Category Archives: Chinese

Shredded Pork with Garlic Sauce


It’s been great having my mother here with me in Dallas — every morning when I wake up I am greeted with a warm “Good Morning Xin xin!” opposed to my usual routine of Collin tickling the bottoms of my feet and me grumpily falling out of bed.  Don’t get me wrong, the feet tickling hasn’t stopped., but now I wake up with a sense of excitement because I have my mother there for company.  I no longer clumsily search for my pot of coffee and skip breakfast because nothing sounds good because… okay before I go any further, please refrain all judgment of me being a spoiled child… my mom will be there with a cup of ginseng tea because “Too much coffee is no good Xin xin! Ginseng give you energy.”  After my tea routine my mother continues to check all aspects of my health — “OKAY lemme see your tongue! Oooooh tsk tsk tsk, today tongue is no good I will fix you medicine.  Hmm lemme check your heels!  OOoooh dry heel, sign of bad health, I go get you ointment I massage for you.” 

Wow.  A girl could honestly get use to this treatment.  After not living with my mother for almost 10 years, one forgets how well she had it, and trust me I am soaking up the glory right now…every single drop.  When she arrived we made a cooking schedule “Okay you make American Monday Wednesday Friday, I make Chinese Tuesday Thursday Saturday, Collin order pizza Sunday!” Except I haven’t cooked at all because my mother has taken over the kitchen with her wonderful glorious food, and frankly it’s been absolutely frikkin’ AWESOME.

And as I promised, I am going to share the wonderful food with you guys.   Results are best achieved by cooking with a wok on a propane fueled fire station — the temperatures are hotter and as a result gives the dishes a nice smokey flavor. 

Ingredients for Pork with Garlic Sauce:

  • 2 tablespoons peanut or vegetable oil
  • 2 tablespoons chopped garlic
  • 2 teaspoons minced ginger
  • 2 small dried chiles
  • 1 1/2 pounds boneless pork, preferably from the shoulder (Boston butt or picnic), cut into thin shreds and thoroughly dried
  • 2 teaspoon corn starch + 1 tablespoon water
  • 1/4 cup dried tree ears, soaked in hot tap water until softened, drained, patted dry, and torn by hand into 1-inch pieces
  • 1/4 cup carrots, finely shredded
  • 1/4 cup green bell pepper, finely shredded
  • 1/4 cup white onion, finely shredded
  • 1 bunch of scallions, trimmed and cut into 2-inch lengths, white and green parts separated

Sauce

  • 3 tablespoons soy sauce
  • 3 tablespoons distilled white vinegar
  • 3 tablespoons sugar
  • 2 tablespoons rice wine
  • 1 1/2 tablespoons hot chile paste
  • 1 tablespoon corn starch

Combine the pork, cornstarch, and 1 tablespoon of water in a medium bowl. Cover, and refrigerate for 30 minutes. Heat a large wok over high heat. Add enough vegetable oil to come about 1 inch up the sides of the wok, and heat it to 325° F. Add the pork and stir gently until it turns light brown, about 40 seconds. Using a wide wire-mesh strainer, transfer the pork to a colander to drain. Discard all but 4 tablespoons of oil from the wok.

To start the sauce, mix the vinegar, soy sauce, sugar, and rice wine in a small bowl and set it aside. Dissolve the cornstarch in 3 tablespoons cold water, and set it aside. Return the wok to high heat. Add the ginger, garlic, and scallions, and stir-fry until they are fragrant, about 15 seconds. Add onion, carrots, tree ears, and bell pepper and stir-fry until the bell pepper starts to soften, about 30 seconds. Transfer the vegetables to the colander. Add the vinegar mixture to the wok and stir for 10 seconds. Then add the hot chili paste and stir for 10 seconds more. Return the pork and vegetables to the wok, and stir-fry until the sauce comes to a boil and thickens, about 20 seconds. Add the hot chili oil, if using, and stir-fry for 10 seconds. Add the sesame oil and serve immediately.

Wow, it’s a tough life I live here in the Wells household…:)

I would also like to share a couple photography shoots I’ve done recently — one was an engagement shoot for my bestfriend and the other was of my adorable nephew. 

Part 4 of 5 — Wuxi SuZhou and Chenghuang Miao


The second part of the Wuxi trip we went to Turtle Head Peninsula on Tai Lake.  It is the most beautiful place of Tai Lake and the name comes from  the tip of the peninsula that is shaped like a turtle head!  Inside the park are ten famous scenic spots, which include Chongshan Garden, Jiangnan Orchid Garden, Taihu Fairy Islet, and Guangfu Temple.

We only had about an hour to venture through the park, so Collin and I practically sprinted through the different scenic spots.  Inside the park was filled with lush vegetation of vines, trees, and vibrant flowers, creating a serene and splendid view for the eyes.

