Tuesday, November 22, 2011

An (Almost) All-American Thanksgiving (or, What to Eat the Morning After)

(This post originally appeared on my Open Salon blog last year. A slightly different version was published on Salon.com.)

Ungrateful whining is an American child’s birthright. But if you grow up in an immigrant family, you have a whole battery of things to whine about that other kids don’t.

For one, your parents and their friends will insist on infesting every event with dorky, embarrassing stuff from the old country. Back in my whiny years, all my cool friends from school got to have buttery mashed potatoes and flaky little Parker House rolls at their Thanksgiving tables. And I was stuck with... plain boiled rice.

“MOOOM! Why do we have to have RICE? I want potatoes!”

“Rice is good.” Mom would say. “And Dad wants rice.”

End of discussion. (This was another thing Chinese-American kids get to whine about: We never get to have the last word. Ever.)

Thanksgiving, according to my grade-school teachers, was the most American of holidays, a time to celebrate our common heritage by bonding around indigenous American foodstuffs. So I decided it was up to me, as a patriotic native-born American, to protect the sanctity of the holiday from creeping Sinofication.

“You know what Auntie Pat puts in her turkey?” Mom said one night a week before Thanksgiving, “Naw mai and lop cheung.”

Dad’s eyebrows raised from behind the Wall Street Journal. “Mmm, “ he said.

“MOOOM! NO!” my sisters and I yelled in unison. Not that there was anything wrong with naw mai (sticky rice) and lop cheung (dried Chinese sausage), but these weren’t Thanksgiving food. They were everyday boring food. The kind of stuff we ate while relatives interrogated us about our grades and asked us why Mom didn’t have any sons (as if we could possibly formulate an intelligent answer to this question).

Year after year, we successfully fought off rice-stuffed turkeys and stir-fried side dishes. We also managed to increase, ever so gradually, the proportion of toasted marshmallows on top of our absolutely mandatory sweet potato casserole. And as my sisters and I assumed more and more responsibility and control in the kitchen, our Thanksgiving spreads became less Norman Rockwell and more Martha Stewart: pumpkin flans and souffles are more our thing than pumpkin pies.

These days, we count our victory over immigrant dorkitude nearly complete. But the purity of our red-blooded Yuppie American Thanksgiving feast lasts only until the dishes are cleared. That’s when our Martha Stewart idyll ends, and Mom’s annual turkey jook production begins. (Jook is often described, unappetizingly, as rice porridge or gruel, but it deserves to be re-branded as a savory and soothing cream of rice soup.)

While the dishes are still in the sink, Mom puts the turkey carcass (denuded of stuffing and any pieces of meat large enough to save for sandwiches) in a slow cooker and covers it with water. She tosses in a cut-up carrot and a stalk or two of celery. (Neither of these are traditional Chinese soup ingredients, but that’s how she rolls.) Then she turns the cooker on and lets it do its thing while we do the dishes and attempt to foist foil-wrapped packets of leftovers onto our guests.

The cooker stays on all night, and early on Black Friday morning, Mom removes and dumps the carcass, and adds several handfuls of leftover rice from the night before. (Yes, we still have plain boiled rice every Thanksgiving. Since almost no one touches it except Dad, we can always count on leftovers for jook-making.) Within an hour, the rice will have dissolved, turning the rich turkey broth into a silky ivory cream – just in time for a comforting, very traditional Chinese breakfast for late risers.

In the end, that pointless bowl of Thanksgiving rice always manages to redeem itself. And we always end up with a real Chinese dish for Thanksgiving – albeit one with an All-American backbone. And none of us have ever complained about it.

As always, Mom and Dad get the last word.


Jook is traditionally served at breakfast or as a late-night snack. It can be made with fish, meat, or poultry broth, and usually contains pieces of the corresponding meat. (I’ve heard of jook based on plain water, but this would be unthinkable in my family.)

True confession time: I’ve never hosted a full-on Thanksgiving dinner, so I’ve have never had unfettered access to a turkey carcass. (Yes, I know – I’ve missed a crucial milestone of American womanhood and should probably just go and join the Taliban right now.) But I have made jook many times, and it’s dead easy. The recipe below produces a more modest portion than Mom’s – a good starter size for newbies and doubters. It calls for raw rice, since I assume most non-Chinese don’t typically have cold cooked rice lying around. But you can use a larger portion of cooked rice and cook the soup for a shorter amount of time.


