Friday, July 18, 2008


Its been almost 7 years since I left China in December of 2001. I never dreamed it would take me this long to make my way back again, and yet, life has a way of taking us down unexpected paths. While we go about living our day to day lives, doing what needs to be done, years pass and some of our dreams and aspirations are sacrificed as the vision we have of life changes.

For a long time I assumed that I would live most of my life in Asia. I thought that after I graduated from college I would return to either China or Taiwan and spend, basically, the rest of my life there. But when I finally graduated I decided to move back to Boston instead, and from there life, as it is wont to do, took me down another path.

My trip to China next month has been many years in the making, but now that it is almost upon me, I can't help but feel fully the truth of the saying, "Absence makes the heart grow fonder."

I decided to go to Beijing for the Olympics in the summer of 2001. I can pinpoint the exact moment in fact. It was a Friday night in Shanghai and I had just enjoyed dinner at Pizza Hut with a couple of friends. After dinner we walked down to Nanjing Rd.(南京 路)to watch and wait with a gathered crowd as the International Olympic Committee announced which city would host the 2008 Olympic Games. As Beijing was announced the crowd went wild and I vowed that I would make it to those games.

This week, as I held my Olympic tickets in my hand, my trip next month suddenly felt real for the first time.

Many things had to align to make this trip happen and yet somehow, they all have. I have tickets to 7 Olympic events, a plane ticket that, miraculously, did not completely break the bank, hotel reservations in the 3 cities we'll be visiting, and best of all, 3 fantastic friends to travel with. Now that the trip actually feels real (and I've confirmed that Air China has given me back my seat on the plane) I can hardly wait to go. I'm giddy with excitement and thrilled to have an opportunity to share a place I love so much with a few of my closest friends.

Before leaving you today, I wanted to share a dish I first tried in Shanghai. This dish is actually pretty common in American Chinese restaurants so there is a good chance many of you have tried it before. Making it at home was a bit of a revelation for me. Its so easy, but honestly, so tasty. When I made it for the first time I decided on the spot that this would be my new go-to recipe when I want to impress people with my Chinese cooking skills. If you give it a try, let me know what you think.

Spicy Green Beans with Hoisin Sauce and Garlic
Adapted from Kylie Kwong's Simple Chinese Cooking

Note on peppers: You can use any pepper in this recipe, but I call for red ones below because they look pretty. Pick a pepper that complements your desired spiciness, and remember that you can remove the seeds if you want to lessen the heat. If you pick a spicy pepper be sure to wear gloves when cutting/working with the pepper.

2 lbs. green beans, stem ends trimmed
4 T. extra-virgin olive oil
1/2 t. salt
Freshly ground black pepper

2 red chilies, sliced into thin rings
3 T. hoisin sauce
3 cloves of garlic, finely minced
1/4 t. salt
1/4 t. vegetable oil
Optional (but highly recommended): Maldon Sea Salt, flakes

Position a rack in the center of the oven and heat oven to 475 degrees. Line 2 heavy-duty rimmed backing sheets with aluminum foil. In a medium bowl toss the green beans with olive oil, salt, and a few grinds of pepper.

Spread the green beans out on your baking sheets and roast until tender, slightly shriveled, and slightly browned, approximately 15 minutes.

While the beans are cooking, combine the chilies, hoisin sauce, garlic, salt, and vegetable oil in a large saute pan. Cook sauce briefly over medium-high heat, approximately 1-2 minutes. Remove from heat.

Once beans have finished roasting add the beans to the sauce and cook over high heat for 2-3 minutes until the beans are thoroughly coated and the sauce feels a bit sticky. Serve immediately.

If you have Maldon sea salt, sprinkle the salt over the beans after you've put the beans on a serving platter. I can't tell you how much I love the taste of the salt with these beans. The salt melts just a bit and provides a wonderful flavor. To be honest, Maldon sea salt is good on everything. I love it. If you haven't tried it before I recommend picking some up. Or just come over to my place one night and try some of mine.

Saturday, July 12, 2008

Leaning Towards Laziness

A while ago, when I was having a hard time getting motivated to do any cooking for this blog, I had a brainstorm one night. I thought I could indulge my laziness and still come up with something for the blog by introducing my dear readers to various products found in Chinese supermarkets. At the time, I popped open a can of Apple Sidra, took a few pictures, penned a few words, and voila! A blog post with very little effort involved.

However, it seemed like a cop-out at the time so I never posted it. But as I've thought about it since then though, I've decided that the idea has some actual merit. Chinese grocery stores/markets are popping up all over the place. There is even a great one around the corner from my apartment here in suburban Utah. Asian markets are great because most of the products, to include (most importantly in my opinion) produce, are cheap. If your only goal is to pick up some fruits and vegetables and maybe some fish, then you don't need an education in Asian cuisine to shop there. However, if you are willing, and maybe a little bit daring, there is a world of fun products to be found throughout the store. The question is, where to start? Without a guide of some kind, I think it can be hard, possibly overwhelming, to pick out products that are likely to suit your palate. That's where I come in. Every now and then I'll post an introduction to one of my favorite Chinese products. If it sounds like something you are likely to enjoy, or piques your curiosity, you'll hopefully be able to pick it up at a Chinese market near you.

Peanut Rice Balls

I'll just say right now that I love food products made from glutinous rice. It may be an aquired taste, but for whatever reason, I love it. In Taiwan you can eat glutinous rice all sorts of ways. In my second area, 草屯 (Cao Tun), there was a little lady who rode around town on a bicycle with glutinous rice and a couple different filling options. You'd flag her down and she would make little glutinous rice packets stuffed with the filling of your choice (sugared ground peanuts for me). At dim sum I love ordering the deep fried sesame balls, where the sweet filling is enclosed in a ball of glutinous rice and then rolled in sesame seeds. There is something about the slick, sort of sticky texture of glutinous rice that I really like, so I'll admit that it's not so much the flavor, as the texture, that has won me over.

Anyway, at some point during my mission one of my Taiwanese companions introduced me to these little peanut rice balls. You buy them frozen at the grocery store and can also buy ones stuffed with black sesame seeds (芝麻) or red beans (红豆). You bring a pot of water to boil, throw in a little bit of sugar to sweeten up the water, and add as many of the balls as you want. Let them boil for about 7-10 minutes and then serve. I pour them into a bowl with a little bit of the "broth". You don't actually drink the broth, but just fish out the balls.

This is obviously not fine dining, but for those of us with a strange passion for glutinous rice, its a quick and easy way to get a fix whenever the urge strikes.

FYI, this is my favorite brand. It's from Taiwan and is actually the same brand I ate when I lived there. I've tried other brands and the rice balls have fallen apart pretty easily in the water, which I don't like. You want a ball thats got enough body to keep the filling inside while it boils away.