Sit at the dinner table #12 Thanksgiving Dinner (感恩节晚餐)- Be Thankful, Be Grateful

One day, close to Thanksgiving, my daughter asked me, “Mom, have you ever cooked a turkey?” I quickly answered her, “No, never.”

In the past, every Thanksgiving and Christmas, it was either our dear friends Linda T or Linda W who made the turkey, and we just went to their home to enjoy good food and friendship. Last year, we followed our tradition and had our Thanksgiving dinner at Linda T’s home.

More than 20 years ago, three young families settled in this small southern town: Linda T’s family from Canada, Linda W’s family from Buffalo, New York, and mine from China. Our husbands work at the same place in the same research group. I don’t remember how we started but we have been carrying on with our tradition of celebrating holidays for over 20 years now: both Lindas do Thanksgiving, Christmas and later, we added Easter; I do Chinese New Year.

We started with 2 kids from the three families, and eventually, they grew into 7 eventually. Now, we are back to having 2 kids at home, 5 others either in colleges or at work. When some of the kids could not make it back to the dinner table from far away, we shared our moments of celebrations through Skype and other means – all around our dinner table.

Besides our three families, we have had people from all around the world sitting at our dinner tables. Dishes were not limited to turkey and gravy, mashed potatoes, and broccoli casserole: we had Indian food, baklava, Romania food, German food, Korean food and of course, Chinese food – everyone’s favorite dumplings and noodles, were also on the table. Our husbands would invite anyone who didn’t have a family waiting for them on holiday nights to our home and join us around our dinner tables. One holiday, there were 5 or 7 extra guests from a university working on the scheduled beam-line, far away from their families. That Thanksgiving Linda W had 36 people at her home and she cooked a 26-pound bird! Amazingly, our scientist husbands managed to arrange three tables into a T shape, across two rooms. It was a formal sit-down dinner with a pretty tablecloth and Linda W’s fine china sets. All the kids were asked to sit on a futon sofa surrounded by adults. We meant to limit their movements so they could sit there while using good table manners, but we quickly realized that the little ones had bested us on that: they were crawling out from under the table as freely as they wished.

When the kids started going to colleges, sometimes they had their Thanksgiving dinners somewhere else. They would report back to us that those traditional dinners were not as traditional as ours: there were no dumplings and noodles!

We were all proud when one of the kids cooked his very own first turkey and invited friends from different backgrounds to his dinner table.

Tradition has been passed on.

In this new land, we are thankful that we have the opportunity to pursue our dreams. We are especially grateful that we are surrounded by love and friendship – in a place far away from where we grew up!

After so many years of being at each other’s dinner tables, we have become a real family – gathered together from many parts of the world.

We are thankful!

Sit at the dinner table #11 Moon Cake (月饼) During the Mid-Autumn Festival to Remember My Dad

 

 

To me, home is more about the dinner table than about anything else.

I have traveled halfway around the globe before settling down in a small town in the United States, where life is so different from where I grew up. Food, especially, is more exotic to me when I first moved to the U.S. than now. Over time, I have learned to cook in different styles: Eastern, Western, but mostly Chinese. These home-made meals bring back lots of memories – all mixed-up with my life here – just like a giant stir-fry dish.

Come and sit next to me at my dinner table, and enjoy a home-made meal and maybe a story or two.

September 24th this year is a traditional holiday in China, called Mid-Autumn Festival (中秋节) which has been celebrated for more than 2,000 years.

To celebrate, you’ve got to have a mooncake which symbolizes the whole family coming together to enjoy the brightest autumn moon. If someone from the family can’t make it back, a piece of mooncake will be evenly cut and saved for him or her.

I have learned to make mooncake recently, a special kind. Instead of flour dough, the outside of the cake is made of mung bean paste. The fillings are traditional red bean paste or a salty duck egg-yolk mixture.

This kind of mooncake used to be one of my dad’s favorite desserts in the fall season. Chinese don’t eat lots of sweets regularly, but a special occasion or holiday always comes with a special dessert.

My dad had passed away almost 4 years ago; he never had the chance to taste the mooncake I make. I think I chose to learn about making this cake to say how much I have missed my dad.

Dad, this whole piece is for you, I won’t cut it.

Sit at the dinner table #10 Green Beans and the Noodle Stew (扁豆焖面) – Noodles Are for Longevity

Traditionally, the Chinese celebrate birthdays with noodle dish, not cake. The long noodle symbolizes longevity.

Talking about noodles, oh boy, there are so many varieties of them and so many flavors that it is hard for me to know where to start.