4 cups turkey or chicken broth

2 ¼-inch thick slices of fresh ginger

1/3 cup raw white rice, rinsed (or 1 cup cooked white rice rice)

salt and white pepper to taste

1 cup cooked turkey or chicken, shredded into bite-size pieces

For garnishes:

2 scallions, thinly sliced

sesame oil

chile oil

1. Bring the broth and ginger to a boil in a heavy saucepan.

2. Add the rice. Cook at medium heat, stirring regularly, until the rice has fully cooked and broken down (about an hour). The mixture should have the consistency of a thick bean soup (it won’t be completely smooth; little nubs of rice will still be evident). If it’s too thick for your taste, add more broth. If it’s too thin, raise the heat and cook until the mixture has thickened to your desired consistency.

3. Add the shredded chicken or turkey and season to taste with salt and white pepper. Cook until the meat is heated through.

4. Garnish with sliced scallions. Serve with sesame oil, chile oil, and extra white pepper for diners to add at will.

Monday, November 21, 2011

A Tiger Mom’s Daughter Makes Popcorn

I’ve had this brilliant idea bouncing around for a while: flavored popcorn. But not just plain old cheese-flavored popcorn or kettle corn – truly epic, sweet, salty, tangy, and spicy popcorn with crazy Indian flavors that would subvert the whole notion of what popcorn is supposed to taste like.

And it would be a cinch to make, too. I knew exactly what flavors I wanted and how to get them (basically, I’d use the spice combination in Madhur Jaffrey’s recipe for Indian snack mix, which I’ve used successfully before in other experiments). I knew how to get the flavors and the popcorn together – I’d cook the spices along with the popcorn, a technique I had learned from a spiced popcorn recipe in City Cuisine, a cookbook featuring dishes from a wonderfully original (and sadly defunct) Los Angeles restaurant.

How could I go wrong?

Let me count the ways.

First, I haven’t laid eyes on that cookbook for years. If I still have it, it’s somewhere in storage at my parents’ place, three time zones away. I haven’t made the spiced popcorn recipe from that book in years, and the exact details of the technique involved were fuzzy. I’d have to wing it, but I’m good at winging it. Usually.

I assembled and mixed my spices, per Jaffrey’s recipe: salt, sugar, cinnamon, turmeric, black mustard seeds, cayenne (I like to use a LOT), cloves, black pepper, and the secret ingredient, amchoor, or dried green mango powder.

Then I heated up some oil in a big pot to pop the corn. When it was sufficiently hot, I dumped in the popcorn kernels, let a few of them pop, then dumped in the spices. I could heat the happy thumps of popping kernels hitting the bottom of the pot’s lid, and smell the spices. And something burning.

I lifted the lid about an inch. Several kernels of corn shot across the kitchen through a puff of smoke and skidded under the refrigerator. If you make popcorn on the stove you can expect a bit of steam when you crack open the lid but this wasn’t steam. It was the whole darned project going up in smoke.

I realized immediately what had happened. The City Cuisine recipe (if I recalled correctly) involved only dried spices and salt. My recipe involved sugar and amchoor, which was essentially powdered dried fruit. Dumped into a pan with a layer of hot oil on the bottom, it cooked into a jam-like gunk, then scorched.

Duh. What did I think would happen? Here, I can hear my parents’ Pavlovian response to such mishaps by their offspring. “The problem was, you weren’t thinking!”

Well, I was thinking now. Failure is a memorable teacher, if nothing else. And one lesson I’ve absorbed from a Chinese-American childhood (other than to never put sugar in your tea at a dim sum place) is that adversity is good for you. Spending hours upon hours doing stuff you hate (Bach’s Two-Part Inventions, anyone?) makes you a better person – and really good at doing stuff you hate, a regrettably important skill for adults.

Fortunately, this training also made me better at doing stuff I like, especially when it goes bad – like now. Thankfully, I had plenty of all the ingredients I needed, and the burnt gunk on the bottom of the pan washed off fairly easily. Time for take two. This time, I’d keep the amchoor and sugar separate from the other spices and add them only at the end, after the popcorn had finished popping.

