- Home-cooking 家常菜
- Recipes 食谱
- Travel 旅行
- Email List
Chengdu, Sichuan, China — Xiào Ayi is a mother whose skin glows with rosy cheeks. Her husband and boys are round, suggesting a healthy appetite and sound diet. My first impressions of the Luō (罗) family were in awe of the mother’s care towards feeding her family well and how these parents raised two sons well mannered and engaging. Any question I asked the sons was always answered with eye contact. I watched this family earnestly hoping to learn secrets to a happy and healthy family, I might apply to my future own.
One place to start is in the kitchen. Lesson one in rearing healthy family members: Cook tasty, organic homemade food the children and husband will enjoy eating.
Bào Chǎo Shānyào Dàn (爆炒山药蛋, Stir–fried Shānyào Dàn)
They taste like potatoes, they look like shrunken potatoes, they are potatoes! I’d never seen these roly-polies before. I imagine shoveling these true “tater tots” into a basket fryer and serving as a side.
Xiào Ayi takes the healthy route and par-boils then stir-fries the shānyào dàn with diced red bell pepper and green chili peppers for Bào Chǎo Shānyào Dàn (爆炒山药蛋, Stir–fried Shānyào Dàn).
Mǎyǐ Shàng Shù (蚂蚁上树, Ants Climbing the Tree)
Mǎyǐ Shàng Shù (蚂蚁上树, Ants Climbing the Tree), a popular dish in China, is sautéed vermicelli with minced meat. During the Yuan dynasty, a famous playwright Guān Hànqīng (关汉卿) wrote the tragedy Dòu É Yuān (窦娥冤, The Injustice to Dou E). This is the story of how the dish, Ants Climbing the Tree was born.
A man named Dòu Tiānzhāng (窦天章) needed to pay off debt before partaking in a civil service entrance examination. He sold his daughter Dòu É (窦娥) to his creditor, Cài Pópo (蔡婆婆), as a child wife for her son.
Dòu É was a good girl taking care of her mother in-law and husband. Unfortunately, her husband fell ill and died very soon after their marraige. Dòu É took it upon herself to support the family. The family was impoverished and Dòu É was compelled to buy food on credit. After buying meat on credit, she attempted another purchase when the vendor said to her, “You have owed me money twice. I can not sell anything to you on credit any more.” Dòu É begged the vendor until he reluctantly cut a very small chunk of pork. From the morsel of meat and a handful of stick noodles, she cooked up a dish.
She soaked the noodles until soft then minced the meat. In the the pan she stir fried the pork then added scallions and ginger. Next she added soy sauce and noodles. Lastly, she added shredded garlic shoots and ground black pepper.
Cài Pópo, aroused by the aroma, asked “What are you making? It smells delicious!” Dòu É answered, “It’s stir-fried stick noodle!”
Dòu É served the dish to her mother in-law. Cài Pópo found many little black spots in the dish. She asked, “Why are there many ants?” After Dòu É explained the appearance of the dish, Cài Pópo expressed gratitude for her kindness and care. At last, her mother in-law said, “Let’s give the dish a name — Ants Climbing the Tree!
Xiào Ayi’s kids love Mǎyǐ Shàng Shù and she enjoys making it for them. Xiào Ayi uses small cookie cutters to shape carrots into flowers. As I have learned from other families, Chinese dishes should possess appealing color, so her orange flowers with green bell pepper accent this epic family favorite.
Jīng Jiàng Ròu Sī (京酱肉丝, Shredded Pork in Beijing Sauce)
Xiào Ayi is from Zhejiang, but her husband is from northeast China. She learned many recipes from her mother in-law and among them was the popular Beijing dish, Jīng Jiàng Ròu Sī (京酱肉丝, Shredded Pork in Beijing Sauce). This famous dish also has a history.
In the 1930′s, a man named Chén Lǎohàn (陈老汉) lived in the hutongs 2 kilometers northeast of the Forbidden City. He made his living making tofu. His only son died in a mining accident and his daughter in-law eloped with another man. Left to him was his four year-old grandson Gǒuzi (狗子). Together, they lived a life of hardship in Beijing. Chén Lǎohàn was an excellent tofu maker and his tofu was reknown. It is said that even the roast duck restaurants in Wángfǔjǐng 王府井 asked him to deliver his tofu, daily.
However famous his tofu was, he still earned very little and could only afford to make a limited amount of tofu and tofu skin each day. His grandson loved roast duck. Chén Lǎohàn wished to appease his grandson’s craving so he invented a mock version of Beijing roast duck with sauce. Thinly slicing lean pork and stir frying it in the wok he added a sweet bean sauce. He cut some tofu skin into square pieces for a wrapper and served the pork with shredded scallion. Chén Lǎohàn managed to satiate his grandson’s love for roast duck.
Later Gǒuzi worked as an apprentice in the famed Quanjude restaurant and became a chef. Gǒuzi found that he could not eat the “roast duck” his grandfather once made. Chén Lǎohàn told him the truth and Gǒuzi realized his grandfather’s love. Gǒuzi improved the “roast duck” and the famous dish Shredded Pork in Beijing Sauce was reborn, chracterized by strong fragrant sauce and tender meat.
This dish not only embodies the grandfather’s suffering and hardship, but the grandson’s love, determination, and success.
Huāshēngjiàng Bōcài (花生酱菠菜, Spinach Bundles dipped in Peanut Sauce)
Huāshēngjiàng Bōcài (花生酱菠菜, Spinach Bundles dipped in Peanut Sauce) – Spinach blanched in bundles, wrung then cut to size, and dipped in toasted sesame seed while drizzled in a peanut-wasabi sauce. Simple. Healthy.
Dōng Xiàncài (冬苋菜, Winter Amaranth)
Xiào Ayi purées fresh Dōng Xiàncài (冬苋菜, Winter Amaranth) then simmers it with chicken bone stock. Just before serving she drops cream into the jade pool, concentrating while mesmerized by clouds forming in the velvety soup. Xiào Ayi also transforms the Winter Amaranth into soup form because her children are still getting used to eating vegetables. They won’t eat “vegetables,” but they’ll eat this beautiful soup. Smart mom!
It all looks good but does the family eat it? I feel like my fear stems from Jamie Oliver’s attempt to revolutionize American school lunches with students unable to enjoy good food when given new and healthier options. I believe good appetites start at home and Xiào Ayi does an impressive job ensuring her sons will take to new foods, easily; their upbringing promises living a future, well adjusted.