Fesenjan, and Why I Started Kitchen Whimsies

IMG_2639When I started Kitchen Whimsies, I was living in a college dorm whose stained, old white stove with rickety, finicky burners sat atop an oven that was at least 20 degrees cooler than the supposed temperature. I had no idea how to cook, as evidenced by early attempts at shakshuka (which turned out more like overspiced soup with poached eggs) and fried tomatillos (mercifully no pictures survived).

In a dorm where (clean) counter space is often limited to nonexistent, one-bowl or one-pot recipes are lifesavers. There are, of course, the so-called “curries” made by mixing some curry powder with beans or lentils, or the one-bowl brownie mixes, but once in a while, a one-pot dish is actually outstanding.

Fesenjan, a Persian pomegranate walnut stew, requires no easily-perishable ingredients and can be made in one pot, and tastes like nothing I’ve ever eaten before. Though I’d made it at least four times while at college, I never posted it because it’s such a quick and easy recipe, I’d often make it in a rush for hungry friends. Though it’s a running joke that all the pictures on this blog are #iphoneonly, I still do put in a little time and effort (even if it doesn’t show :p). After teasing them with enticing aromas, I never had the heart to make my friends wait for me to take some admittedly subpar photos for the blog.

Since I now cook for smaller crowds (a.k.a. myself), I can finally take a half-decent photo of one of my favorite dishes. Fesenjan tastes delicious atop white rice, but I also realized that it has the consistency of pulled pork. Persian take on pulled pork sandwiches may have to appear in the future…

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Heritage

IMG_2621_2I have always identified myself as a Chinese-American: “Chinese” as a reference to the ethnicity of my ancestors, and “American” as a reference to the country of which I am proud to be a citizen. However, it is difficult to identify as “Chinese” nowadays.

My parents were born and raised in Hong Kong, but when they came to America for college, the differences between the Hong Kongese and Chinese seemed negligible in the face of the larger Western culture shocks. In Hong Kong and China, the divide remains. I once tutored a Chinese Hong Kong University student who bitterly told me that he wanted to improve his English because the native Hong Kong students at HKU spoke perfect English and mocked him and the other mainland Chinese for their lack of fluency, and by extension, their perceived provinciality. Though its population is ethnically the same as and shares cultural customs with China, Hong Kong Westernized politically, economically, and culturally under British sovereignty.

Now, Hong Kong is fighting for its rights to democratic elections. When sovereignty over Hong Kong transferred from the British to the Chinese government in 1997, China promised democratic elections. What China is now offering Hong Kong is not democracy – it is competitive authoritarianism. In competitive authoritarianism, political competition exists, but is unfair. China, in vetting the potential candidates to limit choices to pro-Chinese options, is manipulating the election and undermining the democratic nature of elections in Hong Kong.

China may no longer be truly Communist (as communism is technically an economic concept, not a governmental one, and China’s economy is increasingly market-driven), but its government still maintains authoritarian control over the mainland populace, enforcing censorship and cracking down harshly on dissent, as demonstrated by Tiananmen Square, and more recently, Uyghur unrest in Xinjiang. Now, the question is how the Chinese government will react to Hong Kong, and the implications for a populace accustomed to social rights.

It is also increasingly difficult to identify as “American” in light of events on Hong Kong. Early settlers strived to appear as a “city upon a hill,” a beacon of morality. JFK, Reagan, and other American leaders referenced the image to describe America as a symbol of freedom and democracy. The American government committed to encouraging and protecting democracy around the world, especially during the Cold War. However, the American government only weakly censured Russian aggression in Ukraine and has not taken any official stance on the protests in Hong Kong.

While I understand that the United States cannot unilaterally make decisions on the international stage, there is a difference between compromising with other nations on market access for pork and beef, and compromising the beliefs on which the United States was founded to maintain trade relations.

The Hong Kong protesters have been referred to as the politest protestors, regularly picking up trash and even sorting recycling, and forming channels for emergency vehicles to pass through. However, their civility does not belie a lack of conviction. What they ask for is legitimate. They ask for a promise to be kept. As the final symbol of British subjugation of the peoples of Asia, Hong Kong learned about but could never fully access the rights and freedoms of the West. They deserve better than continued oppression under authoritarian rule.

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Rise of the Alien Fruits

IMG_2570As four-legged creatures, we’re inclined to get a little grossed out by things with “too many” legs, or seeds, or eyes. Centipedes and millipedes and spiders are the creepy crawly stuff of nightmares. Many people can’t stomach kiwis, with their fuzzy exterior and billion-seeded exterior. And watermelons, in a semi-abuse of science, have been genetically altered to be seedless.

