Lifeskills: How to Cook Baby Bok Choi

One of the best things about food in China is learning just how good vegetables can taste. Who knew?Bok choy is one of my favorite vegetables to cook. Not the great big heads of 白菜 bai cai (literally, white vegetable, aka Chinese cabbage) nor the immature, baby, version of the plant the Southern Chinese call 小白菜 xiao bai cai (small white vegetable) but the similarly sized, light green vegetable bunches that we call baby bok choy in the States. Eight or nine times out of ten, the term 青菜 qing cai (green vegetable) got me what I wanted in China, though that term could refer to a whole host of different leafy greens.

This is what I'm talking about.

Anyway, this is how to cook that lovely vegetable. It’ll work for just about any other substantial leafy green.
Have on hand:

  • Bok choy (remember, this boils down quite a bit so buy more than you think you’ll want to serve)
  • salt
  • sesame oil
  • oyster sauce
  • soy sauce

Bring a pot of heavily salted water to a boil.
Cut the ends off the bok choy to separate into individual leaves, and wash these.
Blanch the bok choy leaves, a handful or two at a time, in the boiling water for ~30 seconds. Remove from the pot and set aside in a colander placed in the sink or in a large bowl to catch drips.
Toss out the water and, over *low* heat, add a tablespoon or so of sesame oil to the pot. Be sure the heat is low, as sesame oil has a very low smoke point. Add a couple good-sized globs of oyster sauce and a dash or two of soy sauce. Mix these together well and let a bit of the moisture boil off. Add the blanched bai cai back to the pot and stir to coat. Et voilá!

I serve this with just about every Asian dish I make. You just can’t get enough dark leafy greens in your diet. It’s especially good with my famous Whole Pink Fish with Orange Juice and Cumin or Pai Gu (Spare ribs) in Black Bean Sauce.

Let me know how this works out for you and what you pair it with!

Dim Sum and Applause

We took my parents out for dim sum last week. It was an impromptu affair, as we suddenly found ourselves near the International District around lunchtime with time to kill. I’m not too familiar with the Seattle restaurant scene (in my defense, I’ve never really been an adult in this town) and phone calls to my go-to Canto-friend went unanswered (rant for a future post: why NO ONE picks up their cell phone in the States anymore) so we kinda just parked the car around 6th and Dearborn and decided to wing it.

We almost went into the promisingly named Ocean City Restaurant & Night Club when I spotted a gaggle of Canto-grandfolk chattering away animatedly on a street corner. We passed them and stopped for the light to change (this IS Seattle, after all…best not to jaywalk here). This gave me the moment’s pause I needed to muster up boldness, double back, approach the group, smile and, in my best gutteral slur greet them with a: “M’ho yisee, ngomen yiu yumcha. Bindoh ho?”

And then the heavens opened and angels sang because they didn’t give me I-Don’t-Speak-English Face. We did have to carry out the rest of the conversation in Mandarin, but they understood my opening line and directed us down the street to a place called Honey Court Seafood. The light changed, our little party of Westerners moved off down the street with many a goodbye smile and head-bob, and the Canto-grandfolk burst into a spontaneous round of applause. Really. They did!

I love Canto-grandfolk.

Honey Court doesn’t look like much from the outside, and the hubs speculated (in typical Southern China Expert Expat style) was probably owned by one of our newfound friends’ family members. He may well have been right, but I didn’t care. I wasn’t about to spoil this glorious linguistic exchange by letting my new friends see us walk into any other establishment. They might’ve thought I didn’t understand them.

The dim sum wasn’t half bad, though. In addition to the requisite har gao and shu mai and char siu bao, which were consumed too rapidly to be digitally documented, we had these:

    

Sadly, our dim sum lunch could not be considered a complete success because we were unable to procure a plate of lok bak gou 萝卜糕, which is, of course, China’s greatest contribution to the culinary arts. This, along with eliminating the opportunity to practice food characters, is why I’m not a fan of the dim sum cart system. Oh well.

A couple days later, we were telling a Cantonese 华侨 friend about our dining adventure (and my linguistic triumph). His only question: “How long did you wait in line?”

No more than five or ten minutes, we told him.

He snorted. “Food must not have been good, then. Good place, you wait hour, maybe hour and half.”

I’ll do better next time.

GPS and Prenatal Care

It seems that while I was navigating my way around subway systems abroad, a GPS service became de rigueur back in the US of A. I’m not sure how I feel about that.

See, I’m kind of a map fiend. I love maps. Love them. I don’t care if the map is of a place I’ve never been, or don’t particularly want to visit. I don’t even care if they’re accurate or not. Some of my favorite maps ever are the ones from the 18th and 19th centuries. Apparently the continents looked different back then. Nothing pains me more than throwing away a perfectly good map, as my better half will attest. He’s learning to live with all sorts of clutter.

The thing is, though, I’m really good at reading a maps. I think that being able to intuitively feel which way is north is a very important lifeskill, one that everyone should acquire if at all possible. Couple this instinct with a decent map, and you’ll never be lost for long. Even the time you spend a bit turned around is time well spent, as it helps fix those streets, landmarks, what have you, in their relative position in your mental map of a city.

I digress. GPS services. I kind of hate them, and even though I do recognize their usefulness in some situations, like figuring out how the heck to get on the West Seattle Bridge from downtown since they closed the Spokane Street onramp and neglected to change the signs, I confess to (often) talking back to the woman with the grating voice and to thinking myself wiser than she. My major objection to most GPS services is their assumption that I will just blindly, with complete disregard for the bigger picture, follow their commands as to what I ought to do next. It reminds me of my prenatal care experience in China.

