chopped meat (leftover chinese barbecued spareribs are awesome, but any cooked meat will do)
2 scallions, chopped
1/4 cup chopped cabbage (preferably Napa)
1 Tbsp hoisin sauce (ketchup will do in a pinch)
1 Tbsp oyster sauce
1/2 tsp sesame oil
pinch of salt
1 Tbsp soy sauce
1 tsp sugar
1 Tbsp cornstarch mixed with 1 Tbsp water or stock

Combine all ingredients except the cornstarch then throw into a hot pot and stir vigorously until it has heated up. Add the cornstarch slurry, mix thoroughly, then take off the heat and set aside to cool. It should thicken into a thick or solid paste.

Sides

These are my current two favorite veg side dishes because a) we have a TON of green beans flowing our way each July and August, and b) it’s a great way to use up overgrown cucumbers (the fat yellow ones that you miss picking when they’re salad sized). Both dishes are Sichuan in origin, and *hot and numbing* in flavor profile, but I get RAVES from folks who try them, as long as they can stand the spiciness. Both come from Fuchsia Dunlop‘s first masterwork, Sichuan Cookery which proves how simple most authentic Sichuan recipes are, though it takes a bit of searching for a few ingredients, and how complex the flavors that can be achieved with a few ingredients.

The green bean dish is actually a vegetarian riff on the Sichuan classic, and even though I loves-me-some meat, I think it tastes better than the classic. The cucumber dish really highlights the amazing (and completely different to the Western palate) flavor and “numbing” effect of Sichuan peppercorns. Another key aspect to these dishes, especially for this dinner with so many courses, is that they are meant to be served at room temp, or at most warm, not hot. So you can make these well ahead of dinner and set them aside.

NOTES ON INGREDIENTS:

   –The best oil for cooking Sichuan dishes is peanut oil, but any high heat oil will suffice.

   –In all the recipes “sesame oil” refers specifically to toasted sesame oil which is used for flavor, not frying.

   –Sichuan peppercorns can be found in many gourmet food stores, but you might pay a lot for a few. You’re better off, if you enjoy cooking with them, buying them directly from a spice company like Penzey’s or The Spice House.

   –Sichuan cooking typically uses a short (2″ to 3″) hot dried red pepper called ‘facing-heaven’ chili (because they grow pointing up). Cayenne is the equivalent (moderately hot, fragrant when cooked) western pepper, but they are not easy to find whole, and when you do they tend to be at least twice as long. That’s fine, as long as you translate, for example “8 dried red peppers” into 16″ or so of cayenne pieces. You *could* use cayenne flakes in a pinch, but in most Sichuan cooking the peppers are there for flavor only, they are not meant to be consumed (i.e. you leave them aside on your plate), and often you are tossing the dried pepper into smoking hot oil to flavor the oil, and the smaller the pieces the faster they will burn and create off flavors. I’m lucky here in Maine that one of the pepper varieties that grows really well is a short heaven facing hot red pepper variety called Matchbox or Super Chile 100. They dry really well and I often have a surplus of them. If you order from a spice company like Penzey’s, they all seem to carry a standard “chinese chili pepper” called “Tien Tsin” which works very well, but is not, apparently, the authentic ‘heaven-facing’ chili of Sichuan.

   –For “rice wine” you can safely use sake, which is easy to find. Chinese rice wine is usually sold as cooking wine to begin with, and sometimes there is salt added to the cooking wine, which can throw a dish off balance if you’re not careful. These “cooking wines” are often of poor quality to begin with (which is why they add the salt), so I would still use a reasonably priced sake instead The finest option, and authentic for most chinese cuisines, is Shaoxing wine, which has been made in the eastern Zhejiang province for thousands of years. Sake is, most likely, a descendant of Shaoxing wine as both are made from glutenous rice, but the earliest reference to sake manufacture and consumption in Japan doesn’t appear until 700AD.

   –There are MANY kinds of soy sauce used in the MANY asian cuisines, but most chinese recipes call for one of two types: light soy sauce (also called “tamari” or “shoyu” depending on what grains are used to make it), which is what we westerners generally refer to as “soy sauce”; and dark soy sauce, which is a thickened soy that may have been brewed differently, but that also contains caramel and other ingredients. It is one of the basic ingredients of “red cooking” or “red braising” or “hong shao” dishes, the most famous of which is (purportedly) Mao Tse-tung’s favorite dish called Red Braised Pork (Hong Shao Rou). Our friend in Shanghai, Tina Kanagaratnam, you can tell the difference between light and dark by swirling the bottle. If the sauce coats the bottle so you can’t see through, it’s dark. Otherwise it’s light.

   –Chili Bean Paste is traditionally made from fermented fava beans and chili peppers. It is not easy to find unless you can go to a real asian grocery store (i.e. where people who regularly cook asian meals shop). There are various names (chili bean sauce, toban djan, toban jhan) and types (some are made with soy beans instead of fava/broad beans), but I would *highly* recommend one brand that is pretty common: Lee Kum Kee’s Chili Bean Sauce. Basically this is Sichuan’s version of miso paste.

