oyceter: (i cook)
[personal profile] oyceter
I started learning how to cook around when I graduated from undergrad, for the obvious reasons, but I didn't really try it much until around 2005, when I was inspired by [personal profile] coffeeandink's forays into cooking to try myself. And then grad school hit, in which I would cook and wrap dumplings during the first month of each semester and gradually move toward take out, EZ Mac, and pizza as the semester wore on.

I enjoy cooking, but it may be one of those things I enjoy more when I have a lot of spare time; when I get a job again, we'll see how much I keep doing it! But so far, I feel like I've been learning how to cook all over again in the past few months. On the plus side, I think I've actually gotten to the point when I can kind of stare at the fridge and throw things together, which was my target way back when.

The really big difference, though, is that I've finally learned how to cook Chinese food.

I tried when I first started to cook, but I didn't trust most English cook books, and despite watching hours and hours of Good Eats, I had zero knowledge of the basics of Chinese cooking. As such, I could make around 3 dishes, and they all didn't taste very good. I eventually ended up mostly making vegetarian and Mediterranean inspired food when I took up cooking in 2005, largely due to the recipes my flist was posting.

For some reason, I thought I should just know how to cook Chinese food somehow, and not from recipes. I also have not the best relationship with my mother, which meant making her talk me through everything wasn't always feasible. (Sometimes I can deal, and sometimes it is just too much contact; also, as usual, please no advice or suggestions on dealing with my mom.) I got a few tidbits from conversations with my mom, but always in bits and pieces, and it was especially difficult translating ingredients from Chinese to English. Ranch 99 makes this less difficult, because the signs are often bilingual, but it's still a little frustrating. I mostly gave up after a while.

In 2008, before starting grad school, I spent the entire summer in Taiwan. My mom and her friends were going to cooking classes at that time, and I got to tag along. I never really put any of those recipes into practice, so I always thought I had forgotten most of it. My roommate in grad school was also from Taiwan, and she cooked a lot more (and a lot more Chinese food) than I did. I cooked some more Chinese food in grad school, going from 麻婆豆腐 and curry to 米粉, curry, and dumplings. A lot of dumplings.

My dumplings were terrible at first; my mother's reactions when she heard what I did was: "How much meat did you buy?" (4 lbs. ahahaha) "What do you mean, you put sesame oil in it?" and "Cornstarch what?!" I had made them before with my sister during Thanksgiving (dumplings are our school's Thanksgiving tradition), but mostly spinach and not so much meat. I then had a few dumplings parties with [personal profile] rilina, in which we cobbled together assorted online Chinese and Korean recipes, experimented with percentages of tofu and ground meat and totally vegetarian dumplings, and we eventually got pretty good at it. I watched my roommate make her vegetarian dumplings (so labor intensive!), then had a few more dumpling parties with Rilina and [personal profile] thistleingrey and [personal profile] troisroyaumes, in which we all found out the different ways we wrapped dumplings and the different things we put in. I don't even have a recipe now, but when I make them, I generally know what to put in and in what proportions. I can't even articulate what the proportions are, just what amount of green onions or ginger or garlic looks right with respect to the meat.

On a side note, I also discovered why my pork dumplings always used to be dry. I told my mom I had figured it out, and she asked me what I did. "I bought the fattier pork," I said.

"You can put in oil and water to..."

"Yeah, the fattier pork still tastes the best." (50/50 also works fine.)

Dumplings don't sound like much, but I think that process of trial and error, of cobbling together different recipes and spending time with friends wrapping and snarking over kdramas, all that made cooking something that was mine, not something I performed, which is always how I feel when I execute unfamiliar recipes. Non-Chinese food has the element of the unfamiliar; I know the techniques from Food Network and Cook's Illustrated, but I have very few childhood memories associated with them. (Except baking. But even then, we didn't bake much until high school, because no one had ovens until then.) But dumplings are something I've done ever since I can remember, from before moving to Taiwan. We didn't make them as often in Taiwan because it was so easy getting good, homemade dumplings there, but they were omnipresent. There was a period of time in high school when I refused to eat 水餃 because I got them in my lunch box so often. (Also, sometimes there were pieces of cartilage in the filling.) And then, after living in the US for a while, I had 水餃 again for the first time in a long time, and OMG. It was the Best Thing Ever. That said, I usually make 鍋貼 instead of the boiled ones, largely in case my dumpling wrapping doesn't hold up to the water bath.