The traditional Taoist culture has influenced this island in many ways of becoming a natural wonderland.  The Sanshan Taoist Temple built during the Taibo era (around 3,000 years ago) was actually the only Taoist temple built on an island in China.

Scattered all around the park were these uniquely shaped limestones, I especially liked the checker board carved into a large slab of stone, complete with 4 little stone chairs.  Legend has it that the emperor of the Song dynasty nearly bankrupted the country because of his obsession with finding these uniquely shaped limestone rocks.  What unusual formations they were indeed!

I saw this alluring women adorned in traditional Chinese silk robe playing the Gu Qin – which is a seven stringed zither with no bridge, I call it an old-fashioned Chinese piano.  The notes are strummed by the hand, creating different effects by the skillful techniques of well trained fingers. Confucius was actually a master in this instrument, and said it had powers of enriching the heart and elevating the human spirit.

There were so many different types of flowers, the colors and fragrance permeated throughout the entire park.  I couldn’t help but snap numerous pictures of their magnificent beauty, I find flowers fascinating.  To think that all of their traits were developed soley for evolutionary effects — with their sweet scents, rich colors, various formations — they not only attract humans but so many different types of animals and insects too!

A friend once jokingly said — “Joy you take pictures of food and FLOWERS.  You’re just like my mom, always snapping random pictures of flowers and trees and plants and stuffs.”  Gosh, I honestly have NO idea what she’s talking about! 🙂  It comes down to the basics for me though, the simplicities of life.  The beautiful and pure things that people often overlook throughout the day but never realize their enchanting effects.

9 times out of 10, if I see a beautiful flower I will stop to appreciate it — whether it’s to observe it’s exquisite flawless beauty or it’s intoxicating smells, it never ceases to amaze me what the world is able to create.  Are you diggin the babushka I am sportin on the left?  Also note the lack of enthusiasm on my face, that’s because sprinting through a freaking GIGANTIC park and then getting LOST in between made Zhang very tired.

Our last stop of the day: Su Zhou.  By this time, it was around 7:00 PM, we were all very tired but a wedding dress had to be made people!  Most well known for their silk industry, Su Zhou is also heavily populated with wedding factories (score!).  As we were taking the city bus to the area, Jiu Ma just so happen to sit next to a young man whose family designed wedding gowns. WELL THANK GOODNESS FOR THAT because upon our arrival, there were THOUSANDS of wedding dress boutiques I honestly don’t know where I would’ve started.  It was absolutely overwhelming.

But wait.  The story gets better. The minute I walked into the young man’s boutique I spotted a dress that was almost IDENTICAL to what I wanted.  I couldn’t believe my eyes, I literally thought I would be stuck in SuZhou for hours searching through hundreds of thousands of gowns until I found the perfect one.  Thankfully all the praying I did in the temples brought me good fortune :).  I picked out my dress, made a few modification, took some measurements and BAM I was out in less than an hour.  Oh did I also mention that my custom made gown was a whopping $85?  Verrry niiice!

After dress shopping we had to grab some grub.  We went to the main market center in SuZhou where there were numerous eateries, clothing stores and gift shops.  The streets were full of hip youngsters dressed in colorful and ecclectic fashions, I was surprised as to how up to date the youth seemed to be here.  I also saw this donut shop, probably the weirdest donut shop I’ve ever seen.  I usually go for the usual glazed and maybe on a good day I’ll go for a chocolate glazed with sprinkles.  They had crazy flavors like “Italian-style Bacon” (what the heck does Italian bacon taste like??), “Spicy Fluffy” (wow yeah I dont know about that..) and Burberry (Uhm..so would that donut cost like $400?).  I did not buy one, I just couldn’t — all these flavors were just too much for me to handle. (Shipley’s will always be #1 in my heart.)

The next night, Jiu Ma (#1!) suggested that we check out one of the most famous market areas in Shanghai — Chenghuang Miao otherwise known as The City God Temple, an area of temples that are reminiscent of old Shanghai.  Back then, every Chinese city had a designated Temple of the Town God which served as a shrine for Daoist worship.  The temple in Shanghai was named “Cheng Huang Miao” which was devoted to the god of commerce.

However, the temple was destroyed during the Cultural Revolution but thankfully restored during the early 90s.  It now has been transformed into one of the largest marketplaces in Shanghai filled with gift shops, restaurants, bulk food shops, basically anything you can think of!

I loved the lighting of the shrines at night — the structures looked incredibly magestic.  It is hard to imagine that long ago these were the buildings people prayed in!  The antique Chinese architectural designs really brought you into another dimension of time, especially with the elegantly curved roofs crowning the shrines.

