In the Shadow of the Great Wall

IMG_2829I once spent a long weekend hiking the Great Wall. Rather than traveling the most touristy part, we followed a “tour guide” who helped us to, shall we say, circumvent the Chinese authorities guarding the less maintained parts of the Wall. After a full day of scrambling up crumbling staircases and stepping gingerly on narrow pathways, we descended wearily from the Wall into a village.

This village was made up of fields upon fields of corn with one-story houses scattered on the surrounding hillsides. The roads were all dirt and loose gravel, and at night, it was so dark and quiet that if you stared at the sky long enough, you could almost see the stars move and feel the earth turn. We drank warm beers because the weekly shipment of water hadn’t made it to the village yet and when the power went out after a sudden thunderstorm, we played Murderer in the Dark until finally, everyone fell asleep.

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A misty morning at the foot of the Great Wall

I awoke to the quintessential crowing of roosters and stepped out into a grey, cool morning. Our hosts were awake and already busy preparing the day’s meals, but everyone else was still asleep. I wandered down the road, passing a graveyard of discarded couches, several loud and territorial chickens, and some angry (but thankfully chained) dogs. As I walked on alongside the fields of gently swaying corn, I came upon a young girl and an old man walking silently side by side.

IMG_2546This sight isn’t so uncommon, especially in the Chinese countryside. Rural villages have depopulated over the decades as young people leave for modernity and opportunities in the cities. After passing through the minority communities of Tibet (西藏) and Inner Mongolia (内蒙古) and talking with the people there, I learned the fear of these people that their culture and even language will be lost as the old die and the young leave forever.

As the mist cleared, I walked back through the corn, past the still-ruffled chickens, and back to the house where everyone had since woken up. Our hosts placed a large pot of noodle soup on the table, made with fresh-picked tomatoes, hand-drawn noodles, and probably freshly killed meat.

As it gets colder, I have found myself thinking back to that soup they made for us after a cold night (cold for summer at least) spent without electricity or running water. I remember their small dogs, their dented tables emblazoned with the “Coca Cola” logo. I remember how warm, how delicious, that meal was after a long walk on a damp morning. But I cannot remember the faces of our hosts.

I always thought that it was the language barrier that prevented me from learning more about Chinese culture, but even after spending months in China learning how to speak the language, I learned very little about the people themselves. Now I wonder about the story behind that pile of couches, about our hosts’ small garden carved painstakingly into the hillside. 

We barely spoke to them except to say our thanks. We packed our bags. We hiked back up to the Wall. And so we became just another bunch of foreigners (老外) who had passed through their village, our tourist money merely prolonging the end.

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Cornmeal-Lime Cookies

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I have a bit of a bad habit: whenever I look at the operating hours of a place, I end up planning to get there five minutes before they close. Then I run late (of course) and blindly hope that they’ll stay open a few minutes later so I can sneak in.

Back when I was in Boston, I used to love-hate going to Flour Bakery on Mass Ave. I loved going – if they were open. But half the time, I’d get there fifteen minutes after they closed and stare in longingly as employees packed away the pastries. When I finally got my hands on the Flour Bakery cookbook, I reveled in the fact that I would never have to be punctual again. All of my favorite Boston bakery recipes could available in large quantities (…within six hours).

Well it turns out lack of punctuality runs in the family. The other day, my parents drafted me to make desserts for a brunch with family friends. The brunch started at 10am…we got there at noon. Whoops. Despite the fact everyone had already eaten their fill and then some, these cookies were still a huge hit. They’re a tangy, sweet reminder of the good times I had in Boston, and best of all, they’re super easy to make :)

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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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Scone Experimentation

IMG_2657Over the past week, the number of dreary, grey days has increased as the number of leaves on trees has decreased. Though I love apple cider doughnuts, loose and comfy chunky sweaters, snuggling into my winter comforter, and all other cozy autumn activities, it is always sad to feel the warmth of summer fade.

But autumn brings its own vibrancy, with leaves like flames and multicolored fruits and vegetables ripe for harvest. I had always associated pomegranate seeds with summer because of their “tropical” fuchsia hue and the exoticness of a fruit whose seeds shone like edible jewels embedded in bitter white pith. However, after I discovered they were in fact a fall fruit, pomegranates became a favorite fall time treat (though of course, apple cider doughnuts will now and forever be the best part of fall).

After a week of drab, depressing days drained of color, I needed something delicious, sweet, and visually striking, even borderline garish. Enter my favorite breakfast pastry, the scone, combined with my favorite exotic flavors, green tea and pomegranate seeds. Matcha imparts an earthy, slightly bitter taste, while the pomegranate seeds provide small sparks of juicy sweetness. Paired with a mug of hot tea, these scones are rays of light on rainy fall days.

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Chocolate Chip Cookies

IMG_2615Though much has changed since I attended lower school – babies adept at navigating iPads, kids playing video games instead of board games, and an increasing concern with eating healthy – one thing remains the same. School cafeterias still serve terrible food.

I have choked down my share of cardboard-crusted pizza, tortilla soup made using yesterday’s leftover tacos, and slimy and grey cold cut sandwiches. However, there was one thing my school got right: the chocolate chip cookies.