Ok, let’s start with the thickness of the noodles. In one picture, you can see the noodles are as thin as hair; in another photo, you will see the noodles are as thick or wide as the belts.

The hair-thin noodles are from my grandma’s hometown in Fujian province (a southern place), all handmade. They are so thin that angel hair seems like a tree trunk compared to it (ok, I admit that I have exaggerated a bit). You cook this noodles in boiling water for only a few seconds.

I got a chance to visit the factory that produces this very special noodles. I was beyond belief to see those primitive, simple wooden or bamboo tools that were used to make these noodles! And we were told only a few very experienced and skilled workers can do the job and only certain days of the year they can be made successfully. The temperature and the humidity are crucial to the noodle making process and due to these the workers can’t make it year around which surprised me too. In nowadays technology, it is not difficult to measure the average temperature and humidity when it is a good time and then, set up a room with controlled temperature and humidity. Voila! You can make this high in demand noodles nonstop and year around.

This makes me think that preserve the traditions and progress to improve are a fine line to walk on. People are either refuse to change resulting in being unproductive, less competitive or too eager to change that we lose some skills and traditions that have passed down to us from generations before. Either way is sad and a loss.

Back to the very thick or wide noodles, the Chinese character for it has 56 pen strokes, most of the Chinese including me don’t know how to write it, see the photo. This kind of noodle you can only have them in the region of Shanxi (陕西), a northern region, its capital is the famous tourist destination – XiAn (西安) , where the stunning underground terra cotta soldiers buried thousands of years ago for China’s first emperor Qin Shi Huang (https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Qin_Shi_Huang) were found. We visited there last year and my son really liked this noodle dish.

The noodle I made here to celebrate someone’s birthday, is a typical northern dish, originated from Inner Mongolia and Shanxi province. You stir fry pork belly and green beans first and then add the dry noodles on top, add chicken broth to almost cover the beans. Cover your pan, turn the heat to low and let it simmer for 10-15 minutes, make sure you stir up the beans and noodles so the noodles fully soaked in the fat, broth and bean juice.

Serve it hot and wish someone a happy birthday!

Sit at the dinner table #9 Make a Perfectly Shaped Scallion Pancake (葱油饼) to Marry Me Off

Most of the dishes in China are regional. Like bread to the westerners here, rice is only for Chinese in the southern regions. For people living in the northern regions, steamed buns, noodles, different varieties of pancakes (饼)made of flour are the main stocks on the dinner table.

The scallion pancake is the one that both my kids love. They would order it every time a restaurant serves it when we were back in China visiting. They begged me to learn. So, here I am, learning how to make the scallion pancake.

After a few practices, I am getting better and better. The scallion pancake I made started to have many layers, crispy on the outside and soft inside. “Yummy”, my kids cried out.

But, only taste wise. Shape-wise, my pancakes are not perfectly round shaped, I can’t marry myself off, according to grandma Liu’s standards!

Grandma Liu was not my real grandma. She was a live-in housekeeper my dad hired to help my mom out. In Chinese culture, you call the elderly grandma or grandpa to show your respect.

Only in the past 30 years or so, many young girls from country villages have rushed to the big cities to seek the domestic helper’s job. When I was little, this job was mostly taken by elder women only. Some of them have a sad life story behind them, grandma Liu was one of them.

Grandma Liu was abandoned by her biological parents but was very lucky to be adopted by a very nice couple. Her dad pampered her with love and home-made toys. I would think grandma Liu had a happy childhood even though she had a rough start. Her luck ended soon after she got married. Not long after she had her son, her husband passed away. Grandma Liu was widowed in her late twenties. She never got married again.

Grandma Liu raised her son all by herself. As an illiterate woman, this was not an easy task. When she came to work for my family, her son was in his thirties.

We all loved grandma Liu dearly. She had earned our respects by being smart, happy and working hard. In those days, some basic foods such as oil, meat, egg, sugar, flour or rice in China were rationed. While we never experienced hunger, good quality foods were scarce. The government-owned grocery stores were empty most of the time and people stayed in a long line to buy fresh vegetables, fish, or anything that were not rationed.

We sometimes were eating cabbage for days because this was the only vegetable the store sold. And most of the time, they were not fresh at all. One of Grandma Liu’s unbelievable skills was that she could make the poor quality vegetables we ate for days tasted great! She would cut them into different shapes, cook them in different ways. Somehow, through her magic hands, the boring dishes were delicious to eat. That was when I started to stand by the stove watching her cooking. And that was when she started to tell me stories of her life.