The oil was heated and the kernels were just starting to thump against the inside of the lid. I lifted it quickly and dumped in the spices, leaving the amchoor and sugar off to the side. I shook the pan to distribute the spices as the kernels popped, thinking of how pretty the finished popcorn would look – sunny yellow from the turmeric and flecked with bits of spice.

The popping slowed, then stopped. I lifted the lid: a few sunny yellow buds of popcorn, but the rest were flecked with black. The spices had burned again.

A lesser warrior would have given up. But not me. I wasn’t raised to be a quitter. Nietzsche said that what doesn’t kill you will make you grow stronger, and being stronger is always a good thing. This was a teachable moment, and I was going to learn from it, dammit!

Take three. It was obvious that cooking the spices with the popcorn was a no-go. (Was that really how they did it in the City Cuisine recipe? Now I was beginning to doubt my memory, which is normally pretty good.) Just dumping the spices onto the popcorn after it was popped wouldn’t work either; I’d tried that before and the spices never stuck to the popcorn – they just sank uselessly to the bottom of whatever container the popcorn was in. So I opted for the method Madhur Jaffrey used to incorporate the spices into her snack mix: I heated the mustard seeds in oil until they popped, removed the hot oil from the heat, and stirred in all the spices except the amchoor, salt, and sugar. Then I poured the mixture over the popcorn and stirred. Once everything was combined, I sprinkled on the amchoor, salt, and sugar and stirred again.

Close, but still not perfect. It was certainly edible, but not quite what I wanted. Some pieces of popcorn were covered with gobs of the spicy mix, while others were nearly white. Also, the mix was almost too saturated with flavor –as if there was too much spice for the amount of popcorn used. I knew exactly what I needed to do: slightly increase both the amount of popcorn and the amount of oil used to heat the spices. The problem with this batch was that the oil-and-spice mixture was thick and pasty, not the melted-butter consistency that would even cover the popcorn. These two adjustments would both improve the flavor balance and the distribution of spices over the popped kernels.

Now I was feeling both like a very proud cub of a good Tiger Mom and like a particularly masochistic minion of Christopher Kimball. The end was in sight. But my kitchen was a hot mess (literally) and it was getting close to dinnertime. The (hopefully) final denouement of my project would have to wait.

Flash forward about 20 hours. This whole experiment was beginning to feel like Groundhog Day. I assembled my spices (again), measured out a slightly larger quantity of popcorn, and popped it as usual -- again. Then I dumped it into a big bowl, wiped out the pot, and added the oil and mustard seeds. When the mustard seeds had all popped, I added the spices, just as before. This time, there was enough oil to dissolve, or at least, evenly disperse them. I poured the now- bright-orange liquid over the popcorn and stirred vigorously until the popcorn was the sunny, nearly uniform yellow I had hoped for. Then I poured over the amchoor/salt/sugar mixture and stirred again.

I tasted it. Success! About freaking time, too. Sweet, salty, spicy, tangy, and despite the seemingly copious amount of oil involved, not discernibly greasy. A perfect snack for Bollywood movie nights and beyond. Forget the Tiger Cub – now I felt like one of Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers: my 10,000 hours of popcorn-making practice (well, that’s what it felt like) had finally resulted in transcendence. It felt amazing and made me wonder why I didn’t do experiments like this more often.

Then I realized it was close to dinnertime again and it was time to wash and put away all that stuff in the sink before getting started on yet another group of recipes. And I was now running low on black peppercorns, one of my husband’s favorite flavorings, too. And cooking oil. Oops. Maybe that’s why.

But no regrets. The ride was totally worth it.


(inspired by recipes from Madhur Jaffrey's World-of-the-East Vegetarian Cookingand City Cuisine,by Mary Milliken and Susan Feniger)

This recipe actually is really easy to make, believe it or not. It would make a fun and different cocktail nibble for a holiday open house. Amchoor (which contributes a tangy, fruity note) and black mustard seeds are available at Indian markets.

