Meet my friend Shirley Lin. She lives in San Francisco and just like me, she adores food, cooking, culture, and travel. With these common interests, I could have met her anywhere in the world, but the place I was lucky enough to meet her was Beijing. I traveled there last fall with my husband, who had a scientific conference to attend in November. This landed us in a big, handsome convention center hotel located next to the Olympic Village.
An elaborate and multifaceted buffet breakfast was part of the room rate, and we didn’t miss a one. The restaurant served up an enormous array of Foods of the World, from yogurt shakes, fruit, and omelets to order, to sushi, miso soup, bacon and eggs, and toast. Tourists like me lined up with convention-goers and business-people like my husband at the coffee maker and toast bar, everybody fueling up for a day of sightseeing, networking, dealmaking, or shopping. My husband piled his plate with ham, sausage, omelet and hash browns, while I headed for the Chinese section to check out the local fare.
I met Shirley because I was holding up the line in the porridge section, taken by the variety of grain soups in the traditional Chinese food section of the vast buffet. First came rice porridge, also known as congee, jook and moi. Beloved throughout Asia, it’s a warm, satisfying bowl of thick rice soup. Though it’s sometimes cooked with meat or preserved egg, unseasoned is most common. Diners add condiments, from sesame oil, peanuts and and cilantro to salty egg, crisp-fried bread, and shredded ginger. Throughout Asia, rice porridge bookends the day, equally popular as a filling breakfast food and as a late night snack.
I didn’t recognize two other saucepans next to the jook, filled with other types of porridge, yellow in color and equally plain. Noticing my curiosity, Shirley offered to explain the menu, introducing me to millet porridge and corn porridge, as well as puffed bean curd and various add-ons, many of them chili-fueled. I thanked her for being a resource on a busy morning, made notes, and continued exploring.
Around the corner on the far end, this chef was refreshing the steamed-items section. I expected to see buns and little filled dumplings, but not the array of yams, taro, beets, and other root vegetables.
While the nearby bacon-and-egg staionshad plenty of takers, so did this steamer station. Five minutes after set-up, here’s the steamer-scene. The purple ones held the beets.
Curious about Beijing cooking and Northern Chinese food, I looked for Shirley’s table and interrupted her breakfast with more culinary questions. She kindly invited me to sit down right then and there, and enlightened me more while her food cooled. She agreed to meet with me that afternoon and continued my culinary education, complete with photos from meals she had been enjoying in Beijing.
That afternoon learned that Shirley was not merely “in town for a conference”; she was leading one, a big one: the Mobile Entertainment Games Summit. Turns out my new friend-in-food is a genius programmer, entrepreneur, and founder/director of 800 Birds, She is also a foodie extraordinaire. I cannot believe she took so much time with me, a complete stranger, to share her knowledge of and love for food, culture and stories. I cannot wait to cook with her one of these days, because we are clearly on the same path in regard to eating, cooking, travel, and food.
I asked Shirley if she would write something for me, a memory of Chinese New Year, centered on food. Again, she said yes, and here is what she wrote:
“My mom left a legacy among people around her as the best home cooking woman in her time. Our Chinese New Year Eve dinner was always a feast and a tribute to the grandparents we had never seen. Besides homemade sausages, Chinese bacon, etc. one of her most difficult dish is the 10-Delicacy Vegetarian Delight. It’s a New Year special. It would take her a day to buy the ingredients, another day to wash/clean/prepare and cook and season each one separately, then combine them together to its perfection. It consists of: shitake mushrooms, pickled mustard green, dried tofu squares, yellow soy bean sprouts, carrots, Chinese celery, thin rice vermicelli, wood-ear (a kind of wood fungus plant that is used a lot in spicy sour soup), dried Day Lilly, fresh bamboo shoot. I miss her dearly with the vivid scenes how I was around her to work thru each step of the process.”
Shirley’s story moves me, even though I have never attended such a Chinese New Year Eve dinner, nor have I ever eaten 10-Delicacy Vegetarian Delight. This elaborate dish requires unusual ingredients and special skill and knowledge to prepare. To me, the most precious ingredient in this story is the love and dedication of Shirley’s mother. She provided her family with such a gift: Memories of preparing and sharing these celebration meals. She set an example of showing love through her cooking, bringing the family to the holiday table, and keeping traditions. Past, present, and future, invited back to the table, year after year.
The Lunar New Year festival came to an end last night, the 15th day of the first month of the new lunar year. The new moon on New Year Eve grew into the full moon we welcomed last night. All over Asia and wherever Asian people live in the world, New Year celebrations wound up with the Lantern Festival, with lots of small and large lanterns backing up the full moon in shining brightly, amid a farewell round of parades, lion dances, and firecrackers to close things out with a bang. Valentine’s Day happened to be on the same day this year, which meant abundance of pretty red decorations and maybe an increase in the number of reasons to celebrate and smile.
In honor of Shirley Lin’s mother’s vegetarian celebration dish, I wanted to close with a recipe for something both vegetarian and loaded with good luck. As always, Grace Young had the answer to my Chinese cooking questions:
Grace notes that stir-fried lettuce is a cherished New Year dish, because of wordplay: The word for lettuce in Cantonese, saang choy, sounds like “growing fortune”. Buying it, bringing it home, cooking it up, and eating it? This sequence of events is a recipe for luck, prosperity, all good things. This dish is simple to prepare and a wonderful companion to a hearty meal, especially one centered on rice; All you need are grocery store ingredients and a wok or a big skillet for a speedy stir-fry.
Here it is before being tossed in the hot oil. Below is the finished dish, with abundance of thin but flavorful sauce for spooning over rice. Remember: the lucky vibe is yours all year round, not just during Lunar New Year. This is lovely (and still lucky) with romaine lettuce.
For more on this dish, and abundant tales of Chinese New Year celebrations, foods, and traditions, get yourself a copy of Grace Young’s fine book, “The Wisdom of the Chinese Kitchen”. Check out Grace’s website and blog by clicking HERE, for her wisdom on Chinese cooking, culture, and traditions. You’ll find Grace’s cool short videos on Chinese New Year ways and recipes, by clicking HERE.