We were living in a northern region then. Naturally, grandma Liu made foods from flour the most. Her cooking was like doing an art. The pancakes, dumpling wrappers were all the same thickness, perfectly round shaped. Grandma Liu said:”you have to practice hard to make the perfect shapes, make sure your kitchen is clean when you are done. Otherwise, you can’t get married, no decent men want a wife who can’t make perfect round shaped pancake. ”

Grandma Liu’s another trick that amazed my mom was she could make our very old clothes looked like perfectly ironed one without ironing them. She would carefully fold the clothes when they were about 95% dry. She put them on top of a wooden chair, then, she just sat on them, having a break herself. After a little while, the “ironing” was done and grandma Liu just got up, started doing another house chore. My mom tried a few times, she sat very still but never got the same “ironing” results.

Life was very harsh on grandma Liu. I saw her adult son coming to visit her a few times. Every time, he took money from grandma Liu. After he left, the easy smile grandma Liu always carried with her would be gone for a long while. Sometimes, I saw her staring in the distance for a long time, almost like she was kept in a horrible spell that she could not break through.

Later, when I was older, my mom told me that grandma Liu’s son was a lazy guy. At that time, most young people got married around 20, he was not married in his thirties and even worse, he was in a relationship with a married woman. He could easily get fired by just that. He squandered money he earned and always asked his mother for more money.

When my family got a chance to move to Beijing, grandma Liu was not working for us anymore but she would come to visit us sometimes. Before we moved away, my parents wanted to ask grandma Liu an important question. At that time, only very high-rank officials had a phone, mostly in their office, not their home. Grandma Liu could not read so my parents could not write to her. They went to see grandma Liu, telling her we were moving and asked her if she would like to move with us as a family member. My parents promised her that when she was too old to work, my parents would take care of her as their own parent. Grandma Liu was silent for a long while, then she told my parents that she couldn’t leave her son behind.

We never saw grandma Liu again.

Years later, we talked about grandma Liu, wondering how she was. We all hoped that at her end of life, her son had changed to be a responsible adult and treated her well. But sadly, in our hearts, we all knew this was a far reached hope.

I wish grandma Liu would know what a warm memory she had left with our family, and what an impact she had on me. Whenever I can’t make a perfectly round shaped pancake, I would remember what she said to me with a smile: you can’t marry yourself off with an ugly looking pancake.

Sit at the dinner table #8 Toasted Steamed Bun (烤馒头片) – Dad, is that you?

25445899_10210939450910078_6568034929269972600_n

 

The other day, I made the steamed bun. Most of the Chinese families eat steamed bun as breakfast, not bread. And before I came to the US, I had never seen a toaster.

For the leftover steamed bun, you can re-steam it or toast it in the Chinese way: in a pan on the stove. I had added oil to fancy the “toasting”, pan frying it. While I was doing it, the morning sunlight came in from the kitchen window. For a moment, I saw my dad, standing in front of a brick and mud self-made stove (he built it), carefully and patiently toasting a few pieces steamed bun for me and my brother. The morning Sun from an open door to a huge rooftop deck, a shared place for all the college students and teachers‘ families, who co-lived in the dorm like building, shed light on my dad’s side. I could see he was paying great attention to what he was doing, making sure the toast was golden brown and crispy to me and my brother’s taste. If the cooking oil was not rationed, I was sure that my dad would pan fried them like I did it in my kitchen.

My dad was a busy college teacher but he always made sure that he would do whatever he could to bring nutritious and tasty foods on the table for his family. Sometimes, thinking about my love for foods and cooking, it is rooted in the family. My mom is a great cook and my dad was a great shopper.

Seeing my dad riding a bicycle, full of fresh vegetables, fish, and occasionally some meat on each side of the bicycle handle, back from half day’s grocery hunting trip is forever sealed in my memory. I was in my early teens, craving proteins every minute when I was not asleep. My brother was the same. But meat, eggs, and cooking oil were all rationed. It was quite a challenge for my parents, actually, almost every parent at that time to get quality foods on the dinner table. My dad managed to find a small restaurant deep in an alley, which sold meat scraped off the bones that did not require a meat ration ticket. And my mom could cook any kind of fish for a very delicious meal. Lucky me and my brother!

The steamed bun on the stove gradually pan-fried to a nice golden color, the oil brought out the aroma of the wheat, reminded me of the toast my dad did for us many years ago. I looked up, to the morning sunlight, quietly asking: “Is that you, dad?”