There are lots of babies born in China every day. This means there are lots of pregnant women, which in turn means that even hospitals that specialize in prenatal care and birth are very crowded places. The administration of these hospitals deals with the issue by instituting policies that take expectant mothers through doctors’ visits that vaguely resemble circuit training. You check in with Registration so they know you’re there and are issued some sort of a number that will be important later. Then you go to Area A, take a number, wait your turn, get your blood pressure checked. Go to Area B, take a number, wait your turn, get a little test tube, go down the hallway and give a urine sample. Then you head on over to Area C, or sometimes back to Area A or maybe even up to Area D, to take another number and have some other test done. When you’re done with all your tests for the day, that first number gets you in to see your doctor, who looks at all your results, tells you to eat the blandest food humanly possible, and asks you to teach him two new medical terms in English.

The problem with this very orderly system, as it pertained to me, was that I never knew where I was supposed to go next. My medical Chinese is, um, not very advanced, and I don’t do well in crowds, so these were very stressful occasions for me. I made the mistake once or twice of asking WHY I should go to a certain department. On every occasion, the staff were so flummoxed by this question that they would put down what they were doing and say, “OK. I’ll take you there myself.” I soon realized that I couldn’t possibly beat them. I had to join them. So every visit, I would go to my usual starting point, find the friendliest-looking orderly, hand her my little book and say, “Where do I go now?” Once that task was done, I’d ask the orderly on hand, “OK, where do I go next?” As a coping device, I gave up on the big picture.

By my eighth month of pregnancy, I had finally figured out the routine and had started preparing for each visit by looking up whichever handwritten characters were decipherable in the doctor’s instructions from the previous visit. This way, I was able to map out an approximation of what indignities I’d be subjecting myself to that day. Still, by not insisting on an explanation of the big picture I had wasted tons of time and caused myself more stress that I certainly didn’t need.

My concern here is that GPS, like many other demonstrations of modern technology, is nothing more than a coping device, and that in relying too heavily on it we are giving up our critical thinking skills. Why? is the most powerful and the most important question I know, and the answer to it lies somewhere in between the big picture and the next step.

Happy Lists

When I was living in southern China, I had a little circle of friends who would meet regularly for Ladies Who (Frugally) Lunch sessions. We were all very busy people but we found that taking the time to meet a couple times a month over lunch gave us a chance to vent, tell our China Frustration Stories, and generally maintain our sanity.

Over time, we started to notice that our conversation at these luncheons was becoming distinctly negative. In an effort to combat this, before each lunch we’d each prepare a list of 10 things we loved about the city we were living in or China in general, and share our lists with each other over the meal. The Happy Lists were a great way to keep our lives in perspective and keep us focused on the good.

Now, in this my re-pat adventure version 2.1 (2.0 was a 3-month return that might have lasted longer had the economy not been so heinous), I find myself rather ambivalent about being back in the US of A. This is a huge step up from re-pat adventure version 1.0, when I was miserable for a year and nine months straight, with occasional breaks of sunshine and optimism. In the spirit of fostering that optimism, I’m going to share two lists with you: My I’m Glad to Be Back in the States list and my Can’t Wait to Get Back to THIS in China Someday lists. So much for being concise with the naming of those.

Now then, without further ado…

I’m Glad to Be Back in the States List:
1. Trader Joe’s. My goodness, did I miss me some TJ’s while in China. My friend O and I would text each other dream lists of what we’d buy that day if only there were a TJ’s nearby. Mochi Ice Cream balls, Chili Spiced Mango, the medley of tri-colored baby potatoes, Nerello del Bastardo, I could go on and on.
2. Running into people I know at the grocery store. I come from a smaaaaaaaall small town. If you grew up here too and were born within 3 years of me, I know you. It’s nice to see you again.
3. Really, genuinely fresh air
4. I get to take a ferry several times a week. It’s beautiful.
5. Driving a car
6. Drive-thrus. I am convinced that nature invented these for the single-during-the-day mother. I used to just be hungry until I had another set of hands to help out. Now, I can (kind of) nourish myself.
7. Carseats and all the places they fit (into strollers, over the kiddie seat in shopping carts, into the base of an upside-down restaurant high chair)
8. Outdoor performances, especially of the free variety
9.  Chinese people who are genuinely impressed with my Mandarin. I know. I’m so vain.
10. Berries. Strawberries, Raspberries, Blueberries, Blackberries, Salmon berries, Marion berries galore!

Can’t Wait to Get Back to THIS in China Someday:
1. 东北菜 (Northeastern Chinese cuisine) It’s insane. Everywhere I’ve been in China, DongBei food is one of the easiest kinds of foods to find. In the States…nothing!
2. 湖南菜 (Hunan cuisine)
3. Banks that open on the weekends
4. Shops, restaurants, etc. that stay open past 10PM
5. Chatting with taxi drivers
6. Mani/pedis that I deem “affordable”
7. Our really, really international circle of friends 
8. Older Chinese people in parks
9. The workout I got carrying my daughter and her stroller up three flights of stairs. I’m really going to struggle to walk anywhere near as much as I walked in China. See previous list, Item No. 5.
10. Tropical fruit. The mangos here are preposterous.