Nestled inside the shrines were individual vendors selling a variety of goods.  This woman sold hundreds of different types of Buddhist bracelets and name stamps carved from stone.  Back then when people wrote letters, instead of signing their signature they would have a name stamp containing the character of their last name.

This man sold Jian Zhi or Chinese Papercutting, an art practiced since the beginning of the Han dynasty in China when paper was first invented.  Back then people who used paper as a means for decoration were considered to be nobels and royalty.  Now they are used commonly in every household for decorative use, many families enjoy placing papercuttings by the front door to bring good fortune.  One must have much patience and a steady hand to master the art form of Jian Zhi!

This man sold miniature figurines and jewelery made from copper that he made with only a scarce set of tools and his hands.  If you look at the bottom left hand corner of the photo on the left, you will notice the miniature little figurines (you can barely see them) but I have blown them up in the picture on the right.  The detailing is pretty incredible, the figurine literally fit on the tip of my index finger.  He told me it took him about 6 hours to mold each of the miniature figurines, I think it’d take me a solid 6 weeks haha 🙂

Now.  Onto the important stuff…THE FOOD.  Oh man, the food possibilities are ENDLESS here.  Many people come to Chenghuang Miao for the infamous Xiao Long Bao — there is a small restaurant here (I do not know the exact address) that serves only Xiao Long Bao.  Don’t worry, you won’t have any trouble finding it once you are here — just look for the long lines that pour out of their doors (the wait could be as long as an hour sometimes!).

We actually went to the main food court for their wide range of options.  They serve hundreds of different types of traditional Shanghainese dishes — think lots of seafood, dim sum, soups, and steamed dumplings.  The woman in the photo above is serving “Tang Yuan”, tiny glutinous rice balls served in a steaming hot broth sweetened by Jiu Nian or fermented rice.  Some tang yuans are filled with traditional fillings like black sesame, red bean, etc.  The weird picture on the top right is Lotus Root stuffed with Glutinous Rice — for those of you who have never had Lotus Root it’s delicious.  It’s the root of the beautiful Lotus flower — with a very slimy but crunchy texture and slightly sweet nature, it is often stuffed with glutinous rice soaked in soy sauce and steamed to a wondrous perfection.

There were so many different types of crab — I honestly had no idea what kind they were.  The common crab we have here in Texas would be the blue crab and other than that I don’t see much else.  Here they had square shaped crabs, trapezoidal (is that a word?)  shaped crabs, tiny round looking crabs — I mean there were a lot of freaking crabs dude!

But don’t panic non seafood eaters, there’s plenty more to choose from.  They also had a variety of fried foods — fried chicken wings, tempura vegetables, fried fish cakes, fried rice cakes as well as various types of chow mein, soup noodles, cold noodles, hot noodles… I think even the pickiest of all picky eaters would be able to find something here.

They also had a HUGE selection of dimsum, some things I recognized other things I hadn’t a clue.  They had Xiao Long Baos, Glutinous Rice wrapped in Bamboo Leaves, various types of Puddings, Steamed Cakes and Desserts, different kinds of steamed dumplings, it was seriously the most intense dim sum spread I’ve ever seen.  Mind boggling.

Unfortunately, the dishes we picked actually weren’t that great.  The weather was really cold that day, and they don’t really use heaters here so all of our food was cold by the time we brought it back to our table 😦 Better luck next time as one would say!

With full tummys and empty pockets, we headed home to enjoy a homecooked meal from Jiu-jiu.  The livin is good in Shanghai!  🙂  My last installment will be more family photos, more food of course and any other random blurbs (they are pretty random…) If you have any questions about the places I’ve been or good places to eat in Shanghai, feel free to contact me!

Glorious Eats around Houston,TX


I had a wonderful weekend in Houston last week visiting with my parents.  Collin and I stayed at my dad’s house which was a nice change of scene because we usually stay at my moms.  My stepmom is currently in Phillidelphia where she is working on her surgical residency, she is quite the amazing woman to say the least, but I could tell my dad missed her terribly.  So it felt nice to keep him company and to just have quality time with pops, it had been awhile since we’ve done so.

He made me his specialty, “tang yuan” which is a glutinous rice ball filled with a sweet center, usually with black sesame paste (which he did in this case) and then made some ramen noodles sauteed with spinach and red chili paste. I definitely had dessert first :)!  Though my mom was the main cook of the family back then, my dad has always been adventurous in the kitchen. Granted not all of his attempts were successful, he always approached each venture with much gumption, which I admire because fear should never be an emotion when cooking.

My stepdad was also in town from Guangdong, where he is currently the assistant dean at Shantou University Medical College.  The last time I saw him was back in October,  so it was nice to spend time with him as well.  It is also a hoot to watch my mother and stepdad interact with each other — they both have to speak (broken) English to each other because my mother speaks Mandarin and my stepdad speaks Cantonese.  Despite the language barrier, their love for each other is undeniable –they both light up when they are around each other and especially my mother, bubbling over with happiness.

