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every dish has a story

Sichuan "Mala" Hot PotApr 26, 2011

I'm a Buddhist, so in theory, I shouldn't believe in fate. In conversational vernacular, karma has come to mean "what comes around, goes around," as though there's some Jedi force out there that causes bad things to happen to people who do bad things. This is not to say that I don't believe in The Force — on the contrary, we have our very own Sith apprentice here at home — it just doesn't apply in this circumstance. But I digress.

By definition, karma is simply the sanskrit word for "action." It's probably true that bad actions eventually cause unfavorable results for the people who enact them, but really what this concept gets at is the fact that consequences exist, and we humans therefore control the outcomes of our karma, whether good or bad. That being said, there are times when events seem to conspire to ensure certain outcomes. Here's a case study:

During my last trip to LA, my best friend and I shared a dish of spicy beef tendon at 15 Cats Cafe in Alhambra. It was a cold dish, dressed in a delicious sauce of numbing sichuan peppercorn that I love. She proceeded to tell me that in Sichuan, they are famous for hot pot broth made with plenty of sichuan peppercorns and chili peppers/oil, and that she regularly prepares this mala (meaning "numbing" and "spicy") hot pot at home. Enlightening! I was intrigued, and flagged that idea as one to try when I got back home. Not a week later, another friend described a Mongolian hot pot restaurant in the East Bay that has become her family's weekend dinner tradition. They, too, serve that spicy, tingly soup for dipping and cooking your delectables. But we rarely make it out to the other side of the Bay, so again it was an idea earmarked for later use. My acupuncturist and I love to talk about food together, and one day she mentioned that she and her husband often prepare hot pot at home in San Mateo, especially when the weather gets cold. That reminded me of the restaurant about which my friend had recently informed me. "Oh, Little Sheep!" she exclaimed. "I love that place...they have one in downtown San Mateo!" These three encounters were too serendipitous to ignore. That same weekend, we trekked down to San Mateo and endured the hour-long wait for our own meal of mala hot pot, and it was like meeting my food soul mate (admittedly, I have many, but this is definitely in the top five).

So was it fate guiding me towards yet another amazing meal? Buddhism would say this is a series of karma with the final one being our decision to hop in the car for our foodie field trip. I could believe either — in the end, the outcome was a very happy one! For the recipe, read on.

Niu Rou Mian (Spicy Beef Noodle Soup)Mar 09, 2011

It's amazing the difference between what you learn at college versus what you learn and retain during those four years. I went to (some) classes, took exams, and came out the other end with a degree, but can I solve the limit of a function when x approaches a constant or recall the dates and significance of the Han Dynasty? Sorry. I do remember all of the places I could use my student ID to buy meals on campus and who played point guard my freshman year (Anwar McQueen). And the first time I had niu rou mian was when Dave and I first started dating, and he took me to Taste of Taipei in the Durant Food Court for one of his favorite dishes. Our palates (and stomachs) demonstrated incredible tolerance back then.

Of course, if we went there today, we'd wonder what we were thinking. But for a couple of college kids who were accustomed to eating instant ramen, Jack-in-the-Box tacos, and sorority-house salad bars, it was heavenly. Later, we discovered the nuanced styles and varieties of niu rou mian at Queen House in Mountain View (fiery chili) and Spices in the Richmond District (numbing peppercorn) who both put Taste of Taipei to shame. But all had a few key ingredients: star anise, ginger, onions, soy sauce, and loads of tender beef. Mine has all of the above plus a bunch of tomatoes which really deepens the flavor of the broth. Not a bad evolution considering it all began at a dirty hole in the wall near Telegraph Avenue. For the recipe, read on.

Momofuku-style Pork Belly BunsMar 07, 2011

Last month, my husband had a business trip to NYC where he enjoyed his long-awaited meal of hwae naeng myun in Koreatown as well as a much hyped dinner at Momofuku Ssam where he tried those infamous pork belly buns. I was soooooo jealous. Last August, I went to Momofuku Ma Pêche with my coworkers where we ordered the closest thing on the menu and a poor stand-in, slow-cooked pork spareribs. Don't get me wrong: they were lovely, perfectly cooked spareribs, but I really wanted to try that pork belly. So, a little miffed at the fact that my husband conquered one of my food goals for me, I decided to make them at home (of course!).

