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)



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……

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

Sit at the dinner table #5 Cookie (桃酥), A Dessert Shared East and West

On Saturday, we drove along beautiful Tennessee fields for hours, trying to get to Englewood Farmer’s Market at Athens, Tennessee. Our GPS failed us a couple of times, in the middle of corn fields, soybean fields, a happy female voice announced that we had reached our destination. We looked around, seeing only the lush greens and our lone car.

Eventually, by following the signs on the winding roadside which we did not pay attention to before, we arrived at the market. It was quite ironic that by overly trusting the new technology, we did not find this Amish marketplace, the old-fashioned hand-written signs did a better job. There is a reason why Amish people isolate themselves from the modern world we are in.

We bought a whole basket of fresh vegetables and a plate of homemade dinner rolls, a package of peanut butter cookies there.

The dinner rolls are the kind you would die for. But it was the peanut butter cookies that surprised me big time!

Of course, I had peanut butter cookies many times. Somehow, this one, crispy but not hard, buttery but not overly sweet, so similar to the cookies I had in China. A bite into it took me back, thousands of miles away, many years ago, into my childhood.

The cookies we have in China is called 桃酥, walnut cookies. It is made of lard, not butter. 桃酥 is a very ordinary snack in China. However, when I was little, snacks were kind of luxury aside from regular meals. It was a treat for special holidays or visiting guests. We didn’t have them regularly. My little brother’s nanny was a nice country lady but really preferred boys over girls, a sad tradition that has a long history in China. She would give cookies to my little brother and said: “Eat it quickly, don’t let your sister see it!” It had happened so many times and I had run into my brother hurrying to swallow cookies. Even today, I could still see him holding the cookie tin tightly when he saw me coming, very nervous but determined to defend HIS cookies at any cost. It took my parents quite a while and numerous efforts to teach my little brother to share after his nanny left us.

In Chinese families, by tradition, the elderly are highly respected. So, if they could afford snacks, they would serve the elderly first. And most elderly Chinese live with their adult children. A touching scene would be the grandkids know their grandpa/grandma has a cookie tin somewhere in their home and they would look for it. Then, the kindly grandma/grandpa would take out the cookie tin, slowly open it, while all the little ones surrounding her/him tightly nudging each other a bit, hungrily smelling the escaped aroma of cookies from the slightly opened tin, watching her/his every move closely. Grandma/grandpa carefully took out cookies and gave each of the kids one or sometimes half of a cookie. A happy scene to both the grandparents and the little kids, a fond memory to them all is saved somewhere in their heart.

When my dad was in his elderly stage, he had a cookie tin too. He had stored some of his favorite snacks there, not limited to 桃酥, but also had Danish shortbreads. China has been prosperous for quite a few years then, snacks are plenty. I think, to my dad, doing that was like fulfilling a childhood dream of growing into a respected elderly, enjoying being surrounded and chased by his grandchildren.

I have enjoyed my Amish peanut butter cookie with a cup of tea. It not only brings back some memories of my childhood, my dad, but also a bit of amusement. At the Amish market check out counter, an Amish gentleman said something to me that I could not understand at first. He looked at my face, said it the second time. I was puzzled for a moment, then, realized that he was greeting me in Japanese. I smiled, said: “I am not a Japanese, I am a Chinese.” He immediately switched his greeting with 你好(how are you)! And mumbled “I usually could tell!” in a low voice.

The world is really changing, who would think an Amish guy will greet you in Japanese or Chinese?

Sit at the dinner table #4 Poached Peach in Prosecco – Drawing a Tiger by Looking at a Cat(照猫画虎)

I am not good at doing dessert at all. But Petra Rampley’s cooking post “Poached Peach with Prosecco and Rose Water” had such a beautiful presentation that I was itching to copy her. A fruit dessert this appealing to your eyes really tempted my appetite in the hot summer, so I decided to give it a try.

I wanted to do it the day I bought fresh peaches but was not able to because I found no white wine at home. To be honest, when I saw Petra’s work, I didn’t even know what Prosecco was until I googled it. To this day, I still don’t know how you get rose water, you boil the rose petals or buy it somewhere? There are so many things to learn and explore, I will leave it to my next try. For this time, I will skip the rose water.