She’s a pretty lil lady ain’t she? 🙂  William was gracious enough to invite all of us and my cousin Yin-yin and James to Dong Thang (located on 6968 Wilcrest Dr Ste A, Houston, TX. Tel: 281-776-0068.) for a belated new year’s celebration!

We each got to pick a dish, I chose the Eggplant Chicken Salted Fish Hot Pot — which was absolutely delicious, but I’ll get to that later, let’s start at the beginning shall we?  We started the meal with a delicious fish and crabmeat egg drop soup.  I loved the consistency of the smooth silky texture, and the way the delicate meats of the fish and crabmeat swim together in harmony with whisps of egg.

We also ordered Stirfry Beef and Chinese Broccoli, Fried Salt and Pepper Squid, and Sauteed Fish Head.  The beef was extremely tender and the broccoli was nice and crunchy, I really hate overcooked veggies.  The squid was good and the fish head, I thought it tasted “fishy”.  Okay bad adjective to describe a fish dish…let’s just say it wasn’t my favorite dish in the world, a little too traditional for me O_O (But mama loved it).

Before I go on, I’d like my readers to please note the boss lady aka mom in the collage above.  Whenever we order at restaurants, my mother gets down to business.  She will whip out the good ole reading glasses and immediately begins to study the menu.  As a result, I have become the same way.  When it comes to ordering food, I will scan the menu at least 2 times, then go back to my top 3 favorites and then it’s a slow process of elimination from there.

Now for the uber glorious dishes: Fried Lobster with Ginger and Scallion, my Eggplant Chicken Salted Fish Hot Pot, and Breaded Scallop in Garlic Sauce.    The lobster was succulent just like last time.  I love that they bread it in cornstarch so once they stirfry it with the ginger and scallion the sauce becomes nice and gooey.  The lobsters itself were smaller than last time, but maybe other than that the dish was superb.  My eggplant hot pot was quite delicious too, though Salted Fish is a very acquired taste I absolutely love it for its intense umami qualities.  The scallops were cooked nicely but I thought the flavors of the dish were forgettable, the lobster dish outshines it by far!

All in all, dinner was delicious and absolutely wonderful.  I always enjoy having family styled dinners together, a quality in my culture that I have always loved and appreciated.  Not only do you get to eat tons and tons of different types of dishes, but it’s nice to have a sit down meal with family where you can take your time to converse and catch up, drink tea and enjoy each other’s company together.

We talked about William’s time in Shantou and we discussed our plans for me and Collin’s upcoming trip to Shanghai as well as future wedding plans (In Puerto Vallarta) for 2011!!  I’ve also been slowly teaching Collin some basic Chinese like “How much?” or “Hello.  Thank you.  Please.” and in case any ladies try to hit on him while I’m not around “You smell bad, go away” and “No thank you, goodbye”  See, even if Collin got lost I have full confidence he could find his way home with all the (useful) Chinese lessons I’ve been teaching him :).

Btw, if you haven’t noticed by now, this is probably the longest post I’ve ever done.  Which is probably why it took me 4 days to write/edit it.  But I had so much to share!! I just couldn’t help myself so thank you for hanging in there.  On Sunday morning I had lunch with my best friend Courtney, whom I’ve been friends with since middle school!  Though we do not see each other as often as we like (She a slave to law school, I a slave to…eating?), everytime we get together it always seems like we pick up right where we left off.  She recommended a cute place called “Dry Creek” located in the Heights of Houston (544 Yale St. Hou. Tx 77007 Tel: 713-426-2313) at the cross street of Yale and 6th.

I really loved the set up of this place, which is housed in a refurbished 1930’s gas station (how cool is that???).  For those of you who have heard of Onion Creek Cafe, Dry Creek is actually the sister cafe to that restaurant.  Upon walking in, you instantly felt at home with the laid back setting of metal tables and wooden chairs, a nice mom and pop place if you will.

We decided to sit outside though it was cloudy, it felt really nice outside, plus I couldn’t pass up the cute picnic tables (and lighting).  Started the meal off with a hot cup of joe, which they serve in various kinds of mugs that you would probably find…you guessed it, at home.  Like I said, the character of this place was too cute for words.  I meticulously studied all the items (which I already looked over once at home) and finally decided on the epitome of Southern comfort — Crab Cakes with Cheesy Grits.  MMMMM HMMM that’s right, can I get a hallelujah!!