¾” piece cinnamon stick
3 whole cloves
½ teaspoon black peppercorns
¼ teaspoon ground turmeric
1 teaspoon cayenne (or to taste—this amount makes the mix quite spicy!)
1-1/4 teaspoon salt
2-1/2 teaspoons sugar
1-1/2 teaspoons amchoor (dried green mango powder)
1/3 cup popcorn kernels
½ tablespoon black mustard seeds
4 tablespoons neutral cooking oil, such as canola (or more if you need it to pop your corn)

1. In a spice grinder or mortar, grind the cinnamon stick, cloves, and peppercorns until they are powdery. Combine with the turmeric and cayenne in a small cup and set aside.

2. In a separate cup, combine the sugar, salt, and amchoor; set aside.

3. Pop the corn. If you don’t have a popcorn popper, you can do it the old-school way, on the stovetop: put 2 tablespoons of canola or other neutral oil in a large, heavy pot with a lid and drop in a test kernel. Cover the pot and cook over medium heat until the kernel pops. Then add the remaining kernels. Keep the pot covered, but shake it around occasionally to distribute the kernels evenly. When the popping stops, remove the pot from the heat and pour the popped corn into a large bowl.

4. Wipe out the pot (if you’ve used one) or use a small, heavy skillet to make the seasoned oil. Put the 4 tablespoons of oil into the pot or skillet and bring the heat to medium. Add the mustard seeds and cook until all the seeds have popped. Remove the skillet or pot from the heat and stir in the ground spices.

5. Pour the spice mixture over the popped corn and stir vigorously with a large spoon (or even your hands) until the popcorn is evenly coated. Sprinkle on the salt/sugar/amchoor mixture and stir again.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

The Pleasures of PBS (and a Defense of Monkey Gland Steak)

Not having cable is liberating. It gives me a perfect excuse not to keep up with the Kardashians or any of the other irritating presences hogging up the cultural universe: Sorry, I didn’t see that – I don’t have cable!

Another good thing about not having cable is that when I do feel like zonking out in front of the TV, I am forced to watch PBS, the only over-the-air station in my area that has decent reception and isn’t constantly running pawn-shop ads. It’s kind of like not keeping junk food in the house: if you feel like snacking, you have no choice but to go for the carrot sticks.

But after many hours of virtuous sloth (spacing out in front of a Ken Burns documentary somehow feels righteous and wholesome), I realized with delight that PBS isn’t all carrot sticks. Sometimes, like ripe mangoes or perfect strawberries, it’s so enchanting you forget it’s good for you. Seriously, any American who doesn’t love Big Bird or get into geeking out with the History Detectives really does’t deserve to be alive.

Even more fun than Big Bird’s adventures or the origins of that thing that may or may not have belonged to Benedict Arnold are PBS’s cooking shows. Unlike the glitz-filled drivel on the Food Network, the cooks who have shows on PBS – Ming Tsai, Jacques Pepin, and Lidia Bastianich, among others – actually know how to cook and are passionately curious about the history, origins, and uses of their ingredients. Watching those guys (and girls) at work can give you both a raging appetite and a genuinely improved knowledge of some crucial technique or regional cuisine: Did you know you can avoid getting shell bits in your eggs by cracking the shells against a flat surface such as a counter rather than against the rim of a bowl? Merci, chef Pepin. Try getting useful stuff like THAT from a gaggle of feuding sorority girls on Cupcake Wars.

Best of all for me and my husband Glenn, several of these shows happen to come on just before we normally eat dinner – perfect eye candy to relax to while stirring up a sauce or waiting for something to come out of the oven.

Like every other human institution, however, PBS sometimes screws up. Some of their B-string cooking shows look as though they were lifted from some public-access channel in the middle of nowhere. And even the true culinary stars in their lineup occasionally get things wrong.

A couple of weeks ago, Todd English’s travel and cooking show came on just before dinner and to Glenn’s delight, was to feature the foods of South Africa, where he was born and raised. And Glenn and I couldn’t wait to see the traditional foods he grew up with showcased by a master chef: What would English taste and cook as he explored Glenn’s homeland? The sweet, twisted fritters called koeksisters? Sosaties, skewers of curry-drenched lamb cooked over an open flame? The traditional meat-filled grill called a braai?