From a young age, I learned to love cookies, if only because they were the only food option at school that didn’t activate my gag reflex. Every day, I would take one or two bites of my meal, then relish my two chocolate chip cookies. I switched schools after middle school into a totally different environment – an all-girls high school – but the food quality remained the same, if not worse, and the only thing worth eating was, you guessed it, the chocolate chip cookies.

People often embark on somewhat quixotic pursuits of the “best” vanilla cupcake or the “best” yellow cake or the “best” chocolate chip cookies. I’m of the opinion that it’s all rather subjective, and for me, the best chocolate chip cookies will always be those soft, under-baked cookies served at my lower school cafeteria. They did not have sea salt sprinkled on top or fancy chocolate disks, but they were moist (hopefully with butter and not shortening or lard or some weird chemicals), sweet…and they were the only game in town.

But some childhood memories are better left unsullied by attempts to recreate them. And so, I turned to the New York Times best chocolate chip cookie recipe to see if I couldn’t achieve something a little more sophisticated. With two types of flour, neither of which are all-purpose, chocolate disks instead of chocolate chips, and refrigeration time of 24-36 hours, these are quite the project.

Whether they represent something more “adult” or is simply an overly involved variation on something that should really be quite simple, I’ll leave for others to decide. They came out quite good, with a chewy, slightly cakey texture at the center, and a crunchier edge. They don’t quite measure up to the chocolate chip cookies enshrined in the memories of my youth, but then again, I suspect that no recipe, even the original recipe used by my school, ever will.

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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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Two Years

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It must be serendipity: last year, I posted a tomato tart recipe to celebrate the one-year anniversary of my blog, and this year, without even planning to do so, I have another tomato tart recipe!

…Or maybe September is tomato season, and I’m deeply unoriginal.

Well, it’s a certainly at least a little comforting that despite the difficulties of the past year, there are parts of me that remain unchanged. I still love tomatoes, I still adore pastries and butter and learning to cook, and I am still writing about it all.

It’s been two years of discovering that my love for food extends beyond desserts and sweets, and that I may not be as useless in the kitchen as I first thought. Two years of learning family recipes from my dad, exploring new cuisines, gaining confidence with each success, and learning from failures.

Well this is a horribly cliché post, but honestly, I (and everyone else I know) never thought Kitchen Whimsies would make it past its first year. In ancient times, if a baby lived past two years old, parents could begin to believe that their child might actually make it to adulthood, or at least adolescence. I don’t know how to measure the lifespan of a blog – in dog years? In blog years? – but hey, what matters is that somehow, we’re still alive.

I think this year’s tomato tart turned out a little better than last year’s, and I certainly had fun trying out a totally new and totally easy way to make tart crust. Enjoy :)

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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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Noodly

IMG_2560My family is split into two camps – the rice people, and the noodle people.

…in other words, everyone in my family adores noodles, except for me.

At Vietnamese restaurants, my sister, mother, and father would huddle over steaming bowls of pho while I ate lemongrass pork on broken rice. At Chinese restaurants, while everyone else had dandan mien or zhajiang mien, I opted for shaoya chashao fan. And while instant ramen was a staple food item in my household, I rarely deigned to touch it before high school.

The only cuisine where we met on common ground was Italian. (Though I am a huge risotto fanold habits die hard.)

As much as I have learned to love chow mien and lo mien and all the other miens, pasta holds a special place in my heart as one of the first western dishes I remember my parents making, and one of the first dishes that my dad “taught” me to make. (Basically, I stood there with a wooden spoon and stirred and felt important while my dad measured out and added all the ingredients.)

I’ve learned a lot in the way of cooking since those early years standing on a stool in front of the stove. And since I’ve known how to make rice for as long as I could remember, I figured it was time to tackle pasta.

So dear noodle camp, here’s my olive branch. Easy, freshly-made pasta that even the rice girl in me can wholeheartedly appreciate.

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Gnocchi

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My relationship with food has always involved a mildly unhealthy dose of obsession.

For example, from first grade to fourth grade, I had to eat three spoonfuls of tuna fish salad every day for lunch. I absolutely hated tuna fish salad by the end of lower school, and yet I continued to force myself to do it out of perverse reverence for the routine. (Seriously, why are kids so weird?) I could not eat tuna fish salad – or egg salad and chicken salad for that matter – for another four years afterward without feeling ill, and even the smell of mayonnaise-based salads repulsed me. To this day, I still have an aversion to plain mayonnaise.

Thankfully, I grew out of that strange childhood habit and grew to love egg salad and chicken salad (and tolerate tuna salad) again.

The obsession with one dish has continued in less disgusting forms – whenever I try a new Thai restaurant, I must order their pad thai, for a new Indian restaurant, it’s malai kofta. And for a new Italian restaurant, my first dish that I must try is gnocchi.

I tell myself that it’s because I want to have a common point by which I can compare different restaurants against each other. But let’s be honest, I can’t really remember every pad thai or gnocchi that I’ve ever had. And really, what self-respecting Thai restaurant doesn’t make a decent pad thai?

The day may come when I can’t stand to look at another plate of gnocchi or malai kofta (I can already sense that the end is near for pad thai), but for now, I content myself with knowing at least I’m not obsessed with pickles or Wonderbread or something carcinogenic.

This gnocchi recipe is an oldie but a goodie. I posted about it before, but what can I say, I’m still a sucker for good gnocchi.

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