MMmm just thinking about the flaky morsels of crab meat enveloped in a crispy cornmeal crust is making me drool uncontrollably all over my keyboard, okay not literally but if I could produce that much mucus it’d definitely happen.  The crab cakes come with two eggs any style (I picked over easy, but it was a bit hard), english muffin, and last but not least…cheesy grits.  O-M-G, after eating this meal I’ve decided that crab cakes and cheesy grits should always belong together like pork and beans or carrot and peas, both not as good as crab cakes and grits but you get the idea!

Collin ordered Bagel and Lox which was quite deeerricious as well, I like the addition of the capers and the consistency of the bagel was just right.  Not the best bagel and lox I’ve had but definitely not too shabby either.

It was nice to catch up with Courtney and Dave (her boyfriend) and we laughed over stories of Collin’s first trip overseas to bad neighbor stories to Dave’s secret love for “curling” in the Winter Olympics.  At times I laughed (and talked) too loud and realized everyone outside (and probably inside too…) could hear my boisterous voice, maybe Collin is right, maybe I am making myself deaf.  But I couldn’t help it! It’s hard to contain my excitement when I am hanging out with the people I love :).

So I saved the best part for last.  I would like to invite you guys to witness the magic of my mother’s cooking.  A private insider’s look of the woman who inspired it all — Mrs. Jingyu Zou.  I am glad she doesn’t know how to use the internet because frankly she would kill me for posting pictures of her that has not been granted the “Mama Zou seal of approval”.  But I had to share this with you guys because she is the reason for why I have my deep rooted passion for food.

The most important element in my mother’s magic is the “Almighty Wok”.  She has always told me — “Xin xin ah, you make Chinese food you MUST have wok! Taste better and you cook outside so less messy at home.”  And it’s true, the wok really is the most important element in Chinese cuisine — the intense roaring fire heats up the oil at a much higher temperature than you can ever reach with a regular household burner.  In order to achieve that nice smokey flavor along with perfectly cooked ingredients, the temperature of the oil is essential.

The second element in my mother’s magic: fresh ingredients.  She shops with much precision whenever she goes to the stores, picking only the freshest and quality ingredients — pictured above are fresh water chestnuts, baby pea shoots, lily flower, black fungus, and bean curd.  For those of you who are not familiar with these ingredients you are probably reading on with horror…black fungus??? lily flower??? One sounds deadly and the other, a bouquet.

I assure you that all of these ingredients are delicious.  Black fungus, though tasteless has an unique slippery and rubbery texture that adds an unexpected twist in any dish.  The lily flower has a natural sweetness and the texture is reminiscent of spinach but more resilient, without any floral taste to it at all.

Is your mouth watering yet?  Stay with me… The last element in my mother’s magic is the seasoning.  I am not sure how to explain this one, maybe this part is her “secret”.  Her flavors for her dishes are always on point, never too salty never too sweet — perfect to the tee.  She always tells me “As you cook, you must taste! Always taste!”  I definitely had no problem being her personal taster for the first 18 years of my life but she is right.  Always taste, and then adjust to what you think would be the most appealing flavor to whoever you are serving.

Stir fry cabbage with bean curd, lily flower egg and black fungus — a wonderful vegetarian dish that would satisfy any palette/tummy.  She also made “spoiled Collin” one of his favorite dishes — Pork with Garlic Sauce.   She always makes sure Collin is taken care of whenever he comes down to visit “Xin xin ah, ask Caahleen what he want to eat! I cook for him.” Sometimes she almost takes better care of him than me…:(!  He loves it though, soaking up any reigning moment he can get because let’s face it, I am always the champion :).

This is actually one of my favorite dishes too — this spicy and slightly sweet and tart dish is phenomenal.  My mother opted for fresh waterchest nuts (trust me they are 1000 times better than the canned), garlic, red chile paste, red chiles, black fungus and pork.  I love the smell of the garlic and chiles sauteeing in the hot oil, it instantly awakens your senses.  Once it’s done cooking she likes to garnish it with a little bit of cilantro, green onion can be used here as well.

GLOOOOOOORIOUS!!!!!  I think now you guys can understand why I may be slightly “snotty” when it comes to Chinese food — Pei Wei just really doesn’t do it for me.  Imagine eating like this ALL THE TIME when you were a kid, I mean it was ridiculous.  When I left for college, it was quite the rude awakening.  No more mama’s magical food, just scary looking dorm food, nasty fast food and greasy gross everything else (I gained 30 lbs in college).  Sad Panda 😦

My mother always made sure I was well fed.  Even when she was swamped at work, trying to manage her hair salon, working 12 hour shifts almost every night, she always made sure I had dinner on the table waiting for me.  I would come home and find not one dish, or even two dishes but always three — which is why for the longest time I thought she was magic.