When I went out to buy white wine this morning at Trader Joe’s, after I have put a bottle of white wine in my basket, I saw Prosecco on the shelf! I was a bit excited to see it, feeling I would be one tiny step closer to copy Petra’s work.

I followed a recipe online since I did not ask Petra for hers, again, skipping vanilla bean since I don’t have it. I carefully peeled the peach skin off after poached them. I followed Petra’s advice to simmer them carefully in the wine. When cooling them down before I put them in the fridge, I had to go to an exercise class, so I put a note to warn my family not to eat them!

It turned out surprisingly delicious even though I have cut down the sugar 2/3. Next time, I will need to reduce the water a bit more so the juice is a little thicker. The fresh smell of summer peach mixed with the subtle taste of Prosecco wine, it was a very refreshing dessert after a summer meal.

But comparing my work with Petra’s (last photo at the bottom), you see the sharp difference between an apprentice and an expert! I was busy tearing off the rose petals to be proportional with the peaches but forgot to use the petals as decoration. And the peaches Petra had has such nice color which mine doesn’t have.

There is a Chinese saying called “Draw a tiger by looking at a cat” (照猫画虎), meaning “to copy the form without understanding the substance”. This is exactly what I did. Hopefully, next time, my “cat” looks a bit more like Petra’s “tiger”.

p.s., the two small photos on the right, in the middle were my second try, they do look a tiny bit closer to Petra’s.

Practice pays off.

Sit at the dinner table #2 Sugar Sprinkled Tomato (西红柿拌白糖), a Childhood Treat in the Summer and My Journey to Find the Best Tomatoes

One Saturday night, I saw a friend’s post of being at the Grainger County Tomato Festival. Grainger County tomato is our family’s favorite that we are looking forward to it each year when summer begins. We didn’t want to miss this special festival so I quickly searched to learn it went on the next day, Sunday afternoon until 5:00. My daughter had a soccer game at 12:00 on Sunday, but we were determined to make it.
The game was ended around 2:00, we had a quick bite of lunch, got into the car again, headed to Grainger County. Driving about an hour, mostly in winding country road, among lush green fields in between hills, we managed to catch the ending of this weekend festival arriving there around 4:00. We did not pay much attention to other things, all we want is Grainger County tomatoes!
We bought a whole box of it.

It is a long journey to find Grainger County tomatoes. They have the best taste we can find, beating even most of the ones from the local farmer’s market.
For many years, we ate tomato bought from the supermarket here. Depressingly, they don’t have the tomato taste we grew up with. It’s red, but a kind of faded red, not a color to appeal to your appetite. It’s hard and tasted nothing but a faint sourness that remotely reminds you of the distanced memory of what a ripen, juicy tomato tasted like. A Chinese saying can be used to describe this experience: 味同嚼蜡 – taste like chewing on wax.

A result of Industrially-Grown Tomatoes.

To be able to endure the long distance shipments, the tomatoes are picked early in the fields, green and hard, not ripen yet. Once shipped to the destination, they are sprayed with ethylene, to turn tomatoes red. Ethylene is a chemical emitted naturally by the plants in the fields when they want to ripen their fruits. Now, we, the people, ripen them at our convenience, most likely in dull, lifeless industrial buildings, not at the field where the Sun is bright, the air is fresh and life is vibrant. Of course, to do that, we pay a price: compromised taste, big time!

When I started to find the local Farmer’s markets many years ago, I have been happy to be the loyal customer. I would say about 80% of my loyalty is a tribute to tomato. The locally grown tomatoes have much better taste than the ones you get from supermarket, period.
Then, we met Grainger County tomatoes.
The natural bright red color is tempting your appetite. Mixed it in your salad bowl, it adds such a vivid color to your greens that you feel like looking at a famous drawing, by nature. Bite into it, the juice bursts into your mouth in such a fast speed that it startles your tongue. Then, your tongue can’t stop happily chasing them around. At that moment, you taste the sweet, freshness of a natural tomato, like it supposes to be!
We treasure this Tennessee jewel by having it on our dinner table often in the summertime, wondering how I missed it for years!
One dish I make from it is this simple “Sugar Sprinkled Tomato”. My kids don’t care much about it, but both my husband and I love to have it. It was our childhood treat in the hot summer.

