January – February 2017
After more than half a decade of drought-like conditions (aka “Las Vegas gets more rain than us”), northern California is wet. Most of the state is soaked, parts of urban California are flooding, and dam spillways are open for the first time ever. It’s so wet, that this rainy season may break rainfall records from a hundred years ago. The Sierra -Tahoe area has received more snow in January alone than they have in each of the last ten years, and gusty winds on the summits have been clocked at 199 mph.
This is perfect noodle soup weather.
Ramen houses, like craft breweries, abound in Sacramento. One of our favorites is Binchoyaki Izakaya, located in fading Japantown on the southwest edge of downtown.
The steaming Shio Ramen is a delicious balance of umami, chew, herbs and looks. Who cannot smile when looking at pink and white slices of swirly fish cake floating on top of a big bowl of noodles?
Patrons sitting at the bar get full view of the skill, fanning, and precise timing required to coax the coals to cook. Skewers stuck with vegetables and meats are finished with a thin seasoned sauce. We try but can’t resist the yaki-onigiri – crisp and smoky surfaces, covered with sweet and umami and toasty sesame seeds – reminiscent of the browned bottom crust of stove-top cooked rice. We’re almost certain that this hunk of sticky rice stresses out the carb-o-meter but it’s so good!
Lunar New Year Foods – January 28, 2017
Many Asian households are buzzing in preparation as the lunar new year approaches. Also referred to as Chinese New Year, the lunar new year falls somewhere between January 21 and February 20 annually on the Gregorian calendar.
Much like other holiday cookies and treats, these sweets appear in the family home only at this time probably because the special pastries are so decadent and the effort takes over the kitchen for days.
Hup-toh sow’ (hup like in cup; toh like in toe; sow like in sew) and gawk-jay (I’m sure there’s a more common name for these but that’s what Mom calls them), are filled with a chopped walnut, sesame seed, and shredded coconut filling. The multi-layered flakey pastry skins are made from a two-part wheat flour and oil dough combo and assembled similar to puff pastry dough. Hup-toh sow are oven-baked on low heat to maintain the desired white appearance. Gawk-jay, little turnovers with braided edges are fried in oil until golden. Traditionally, the pastries are decorated with a red dot; red is a good luck color in the Chinese culture. To help distinguish similar looking pastries with different fillings, sometimes there multiple dots or none.
Each village in China has its own version of celebratory customs. In the Far-Yuen village in the Canton province where my parents lived, family, friends, and neighbors visit the homes of the bride and groom early on the day of the couple’s wedding banquet. When leaving, guests are gifted with an assortment of pastries and small cakes – different collections come from the two homes. Hup-toh sow was often included in the packages from the bride’s home; hence, these small cakes are sometimes referred to as “wife cakes” (not to confused with a more widely known pastry with a sweet melon filling that’s called wives cakes). And, yes, there are also “husband cakes.”
Dahn-sahn (dahn means egg and sahn means scatter) dough is rolled thin similar to wheat flour dough enriched with eggs used to make egg noodles and won ton wrappers. A pair of cut dough sheets about the size of a tied bow-tie (sometimes they are called that) are entwined by pulling the dough ends through cuts in the dough, and then fried until shatteringly light and crisp. Mom’s dahn-sahn are coated with a soft-ball stage sugar syrup, balanced with lemon juice, and finished with a generous scatter of toasted sesame seeds.
Often during the holiday, families come together for food, conversation, and to make lots of something – like potstickers. It is a time when stories and traditions are passed through the generations so that everyone eventually figures out their place and contributions in this world.