However, the last few years have bucked that trend. Heirloom tomatoes, or ugly tomatoes, as they’re affectionately called, appeared in gourmet stores, then in large supermarkets. They’re still sold for unholy prices, but that has done little to dampen increasing demand. And other strange fruits and vegetables have begun to appear on the Whole Foods shelves. I literally don’t even know who buys them, but clearly there’s somehow a large enough market for them.

As people strive to be healthier, they’re embracing chia seeds, and flax seeds, and almonds and pistachios, and the general diet of our dear squirrel friends. Trader Joe’s now sells cartons of just pomegranate seeds, and Whole Foods carries horned fruits, which are basically all seeds (and some extraterrestrial green goo). And everyone and their mother suddenly loves figs.

Though my fight-or-flight instinct remains strong when I see a fly or a centipede or a giant spider, I’ve come to appreciate foods with “too many” seeds. Like this horned fruit I got for free the other day, which seriously looks like alien food, but kind of grows on you after a while. And figs, which I absolutely hated as a kid, but now use for “healthy” desserts and “healthy” salads (that are really more like desserts masquerading as salads by the time I’m done with them…).

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Same Words, New Story

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Recently, I dusted off and reread Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell. I had first tackled it in 2003, when I was a snarky sixth grader who prided myself on being precocious when really, I was just pretentious. At that time, I was a notorious speed reader, competing against other similarly smart-aleck kids to devour as many Redwall books as possible within a month, or finish Lord of the Rings within three days. I loved to read… but maybe not for the totally right reasons.

As you can guess, I completely forgot what Strange and Norrell was even about a few months after I had “read” it.

What I do remember is that when I first attempted it, I allowed myself to be caught up in the action without ever wondering why Clarke had written the book. And since most other books I read in early middle school were populated by heroes and had predictably happy endings, I naively assumed that Clarke’s book, because it was a fantasy novel, must end in a similar fashion.

The second time around, the feeling of the ending was different from what I remembered. I distinctly recall I had believed that the book had an unfinished but hopeful quality and would be followed by a sequel. But this time, I had tears in my eyes.

There are the big moments in your life, when you fully realize that you are taking a step that can never be retracted. Then there are the quieter moments of realization, when it becomes clear that somewhere along the way, you have irrevocably changed. I looked back and saw that though I will perhaps always be too trusting, I have also become more prone to question voices of authority.

I don’t think my interpretation of Strange and Norrell the first time was wrong – at the time, I needed the fantastical, magical escape from mundane middle school life, so that was the aspect of the book that resonated with me the most. But this time around, I was stunned at all the imagery associated with ‘choice’: multiple scenes involving an infinite number of shadowy pathways, forest roads with enchantments of temptation, and the appearance of new fairy roads as magic returned to Britain, offering new possibilities in careers and lifestyle that had not existed before.

It’s 2014 and I am still just a little (or a lot) pretentious and I still do love to read. My tastes in books have changed – they all seem to involve the words “globalism” or “imperialism” or some other -ism – but I hope that in the next 10 years, as I reread half-forgotten old favorites, I will still maintain a mind open enough to glean some new insight each time.

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Franconia, NH

IMG_2502A few days before I left Boston, my friend and I decided to spend our Sunday doing intense things (and no, I’m not talking about intensely lazy Sunday brunch). I woke up quite early (read: 5am), excited for my first big hiking adventure in years, then waited an hour until it was an ‘acceptable’ time to text my friend. I still managed to wake her up…oops.

We headed out to Franconia Notch State Park, otherwise known as the home of the “Old Man of the Mountain”; that is, before he lost his nose to a rockslide. We started at about 10:30am and began our ascent. 

At first, the trail was gentle and cool, passing along a playfully babbling brook that cascaded down a number of beautiful waterfalls. However, as the trail separated from the water, it became progressively more insane, until we were scrambling up rocks and basically everything touching our bodies was soaked in sweat. We dragged our soft city slicker bodies onward, swearing we would not stop until we reached the top. Then at some point, we passed above tree line and found ourselves on a sun-swept, boulder-studded mountain peak. Everything was suddenly open and bright, calming yet awe-inspiring, and of course, breathtakingly beautiful.

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The Ridge, Franconia Notch State Park, NH

There is something kind of magical about hiking and really just being outdoors – there’s the constant thrum that almost sounds like the hum of a refrigerator but yet is charged with life. There’s the hard heartbeats from the climb and the exhilaration (and maybe the high that comes from a little oxygen deprivation) from being 4,000 feet high. We stood up there and we felt like we had actually accomplished something (and all before lunchtime!).