I can't even tell you how many times I made terrible 米粉, from the time it was kind of pink and there was no soy sauce in Mariposa to the time I put in too many carrots and the entire thing was orange. Then my sister started sending me Chinese recipes, and a family friend who is much less Americanized than me moved here, and they cooked 家常 stuff, easy stuff, stuff like my mom used to make. And I started to as well in the past few months, using random recipes from my sister and friends, or from googling recipes in Chinese (I still don't much trust recipes in English, though this mistrust could be totally unfounded). When my sister stayed over for Christmas, we cooked for ourselves a fair amount of the time, and a lot of the cooking involved staring at the refrigerator and figuring out what we could do. (And we bought more meat than I have ever bought at a single point in my life, much of which is still in my freezer.) We did things like, "Mommy always says to do [blah]" or "Just cut the ginger into pieces and freeze them and take them out when you need," tips and tricks passed down through friends and relatives and personal experience instead of television or magazines.

Don't get me wrong, the tips and tricks section of Cook's Illustrated is my very favorite section. But it's nice to finally get some from people I actually know, to feel like part of a tradition.

Suddenly, in the past month, I was making Chinese food that wasn't dumplings. And it actually tasted pretty good. I have also learned more about cooking with meat, especially pork, although I still haven't tried stir frying it—my attempts at doing so out of undergrad were so disastrous I mostly stew. I was so surprised at making Chinese food that actually tasted good, that tasted right; I was so used to making it wrong and feeling less Chinese because of it. And even though I still like baking and making other kinds of food, there's something about making Chinese food that feels so homey and so right.

I don't actually eat Chinese food that much when I'm in the US, partly because it sucks eating Chinese food in a restaurant with just one person, partly because it makes me incredibly homesick, and partly because food in Taiwan is so cheap and so amazingly good that I'm usually disappointed with Chinese food here. And suddenly, in the past month or so, I've been eating more Chinese food than I ever have in the US, and although it still does make me a bit homesick, the comforting value is much higher. It's particularly satisfying being able to identify the nice smells from childhood as being cooking soy sauce, or 被爆香的蔥和薑. Is there a term for this in English? When you throw in the aromatics (ginger and scallion in this case) first to ... make it smell good/get the flavor out? Ditto with 把血水去掉... something about putting meat you're going to stew in water and boiling it first to get rid of the blood/fat/impurities in the meat.

But you see what I mean? I think mostly in English, although a week or so back in Taiwan brings back my Chinese fairly quickly. And I learned most of my Western food techniques from Food Network, again in English. But with things like this, I don't have the vocabulary or the phrases in English, because so much of it is from ahyis and my mom and Chinese friends, food names are from Chinese menus. And my spices and herbs are half in Chinese and half in English, because before 2008, I couldn't have even told you what spices are herbs are most commonly used in Chinese cooking. Scallion and ginger and garlic, of course, but I hadn't known much about 八角 or basil or cinnamon or nutmeg or 五香粉 or 陳皮 or what went into 滷味 (I do not actually know what this is in English. It is what you stew meat and eggs and ... everything in and has a bazillion spices and soy sauce?) and assorted . I'm still not at the point where I can figure out what spice tastes like what and goes with what, but I was never there in other cooking as well.

Some of me is sad that it took me this long to learn, but most of me is just happy that I am cooking Chinese food that tastes and smells right, that I am cooking something where I know exactly how I want it to taste because I've eaten it so often, even though I'm not quite sure how to get there. I won't say I've never had that experience while cooking, because I love food, and I love eating, and I have very particular ideas of what everything should taste like, but there's a variety of what meatloaf can taste like for me, whereas with some things in Chinese food, it tastes like home or not like home. During cooking class, my mom and some of the ahyis would say that the teacher's 餃子 or her 滷味吃起來很舒服, and though I understood it before, I really get it now.

The other great thing is that so far, cooking is something I can talk about with my mother that isn't too fraught (although nutrition and weight and etc. still comes in). I am now making her hand write a ton of things she makes and mail it to me, since she hates typing in Chinese. And it's so good to I think I am finally at the point where I can get a list of ingredients and generalized instructions and actually know what to do with it.

When I'm in the US, I don't think about how much I miss Chinese food, because it makes me want to go back to Taiwan too much, or because I end up in restaurants here that aren't bad, but aren't home. And now, it feels like something has broken open, and the house and kitchen finally smell right. It also puts my mom's cooking habits in perspective; she cooked a lot when we lived in the US, but stopped making a lot of things at home when we moved to Taiwan. There are some things that are so time consuming to make that when she finally got somewhere she could buy something just as good (or better) than she could make, she stopped making it. And now I'm back in the US, and even though the Chinese food now is probably exponentially better than it was when she and my dad were grad students, it's still not the same.

Would people be interested in my completely off-the-cuff, untested, and very generalized recipes?