Now I come to realize her magic was really just her love and dedication as a mother.  Granted I still do not understand how she found the time to do what she did, she always made sure it was done.  No matter how busy, every day I would come home literally with food on the table — wrapped up perfectly, sometimes labeled and always delicious.

Also, with the dishes she made me, there were never repeats — unbelievable, I know.  This is the reason why I always say “Food is Love” because it was always my mother’s way of saying, “Hey I love you, and I am thinking about you all the time.” amidst her busy hectic schedule.  I rarely ever saw her, I would always leave for school before she got up in the morning and she wouldn’t come home til after 9:00pm.

She never ceased to amaze me to what lengths she’d go to make sure I was well taken care of.  I consider myself to be very fortunate and as a result I now cook for the same reason.  I cook because I love, I cook because it is my way of saying — hey I am thinking about you and hopefully this food will bring you comfort.  This way of thinking always ensures that I will cook to the best of my ability, because there is nothing else more important than taking care of the ones I love.

Wow guys, now that’s a lot of love.  Maybe I got a little mushy there so I am taking a Layla break.  Layla tagged along with us to Houston and before I move on I’d like to rewind to a story.  During the initial meeting of my mother and Layla, the first thing she immediately said was “Why you pick black dog? You cannot even see her face, so scary like ghost!” But ghosts are white mom… “Oooooh nooo, I do not like this dog, she look mean!”

Little did she know, Layla is probably one of the coolest dogs I know and after the 3rd or 4th time of my mom meeting her, she fell in love.  Now when she sees Layla she gets excited and in a very LOUD (and happy) voice she will greet her: “LAAAAAYLAAAH LAYLAH LAYLAH!! HI HI HI *cooing high pitched noises*”  Not only that, my mother will jump around with Layla outside and then say “Oh…Layla she very strong! I jump and she jump and push me, I almost fall back!” Mom, I don’t think that’s a good idea to do that.  “OH SHE IS GOOD GIRL! SO FUNNY…dui bu dui Layla? LAaaaayla!”

She then will proceed to feed Layla some “treats” and as she is feeding Layla she will pet her whispering softly “Layla guai, Layla good girl” Guai meaning obedient or good.  And whenever I say “Layla loves her grandma!!” my mother immediately will say “WHO IS WHO’S GRANDMA?! HOW COME YOU CALL MOMMY GRANDMA I DONT THINK SO!” Hahaha ooooh mommy, you really are the best.

I will be returning to Houston this weekend, unfortunately one of my dear friends’ father has passed away.  I would like to write a tribute to him upon my return for he was a great man, a loving man and truly a man with a heart of gold.  The world will be a sadder place without him but the footprints that he has left behind as a result of his beautiful heart and soul will last forever.  Immortality is best achieved through the good deeds and positive effects that you make on others.

See you guys when I get back and thank you for sticking through this post for this long, you guys are great :)!

The Perfect Winter Meal: Hot Pot – “Huo Guo”


Hot Pot or “Huo Guo” in Chinese, is probably one of my favorite things to do during the winter.  Everyone huddles around a pot of simmering broth during a chilly winter night, surrounded by various types of raw seafood, meats and vegetables that you quickly cook in the broth and then dip it in a sauce of your choice.   It’s “asian fondue” if you will and not only is it interactive and fun, but it is a very healthy alternative to your usual “cheese or chocolate fondue”.

I had a few friends over who have never experienced hot pot before and we all had such a blast.  The beauty of this meal is the communal efforts needed to make this meal perfect — using ladels to discover the “treasures” that are hidden beneath the broth — “Who wants an oyster mushroom? broccoli? tofu?”  and just having a family style dinner in general makes dinner a more intimate and close knit setting.

Most Chinese and Asian meals are family style, which I love because you get to taste everything!  American traditions are more individualized, everyone gets their own plate.  I really struggled with this concept because I’d find myself wanting to try everything my friends would order but don’t get me wrong it definitely hasn’t stopped me from picking off people’s plates 🙂  I am sure it drives people crazy which is why I usually ask in my sweetest and most convincing tone as possible — “Do you mind if I try your dish?” It works 98% of the time (Girls, don’t forget to bat your eyelashes)!

There are various types of broths that are used for hot pot, I chose a traditional herbal chicken broth and a hot and spicy fish broth.  You can also make them vegetarian: miso broth or shiitake/mushroom broth.  When the broth in the hot pot runs low, simply add more!

Ingredients for Herbal Chicken Broth:

  • 2 chicken thighs
  • 2 ginger slices
  • 2 ginseng slices
  • 6 dried shiitake mushrooms
  • 1 onion, coarsely chopped
  • 1/2 cup dried dates

Place all ingredients in a large deep bottomed pot and cover to the top with water and cook at medium low heat for 1-2 hours.