The final answer was...none of the above. Todd English’s vision of South African cuisine and Glenn’s couldn’t have been more different. The Zulu goat sacrifice and resulting goat stew that English watched being made were authentically African, but not part of Glenn’s experience as a non-African from Johannesburg. And English’s segment on safari cooking featured a butternut squash and mascarpone cheese casserole -- something Glenn never recalled having on any safari that he’d ever been on.

To be fair, it would have been impossible for English to do justice to the culinary traditions of a country as culturally complex as South Africa in a half-hour show. But the contributions of South Africa’s centuries-old Indian and European populations to its cooking – which include a full battery of eclectic dishes not found anywhere else – seemed conspicuous by their absence.

Why? Maybe English tried some of traditional Euro-Indo-South African dishes and didn’t like them. Or maybe his producers thought scenes filmed in the bush would look better on TV than those filmed in a typical middle-class urban kitchen. Or perhaps typical urban South African fare is neither exotic nor fancy enough to suit the vibe of his show.

However, I have another, less obvious theory. Some of these typical dishes – tasty as they are – have weird names that American audiences might find off-putting. And English and his team probably realized this wouldn’t go over very well during PBS pledge week: Stay tuned! After a few words from our general manager about our latest matching challenge from Gatorland Chevrolet, we’ll return to Todd English as he shows you how to make a traditional South African favorite – Monkey Gland Steak!

If this is the case, maybe I see why English and his handlers made the choices they did. Still, somebody has to explain the wonders of Monkey Gland Steak to the wider world – and it might as well be me. Fear not, this dish is, and always has been, completely monkey- and gland-free.


It’s unclear how Monkey Gland Steak – beef topped with a tangy sauce enlivened with chutney, onions, and tomatoes – got its name. One legend has it that the dish was invented as a joke by a group of French-trained chefs at a snooty Johannesburg restaurant: Bitter that their wealthy but unschooled Afrikaaner and rural English clientele failed to appreciate the subtlety of their classic French sauces, they threw together the dumbest, most un-French mixture of bottled condiments possible and gave it the most ridiculous name they could think of. To their surprise (and perhaps, disappointment), the philistines loved it. Another story claims that an English chef created this dish early in the last century, and it became a favorite of a prominent doctor known for grafting tissues from monkey testicles into human testicles to restore virility. The chef later moved to South Africa and brought the recipe with him – and it soon became a local favorite.

In South African, the sauce is either cooked along with the meat or offered as an optional topping for steaks (it appears on menus at steakhouses alongside BĂ©arnaise sauce and other classic steak accompaniments). To my taste, the brash, tangy flavors of Monkey Gland sauce (it’s a bit like a South African analogue to barbecue sauce) seem wrong for a delicate filet mignon or other special-treat cut. Rather, it seems better suited for the preparation Glenn remembers from his youth: baked slowly with a cheaper, sturdier cut of beef for a hearty family dinner – it’s great served with mashed potatoes.


(Adapted from South African Gourmet Food and Wine: Traditional South African Food and Moreby Myrna Rosen and Leslie Loon)

4 rump, strip, or sirloin steaks
4 tablespoons prepared mustard (or more if needed)
2 tablespoons neutral cooking oil, such as canola
1 medium onion, chopped
1 pound sliced or roughly chopped fresh mushrooms
½ cup tomato ketchup
½ cup Major Grey chutney (or other sweet mango chutney)
2 tablespoons Worcestershire sauce
1 teaspoon (or more) hot sauce, or to taste (optional)
salt and pepper to taste

1. Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Spread mustard thinly on both sides of each steak. Heat the oil in a large skillet over medium high heat, and brown the steaks briefly on both sides. Remove the browned steaks from the skillet (you may need to brown them in two batches) and place in a heatproof baking dish.

2. Add the chopped onion and the mushrooms to the hot skillet and cook until wilted and slightly browned.

3. Meanwhile, combine the ketchup, chutney, Worcestershire sauce, and hot sauce and add to the skillet. Cook, stirring, until the sauce comes to a boil.

4. Pour the sauce over the steaks in the baking dish. Cover the dish with foil and bake at 375 degrees until the steaks are tender, about 40 minutes