 

25443297_10210939451110083_306088659299121027_n
PS: the photo above is a collection of food ration tickets that a friend of mine saved.

Sit at the dinner table #7 A Popular “Salad” In The Summer – Smashed Cucumber (拍黄瓜)

Most of the Chinese meals are served hot, no matter it is breakfast, lunch or dinner.

Coming to the Western world, the very first thing to adjust is eating cold foods and raw vegetables called “salad”. It took a while for my stomach to get used to it. 20 years ago, it would be unimaginable that I will eat salad regularly, one big plate of it, every single morning.

Smashed Cucumber is a northern dish. The character “拍”, means “smash”, having a rugged, unrestrained personality that well fits the northerners in China. In the south, they have a similar cold dish made of cucumbers that helps to fend off the heat in the summer, but the cucumbers will be cut carefully into even slices or even fine shreds. Most of the times, southern dishes are more elaborated and northern ones are more casually prepared in China.

In the late 80s, foreigners were rare in China. I met two groups of them on trains, not the modern bullet trains that are everywhere in China nowadays but the old-fashioned green ones that burned coals. All of them were young students came to China to study or travel for fun. They were very adventurous.

They rode with ordinary Chinese people in sometimes very crowded train, squatting down or sat on the floor waiting to have a seat. The first time, it was two young guys, they even dressed in very traditional Chinese male shirts attracting lots of attention. They impressed everyone including me with their fluent Chinese, eating an apple without washing it and peeling the skin off, just a quick rub on their shirt as a “cleaning“ act. Most importantly, they touched everyone’s heart by genuinely and frequently helping some old peasants out, carrying their heavy load of produce in a dirty burlap bag to get off the train at stations that the train only stopped for 1 or 2 minutes. We had small talks. When people asked about their age, a typical question from Chinese, not a rude one, they asked me, a teenage girl then, to guess. From their beard faces, I hesitated and eventually said shyly in a low voice: around 50? They smiled, and told the curious people around they were 25. My face turned to a bloody red one.

The second time, it was a girl asking the service guy at the dining cart that grabbed attention to her. She asked in a voice with a hint of foreign accent if they had “拍黄瓜”(Smashed Cucumber). Of course, they didn’t serve that cheap, homey dish on the train. They wanted to make money off people traveling. But the passengers around were very surprised that this foreign girl knew this dish, their murmuring sounds were quite loud.

So, here you are, a homey, simple Chinese salad for the summer, a salute to all the adventurous souls who traveled in China.

1. Smash the cucumber

2. Sprinkle salt on them, sit for 10 minutes, drain the juice

3. Smash a clove of garlic, cut them into fine grains

4. Mix cucumber with garlic, one teaspoon of sesame oil, one tablespoon of soy sauce, half teaspoon of vinegar.

5. Serve and enjoy

In the pictures, I showed the kitchen knife most Chinese use, you use the side to smash cucumbers or garlic or anything you have the feeling to smash on😜. You don’t need to buy a Chinese style kitchen knife to smash things, a pestle will do the same job.

 

Sit at the dinner table #6 This simple cucumber and scrambled egg dish (黄瓜炒鸡蛋) is for you two, Niangniang (孃孃) and Dada (大大)

 

24174474_10210805219314372_5431902121650873980_n

Tonight, just a lone dish on the dinner table, cucumber and scrambled egg.

Not like the scrambled eggs in the US, most scrambled egg dishes in China are mixed with vegetables. In the summertime, when cucumber is in season, this dish is on many families’ dinner table often. The cucumber’s dark green skin, tint green of its inside, mixed with the golden yellow color of eggs, preferred from cage-free chicken, are truly tempting your appetite.

To me, this dish was carved in my memory many years ago.

On May 16,1966,“Culture Revolution” started in mainland China, it lasted 10 years, brought disastrous results to the country, to the Chinese culture and to almost every family of Chinese people. I was born less than a month later.

Niangniang came to my family right before I was born. She was hired by my parents to be my nanny. None of them, my parents and Niangniang, had ever imagined then that Niangniang and her husband would become my mom and dad for a while. In Shandong province where I was born, “Niangniang” and “Dada” are dialect, Niangniang means mom and Dada means dad.

In a very short time, “Culture Revolution” showed its evil teeth. People got beaten up, some were beaten to death; homes were raided for various reasons. There was no law, no protection of anybody, except for Chairman Mao, who single-handedly started this so-called “revolution”.

