Chinese Last Night: Sour Hot Cabbage

Thai food is too heavy on sugar and fish sauce, Korean on chili and salt, Viet on fish sauce, Malaysian and Indonesian and most other Asian countries on coconut milk (which though a veg oil, is a saturated oil) and sugar. Among all the Asian cuisines, I've found Chinese and Japanese food to be the healthiest. While Jap wins over Chinese because of very little oil being used (although these days 'modern' Jap food is more likely to be deep-fried), Chinese food wins over Jap because more greens and assorted fresh veg are used, and in bigger portions. However, these two cuisines have something in common: use of soy sauce and msg, the Japs cleverly disguising it as dashi. The Chinese have caught on and now use chicken stock powder. That's my one cent on the level of healthiness in Asian food.

Last Saturday, four pretty young (as young as Yi) things from China who are studying here came to my house to learn how to bake a cake. I heard that they liked cheesecake, and so I taught them my macha cheesecake. I totally embarassed myself and ruined my reputation because the cheesecake sank to a wet mess once it was taken out of my week-old oven. While my old oven was always too hot, the new oven appears to be 30 C colder. I'm telling you this so you remember to know your oven, and adjust the baking temperature accordingly.

For dinner, the girls offered to cook typical home-style dishes. I brought them to the Lido Market, me the mother hen proudly leading 4 beautiful chicks who spoke Mandarin beautifully and refinely, unlike my Mandarin (which my MIL sarcastically calls 'Nanyang Mandarin'. The next worst thing to speaking 'Nanyang Mandarin' is having a 'Nanyang Face'. But let me leave that grouse to another time).
What shocked me was when the girls asked how many people they should cook for, and when I told them "7", they said "7 people? Oh, then that'll be 7 dishes and one soup!" I'm like "What?! 7 dishes for home-style dinner?! That sounds like a wedding banquet to me! Would we be eating at 10??" They informed me that in China, it is standard to cook or order one dish per person. Just think, 25 years ago my father not only had to send money to our relatives in China, TVs and even clothes were commonly requested items. Now they not only have bigger, better TVs, they eat much better than us. I think on the average, the Chinese in Malaysia will cook 3 dishes plus a soup for dinner. If there's more people, we'd just increase the portion of each dish. But it is true, and I have noticed on my travels to China that in China, they do cook many dishes but in smaller portion so that there are many varieties of meat and veg. In Shanghainese restaurants , if I include the 10 appetisers, upto 20 dishes will be served in one meal, and I am not kidding you. Another small difference I noticed was whereas we (or at least I) fry up a dish of greens for the veg part of the meal, the middle to northern Chinese people will fry assorted veg and not just plain greens. In last Sat's dinner, the girls fried green bell peppers with potato (which they call 'too dou' (earth/soil product/bean)) and thinly sliced lotus root with black vinegar (remember what I said about my mom frying her 4-wing beans with vinegar? It's a Chinese thing), two dishes which I have never ever eaten before but which they swear is common home dishes from Nanjing City to Jiangxi and Henan provinces, the places these girls are from. Other dishes we had were stewed pork belly, egg fried with tomatoes, mapo tofu, my left-over crabs from a previous dinner which remained untouched and thus became my Thai dish of crabs with tang hoon the next evening, and a soup. That totalled to 6 dishes and a soup, and we were one dish short because we decided against the prawns since we were all ladies except for my two boys as Hub was away at a retreat (nicer word for 'get away').

As it turned out, the girls were very efficient. Despite being their parents' only child, each of them was quite efficient in cutting and preparing the meat and veg for this one girl who was an excellent cook, but who had never cooked before until she came here to study 3 years ago. I have a long peninsula in my outdoor kitchen and it was a scene from Snow White and the 7 Dwarfs (not that they were short) as they each took care of chopping the garlic, ginger, slicing the meat and washing the veg. Hi ho hi ho hi ho hi ho. Unfortunately, none of my photos turned out good enough to be posted.

Lily, who has finally bound her Master's degree thesis (it looked impressive, and I feel proud of her) has been staying with us the past 4 weeks while looking for a place of her own as she finalises her thesis and waits for her convocation in August. Last night, she took over the kitchen and I got the rest that I badly wanted. This is what she cooked, and we thoroughly enjoyed her cooking:

Pea sprouts soup with pork slices and century egg, steamed pork slices with seasoned rice flour (this signature dish of Jiangxi where Lily is from is called "fen zheng rou" or "mi fen rou"), fresh chinese black mushrooms fried with pork, home-made chicken nuggets (my contribution, just to appease Wey) and sour and hot cabbage ("suan la bao cai"), the most common vinegar-fried veg dish in China, according to Lily.

It was refreshing to taste somebody else's cooking. These Chinese students have made me realise how diverse China and Chinese cuisine is.

Freshly fried sour and hot cabbage.

Sour And Hot Cabbage1 small cabbage, cut into large pieces3 dried hot chilies, washed and dried, n cut into 1.5 cm pieces2 to 3 T black vinegar1 t sugar (optional)salt to tastea few shakes of msg or pinch of chicken stock powder3 T oil1. Put oil in heated wok, add the chilies and fry in high heat till crisp but not burnt. 2. Add the cabbage to the chilies and fry at medium heat, adding a tablespoon of water as you fry. Add the salt and msg. When veg is half-done or just wilted, add the vinegar (and sugar if using) in small amounts, adjusting to your liking. Do not overcook the cabbage because the heat will still cook it upon standing and the black vinegar will draw out some liquid, giving some sauce to the dish.