I have to confess, my antidepressant of choice is food. But there is something to be said for the heady rush of wind and a view so clear we felt as if we could see to the shore, a hundred miles away.

So as much as I love scones and biscuits and all other baked goods, I’m resolving to eat a little healthier (woohoo salad recipe!). It’s one thing to enjoy making and eating food, it’s another to use it as an escape. And sugar highs may feel similar to a rush of endorphins, but neither actually really equate to happiness. Here’s to being healthier – in all senses of the word.

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Shakshuka Revisited

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Back when I was still a wee little college junior, I started this blog to help me reconcile with some big changes in my life. I had just returned from a life-changing summer in China, recently become single, and was living in a pseudo-apartment for the first time. One of my goals for junior year was to become a decent cook – it didn’t start out pretty, but I’d like to think my cooking skills have improved, even if my food photography skills remain as questionable as ever.

I once totally screwed up Shakshuka in a classic example of a beginner cook overeager to use fancy machines for cooking. I blended three beautiful tomatoes into pulp, then threw in some eggplant, and served the watery mess to my friends. (Sorry guys!) Well this summer, I’ve had nothing but time, which has, among other things, allowed me to take the analog approach to cooking. (That and my blender, the only electronic equipment I brought with me, broke en route to Boston, kind of forcing my hand.)

It’s also allowed me to reflect on what lies ahead as my friends and I move away from Boston and to different corners of the world (…but mostly New York and D.C.). I fulfilled my goal of learning to cook, but for a while now, I’ve been a little lost, consumed in filling out assignments and checking off tasks (with an unhealthy dose of life drama on the side).

I can’t go back and fix all the mistakes (perceived or real) that I made in the past and dwell on all the lost relationships I had, but I can work on moving beyond them. Cooking has become therapeutic, a challenge with each new dish, but also comfort in repeating the familiar. And so I don’t gain like 100 pounds, long bike rides and not-so-long jogs are also calming in their own way, as I focus on the rhythm of my breaths and the constant motion of my legs and clear my head.

And so I’ve revisited Shakshuka, that dish I made as a cocky fledgling cook that reminded me that I still had so much to learn about cooking. (1. Always read through the recipe carefully. 2. Always read through the recipe carefully. 3. Don’t make changes to recipes when you have no idea what you’re doing.) And I think I finally got the hang of it! Now it remains to be seen if I can get the hang of life goals…

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Backlog Pt. 2

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When I posted this on Instagram, here’s some of the responses I got:

“Why did you post this?”

“Out of all the things you’ve made, of course you chose to Insta this one.”

“That looks gross.”

“Ew, is that Spam?”

I present to you the sweet yet salty, kind-of-disgusting-if-you-think-about-it-too-hard, absolutely delicious delicacy known as spam musubi. This creation, deceptively minimal in design, requires its own special musubi molder. As we all know, any dish that requires special equipment must be exotic and/or gourmet.

I’ve always found it kind of funny that spam musubi originates from Hawaii. When I think of Hawaii, I imagine the beautiful beaches, the volcanos, the plantations of sugar and pineapple, the abundance of sea life. Enter spam musubi, a bastardization of sushi using canned meat. It combines two non-native, and yet pervasive aspects of Hawaiian culture: the large Japanese population, and the presence of the U.S. Pacific Fleet.

The first Japanese to arrive in the late 1800s were survivors of a shipwreck, and subsequent Japanese arrived as laborers on sugar cane and pineapple plantations.  Then in 1940, the U.S. Pacific Fleet moved from San Diego, CA, to Pearl Harbor, where they had an unfortunate run-in with the daring and desperate Imperial Japanese Navy. Though the day continues to “live in infamy,” the U.S. fleet remains garrisoned in Pearl Harbor.

Spam was created in 1937 and fed troops and civilians in the US and in war-ravaged Europe. And despite the war and internment and all the general animosity between Japan and US, Spam then caught on with Asian cultures, becoming popular in China, Japan, and South Korea as a cheap accompaniment to rice. And somewhere along the way, some insane, brilliant person decided to take one of the fanciest forms of Japanese cuisine and combine it with a food created expressly for people with tight budgets.

And so this unassuming, budget-friendly, exotic yet familiar snack actually represents a kind of beautiful conclusion to a story of mistrust and mistreatment, of war and reconciliation, and as an understated yet well-loved representation the alliance of security and friendship that has somehow arisen between two former adversaries. And to top it all off, it’s pretty darn tasty.

