Friday, August 8, 2008

Red China

Hello All,

Tomorrow I leave for China. I'll be gone for 2 weeks so you won't be hearing from me here (although, let's be honest, I let weeks go by without posting all the time).

I'll be thinking about you (and my blog) while I am gone. Hopefully I'll be taking lots and lots of pictures of food (as well as, you know, the Great Wall and the Terracotta Warriors and some of the other wonders China has to share). I have a recipe ready to post when I return. In fact, I had hoped to post it this week, but it wasn't meant to be. Too much to do and not enough time.  

I'll miss you (but really, not too much because I'll be in China).  

Take Care,

Thursday, August 7, 2008

For Picky Eaters

My 25th birthday cake, Shanghai, China (notice how many n's they used in my name...)

Months ago, when I first launched this blog, HK, a good friend of my family who has also been like a second father to me, asked if I would write something for him. He wanted me to write a short piece about food/dining etiquette for the missionaries he works with outside Reno, Nevada.

I promised to do so but then months passed and I never got around to actually writing the article. I've spent quite a bit of time however thinking about it because it's actually an issue that is near and dear to my heart.

Matt trying snake scales at a restaurant in Shanghai.

From a culinary perspective at least, Reno might be at the top of my list of non-scary food locales in the world. However, regardless of the fact that the missionaries there aren't likely to be served anything truly frightening, they will still refuse to eat food that they don't like/enjoy. This frustrates HK because he feels like this kind of attitude reflects poorly on the missionaries, and by extension, our church. For these reasons, he was hoping I could whip up a little literary something to help explain why it's important to be a more open-minded eater when you are in someone else's home.

BBQ squid at a night market in Taiwan.

I just want to make clear at the outset that I don't have any issues with specific, overarching dietary choices people make. I recognize and respect that people limit/control their diets due to many personal beliefs, convictions, and health concerns. I myself make choices about what I eat/drink based on my own religious beliefs. I do however lose patience quickly with people who don't have any defined dietary limitations but will refuse to eat something prepared specifically for them merely because they don't like it. The below article, which I sent to HK this week and have decided to also share with you, is directed at those individuals.

Here's hoping my thoughts on this topic don't deeply offend any of my readers. However, if you disagree, please feel free to comment and we can get a mini discussion going.

The Limits of Personal Preference

Americans are spoiled. We hear this a lot, and sometimes it's justified and sometimes it's not. In one particular area however, I have found this statement to be almost universally true. We are overwhelmingly spoiled when it comes to food. We are raised in a society where its OK to not like certain foods, and where, for the most part, our likes and dislikes are indulged rather than eradicated.

Pigeon head in Shanghai.

It seems to me however, that at a certain point in one's life, some of our pickiness can and should fall away in certain situations. In particular, when you are a guest in someone else's home the simple fact that you don't like something isn't really a good enough reason to refuse to eat it.

As a missionary in Taiwan, I didn't have the luxury of refusing to eat something that didn't appeal to me. From a cultural perspective, it would have been extremely rude to tell the host or hostess that I wouldn't eat something they prepared simply because I didn't like it. I can't pretend that I wouldn't sometimes try to avoid certain dishes on the table, but it was never overt and I was rarely successful. Taiwanese people have a habit of putting food in your rice bowl, and once it is there you really have no choice but to eat it. Because I wasn't always able to avoid food I didn't want to try, I've tried such lovely dishes as Stinky Tofu, Rice in Pigs Blood, and Cow's Stomach.

Kenny's birthday BBQ in Taiwan.

Unfortunately, in America we don't seem to have this sense of propriety when it comes to eating in other people's homes. Even as adults, we feel like we can simply explain that it's a food we don't like. With friends and family that is usually fine. But as a guest in the home of someone you have only recently met, it should not be OK.

When people open their homes and their kitchens to you, it's important to graciously accept whatever food they have prepared on your behalf. Although this may not be widely acknowledged in our culture, I still feel that a host or hostess will be much more impressed/favorably disposed to a guest who tries all the food that has been prepared. Every dish requires time, effort, and money on the part of the cook. To be told that something will go to waste simple because the guest doesn't like it is probably the quickest way to find yourself in your host's bad graces.

Hot pot in Shanghai.

Thanks to my time in both Taiwan and China, I have fallen in love with many foods that I hated as a child. I have a wise friend who pointed out that as a child there were many foods she didn't like but when she gave them a chance as an adult, she found that she really liked them. Our palates change both as we grow and as we encounter more of the world. If we stick to the limits we impose on ourselves as children, we close ourselves off from many of the great things the world has to offer. While food may only be one small aspect of our life experience, it's probably the way in which our lives are the most often and most immediately impacted. (The End)

In honor of off-putting foods, I'm pairing today's musings with a recipe for mussels. I thought this recipe would have more of a Chinese flavor to it, but although I was mildly disappointed on that score, I was, on the whole, thrilled with the end result. Delightful. Mussels are one of those foods I came to love while living in Asia, but if you haven't yet been converted, give this recipe a try one night (preferably with someone who already does love mussels so if you still find yourself unconvinced they won't go to waste).

