That’s the thing with my beautiful friend Mei from Hong Kong: After almost a decade of living in the States (we both came to South Florida some 9 years ago, to be exact) and having been tempted by the world’s most divine cuisines, up to date she invariably asks me out to share a bite at a casual Dim sum or a fancy Hibachi on any big… and small occasion. As adventurous as her taste buds are, they never really seem to lose a taste of home.
What’s with this loyalty, I wonder? But as I sit here trying to figure that out, nothing but more questions come to mind: Am I cheating on my traditional Russian fare by opening up my mind and mouth to new ingredients, flavors, and cuisines? And if not, where’s the fine line between being adventurous and remaining true to your food heritage? What if I prefer to cook American, order in Chinese and eat out fancy Greek at this point of my life? Am I capable of loyalty in the first place, food or not?
As I fail to answer most of these questions unambiguously and without raising more, and as I refuse to strike a compromise with myself or make promises I don’t intend to keep, I’d better bring the attention back to the main character of this post—my dear friend Mei.
Is it just Mei, or do I see a slew of Asian faces at any Chinese diner on any given day, while representatives of other ethnicities can be counted on the fingers of one hand? Alas… Another question… Why does life pose more questions than answers to us??
Here’s a wild thought. Maybe I’ll find some answers in the food they… she eats.
So I jumped at the invitation to get together for Chinese New Year and taste something… well… very Chinese, of course. A laid-back afternoon of green tea and rice cake rolls with the opportunity to assist my friend with preparing a dessert worthy of the occasion was very enticing. She didn’t have to ask me twice. For as long as I can remember myself, I have never said no to any color tea and cookies or whatever the latter may stand for. Nor have I ever turned down any food for that matter.
On the big day, I was surprised to witness that there were no unheard-of ingredients or innovative cooking techniques or over-the-top presentations involved in the preparing of this simple yet sophisticated dessert. All it took was creativity and… I dare say… a busy schedule… Don’t you find that an incessant lack of time makes us so much more resourceful and self-sufficient in the kitchen? It pushes us to create in a snap something very unique out of something very common, like, a store-bought rice cake sliced into bite-size pieces which are then wrapped up in blankets of paper-thin dough to resemble spring rolls and deep-fried until golden brown. The result is this soft, chewy, moderately sweet filling encased in a crunchy shell. You can distinctly taste both the brown sugar and rice in it; these two make a nice couple without trying to overshadow each other.
But just as you take another bite wondering if there’s more to this, you are in for a surprise—a cluster of toasted pine nuts in the middle, with their woody, earthy flavor that was released in the toasting and deepened in the frying. Unexpected crunch. Double crunch.
This was what I call love at first bite. Will it last? I doubt it. The love of these rolls is very conditional. I, on the other hand, look for spontaneity and year-round availability. Unfortunately, this type of cake can be found in Chinese supermarkets only a couple of weeks before and after Chinese New Year. Also, eating them warm is the key to the whole experience. When cooled down to just above the room temperature, the rolls are at their best. The heat tempers the stiff resilient texture of the cold condensed rice pudding into a soft pliable filling, bringing back to life the flavors of the main ingredients.
Mei is a great cook. There’s no boredom in her kitchen. She doesn’t cease to surprise me with her own unique take on her country’s fare; chicken soup is challenged with green carrots, dates, and almonds, baby spare ribs are pushed into a pumpkin stew with lots of garlic and dried mushrooms, and vanilla mouse cake is infused with freshly brewed green tea.
So maybe the question is not “What’s with this loyalty?” but, more importantly, “What’s with this Chinese food?”, or rather, “What’s new in the Chinese cuisine?”
I think I might attempt to answer this one.
Any nation’s cuisine (much like its language) is a living thing. It evolves constantly as people cultivate new plants and ingredients; develop new cooking techniques and paraphernalia; exchange ideas and recipes. As long as we keep doing this, no fare will ever get stale and run-of-the-mill; and nobody will ever have to question the quality of their loyalty to their mother food by trying something different here and there.
After all, doesn’t being adventurous make the heart grow fonder?
1 rice cake
1 package spring roll pastry (available in Chinese supermarkets)
Pine nuts (optional)
Canola oil for deep-frying
1. To toast the pine nuts, spread them on a rimmed baking sheet. Bake in a preheated 350F oven, until fragrant, about 8-10 minutes. Cool completely.
2. Cut the rice cake diagonally into slices about ½ inch thick. Cut the long slices into pieces about 3.5-4 inches long.
3. Sandwich two pieces together, with pine nuts tucked inside.
4. Place the filling in the middle of a spring roll pastry sheet and wrap it up as shown below.
5. Deep-fry until golden brown.
6. Serve warm.