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Tomato and Sausage Risotto

IMG_1555Lately, I’ve found myself having to think extensively about what my biggest weakness is. (Seriously though, job interviewers, don’t you want to hear about how great I am in a less roundabout way?) After running through procrastination and all those conventional flaws, I began to realize that giving my all on everything, something I’d always viewed as a positive, might actually be my biggest weakness.

The first risotto dish I ever made wasn’t that great (read: it was actually pretty terrible). I became obsessed with getting every grain of rice translucent and coated in oil, which is basically impossible. Some grains of rice toasted and we ended up eating what felt like risotto mixed with corn flakes, like some misguided contemporary take on the breakfast for dinner theme.

Part of the beauty of risotto is that with simple ingredients, patience, and not too much effort, you can create a rich and delicious dish. The details aren’t important – at the end, all the separate components have melded together, giving risotto its creamy texture and complex flavors.

I used to psych myself out by breaking down tasks into such little pieces to the point that I myself was on the verge of a breakdown. Part of me continues to cling on to the details because they just seem so important, but lately, I’ve been learning to not become entangled in every little nuance and instead keep moving forward, one risotto recipe at a time.

(P.S. This is my fourth risotto recipe! For more risotto recipes, check out asparagus risotto verde, chicken risotto with caramelized onions, and mushroom risotto.)

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Tomatillo Chicken Stew

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True life: I have the opposite of resting bitch face.

As my friends have noted over the years, I don’t really have an “angry” expression. My facial range runs from mildly displease to maniacally happy. Alas, my resting friendly face has led to many strange and uncomfortable encounters over the years.

Take today, for instance. I was buying some ingredients for dinner, when the cashier struck up a friendly conversation by asking if I was Chinese. I replied that I was, and he asked if I’d ever been to China. We then somehow got on the topic of Tiananmen Square, and in a rather contrived manner, he somehow made a pickup line out of Tiananmen:

Cashier: I’m so about the China life, but I’d totally get kicked out of China.

Me: Just don’t mess with the government and you’ll be fine.

Cashier: Oh I am so not about that life. (Seems to be his catchphrase.) I’d probably get thrown out for throwing a protest party in Tiananmen…speaking of parties, what’s your plans for this evening?

Me: Wait, what?

Seriously though, how can Tiananmen Square, site of one of the worst cases of government brutality against its own citizens, be used as a pickup line?

So I had to decline his invitation to hang out this evening. My excuse? “Oh sorry, I already have plans.” Plans to make a delicious tomatillo chicken stew, that is. This dish is infinitely more satisfying than conversing with a guy stricken with intense yellow fever. It’s comfort food, exactly what I needed after an exchange with yet another guy who saw me as no more than some tiny, smiley, Asian female.

Moral of the story: don’t use Tiananmen as a pickup line. And don’t say “ni hao” to me, flash the peace sign, and think I’ll find it endearing. It’s straight up offensive, and I’m definitely “not about that life.”

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Of Mice and Macarons

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Living in the countryside has its upsides. For instance, the air is less likely to suffocate you, and you’re less likely to be struck by a vehicle. Funny how when I stayed in Beijing, my first “country girl in the big city” experience, both of these events happened to me. I actually coughed up black phlegm, courtesy of the ever-present Beijing smog, and casually got hit by a motorcycle while stepping from the cab to the sidewalk.

In China, traffic laws are treated more like gentle suggestions, laughed off by motorists who proceed to drive as if pedestrians do not exist. In the meanwhile, us walkers must scurry across streets, ever vigilant of rogue motorcycles and even cars that venture onto the sidewalk.

But I digress. Though the countryside is a wonderful place, it also has its downsides, namely, animals and insects see your home as their home. Today, I accidentally boiled a stinkbug, intentionally cooked a centipede in the rice cooker, and spotted traces (read: poop) of a mouse in the basement. Just another normal day in the country.

Anyways, I needed a little treat after having heroically(?) defeated the centipede, so I decided to try my hand at macarons. I’ve heard horror stories about oozing dough and hollow shells so I approached the recipe with trepidation. (Literally though, I spent at least an hour yesterday reading through all tips on how to make macarons.) However, they actually came out surprisingly delicious and with decent texture! They had feet, they were crispy on the outside yet chewy on the inside, and the matcha buttercream was perfectly buttery with a little bitter kick.

Don’t mind me, I’m going to just keep patting myself on the back here. And keep dipping my finger in the left over matcha buttercream. Narcissism truly does not get any better – or more delicious – than this.

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