Saturday, January 28, 2006

Stop staring at me!

At the end of one tasty nine course meal with J’s parents in Singapore, J’s dad commented on how little our friend K ate. (He also commented on how heartily E attacked the dishes, but that’s a hilarious story only E is privileged to recount.) K politely responded that he wasn’t too hungry, but enjoyed tasting everything. When the parents drove off, K blunted out “did you see how that ugly catfish was staring right at me?” I, who is incapable of understanding how any food could appear weird to anyone, had no idea. Apparently, the whole steamed fresh fish, the fifth course presented at the table, was positioned with its head pointed right at K, a showing of respect to the Chinese. That message, however, did not translate well across cultures it seems. K spent the rest of the meal trying to avoid direct eye contact with the offending fish, let alone trying it.

What a shame to miss such an excellent dish, I thought. The fish was arguably one of the best offerings of the night with snowy white flesh that melt in the mouth almost like warm savory custard, spiced with just a hint of ginger and scented with fresh spring onions. On the flight back, I couldn’t stop wondering if there is a less scary way to entice my friends from this half of the world to give steamed fish a shot. An opportunity for experimenting came to me last weekend at the farmer’s market, where a fresh fillet of cod caught my eye. The fillet was just about the length and thickness of a smallish whole fish and perfectly shaped to fit in my makeshift steamer at home.

Once home, I lightly marinated the fillet as I would a whole fish and tucked half of the ginger that was supposed to go inside the cavity of the fish under the fillet. The sauce was poured over and the fillet was sent into the steamer atop double layers of foil. I decided to cut the cooking time by about 20% to account for the time that it would otherwise take for the heat to penetrate the skin of the fish. In about ten minutes, I turned off the heat and promptly removed the fish from the hot steam. At first glance, the fillet looked great with a nice bright white sheen (I am always wary of the dull gray hue that a piece of not so fresh fish takes on after cooking). The smell imparted by the mixture of fresh ginger and homemade black bean sauce was definitely appealing.

The disappointment only came when I attempted to transfer the fish from the foil to the platter, which normally involves simply sliding the whole fish from one into the other. In this case, since there is no head or skin to hold the delicate flesh together, the fillet rolled off the foil in chunks. While I was able to prettify the overall look by covering some of the chunks with the spring onions in my finishing sauce, there is no masking the fact that the fish is in pieces.

Tasting revealed yet another deficiency. I had failed to take into account how much flavor the thin layer of fat underneath the skin of a whole fish imbues into the flesh during steaming, which is an especially important consideration for a fish steamed in the Asian style. This is because a relatively small amount of oil is added during the cooking process, so there is much reliance on the fish’s natural fat deposits to moisten the finished product.

With all that said, the dish still had its merits. Most notably, the exposed flesh absorbed the sauce very well, which is a problem with steaming thick skinned whole fish sometimes. Overall, for one who has never tried a steamed whole fish before, this is a great introductory dish.

Wednesday, January 18, 2006

Where is the soup?

These beautiful babies are “soup dumplings” and the name is no misnomer. So where is the soup? If you don’t know the answer, you need to read the instructions before diving in for a taste. Seriously, the consequences of ignorant consumption could result in disablement of all sensations in your mouth for a few days, as J has experienced on numerous occasions. Why he had chosen to experience such disablement more than once is something that could only be understood by those who eat with us often.

I first encountered a version of these in New York City about seven years ago at a famous Shanghainese restaurant where they were served with little sheets of eating instructions. Not being one who loves to follow instructions, I am grateful for having brought along a friend who had already been clued in on the eating procedures and showed me the ropes. Now, I make a point to order these at places where they are the “it” dish each time I return to Asia and I almost always get to play teacher to friends from this half of the world.

This time, E, K, J, and I ordered the “soup dumplings” at a Crystal Jade in Hong Kong, where they are the required dish. Before they arrived, I gave at least three “the soup is incredibly hot” warnings. Then we went through the 4 stepped procedures with the real stuff, which included dipping a dumpling in a mix of vinegar and freshly shredded ginger, while taking care not to pierce the delicate skin that is about the thickness of a CD; carefully taking a small bite to create an opening near the top of the dumpling, which enables the “soup” or steaming hot concentrated juices of pork and vegetables inside the dumpling to air slightly, slowly sucking out the “soup” when it had cooled to a tolerable temperature, and eating the rest of the dumpling with more of the dipping sauce and/or hot chili pepper as in K’s case.

E and K amazed us with their chopstick skills by finishing two steamers of the “soup dumplings” without piercing a single wrapper. Everyone absolutely loved how the tangy vinegar balanced out the richness of the meat filling and heightened the juiciness of the pork. The wrappers were incredibly delicate, but provided a bite and held their integrity without turning mushy.

E exclaimed “I shall never be satisfied with anything less again” after devouring the last one. I get the feeling that this is not going to be her last trip to Asia. Only one person got burned during the meal. I admire and adore his stubbornness very much.

Friday, January 13, 2006

One fat belly

For a girl who thoroughly enjoys dressing up and looking pretty for dinner, there is nothing more thrilling than finding a dish that both delights the taste buds and enhances the complexion. We have been told by various health magazines that such things exist in fruits and vegetables. As much as I like my spinaches and apples, I love my pork belly infinitely more. Believe it or not, the gelatinous substance or collagen in the pork belly skin has been prized by Asian women for thousands of years for its ability to make the skin appear dewy when ingested regularly. For those of you that have complemented me on my good skin genes, now you know my secret.

Seeing the almost translucent mound of perfectly braised pork arriving at my table almost made up for the 18 hours of torture on board UA 895 to Hong Kong. Every time I encounter pork in Asia that is so deeply flavored, I wish someone would immediately destroy all those “pork is the other white meat” advertisements all over the New York subways. Pork is meant to be glistening in fat, marbled with white, and capable of saturating whatever it accompanies with that silky texture only lard could impart. And get this, eating this pork belly will not make you fat when you indulge in moderation. The mound you see here is enjoyed by 4 adults at my table with tons of well-steamed greens and we were all satisfied.

Picking the pork up with chopsticks was the tricky part. The braising had tamed the pork so much, it easily broke apart from a little more than a gentle squeeze. This also meant that the meat literally melt in my mouth while leaving behind a hit of salty sweet from the dark soy and rock sugar that it had been braised in. The preserved greens under the pork finished out the dish perfectly by cutting some of the pork’s richness with its tanginess.

At this point, I changed my mind and rather like the idea that E had taken a piece of the meat before I could take a photo. It will forever remind me that waiting is not an option from this belly to our bellies.