You cut the naturally ripen tomato into chunks, sprinkle granulated sugar on them. You let it sit for a while, so the sugar will bring the tomato juice out. When we were little kids in China, we didn’t have a fridge. To make this treat cold, our parents usually floated the bowl with tomato chunks into tap water for a while. Of course, this wouldn’t have the same effect of a fridge but we were very happy to enjoy it, chewing on the bright red, soft, juicy chunks first, drinking the sweet with a hint of tart juice next. That was our taste of Summer, straightly reaching down to our heart, a moment of joy.

Sometimes, happiness is this kind of trivial things that you remember forever.
This whole box of Grainger County tomatoes was really worth the round trip of almost 2 hours.

Sit at the dinner table #1 Fresh, Seasonal Vegetables and Roasted Chicken


I love summertime.

This is the time you have farmer’s market, the time you can have locally grown, seasonal vegetables on your dinner table.

Before I dive into the two words of “fresh” and “seasonal” that is charming to me, I would like to point out that turnip, and rosemary I have used to season the chicken are two things I never heard or saw growing up in China. There is no roasted chicken when I was in China either. They were new things to me when I came to the U.S. many years ago, and I have learned to love them in my home cooking.

I bought these two vegetables yesterday afternoon at the farmer’s market and cooked them last night. This way, I felt that I have appreciated the freshness of the vegetables and they truly make a difference in taste.
See the lively purple color of the turnip? They are bright, vividly shining with its deep, elegant color, not like the ones in the supermarket, dull, wrinkled because they have been shipped long distance, on the shelf for a while. And, look at the green beans, they are nicely plump, not too old to be tough, just ripen to be full and solid, both in terms of the pod and the beans inside. Most importantly, they are still tender. Late summer and early fall, it is the best time to enjoy green beans and turnip so they are on my dinner table often.

When I was little, there was no supermarket and refrigerator in China. For three years during China’s disastrous “Culture Revolution”, my parents were forced to relocate to a small college in Confucius’s hometown, Qufu (曲阜). There, my parents shopped our grocery in an open market held twice a week. Peasants from the villages around brought rice, fresh vegetables, tofu, eggs, live chickens to line up a dirt road just outside the college campus. People, including us, were poor, but we got to eat very fresh vegetables harvested in the morning, the peasants carried them to the open market with the morning dew and the mud still on. And they were always seasonal, you recognized that the season had changed right at the dinner table.

One incident I remembered was a suicidal chicken. It was a fat chicken my mother just bought from the open market. Before my dad had a chance to kill it, it jumped from our 3-story high apartment. The poor thing did not die from the jump but was killed later. When my mom was cleaning the chicken, she found the chicken’s liver was unusually big that caused her to worry. Around that time, hepatitis B was spreading across China. My mom was so concerned about the chicken might have this awful illness that she brought the chicken liver to the college clinic asking the doctors there to check and diagnose! Later, looking back, I think my mom was more concerned about if we should throw that chicken away or eat it. It was a luxury meal then.

Life has changed so much, so fast since then. Technologies do bring convenience into our daily life including cooking, but we also lost many precious things in the process. We eat the same vegetable year around, and they are produced and shipped from far away places. Many are harvested early to be easier to ship. Vegetables are no longer the same taste they used to be. People hardly have time to sit at the dinner table, we are always on the road, stuffing us with a quick fast food, rushing to reach another place……

In the U.S., there are a very limited variety of vegetables, day in and day out, you eat broccoli, onion, green pepper, carrots, and tomatoes again and again. With these limited choices, I was shocked one time that a young cashier looked at my spinach and asked me what kind of vegetable I was buying.

No wonder why the life expectancy in U. S. is low and is projected to be on par with Mexico by 2030. We are one of the richest countries in the world and have the most advanced medical care. Maybe we should re-think our food culture, eating habits. Maybe we should sit at our dinner table more.
The U.S. has so many great things to be proud of, but not in its food culture. Things have been changing towards healthy eating since I came here 20 some years ago. But it is still a long way to go.

Farmer’s market is a good start to eat more vegetables, fresh and seasonal. Give it a try, you would not regret.