Category Archives: Food & culture

“Please… Enjoy my horrible dish!” (“請多指教小人的拙菜”)

If you ever happen to attend a Chinese immigrant’s dinner party, and when you are about to dive into to what seems like a delicious meal, chances are, you may hear the chef saying something like what the title suggested. The literal translation for the Chinese expression above is “Please advise me in this horrible food created by little me.” 

I bet this is very confusing for the westerners. For the sake of explanation, it is an expression of modesty. This kind of expression applies to any creative work, not just culinary, when a Chinese person presents to his/her guests and strangers. 

 

Statue of Confucius
Confucius (551 – 479 B.C.)
The ancient Chinese philosophers taught us to be humble: Modesty is a virtue — even when we know we’ve done good. Because, the more we are humble, the more we are to listen. The more we listen, the more we learn. The more we learn, the more we improve. 

The word “proud” (驕傲,)in Chinese, has a shared character “傲” with the word “arrogance” (傲慢.)  It makes sense because pride, when not curbed, can easily become arrogance, which is detrimental to one’s self-improvement. So we, the Chinese, have been taught from very young age to be humble at all situations, and to avoid any chance for ourselves to become arrogant. 

A very good example here: With the western influence, only the latest generations of Chinese people had begun to admit that they are proud of their children. Because, in the ancient Chinese language, one would refer his son as “犬子” –meaning “dog-son”– when conversing with other people.

In the western world, display of humbleness would often be mistaken as passiveness, weakness, cowardice, lack of self confidence, or even lack of self esteem  (“自尊”).  Thus, when the Chinese are modest about their achievements, they often do not get the respect they deserve. It maybe the reason why the Chinese government decided to show off during the opening ceremony of 2008 Olympics.

Here’s another related social interaction case:  When someone pays a Chinese person compliment, the Chinese does not say “thank you” but, instead, he/she says “I do not deserve this,” or say nothing at all, or play deaf. The reason is simple: With humility in their every being, the Chinese may feel that the praises would feed into their ego. And, in order to prevent themselves from becoming arrogant, they would shy away from the compliment. This reaction therefore could easily be wrongly perceived by the westerners, and the poor Chinese person could wear a hat as an “unappreciative jerk.” 

So when you see Chinese people being modest about their success, it’s is not them being dishonest, nor being unappreciative–It’s them being Chinese. 

The Chinese community, however, has been more aware of this cultural difference that caused them lots of missed opportunities. So there have been many discussion forums and articles written to inform everyone to accept compliments with gratitude. There are also warnings about being overly modest in a competitive situation, such as a job interview. 

By the way, the Chinese government’s grandiose display during the 2008 Olympics opening ceremony, and its lavish spending on new constructions for the event, is nothing short of an arrogant exhibition… In my most humble opinion.

References:

“Why do Chinese people humble when they hear words of praise” (中國人為什麼聽到讚美的話會謙虛?) 

Excerpt from “Not reconciling lost of competition to the witty: Wittiness is ability, understanding silence is wisdom.” (”輸給會說話的人不甘心:會說話是能力,懂沉默是智慧“) 

“The authenticity of modesty to progress of self-improvement” (謙虛使人進步的真偽與對錯)

Bubble Tea: A popular international sensation

bubble tea
A typical Bubble Tea

 

The world popular Bubble Tea was originated from Taiwan, the same place where Giant brand bicycles and Acer computers came from. Here’s a little fun fact about the sweet milk tea, how they invented this international favorite. 

The very first bubble tea was called “Boba milk tea.” (波霸奶茶). And it was invented in Taichung, Taiwan. By the time it made it to Taipei, I was an awkward young tween girl, walking by a vendor with a brightly colored poster.  I was blushed by its name, and refused to try it.

Boba Tea
The original Boba Tea was served in a big round glass

It was originally served in a big round glass, with the same milk tea and tapioca balls that sank to the bottom. It has to be served with milk already blended. Because, the whole image in the big round glass, containing milk with round pearls at the bottom, are like a woman’s breast– “Boba” is a Taiwanese slang for “big breasts.”

Boba Tea thereby was invented as a result of primitive admiration and obsession of the male population towards God given motherly feature of every woman’s body. The secret of the tea’s success could be the consumers’ experience of sipping Boba Tea, while the sweet tapioca balls flow through their tongue… You get the idea.

When Boba Tea was gaining popularity internationally, the marketers had to reinvent it into something less overtly sexual to some. Hence, instead of the round glass, they served it in a conventional cup and called it “Bubble Tea”–-the word “bubble” comes from the foam of a shaken tea, and it sounds like its original name.

Since my first sight of Boba Tea as a blushing tween in Taipei, I only resolved to have my very first cup as an adult living in the United States, sipping the same famously delicious drink in the name of Bubble Tea.