Black Bean Mussels
Adapted from this recipe in Gourmet magazine

2 lb mussels, scrubbed and beards removed - I bought my mussels at Salt Lake's most respected fish market but as it turned out, they no longer sell fresh mussels. The fishmonger explained that they had too many problems with bad mussels when they were buying them fresh so now they sell a brand of pre-cooked, frozen mussels. I was a little skeptical, but they turned out great so you should be fine with either fresh or pre-cooked/frozen in this recipe.

1/4 c. diced red bell pepper
1/4 c. diced yellow pepper
1/4 c. finely chopped red onion
1/4 c. finely chopped scallions
1 T. minced garlic
1 T. minced fresh ginger (I used my Microplane for this, so it was grated, not minced)
1 T. Chinese fermented black beans, rinsed in cold water (available at Chinese grocers)
1 c. heavy cream
2 T. rice wine
1 1/2 t. soy sauce
1 1/2 t. oyster sauce
1/2 c. chicken broth
1/2 t. freshly ground black pepper

Combine all ingredients in a large, heavy pot and stir to combine. Bring to a boil, then tightly cover and cook over moderate heat until all the mussels open wide, about 3-6 minutes. Discard any mussels that remain closed after 6 minutes.

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

My Beverage of Choice

When I got my mission call to Taiwan, aside from being generally ignorant of what waited for me there and overwhelmingly confused by the fact that I was going to Asia and not France (as I not so secretly hoped), at least one element of life in Taiwan had me seriously excited: soy milk. Random, I know.

My first taste of soy milk at the MTC.

I don't remember now why soy milk had me so excited. It might have had something to do with the high calcium content in soy beans. At a relatively young age I watched my grandmother suffer the often excruciating pain of osteoporosis, so the importance of incorporating calcium into my diet made a lasting impression on me.

Or it might have had something to do with the fact that a number of my friends in high school were vegetarian, and for that reason I was excited about making soy milk part of my diet.

Regardless of the reason, I was determined to not just like, but LOVE, this beverage. That determination may have made me more open-minded than some of my fellow missionaries. Whereas most of the Americans I served with eventually came to like soy milk, I was a die-hard soy milk convert from day one.

The thing about soy milk in Taiwan is that every little breakfast place/stand makes it fresh daily, so it's a much different beverage from the stuff you buy here in the States. You go down to your favorite place for a 汉堡 (hamburger), 蛋饼 (dan bing), or 油条 (you tiao) and you grab a cup of fresh soy milk to go with it. In Taiwan its always sweetened and generally you have the choice of buying it hot or cold. Taiwanese breakfasts are one of my favorite food things on this planet and soy milk is a major reason for that.

However, despite my love of freshly-made soy milk, up until recently I had never tried to make it myself. As it turns out, that was silly because it's ridiculously easy. In the past month I have made it 3 times. When I told a couple of friends I was working on this for the blog they were shocked that you could make soy milk at home. You can, and in my humble opinion, should. Although the entire process takes about a day, the actual hands-on time required is minimal, and that minimal amount of effort is well-worth the end result.

豆浆 (Soy Milk)
- This really is an easy recipe (Look! Only 3 ingredients!). You may look at my lengthy instructions and get freaked out, but don't. I just wanted to be really clear about each of the steps, but it is a simple process.

2 c. dried soy beans - You can buy these at Asian grocers. I assume you can also buy them at places like Whole Foods.
7 c. water
Approximately 1/2 c. sugar, although you should sweeten it to your taste
Supplies: Cheesecloth

Soak soy beans in a large bowl of water for approximately 12 hours (or overnight). Discard any beans that immediately rise to the top. I like to put the soy beans in a big bowl in the morning and let them soak all day. Then before I go to bed I do the next step...

Drain/rinse soy beans. Add the rinsed beans to a blender and add the 7 cups of water. Puree until the beans are broken down into very small pieces. I do this in 2 batches. After each batch dump the blender contents into a large pot and cook over medium high heat for about 20-30 minutes. You'll want to keep a close eye on the pot and stir it often. The soy beans will settle on the bottom of the pot and can burn easily, which as I learned in Taiwan, yields a very unpleasant beverage. I'll be honest though, I don't keep a very close eye on my pot. I tend to stir it every 5 minutes or so, but I'm careful not to stir the contents on the bottom so that if they do burn, I don't infuse the whole pot with that flavor. So far that has worked just fine.

After you've cooked the soy milk mix you want to strain it through a couple layers of cheesecloth. I like to let the pot sit on the stove overnight so that the milk cools down. Then in the morning I line a colander with a little linen bag that a woman in Taiwan gave me. As most of you will not have one of those, just use a couple layers of cheesecloth. Put the colander over a pot and then pour the soy milk mixture into the colander. Once you have poured it all in, grab the ends of the cheesecloth and squeeze out as much of the milk as you can. Obviously, if you try to do this right after you have finished boiling the soy milk, its somewhat painful, which is why I let it sit for a little bit. Discard the soy solids and put the pot back on the stove. Add sugar to taste, and heat briefly over medium-high heat. You just want to get the sugar dissolved and the milk warmed up again because warm soy milk, especially in the morning, is one tasty treat. If you decide you're not a fan of hot soy milk, by all means, skip this step. Just add the sugar and you are good to go. The milk will keep for a couple of days in the fridge.

If you try this and find you like it, the recipe scales up very easily. You can't really go wrong with the amounts. Just add a good amount of water when you blend the beans because then you will have a larger batch. I usually figure 3 c. of water for 2 c. of soaked soy beans.