Ingredients for Spicy Fish Broth:

  • 1 lb fish scraps or 2 8oz fish fillets (salmon, mahi, etc)
  • 1 tablespoon chile powder
  • 1 tablespoon black bean chili paste
  • 1 clove garlic, minced
  • 2 tomatoes, sliced
  • 2 thai chiles, minced
  • 1 tablespoon dashi soup powder
  • 1 tablespoon scallions, chopped

Mix fish scraps, chile powder and dashi in a large deep bottomed pot and cover to the top with water and simmer at medium low heat for 1-2 hours.  Upon serving, saute the garlic with the chile paste and chiles in a small saucepan and immediately place into the broth.  Add the sliced tomatoes and scallions.

While your broths are simmering away on the stove, go ahead and begin prepping your ingredients.  If you are vegetarian, do an all vegetarian hotpot!  I chose to do a pretty extensive spread since everyone was new to the concept.  Here is the breakdown of the ingredients that I bought:

Meats & Seafood:

  • Rib Eye
  • Chicken
  • Salmon
  • Squid
  • Spicy Fish Balls
  • Squid Balls
  • Oysters

Vegetables:

  • Bok Choy
  • Napa Cabbage
  • Yu Choy
  • Taro
  • Korean Sweet Potato
  • Baby Corn
  • Broccoli
  • White Button Mushrooms
  • Oyster Mushrooms
  • Enoki Mushrooms
  • Fresh Bamboo
  • Spinach
  • Tofu
  • Fried Tofu

Pastas:

  • Dried Egg Noodle
  • Cellophane Noodle/ Beanthread Noodle

Some Tips for Hot Pot:

  1. In order for hot pot to happen, you have to have a portable burner that will keep your broth at a gentle simmer.  If you have a stove top that’s situated in the island of your kitchen, that will work as well too.
  2. To thinly slice your meat, freeze them first and then slice the meat when it’s still almost frozen — this will ensure that you get thin even slices.  You can also buy precut meats at your local Asian grocery store.
  3. You can buy these miniature ladels at Asian markets that will make fishing out the food you place in the broth easier, however chopsticks will suffice as well.
  4. In my family, we usually cook the meats first than the vegetables and then end with noodles — the broth at the end is my favorite part.
  5. Be sure not to dump too many items into the broth all at once, this will lower the temperature and increase the cooking time for the items placed inside the pot!
  6. Be careful to not burn your mouth, once you pull out your food, set it aside on your plate and allow it to cool off a bit before dipping it in your sauce and eating it — especially with items that hold a lot of liquid like mushrooms, fried bean curd, and broccoli.
  7. Any items that are leftover from hot pot can easily be used for stirfrys, soups, or…MORE HOT POT!

For the sauces — I made a base of peanut sauce (1/2 peanut butter, 1/2 water), if you prefer a thicker sauce simply just add more peanut butter.  Then to the base you can add a variety of different sauces like — Sriracha, Chili Powder, Chinese BBQ Sauce, Black Bean Sauce, Oyster Sauce, Hoisin Sauce, etc.  Each person makes their sauce to their own personal taste and that will be used to dip all the items in!

This is certainly a meal that can go as large as 8-10 people to as small as 2-4, either way everyone has fun and no one is left hungry!  What’s not to love?  Good variety of food? Check.  Fun and Interactive meal?  Check.  Healthy AND delicious?  Double Check.  Good conversation and company?  Always.

Speaking of which — Thank you to all that joined us for this meal: Sonya, Lucas, Eric and Cyrus, I am so happy all of you came and Collin and I had such a great time with all of you.  And Sonya also bought this LOVELY Korean Sweetpotato Layer Cake — not only was it the CUTEST cake I’ve ever seen but it was freaking delicious.  The minute Sonya and Lucas left, Collin, Eric and I polished the entire cake off — I couldn’t eat like a pig infront of guests now could I?  : ) Anyways, thanks a ton Sonya for bringing that cake, it truly was sensational and very dangerous in the regard that I could completely see myself killing an entire cake to myself.

Anyways, I hope some of you give this a shot, it truly is so easy to put together — you leave the cooking up to your friends and all you have to do is prep the ingredients, it can’t get any better than that!  And since the meal isn’t overly heavy, having a  slice of cake (or in my case 3 slices) afterwards is the perfect way to end the meal 🙂

Shanghainese Baby Back Ribs


My mother sent me back with this gigantic rack of baby back ribs — see why I like going back home so much? Haha 🙂 I decided to be inventive and created a unique bbq sauce made from “Jiu Nian” or Fermented Rice.  It turned out  to be FINGER-LICKIN good delicious! I did a dry rub first and then simply “braised” them in the oven, then finishing cooking by generously covering the ribs in my yummy bbq sauce and baking at a high heat so the sauce can caramelize.   I think good ribs are succulent, messy and fall off the bone tender, which is exactly what this recipe entails.  Forget forks and knives kiddos, these ribs are best when you dig in with your hands and lick off all the saucy goodness afterwards!