I found a recipe that adds a few flourishes to the original like rosemary and thyme in the dry brine and gotchujang instead of sriracha for the sauce. Once assembled with the pickled cucumbers and gotchujang, the medley was tasty, but there were three areas in which I felt this recipe was lacking. First, the pork on its own was a salt lick. We were guzzling water all night and through the next day. The meat ended up a little tough, too -- not the moist, succulent pork belly I had envisioned. Finally, I was hoping for a little more sweet (like charsiu pork) next to the spicy and pickly flavors. So, based on the "true" recipe I found online plus my own palatal desires, I have adjusted my recipe according to what I'll do next time. I'm sure that further updates will be necessary! For the recipe, read on.

Szechuan Dry-Fried Green BeansFeb 13, 2011

Green beans are a lovely spring vegetable -- most people have visions of them delicately sauteed in butter and sprinkled with almonds and a dusting of freshly ground sea salt and pepper. But me? I like them fried in oil and spicy as heck. For this recipe, you can use Chinese long beans, but I actually prefer regular blue lake beans. Wok-frying gets them nice and plump and avoids the tooth-squeaking that sometimes happens when you undercook the long beans. For the recipe, read on.

Steamed Whole Fish With Soy-Ginger SauceFeb 13, 2011

Meet Red. I met him at a Ranch 99 in Daly City, where he lay among his friends and family members in a pile of ice, wholeheartedly regretting his decision to swim after that colorful thing bobbing on the surface of the warm, blue waters of his native Mexico. So I took him home with me, promising him a steam bath and a drink of shao xing rice wine to get the chill out. Little did he know that the trip to the sauna would also entail a body splash of soy sauce, ginger, and green onions. Thanks for the memories, Red. I commemorate your sacrifice with this blog post so that we will always remember your exceptional contributions. For the recipe, read on.

Jiaozi (Pork Dumplings)Feb 11, 2011

It's funny, two of my favorite Japanese dishes actually find their roots in Chinese cuisine. Perhaps this is related to the phenomenon whereby many people mistake me and my best friend (who is Chinese) for sisters. Or the fact that I can pronounce "har gow" with a native speaker's precision (I assure you, that is the only word I can annunciate...the others sound hacked and tortured). Both ramen and gyoza are known to most Americans as Japanese fast food, but in fact, both were brought back to Japan by soldiers stationed throughout China during WWII. Gyoza is the Japanese name for the pan-fried version of jiaozi, which is basically the Chinese term for a meat-and-vegetable-stuffed dumpling. Regardless of where they come from, I eat them with gusto!

So alongside my New Year's-inspired shrimp dumpling experiment, some celebratory jiaozi seemed in order. The fantastic thing about making dumplings from scratch is that you can never make too many. Cook only as many as you can eat the day of assembly, and any uncooked dumplings can be frozen (first lay out on a cookie sheet in the freezer, and when frozen through, toss into a freezer-safe Ziplock) to be cooked later. So go bonkers. Make three recipes-worth. On those nights when you have nothing in the fridge and are too lazy to call for take-out, you'll thank me for it. For the recipe, read on.

Mapo DoufuOct 04, 2010

One of my favorite dishes of all time is mapo doufu.  A fiery hot tofu casserole that leaves your lips tingling hours later (think DuWop Lip Venom!), it's also richly flavored with many difficult-to-isolate flavors. After trying it for the first time at Spices in the Richmond District, I quickly researched recipes and added it to my early repertoire. But the flavors I was searching for eluded me. I could taste the ginger and garlic -- that part was easy. My next quest was for fermented, salted black beans which I found after scouring the aisles in Sunset Super. Many recipes also called for sichuan peppercorns, which were difficult to find, so I summarily dismissed that ingredient, assuming that I could recreate the flavor with regular black pepper. This assumption, I later realized, was terribly wrong.

On Sunday, after researching a few more recipes online, I headed out to Sunset Super to search for this spice. Finally, among the dried beans, fungus, and star anise, I found a one-pound bag of these curious-looking pods. I took my prize home. And now my mapo doufu is about 90% of the way there. I have noted my future adjustments after the recipe. For the recipe, read on.

Broccoli in Oyster SauceOct 04, 2010

I have been on a bit of a green veggie kick lately. As often as I cook, I never seem to have the time or energy to devote to adding a vegetable to the table. Even throwing together a basic arugula salad feels like one step too many right before we sit down to eat. So whether it's guilt, my new-found open schedule, or vegetable withdrawal, I have made a serious attempt to add some color to the plate. Last night, I offset the fiery hotness of some mapo doufu with a basic broccoli in oyster sauce stir-fry. The crispness of the broccoli and sweetness of the sauce helped extinguish the heat, even if my lips tingled for hours after the meal. Read on for the recipe.


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