Also, switching between languages to type is SO ANNOYING. Hopefully I will soon memorize the bopomofo keyboard on Windows (pinyin on Mac is so much easier for me).
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Date: 2011-01-12 02:12 am (UTC)
glass_icarus: (Default)
From: [personal profile] glass_icarus
(and now that I'm no longer sidetracking into every comment thread... *g*)

I HEART THIS POST SO MUCH!! And also omg I could talk dumplings- well, food in general, but dumplings specifically- forever, they are such a homey/family thing to me! :3 We use lean pork for dumplings, but we always mix it with ground shrimp and the requisite jiu cai/cabbage/soy sauce/sesame oil (hah!), so everything still comes out juicy and delicious.

ALSO have you ever made xian bing??? Because we make the wrappers for that at home and OMG SO SIMPLE I CANNOT EVEN BELIEVE IT. Literally 2 cups flour to 1 cup warm water, mix until combined, that's it. !!! (It's just that we cheat and use the electric mixer, ahaha.)

I have never been far enough from home to be significantly deprived of mom-cooking, but since there are sabbatical times coming up & my parents will be away, it will be interesting to see how I hold up in the kitchen, ahaha. (The problem is that when I cook, it's generally cooking for one, and that isn't much fun. :\)

Date: 2011-01-12 02:34 am (UTC)
glass_icarus: (avatar: aang momo grinny)
From: [personal profile] glass_icarus
String beans! I've never tried that. We just made a batch of vegetable dumplings though- carrots and mushrooms and agh, am forgetting the last thing, I just remember that my mom suggested it could be substituted with chopped spinach...? Chicken and corn, OM NOM NOM.

ALSO OMG MANTOU, so exciting! I have never tried making dough that's supposed to fluff! Perhaps that's an experiment best done while my mom is there to (hopefully) mitigate disaster though, hee.

Date: 2011-01-12 03:15 am (UTC)
vi: (Default)
From: [personal profile] vi
Mantou! I saw this recipe for it recently and I WONDER IF IT IS FLUFFY! I'll have to try it this week!

Date: 2011-01-12 03:24 am (UTC)
glass_icarus: (obama glee)
From: [personal profile] glass_icarus
HOMG ALL THOSE PICTURES LOOK SO GOOD *_____*

Also, deep-fried mantou! :O I have never tried that, but it looks so nom.

(no subject)

From: [personal profile] vi - Date: 2011-01-12 03:29 am (UTC) - Expand

Date: 2011-01-12 03:28 am (UTC)
vi: Pandan leaves in the background. Text says, "Flavoursome AND inedible" (pandan leaves)
From: [personal profile] vi
I love this post! I'd be really interested in off-the-cuff recipes that you post. ^^

I was so surprised at making Chinese food that actually tasted good, that tasted right; I was so used to making it wrong and feeling less Chinese because of it. And even though I still like baking and making other kinds of food, there's something about making Chinese food that feels so homey and so right.

This really resonated with me, particularly the bit about feeling less Chinese. People tend to ask me what I cook now that I've left home, and I feel like they're kinda disappointed that it's more non-Chinese food. Or going out to eat dim sum, and not knowing exactly what each dish is called (though being able to describe what it is) - it felt inadequate. Before I left home, I tried to make an effort to watch my mother cook or ask what went in this or that dish; it's helped some, as I'm very much a guesser with quantities. And ohhh, totally agree that making Chinese food feels homey and right. I cannot describe how the making of it reminds me of the meals I used to eat with my family, how it feels to cup my hands around a hot bowl of ban mian, or to smell sesame oil, or to remember what so-and-so said about how to do this step best. Um, thank you for bringing up all these memories! <3

Date: 2011-01-12 05:09 am (UTC)
arboretum: (Default)
From: [personal profile] arboretum
IN CONCLUSION THIS POST IS AMAZING AND MAKES ME SO EXCITED AND SO HUNGRYYYY

please post all your recipes forever and ever and ever *__*




also what kind of filling do you use for your vegetarian dumplings!

curious cos my dad is nearly-vegetarian by necessity (health reasons), and for the most part store-bought vegetarian dumplings don't taste very good to any of us. we make our own zhen jiao (spelling it wrong again i'm sure) with a mix of fen si, jiu cai, fried eggs, and raw egg to make it sticky, which is super un-vegan but more or less vegetarian -- it suits our purposes well, heh. i am always on the lookout for more vegetarian variations though :ooooooo

Date: 2011-01-12 05:44 am (UTC)
trinker: I own an almanac. (Default)
From: [personal profile] trinker
minced shiitake! minced water chestnuts for crunch. minced carrots. reaaaallly fine minced ginger. (Okay, this is a very Japanese dumpling at this point.)

Date: 2011-01-12 06:25 am (UTC)
arboretum: (Default)
From: [personal profile] arboretum
! that sounds tasty!

i may try that for myself next time, tho i probably won't be able to feed it to my dad as he refuses to eat -- among other things -- carrots and ginger. (sob. what is wrong with him. lol.)