Ingredients for Shanghainese Baby Back Ribs:

Dry Rub

  • 2 tablespoons Ginger Powder
  • 2 tablespoons Chinese 5 Spice Powder
  • 2 tablespoons Ground Cloves
  • 2 tablespoons Crushed Red Pepper
  • 2 tablespoons Kosher Salt
  • 1/4 cup Brown Sugar

Braise

  • 4 gloves of garlic, smashed
  • 1 cup Shao Hsing rice cooking wine
  • 1 tablespoon honey
  • 2 tablespoon rice wine vinegar
  • 1/2 cup Jiu Nian or fermented rice

Rinse off the rack of ribs under cold water and pat dry.  Combine the ingredients for the dry rub in a medium bowl and mix well.  Generously place the mixture all over the meatier side of the ribs, so this ensures maximum flavors are soaked in.  Allow rack to marinate for at least an hour in the fridge, or overnight.

Preheat oven to 250F.

In a medium bowl, mix all the ingredients for the braising mixture.  If the rack of ribs are too big to fit in your roasting pan, simply just cut them in half like I have.  Take two large sheets of aluminum foil and create packets for the racks of ribs to fit in.  You can do this by laying the rack of ribs on one half of the foil sheet and folding the other half over, then seal the sides closed so no braising liquid leaks out during baking, be sure to leave an opening for the braising liquid.  Pour the liquid into the packets and seal them tightly — it is very important no liquid leaks out when baking in the oven — the braising process makes the ribs nice and tender.   Place the packets in a roasting pan and bake for 2 1/2 hours or until meat is tender.

Once the ribs are done braising, carefully take the packets and empty the braising liquid into a medium heavy bottomed sauce pan.  Return the ribs to the roasting pan and cover with foil and set aside.  Meanwhile, heat the braising liquid at medium high heat and reduce the mixture until it is syrupy in consistency.  This will be your bbq sauce, taste and make any changes to your preference accordingly.  (Add more salt? more heat? more sugar?)  Change the oven temperature to broil and uncover the ribs and return to oven, generously brush the ribs with the bbq sauce.  Repeat process 3-4 times, in 5 minute intervals, until the ribs are entirely covered in the sauce.  The “broil” function in the oven should further caramelize the sugars and even add a “crispy” texture to the ribs.

Remove the ribs from the oven, give it one last generous brush with the bbq sauce and sprinkle toasted sesame seeds on top.  You can eat it alone or serve it with some steamed white rice.  I also added some grilled pineapples as a “side” and it went together beautifully.   Does anyone else think that food tastes better when you eat it with your hands?  Because I sure do 🙂 Licking off the sweet and spicy sauce that covered my fingers (and probably a good portion of my face) made these ribs all the better.  I invited my good friend Eric to share this meal with us and all three of us were happily stuffed, without a rib to spare.  Granted, Collin was a little unhappy about not having any leftovers, I took it as a sign of success! My honey definitely has a strong affinity towards ribs, I am not sure how it developed but it is intense to say the least.  He has woken up from a deep slumber before because he heard me asking friends  ” Would anyone like any leftover ribs?”, immediately he appeared in the room and in a deep thunderous voice exclaimed “WHY ARE YOU GIVING AWAY MY RIBS????” — I definitely made sure not to make that mistake again…

I would also like to dedicate this post to the stranger who performed a random act of kindness for me and my friend today.  She unfortunately had a flat tire, and GRANTED we did get a KILLER deal on some used tires — collectively we had NO idea as to how to change a flat (I got a splinter lodged into my thumb just by picking up the stupid tire).  I honestly hope my dad never reads this post, because he’s taught me several times just in case it ever comes in handy…like today.  I guess cars to women is like women to men — it is just something we will never come to understand, or try to.  BUT, thankfully a nice Hispanic guy who was driving by stopped and offered to give us a hand.  It was probably due to the fact that both my friend and I looked completely helpless and confused, but that is besides the point.  I am just thankful to know that people are nice enough to stop and lend a helping hand, his kind gesture really made my day.  I guess it inspired me to be more helpful throughout my day, a simple act of kindness always goes a long way and many times I find it to be contagious 🙂   So thank you stranger, for your kindness and consideration — without your help we’d probably still be stuck out there figuring out how to unscrew this bolt thingy using the tire handle thingy.

I hope you guys enjoy this one, I was really impressed by the bbq sauce.  The fermented rice really brought out a different type of sweetness, and it had a nice lingering bite from the crushed red chiles in the dry rub.  Til next time, stay warm, eat lots and be merry!