Dry Fried Green Beans

12 oz green beans, tops and strings removed
2 scallions, sliced on a diagonal
high heat veg oil (peanut oil, ideally, for all Sichuan dishes)
8 dried hot red peppers snipped in half
1/2 tsp Sichuan peppercorns
3 cloves of garlic, thinly sliced
Fresh ginger in the same volume as garlic, thinly sliced
salt to taste

Add 2 Tbsp of cooking oil to a wok and heat up over medium heat. Once hot add the green beans, and stir regularly until they are cooked and tender and slightly pucker from losing moisture. Once they’re done, set them aside.

Add 2 Tbsp to the wok over a high heat, and once close to smoking add the chilies and peppercorns, stir briefly until the chilies begin to darken but before they turn black add the garlic, ginger, and scallion slices, stir-fry until they are heated and fragrant (about 30 seconds) then add the green beans back to the wok, stir a few minutes to coat all the beans with the sauce, salt to taste, then transfer to a serving dish.

Spicy Cucumber Salad

2 avg sized cucumbers
3 tsp salt
2 Tbsp veg oil
16 sections 1 inch long, of dried chilies
2 tsp whole Sichuan peppercorns
3 tsp sesame oil

Remove the seeds from the cucumbers then cut into 2″ strips (with or without all or part of the skin, which can be tough, but also can add a nice sharp bitter flavoring to the salad). Toss with the salt and then drain at least 30 minutes (preferably 2 or more hours), pressing if possible to eliminate as much juice as possible.

Heat oil in a wok over high heat to smoking, turn to medium heat as you add the chilies and peppercorns. Stir until the chilies begin to darken (about 30 seconds) taking care not to blacken them.

Add the cucumbers to the wok, toss for about 10 seconds to coat them with hot oil, add the sesame oil, toss to coat, then empty into a serving dish. Allow the cucumbers to cool to room temperature before serving.

Beef Stew

I know that I have already “blowed-it-up” with the rest of this menu, but I couldn’t help adding one more item to be served with the dumplings as a non-carbo option, also from Fuchsia Dunlop’s book: Red Braised Beef and White Radish. This has become Alison and my favorite winter stew because it’s simple to make, we have lots of home-grown beef available for stewing, we can cook it in our masonry heater oven, and it’s so damn good. It is NOT for the faint of heart, however, as the Sichuan peppercorns and the chili bean paste add considerable “hot and numbing” action on the palate. But because it cooks for so long it mellows a bit, and then the daikon add something of a cooling aspect, especially if you don’t overcook them at the end and they have a bit of tooth and crunch to them (just cooked through but not mushy).

Because I felt that the rest of the menu was probably overwhelming for most of the diners, I expected this dish to go relatively untouched, but the entire serving bowl was consumed, and I received many compliments on it, as well as questions about how to make it.

Fuchsia’s recipe is *slightly* different from my version below, and if this recipe intrigues you that should be all the impetus you need to order her book and compare hers to mine. And if you decide to do so, I recommend you also order her memoir Shark Fin Soup and Sichuan Pepper: A Sweet and Sour Memory of Eating in China which explains how she came to write THE modern definitive cookbook of Sichuan cuisine (as it’s also recognized in China itself).

Hong Shao Niu Rou

2 lbs. beef
1 oz chunk of fresh ginger, unpeeled and smashed to crack it open
2 scallions, cut into 1″ pieces
veg oil
6 Tbsp chili bean paste
1 quart beef stock
4 Tbsp rice wine
2 tsp dark soy sauce
1 tsp whole Sichuan peppercorns
1 whole star anise
1 whole daikon radish (approx. 1 lb.)
salt to taste
[optional: 1 Tbsp. cornstarch in 2 Tbsp cold water or stock]
fresh cilantro for garnish

Cut the beef into spoon-sized chunks. Using a touch of veg oil, brown the beef in the pot in which you plan to simmer the stew. Make sure not to overload the pan causing the beef to weep so much that they steam instead of brown. You will most likely need to brown in batches, roughly 5 minutes on one side, flip, 3 minutes on another side.

When the last batch of beef is done browning, keep the pot on medium high heat, add back all brown beef plus the chili bean paste. Stirfry the beef and paste together, scraping up the bits off the bottom of the pot, for about a minute, then add the stock, wine, ginger chunk, scallions, and soy sauce.

If you don’t mind bits of Sichuan peppers in the stew (they’re like bits of paper in the finished stew), add the spices directly to the pot. Otherwise tie in a bit of cheese cloth as a bouquet garni.

Simmer over low heat so it’s just barely bubbling, for at least two, preferably three hours before you add the radish.

One hour before serving, peel the daikon root and slice into 1″ x 1/2″ sticks and stir into the stew.

[Optional: Five minutes before serving stir in the cornstarch slurry and mix well until the stew takes on a glossy sheen.]

Serve over rice or potatoes or your favorite starch. Garnish with fresh coriander leaves.

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One thought on “Anatomy of an Asian Fête

  1. Eric,
    You wrote this a year ago and I read it then and was amazed at quantity and quality of the feast — not to mention the research and writing. Anyway, I re-read it today because Carol made the Frug’s dumplings last night and I want to write a little ditty about that and the gazpacho she made as a refreshing Sunday dinner with temps over 100 outside (oh yes, it’s a dry heat). I was amazed to realize that I had never transcribed the Frug’s pot-sticker recipe. But I knew you had, so I hastened here.
    Thanks.
    dad

    Like

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