Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Japanese Hot Pots

My mom gave me the best birthday present: a comprehensive Japanese hot pot kit. I received a fire hydrant red Dutch oven whose heat conduction properties ensure uniform cooking, a slotted wooden spoon for scooping hot pot contents sans broth as the first serving step, a ladle for the conclusive broth addition, and a set of four matching Japanese bowls, soup spoons, and chopsticks. Edible ingredients included mirin, sweet cooking wine, sake, for cooking or otherwise, kombu, a kelp variant known for bringing umami character to any broth, soy sauce and tamari, bonito flakes for making dashi broth, dried shitake mushrooms for an alternate broth, and pad thai shaped rice noodles, should my recipe necessitate a starchy component. Of course, no kit is complete without an instruction manual, and this beautiful cookbook, vetted by my mom, has already proved to be a trusty and vital companion.
Still working on hot pot photography, admittedly
I made my first hot pot (above) in the beginning of January when I was sick with the flu. My mom sent me multiple pictures of the recipe (“Kyoto Root Vegetable Hot Pot”), descriptions of how to clean burdock root, how to select shimeji mushrooms, explanations of the four main miso variants, etc. Needless to say, this cooking endeavor seemed a rather daunting task, especially as I tried to navigate the Richmond district’s crowded and overwhelmingly well-stocked New May Wah supermarket while looking for foreign ingredients, sick as a dog. After about an hour of bumping into people with my face buried in my phone’s tiny screen, I managed to make my way home. I would say that this is where the real work began, but in reality, the hot pot was simple. In fact, learning and acquiring the ingredients seems like the initial hurdle to entering the hot pot world…

Root vegetables are, as a category, one of my favorite foods. I go wild for sweet potatoes and yams—in fact, I eat one for breakfast most mornings—and I love squash, pumpkin, and parsnips with all my heart. Chinese and Japanese tubers formed the base of this hot pot; I got to work cutting lotus root, daikon, and carrot, and peeling and cutting taro root. Though I did have to boil the lotus root for a bit longer, as the thick Swiss cheese-looking plant matter takes a bit longer to cook than the other ingredients, I eventually piled the uniformly cut vegetables on top of two sheets of kelp, meant to be kombu but hey, I couldn’t find everything in my sick haze at New May Wah, added water, and boiled then simmered the pot’s contents. The addition of shitake and shimeji mushrooms and miso pastes came next (two variants, shiro, which I believe is only lightly fermented, and a standard “white type”) and a bit more simmering further melded the rich savory flavors together. My lesson in Japanese hot pot complete, I proudly—ecstatically, even—slurped the piping hot soup and instantly felt marginally better. I’d used a stainless steel pot and the wrong type of seaweed, but the final product was delicious and nutritious. I was sold.
Sunday night's installment
I used my birthday hot pot kit for the first time on Sunday night. This time, Andrew and I shopped together, in a much more civilized fashion at New May Wah and the farmer’s market, for the ingredients to make a kabocha pumpkin hot pot with udon. This time, the broth was made with water steeped for 5 hours with dried shitake mushrooms (I executed this step in advance), mirin, and soy sauce. The preparation of the ingredients was very much the same: Andrew and I layered bite size pieces of carrot, taro root, daikon, sliced napa cabbage, shimeji and the reconstituted shitake mushrooms that that flavored the broth, and of course, the cornerstone kabocha pumpkin on top of two sheets of kombu, pouring the mushroom water-mirin-soy sauce broth on top. We brought everything to a boil, and quickly reduced the temperature to simmer for about 10 minutes before adding the udon noodles, simmering for 10 minutes more. We devoured the contents as best we could—it was delicious, hearty, warming on a foggy night, and oh-so satisfying. After a couple hours of climbing last night, we came home to a nearly full pot, and added a couple of eggs after the contents reached a convenient boil once more. We’d both been thinking about this dinner all day! We’re not entirely purposefully imitating Japanese climbers, but very simplistically, their technical skill on the rock and nourishment through healthy and delicious dishes are just two realms of expertise that I aspire toward.

Monday, January 6, 2014

Grandma's Gnau Nam

Gnau nam is my favorite traditional “country” Chinese dish. Like my mother, my detail-oriented grandmother cooks with great care (rather, my mother cooks with the same style as her predecessor) and the resultant dishes are satisfying and simplistically wholesome. Gnau nam is loosely translated to Chinese beef brisket, and the multitude of jars that my grandmother brought out post-meal informed me what ingredients create the dish’s characteristic umami flavor: soy sauce paste, hoison sauce, ginger, star anise, garlic, and Johnny Walker. We generally serve the stewed beef brisket and its sauces (“au jus”) over flat, wide rice noodles, but on this occasion, chewy udon tendrils willingly soaked up the sauce and provided the inconspicuous but integral backdrop for the flavorful brisket. The noodles are suspended in a clear soup flavored primarily by pork bones and dried scallops, and ladles of succulent meat and dark juices thicken the soup and cloud it with rich meaty flavor. Tender greens always accompany the meat and starch, and this time parboiled baby bok choi served as the vegetable complement.
As we slurped noodles and expressed ecstatic gratitude over this treat for our taste buds, conversation swirled toward my grandmother’s epic story. I’ve heard bits and pieces many times, yet no comprehensive storyline has emerged; instead, her time in China seems a mythical and dark tale of family dynamics and heroic survival.
My mother plans to return to Vancouver this spring to document the stories of my grandmother and grandfather.  I eagerly await the product of my mother’s  journey into our  past.

Thursday, January 2, 2014

Vancouver's Finest Ramen & the New Year

We were the first ones in line for lunch at Kintaro. Standing huddled around a single menu in front of the restaurant’s blockaded door at 11:25am, we debated the merits of lean versus fatty cuts of pork, and marveled at the choice presented by light, medium, and fatty broth options. Sacrilegiously, I opted for the restaurant’s vegetable ramen with broccoli, cabbage, and corn, and the light broth, a miso—when I informed my uncle about my order later in the afternoon, he looked at me with an amused look of disdain that implicitly stated, “Why even bother with ramen?” The dish, of course, was still far from vegetarian—as the menu stated, a non-meat-based broth simply doesn’t exist.
My vegetable decision
We ordered at the doorway and were soon ushered into the restaurant right as the clock struck 11:30am. A sushi bar-like seating arrangement gave us front row seats to a mesmerizing process I’d never witnessed before—a gargantuan, bubbling vat of pork bone stock to which rich fat was added based on customer preference, individual piles of noodles, each inserted into a personal strainer and removed from the boiling water and dunked in the soup after textured perfection had been achieved. The two cooks worked in practiced unison, performing an intricate dance of soup stock sampling, bean sprout cooking, and noodle shaking—excess water diluting the thick savory broth seemed to be a sin of sorts. Their fingers moved at alarming speed, placing pork cuts, slicing eggs, arranging standard ramen ingredients like bamboo shoot and seaweed within the large frame of the bowl’s wide rim.
One for the meat lovers...
Few words were exchanged after the large, steaming bowls were handed over the bar. The slurping of noodles and exclamations of enjoyment punctuated our lunchtime conversation, and this pattern continued until we could all see the bottom of our bowls. So much was accomplished before noon!

As the New Year begins, I’ve been thinking about ways to further develop Piggy Heaven’s storyline. One idea that has stuck with me is incorporating the “story” of the meal into the thread of each post—of course, not every meal contains a monumental conversation, yet every shared dining experience is framed by an exchange of words (though I suppose I'm negating this principle with this very post!). Do you have any ideas for me? Something you'd love to see written about? Comments encouraged!