Sunday, May 08, 2005

Culinary Life Lessons--Can't Learn This Stuff From A Cookbook

If you ever see a girl at the airport hauling 10 blocks of ice in a blue Bank of Canton tote bag, that's me.

You see, the blue bag is my "Take Out" bag, as my parents call it. Whenever I go home to Northern California to visit, my parents cook me my favorite homecooked foods, pack them in Chinese takeout cartons, and freeze them for me to take back to LA. Jokingly, they tell me that I treat their house like a hotel and a takeout restaurant. I come and stay for a few days then leave with food.

The "Take Out" Bag with "Guilt Food"

Well, the parental mind tricks were weighing heavily on me this weekend. I'd heard, "See, who else is going to do this for you after we die?" and "Do you know how much your mom and dad love you?" a few too many times , so I decided to take some action. I asked my mom to teach me how to cook some of my childhood favorites. She happily agreed.

I learned how to make three very traditional Southern Chinese dishes today, rice with ground pork and egg, steamed pork with pickled mustard greens, and steamed pork with preserved duck egg. These are the kinds of dishes you won't normally find in Chinese restaurants (even the really authentic ones); instead, you'll find these dishes cooked in homes by loving moms and dads and grandmas and grandpas like mine. These were my comfort foods growing up. I used to sit Indian-style as a little kid and eat these foods out of a small rice bowl with a spoon, scooping up every bit of steaming rice interlocked with tender pork and the salty bits of picked greens or salted egg. My icing on the cake was always the bright orange sphere of salted duck egg yolk that I'd mash into the rice, creating a perfect union of creaminess from the yolk and fluffiness from the rice.

I was a little freaked out cooking the rice with ground pork and egg in a clay pot sice I never cook rice with out a rice cooker. I was sure I'd burn the stuff. But my mom assured me that it wouldn't burn if I kept watch over it and kept stirring it. I watched her as she seasoned the pork without any exact measurements. A little bit of soy sauce, a dash of cooking wine, a few sprinkles of white pepper, a pinch of sugar, a couple squirts of sesame oil, a smidgen of cornstarch. I only hope that I'm able to get all that right.

The seasoned pork was poured over the half cooked rice and my mom told me to let it sit for a few more minutes as the pork steamed. Still freaked out that it was going to burn, I kept a sharp nose on the covered clay pot--I couldn't lift the cover for fear that the steam would escape so I kept getting whiffs of the steam to check for traces of any burning smells.

Please don't burn! Please don't burn!

Several minutes passed and I lifted the cover off the pot. The rice was nearly done so it was time to add the beaten eggs to the pot and put the cover back on for another several minutes. After some stirring the taste trial ensued, mom and I sprinkling the rice with salt to taste. I noticed a slight burnt smell and I started to worry that I had destroyed my first traditional Chinese cooking attempt, but my mom told me not to worry and taste it. The slight burnt smell actually translated to a wonderful smoky flavor on the rice given off by the clay pot. I guess mom's always right, huh? Well, almost always.

Wonderfully fluffy, subtly smoky rice

Next it was time to prepare the other two dishes, the steamed pork with pickled mustard greens and the steamed pork with preserved duck egg. These two dishes used pork as a base, the one with the pickled mustard greens using sliced pork and the one with the preserved duck egg using coarsely ground pork, seasoned with the same seasonings as the previous rice dish. (With the exception of soy sauce on the pork going into the preserved duck egg dish as those salted duck eggs are plenty salty!) No worries with any burnt rice here but the non-existent measurement system still applied--a dash here, a pinch there. I "measured" the best I could while mom lectured, "Just do it! How are you ever going to learn if you don't practice?" We combined the pork and the other ingredients into their respective steaming dishes and steamed them one after the other in the wok.

Beautiful as a sunset: preparing the pork with salted duck egg

Steaming the pork and pickled mustard greens

"See how easy these are to cook?," my mom asked. OK, then why is it that she used to ask if we appreciated all the hard work she put into making this stuff? A-ha! Parental mind tricks at work again! Seriously though, I was amazed at how unbelievably easy these dishes were to make.

Aside from just getting a cooking lesson today, I also got an important life lesson. Yeah, I bitch and poke fun at my parents' quirks, but truth is, they do what they do because they love me more than anything in the world. They'll hint that they're getting old and ask me if I'll have what it takes to take care of them later on. They'll make me feel guilty that I moved to LA instead of staying in the Bay Area. But they'll still prepare my "Take Out" bag to take back to LA with me so that I can remember home and how much they care. Sadly, the hotel and takeout restaurant won't be around forever, so I'm beyond grateful that I learned how to carry on some of my family's culinary heritage today. Then I can make my kid feel guilty over how much their mom sacrificed to make their food. And they can pass it on to their kid. And so on, and so on...


elmomonster said...

Loved this post! I can totally relate to everything you've said. Thanks!

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