P.S. This entry was originally written as a response to a reader’s question “…Do you know how they came up with [bubble tea?]” commented at a recent blog by Ryan.Thoughts

Reference: Wikipedia

New Year with Sticky Rice Cake (年糕) and Fish

A colleague asked me yesterday what would be served as traditional dish during Chinese New Year. Right away I thought there would be many different celebratory dish, but what stood out were sticky rice cake and fish…

The New Years marks a time of changing cycle, changing shifts, where beginning meets the end, and where chaos would happen. So all traditions and rituals for New Years have long been established for good omen and well wishing. Sticky rice cake and fish are a good example of this tradition. It is not required to combine the two items in one dish, but both are required to be served…

Why? Because the Chinese word for “sticky,” or “粘” (nian,) has the same pronunciation as the word for “year”, or “年” (nian.) Whereas the word “fish”, or “魚” (Yu,) shares the same pronunciation with the word “surplus”, or “餘” (Yu.) Therefore, having sticky rice cake and fish on the New Years table is a good omen for the upcoming year, echoing the lucky phrase “年年有餘” (nian-nian-yo-yu), meaning “having surplus year after year.”

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Crispy Sticky Rice Cake

Sticky rice cake comes in different kinds and flavors. I am introducing today the sweet sticky rice cake made with red beans, wrapped in spring roll wrapper. This recipe was a spontaneous creation at a hot pot party years ago.

Ingredient list:

  • Store-bought or home-made red bean rice cake, 6 to 8- inch diameter
  •  Store-bought or home-made spring roll wrapper, around 6″ squares.
  •  Deep fryer
  •  Deep frying oil, a gallon, or the amount enough for your deep fryer.
  •  1/4 cup cooked white rice to be used as edible glue
  •  1 cup Water
  1. To make edible glue, in a sauce pan, mix cooked white rice with 1 cup water, stir, mash, and use high heat to bring it to boil. Reduce heat, continue stirring and mashing, until the rice-water mix is reduced to thick congee texture. Remove from heat. Then set aside to cool.
  2. Remove packaging of the sticky rice cake, if bought from store.
  3. Cut the rice cake disc into bite sized chips.
  4. Wrap each individual rice cake chips with a single sheet of spring roll wrapper. Use the edible glue to secure the end of the wrapper. Without securing, they may unravel in the deep frying process.
  5. Setup and heat deep fryer to 350 degrees
  6. Deep fry the wrapped rice cake in batches until golden brown. Drain oil and set aside to cool before serving.
red bean sticky rice cake
This is a photo of a red bean sticky rice cake, similar to a store-bought version with the packaging removed.
My version of sticky rice cake
Here’s my fried sticky rice cake being cooled right before serving. It was crispy on the outside, warm and sweet on the inside. (Yum!)

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Sautéed Tilapia for Eight

During Chinese New Year, a plate of fish is often required on the table, for the symbolism explained earlier. It doesn’t matter which kind of fish. The Asian culture cook and serve food in its entirety for wholesomeness. We cook and use all parts of animal and fish for sustainability–not to create animal waste of God’s gift. But for my western readers, I hereby publish the recipe of my famous tilapia fillet, which I cook for my in-laws every Christmas Eve.

Ingredient list:

  • 4 large fillets. 2 servings per fillet.
  • 2-inch section of Ginger root of 1″ diameter.
  • 6 stalks of scallions
  • 1 TBSP Sautéing oil
  • Salt

Preparation:

  • Sprinkle one pinch of salt on each side of fillet.
  • Cut all ginger root into thin slices. Julienne about half of the slices to be used for topping.
  • Julienne all scallions
  • Setup a frying pan with a cover

Cooking:

  1. Grease the pan with sautéing oil. Use medium high heat. Spread in the sliced ginger in the bottom of pan. Once the ginger pieces starts to bubble, lay down tilapia on top of ginger slices. Spread the julienned ginger and scallion over the fillets. Reduce to medium heat and cover.
  2. When the fish turns completely white, remove from heat and serve. If a firmer texture is desired, it may be cooked longer with cover, for about 3 to 5 more minutes.
IMG_2094
In this photo, the plate on the left had chili powder added to the plate, for those who like a kick in their tilapia. Also there are cilantro to top it off as added garnish.

I hope you enjoy these recipes…
新年快樂,恭喜發財!
(Xin-nian-kuai-le, gung-xi-fa-cai!)
Happy Chinese New Year, Congratulations for your new wealth!

Memo on Chinese New Year

The Chinese New Year celebrates the New Year’s Day in the lunar calendar. This year, the Year of Goat, would start on Thursday, February 19th. The festivities are like a combined celebration of different western holidays.

It’s like Christmas, instead of gifts, children and unmarried young generation would receive red envelopes from their elders for wishes of good fortunes in the year to come. For those who don’t know, red envelopes contain cash. More on this tradition later, in a future entry.