Date: 2011-01-12 06:54 am (UTC)
trinker: I own an almanac. (Default)
From: [personal profile] trinker
Leave out the carrots and ginger, add bamboo shoots?

(What is wrong with your dad?! (Actually, my thought is, "poor dad". Amusingly, one of the few veggies my older kid (who is 3) will eat right now is carrots.)

Date: 2011-01-12 06:56 am (UTC)
arboretum: (Default)
From: [personal profile] arboretum
HEYYYY smart, i will try that!

also lololol i know, seriously, there are too many things he doesn't eat, it's horrifying, i don't know how he can stand being alive sometimes, it's like he's stubbornly refusing to eat 95% of the delicious food on the planet klsjdfg

also aww, that's cute, i loved carrots when i was a kid too. (still do!)

(no subject)

From: [personal profile] trinker - Date: 2011-01-12 07:37 am (UTC) - Expand

Date: 2011-01-12 07:01 am (UTC)
arboretum: (Default)
From: [personal profile] arboretum
dying uh
my dad also does not like cong/scallion

(strangely he loves jiucai. but hates leeks/suanmiao. so puzzling.)

awwwwww being allergic to soy must suck :(

but i also think being gluten intolerant must suck. i think noodles are my favorite food in the world. omg. so grateful i don't have food allergies. crossing my fingers lol.

(no subject)

From: [personal profile] arboretum - Date: 2011-01-12 07:10 am (UTC) - Expand

Date: 2011-01-12 07:40 am (UTC)
ext_12512: Hinoe from Natsume Yuujinchou, elegant and smirky (Yue lunar)
From: [identity profile] smillaraaq.livejournal.com
OM NOM NOM.

Date: 2011-01-12 06:26 am (UTC)
arboretum: (Default)
From: [personal profile] arboretum
those all sound good!!! mmmm WATER CHESTNUT. definitely, definitely will make a note of that to my mom, crunchy is good, water chestnut is delicious!

and yeah please do post if you come up with something good. in the meantime, this post is totally bookmarked forever lol

Date: 2011-01-12 09:59 am (UTC)
trinker: I own an almanac. (Default)
From: [personal profile] trinker
Oyceter - thank you *so* very much for hosting this amazing conversation in your journal. I have stayed up far too late tonight, squeeing like mad.

謝謝你!

Date: 2011-01-13 04:37 pm (UTC)
heresluck: (peas)
From: [personal profile] heresluck
OMG how did I miss this post before?

Mostly all I have to say is ♥ dumplings ♥ and also: RECIPES! ::makes grabby hands:: I make pretty good pot stickers and shao mai (no idea if that is a good transliteration?), and a few other things, but I'm sure none of them are particularly authentic, let alone comfortable. Of course, given how I grew up eating, I am occasionally amazed I eat anything more international than pizza. Heh.

When you throw in the aromatics (ginger and scallion in this case) first to ... make it smell good/get the flavor out?

I think there are several words for this, actually, depending on context. I've seen people mention "sweating," but to my mind that term is less about flavor and more about texture -- getting onions etc. to soften and release moisture -- and it's usually at a lower heat than what you're talking about. "Blooming" is probably closer, but it's typically used for dried spices rather than fleshy aromatics like ginger, garlic, scallions -- so, in some Indian food, for example, you would "bloom" spices (like say a combination of cumin, coriander, turmeric, etc.) in oil, which both deepens the fragrance and flavor of the spices and also infuses the oil with the spices so that everything else cooked in it will absorb more of the flavor.

Hmm. Now I want to go rummage around in my cookbooks to see what other terms I can find.

Date: 2011-01-13 08:04 pm (UTC)
heresluck: (cooking)
From: [personal profile] heresluck
Oh god, those tiny dried shrimp! I can't use them because I'm allergic to fish and shellfish, and my college boyfriend (who is the one who first got me started on Chinese cooking) was HORRIFIED at the thought of certain dishes without them. HORRIFIED. He would make them anyway, and eventually he even got a kick out of inventing new versions of things so that we could both eat them and he wouldn't miss the shrimp taste because he didn't expect it, but it took a while. When I spent the holidays with his family, they were like "No SEAFOOD? How does that even WORK?" These were people whose favorite appetizer was scallops wrapped in bacon.

Chicken and corn dumplings sound amazing -- but then I love chicken and corn together. Velvet corn soup, mmm. Not to mention the fried chicken and corn on the cob that we had EVERY YEAR for 4th of July, and the grilled chicken and corn we had whenever we visited my mom's cousins on the farm.

Food! Now *I* want to start posting recipes. I've been fooling around with Moroccan food lately, which is YUM, especially now that Cook's Illustrated has shown me how to make really good (as opposed to merely adequate) couscous...
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