June 25, 2016

The Great One's Taiwan tour day 3: cooking lessons from mom

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The day is TODAY.  The main event for the Great One's trip to Taiwan.  Not a dinner at some world-class fancy schmancy restaurant with Michelin stars or on the list of the World's 50 Best Restaurants.  Nope.  Today we'll be staying in all day at chez moi, and she'll finally have a chance to eat mom's cooking.

First up on the day was mom's gigantic lion's head (獅子頭).  These meatballs are found in Shanghainese restaurants all over, but no commercial restaurant would make it this size.  Instead, they prefer little round ones that can be taken by diners with a couple of bites.

Despite the fact that she uses lean ground pork, mom's lion's heads are always very, very soft and juicy.  Her secret ingredient is onions - lots of it.  They are diced very finely and mixed into the pork.  The meatballs are coated with a little bit of corn starch water just before going into the wok - to protect them and to help hold them together as they brown.

The browned meatballs are then steamed for a while, then cooked in the clay pot with plenty of Chinese cabbage layered both below and above them.  This cooks the liquid out of the onion, creating holes inside the meatballs and makes for a loose and tender texture.

We took a lunch break, and since the Great One wouldn't have time to go out for beef noodles, mom decided to braise a pot of beef so that we could eat in.  To be honest, mom doesn't really make beef noodle soup like the ones popular all over Taiwan.  What we eat at home is really just a beef stew served over a bowl of dry noodles, although mom uses beef shank since it's easy to cook.  There's plenty of collagen that gets cooked into the sauce, so that's pretty satisfying.

After lunch and a coffee break, it was time to start on mom's Lunar New Year specialty - Perfect Ten (十全十美).  This dish has its origins in Shanghainese cuisine, and is a combination of 10 different vegetables.  It's an incredibly time-consuming dish to make, which is why mom only makes it once a year for the holidays.

Mom decided that for today, she would only use 8 ingredients instead of 10 - leaving out marinated cucumber (醬瓜) and hair moss (髮菜).  Even so, that's still a lot of stuff to be sliced and julienned... with carrots, celery, rehydrated daylily (金針), dry tofu (豆干), summer bamboo shoots (but mom prefers winter bamboo shoots for the texture), soy bean sprouts (黃豆芽, sometimes called 如意), wood fungus, and shiitake mushrooms. So Hello Kitty was drafted as mom's little helper...

A video posted by @growing_boy on

And she even learned a little trick to peel the husk off a bamboo shoot.

After all the ingredients were chopped up, it was time to stir-fry each ingredient separately - and each ingredient is seasoned differently with either soy sauce or salt.  After an ingredient is done with the stir-fry, it's then transferred to another wok or pan and quickly cooled down with a fan.  This is because the dish is meant to be eaten cold for the crunch, and the cooking process must be halted to prevent the veggies from becoming limp from overcooking.

The process is repeated for each individual ingredient, and over time the ingredients are evenly mixed together.  This achieves uniformity of both color as well as ensuring - as much as possible - that each mouthful delivers the same texture.

The final lesson of the day is on sautéed string beans with minced pork (乾煸四季豆).  This is one of my favorite dishes from mom, and in fact in all my years I've only ever come across two restaurants in Taipei that come close to mom's version... and none in either Hong Kong or Macau.

The beans are first pan-fried slowly and a few at a time to ensure that they are browned and starts to shrivel and dry out.  They're removed from heat, and then finely diced, rehydrated dried shrimp (蝦米) and minced pork are stir-fried separately.  Finally, everything is put back into the wok and stir-fried together along with some diced spring onions... again over an extended period of time to ensure the beans continue to shrivel and soften.

The lessons took a little longer today than expected, so some of us were pretty hungry by the time we sat down to our feast.  But what a feast!

We started with mom's signature braised stuffed sea cucumber (海參鑲肉), which the Great One has been wanting to taste for years.  Unlike the lesson held four years ago, this dish wasn't part of the lesson today.  This is because it takes DAYS to properly rehydrate a sea cucumber, before it can be stuffed and braised over time.  So the process for these big suckers started earlier this week.

Mom was very generous today because having 4 of these for the 6 of us is a lot... although in the end we only ended up eating 3 of them.  Having just had some on my birthday a few days ago, I only had ¼ of one... while the Great One ended up with ¾ and HaoKouFu ended up eating a whole sea cucumber by herself!

But these were glorious!  Mom always frets that sea cucumbers are tough to handle - especially when serving more than one - because the texture and required cooking time is different for each one.  That was certainly the case tonight, and some were starting to fall apart while others remained slightly tough on the outer skin.  Thankfully the one section I got was pretty much perfect.  The sea cucumber was sooooo soft... and some of the collagen had oozed out into the sauce.  The pork stuffing was very, very smooth, with ginger blended into the mix.  This is one of mom's proudest creations, and I would never get tired of this dish.  Lip-smacking good.

Then it was time to get some veg in our system.  The perfect ten eight was pretty good today, but having eaten this for decades, I understood mom's concerns about the texture being slightly off.  The summer bamboo shoots are a little too juicy compared to winter bamboo shoots, the bean sprouts were a little limp from being slightly overcooked, the celery was cut into much bigger chunks than usual...  But I still loved the taste, and it's a rare treat to enjoy this in the summer.

The sautéed string beans with minced pork (乾煸四季豆) was very good as usual, even if some of the string beans were a little too charred by mom's standards.  The beans were dried and shriveled, and much softer than what you'd see in commercial restaurants.  The mixture of minced pork, dried shrimp, and spring onions added tons of flavor, and this is a dish that needs steamed rice to dilute its heavy seasoning.  Yum.

Finally, the lion's head (獅子頭) that has been simmering and soaking for the last few hours was ready to be served.  No surprise that mom lamented the fact that I didn't have a proper wok with a curved bottom in my kitchen, as the flat bottom of my wok caused these meatballs to flatten out so that they started to look like giant hamburger patties...

But that in no way affects the texture and the tastes, and it's easy to see the holes inside where the bits of onion had been before the liquid has been cooked out.  This is the secret to having a soft texture.

We were all pretty full by now, and so we just had some local fruits to finish.  There was a pineapple that was very, very ripe... which I enjoyed eating before the proteolytic enzymes started to digest my tongue.  There were also these guavas which were almost seedless.

This being dinner at home, we drank some casual wines. HaoKouFu very generously brought along a white Burg to start us off...

2014 Hubert Lamy Saint-Aubin La Princée - mineral, lemon, and toasty oak.

1997 Beringer Merlot Private Reserve - decanted just prior to serving.  Nose of stewed prunes, pretty sweet and ripe, plenty of vanilla oak.  Very silky and smooth on the palate.

A very, very good evening.  Many thanks to Hello Kitty for helping mom out, and I'm ever grateful to mom for her generosity and her love for me.

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