It’s like Thanksgiving, immediate families gather for traditional meals, connecting across generations, across worlds, from the Eve through the midnight moment, into New Years Day; then extended families, relatives, and friends gather in the subsequent two days and enjoy good food and good times.

It’s like the fireworks on Fourth of July, every household lights up fire crackers at zero hour of New Years Day to scare off evil spirits. And children would play with fire crackers around this time of year.

And it’s like the solar New Year, the lunar New Year is a celebration of new beginning, with many things happening in not just one day–People would get busy even before the Eve to prepare for the new year. They would clean their houses, wash their cars, shop for new clothes to wear… And of course shopping for cooking ingredients for dishes to be served during the 3-day long celebration…

For a traditional Chinese New Year dish recipe, check back next week. 😉

Our Favorite Winter Breakfast – Chicken Rice Soup

In my childhood memory, winter in Taipei was always gray and cold. Taiwan, sitting at Tropic of Cancer, never snowed. But, because it is a basin city, with humidity trapped within the surrounding hills, the chilly winter rain was always cold enough to pierce the bones. Everyone would get sick everyday, sniffles and sneezes everywhere…

This was the season when Mother always had a pot of chicken soup ready to serve at any time, especially for breakfast at 6:30 in the morning — Yes: The children in my family grew up having chicken soup for breakfast. 🙂 It warmed our soul, and it prepared us for the work/school day ahead. Especially for the tough city commute that sometimes had my head sandwiched between the standing people’s buttocks on a bus… Only in Taipei.

IMG_0412Ingredients to serve a party of 4 to 8: 

  • 8 chicken wings (approximately 2 lb.) Thawed. Can be substituted with 2 lb. of legs and/or thighs
  •  9 cups of water
  • 1/2 cup rice vinegar
  •  12 oz. Daikon cut to bite size chunks
  • 10-12 oz. Whole onion, chopped
  • 5 oz. Carrots, sliced
  • 4 oz. Celery Heart (approx. 3 stalks)
  • 2 oz. Ginger, 1/8” to 1/4” slices for flavoring
  • 1 cup scallion or cilantro, chopped
  • 8 cups of cooked rice

Preparing the chicken:
Boil 12 cups of water. Place the thawed chicken pieces into the boiling water. Bring back to boil and immediately remove from heat. Let stand in pot for 12 hours or overnight. Drain and gently rinse the chicken under running water. Pluck excess feather where necessary. Chicken is ready to use.

Note: The purpose of this prepping process is to remove excess chicken fat and blood, which results to a healthier, leaner and a more aesthetically pleasing ingredient. We recommend using the prepared chicken immediately or to refrigerate and use it within one day.

Making the Soup:
In a large pot, combine chicken with water, ginger, vinegar, onion, celery, carrots and daikon. With high heat, cover and bring to boil. Leaving the pot covered, simmer in low heat for another 15 minutes while skim excess oil from surface. Remove from heat and serve.

Serving Suggestions:
1 cup of cooked rice is the recommended serving size per person. To serve the soup, place one chicken piece in each rice filled bowl before scooping in other ingredients. Pour soup over rice. Garnish with scallions or cilantro and serve.

Note: The picture above shows 2 servings of the soup made with chicken wings and garnished with scallions.

Taiwan and its Cuisine

During Christmas party, a newly wed couple told me about their upcoming foodie adventure to experience soup dumplings in Chinatown. Besides giving them some of my recommendations, this topic has lit my creative fire… I went on to tell them about Taiwan, where I came from… I said,

“If you want good Chinese food, go to Taiwan… Once you are there, you could eat your way–north to south, top to bottom–no kidding! Because… ”

I then briefly told the history of Taiwan and why such a small island about the size of New Jersey has a variety of Chinese cuisine. Later, as I reminisce the conversation, I decided to write it down and craft it better, here:

Between 1895 and 1945, Taiwan was ruled by the Empirial Japan. The Japanese built infrastructure and economy in Taiwan, to setup foundation for its intended expansion plan. At the time, native Taiwanese were deemed as savages and slaves by the Japanese. They had to learn the Japanese culture and traditions in order to survive.

At the end of Sino-Japan War in 1945, Japan surrendered Taiwan to the ROC (The Republic of China,) ruled by the KMT Party (Kuo Ming Tang.) When the Communist Mao took over KMT-ruled China, KMT exiled and settled in Taiwan. The KMT people, composed of mostly educated and talented aristocrats from all over Mainland, brought with them their knowledge, culture and traditions. They set up businesses over the Japanese infrastructure; shops, restaurants, spawned all over Taiwan…

Today, Taiwan has become a great cultural hub, that incompasses a variety of Chinese cuisines, music, arts and crafts, with occasional Japanese flare. People there are friendly and welcoming. In my childhood memories, I always recall seeing one or two westerners walking down the streets of Taipei City, with smiles on their faces… Because we smile at them.

 

Here is my favorite Taiwan tourism video on YouTube: