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Beijing, China — After a few winter holidays from Christmas, New Year’s and Chūnjié (Spring Festival, 春节), friends return from abroad and the calendars quickly fill. Time to reconnect and catchup over home-cooked meals. It’s part of my new year’s resolution to dine in more as it truly nurtures a sense of quality time, quality conversations, and thrift. Adeline (née Juling He 何菊玲) and her husband Zuofei invited Gregory and I for a dinner at their home, serving seven home-style dishes.
Often I see purple-flowering choy sum (紫菜苔, zǐ càitái) in the markets but never knew how to prepare the leafy green (or should I say purple/green). Adeline and Zuofei peel the purple skin, cut the stems into 2-inch pieces and stir-fry. According to Adeline the vegetable is best in early and mid-winter. As the weather warms, it is still available but the flavor is now slightly bitter. Gregory and I rather liked the bitter flavor, but Adeline says when in season the flavor isn’t even slightly bitter.
A delicious light-flavored soup that never aims to steal the limelight from other dishes; one bowl of páigǔ dōngguā tāng (排骨冬瓜汤, pork rib and winter melon soup) is never enough. Adeline’s recipe is easy to make and healthy with her addition of goji berries, another anti-oxidant like blueberries and acai, known to help slow aging. Here’s her recipe.
Páigǔ Dōngguā Tāng (排骨冬瓜汤, pork rib & winter melon soup)
- 500 grams pork rib, cut into 2-inch pieces
- ½ tablespoon cooking oil
- 1 1-inch piece ginger, smacked
- 1 1-inch piece large scallion, julienned
- 20 goji berries
- 500 grams winter melon, peeled then cut into pieces equal in size to the ribs
- ½ teaspoon ground white pepper
- ½ teaspoon black vinegar
- Rinse ribs of any bone bits. Place ribs in a large pot and add water, enough to cover the ribs by an inch. Bring the water to boil and remove any scum from the surface. After scum ceases to surface, remove the ribs and set aside.
- Heat oil in a wok. Add pork ribs and stir-fry for one minute then add ginger and scallion, continuing to stir-fry for another minute. Carefully add the stock to the wok and lower the flame. Simmer for 30 minutes.
- Add winter melon, goji berries, ginger, scallion, and ground white pepper. Continue to simmer for another 15 minutes then salt to taste. Add vinegar just before transferring to a serving bowl.
Adeline and I have met many people while traveling China learning home-style recipes. By way of the food blogging community on Sina, a Chinese portal, we met Zhou Ting (周婷). She invited us to a Beijing food blogging event then asked her father in Hunan to teach me how to make some of their family’s favorite dishes. Zhou Ting gave Adeline a slab of her family’s homemade làròu (腊肉, smoked then dried bacon) from which Adeline prepared làròu chǎo mùěr (腊肉炒木耳, smoked then dried bacon stir-fried with wood ear fungus).
This past December, Adeline and her husband took it upon themselves to make their first batch of là cháng (腊肠, Chinese homestyle sausage) using the methods she learned from her mother. Winter is the best time to make là cháng (腊肠, Chinese homestyle sausage) because cold temperatures keep the meat from spoiling and smelling bad. Là cháng is a favorite during Chūnjié (Spring Festival, 春节). The more that can be made in a winter, the more one can enjoy là cháng throughout the year. Adeline served us the last of her ‘harmonic cooperation‘.
We stuffed ourselves silly with the happy and proud couple’s food, followed by strawberries and sunflower seeds. Gregory and I each brought a bottle of Great Wall wine. We are trying to find the good wines of China and with so many wines produced by Great Wall, we are sure we will find some good ones.
While the word in the street maintains Chinese wine isn’t ready, I’d have to say the two bottles we brought were as good as any affordable New World wine. The Premium Cabernet was definitely the better one, but the non-premium was also fairly good for an everyday table red. I only wish I knew how to keep track of a Chinese wine I end up liking. Chinese wine labels don’t state the vintage year. Greg also brought a flask of Jameson which Adeline and Zuofei endured as they drink only occasionally.
While in the kitchen I noticed an antiquated metal box under the stove top. It had dials, a front door… could it be?! A Chinese oven! According to Adeline’s landlord, it still works but no one knows how to use it. Most Chinese households I have visited do not own nor have use for an oven. Everything is cooked over a flame in a chǎo guō (wok) or pot. I myself, had to buy a countertop oven and am challenged in my limited kitchen space for a surface to use it.
The night came to an end and Adeline sent Gregory home with two sausages for his wife. We enjoyed a wonderful dinner. As anyone well knows, a warm home-cooked meal satisfies like no other. Healthy, money-wise, and facilitating communion, eating at home is one of the better habits I hope to maintain.