My parents’ home was raided a few times, all at nights shortly after I was born. Fortunately, my parents were not hurt physically. It was then, Niangniang talked to my parents, proposing to take me to her own home. My young parents agreed immediately. They would not want me to be startled and scared in the middle of nights by violent strangers through the smashed door anymore.

Chairman Mao liked to play the “Class Struggle (阶级斗争)” card to his own power advantages. As intellectuals teaching at a university, my parents were “stinky old ninth (category)” (臭老九),almost at the bottom of the class ladder. On the other hand, Niangniang’s husband was a factory worker, who was at the top of the class ladder. In those crazy months followed, because of Niangniang and Dada my family had a shelter to hide, a sanctuary to go.

For some reason, middle-aged Niangniang and Dada did not have any kid of their own, I was their only child then. From what my parents told me, Niangniang was a woman who kept her home very clean and tidy. Dada was a fairly big guy. June is always a very hot and humid month in Jinan (济南), the capital of Shandong province, the city where I was born. As a baby, I suffered heat rashes. To relieve me from that, Niangniang had to bath me very often, sometimes using herb water in hope of soothing me. After the bath, Dada would hold me at his big belly and wave a big cattail leaf fan to dry me up and to cool me down while he was happily chatting with their neighbors. Contrary to the quietness of Niangniang, my parents said Dada had a loud voice, his infectious laugh and easy going character made him a popular figure in the neighborhood.

Dada was an honest man with a pair of dexterous hands. My parents bought me a second-hand stroller made of bamboo. Dada asked my parents to find bigger wheels and he installed them to replace the smaller ones, making the stroller much more steady and comfortable for little me to ride in. One time, while Niangniang was cooking, Dada was in charge of taking care of me, I fell off the bed and dislocated my shoulder. Dada rushed me to an old woman’s place and she successfully put my tiny shoulder back in place very quickly. If Dada chose not to tell my parents, they would not know about this incident at all.

For months, I stayed with Niangniang and Dada while my parents were having numerous “struggle meetings” at the university where they worked. In some of the meetings, high ranked officials, famous professors, and regular teachers who were claimed to be against Chairman Mao were the targets on stage, got beaten up. Sometimes to humiliate them, their heads were shaved half bare, this was being called “Yin Yang Head” (阴阳头).

Years later, when my mom told me things like that, tears in her eyes, she said a few times if she were ever forced to be shaved like that, she would not want to live. Lots of people who could not endure the torture and humiliation did commit suicide.

Sundays were the rare moments of peace for my parents. They would come to Niangniang and Dada’s home, holding me and playing with me for a few hours before they dragged their feet heading back to our own home where anybody could break in at night.

I don’t know when Niangniang and Dada stopped taking care of me but two years later, when I was barely 3 years old, my parents were forced to relocate to a small town called Qufu (曲阜). Later, when I was around 5 years old, my mom was assigned a task to travel back to Jinan. The task was she and the students she brought with to work in a factory to receive “education” from the class of factory workers. My mom took me with her.

One Sunday morning, my mom dressed me up in a nicer cloth, took me to a food store and bought a tin of very expensive cookie. My mom told me that we were going to see my nanny, Niangniang at her home. Outside Niangniang’s home, my mom stopped, telling me again that I should not eat any of the cookies in the tin even if Niangniang offered me. My mom said:”This is for Niangniang. Don’t eat any.”

To this day, I remember that Sunday afternoon at Niangniang’s home. Dada passed away at an early age, of a heart attack. Niangniang was alone. The room was very empty, seemed very big in my eyes. Without Dada, the room was very quiet too. My mom and Niangniang chatted in soft voices, I sat there quietly holding the cookie tin. I was not a girl who could sit still for a while but magically that afternoon I was a well-behaved girl, listening to the adults talking and felt content. It might be the room that protected me earlier in my young baby life had the vibe of safety and peace. Niangniang frequently looked at me while she was talking to my mom and she did offer me cookies after I handed the tin to her following my mom’s direction. I said no to the cookie remembering what my mom had repeated but Niangniang insisted. I ended up with cookies in both my hands.

Before we left Niangniang’s home, she cooked cucumber and scrambled eggs for us for dinner, the only dish on the table. At that time, when eggs were rationed, that was a luxury meal.

When it was time to say goodbye, Niangniang saw us off outside of her home. At the end of the street, I turned back to see Niangniang, still standing there, a lonely, small figure in the distance, watching us……

25395844_10210918835994718_3005078458861090200_n
This photo is from the internet. It shows a bamboo stroller similar to what I had ridden when I was a baby.