Spinach Soup with Century Eggs

We’ve come to the end of our current exploration of Century Eggs – from making them from scratch, to mixing them with other ingredients and preparing dishes with them. This is recipe number ten of ten, and what a nice way to end a series it is. This is a soup – a homestyle recipe – that is enjoyed across China as well as in East and Southeast Asia. It uses Chinese Spinach, also called Yin Choi or Yin Tsai, to flavor a delicate, egg-drop style soup that is savory, delicious and filling.

Chinese Spinach Soup with Century Eggs

Chinese Spinach Soup with Century Eggs

The soup is also very quick to make, and takes about 20 minutes from the beginning of preparation to serving. It could be a bit more time if you chose to let the wolfberries stew in the chicken broth a bit, for a sweeter soup.

The Chinese Spinach or Yin Choi (Yin Tsai) is really a form of edible amaranth that comes in a variety or shapes and colors. My favorite is the type with a purple blush up the center of the otherwise green leaf, it makes for a beautiful presentation. Alas, this form is not always available around here, so for this dish, I used one of the all-green varietals. Yin Choi is delicious, and very nutritious. It is extremely high in Vitamin A (2770 IU/100g) and is also a good source of Vitamin C, calcium, potassium, and iron. Other greens are sometimes substituted for amaranth, and it is not uncommon to see the thin, spear-like leaves of water spinach used in variations of this dish.

Goji Berries (Wolfberries)

Goji Berries (Wolfberries)

Another interesting thing about the soup is that it makes use of goji berries – also called wolfberries in English – and can thus be considered a medicinal soup as well as just a dish that is comforting and good to eat. The goji berries are high in iron, selenium, riboflavin, Vitamin C and other antioxidants, as well as a wide variety of phytochemicals such as beta-carotene. and amino acids. They also contain small amounts of atropine, an acetylcholine receptor antagonist. In plain English, this means that the atropine in goji berries binds at the receptor sites used by the neurotransmitter acetylcholine, and dilates the pupils, increases heart rate, and reduces salivation and other secretions. In much larger doses than those provided by goji berries, atropine is used as an antidote to a number of toxins, including organophosphate insecticides and some chemical nerve agents such as tabun, sarin, VX and soman.

So you have a recipe using Century Eggs that make a delicious, medicinal soup that also protects you from chemical weapons. Does it get any better than this?

Chinese Spinach Soup with Century Eggs

Ingredients
1 pound Chinese Spinach (also called yin choi or yin tsai)
3 cups chicken broth
1 cup plus 1/3 cup water
3 tablespoons wolfberries
1-2 teaspoons light soy sauce
2-3 teaspoons garlic, minced
1 century egg, quartered
1 cooked salted egg, quartered
1 tablespoon cornstarch
1/3 cup water
1 teaspoon salt
1-2 teaspoons freshly ground white pepper
1 egg, beaten
1 teaspoon of sesame oil (or to taste)

Method
Wash spinach and drain well. Separate leaves from stalks, and cut stalks into 2-3 inch sections.

In a large saucepan, bring chicken stock and 1 cup of water to a rolling boil, and add the wolfberries. Lower heat to a low simmer and cook for 2-3 minutes. (If you desire a stronger wolfberry flavor, remove from heat and cover the pot to allow berries to stew a bit.)

Return broth to a boil and add soy sauce and garlic. Then add the spinach stalks. Cover saucepan and boil for about 2-3 minutes. Pour cornstarch and water mixture into pan a bit at a time, stirring constantly until desired thickness is achieved.

Add the leaves of the Chinese Spinach and after the leaves begin to wilt, add the sliced century and salted eggs. Boil for about 1 minute Add salt and pepper.

Turn off heat and slowly pour in the beaten egg and stirring vigorously to thread the egg as you do. Add sesame oil, and mix. Serve immediately with extra sesame oil and other condiments as desired.

Variations: There are many variations of this dish. One of the most popular is a spinach in sauce that can be achieved by reducing the chicken broth and water by half and adjusting the seasonings accordingly (reduce soy, reduce pepper). One can also omit the garlic and add a couple of teaspoons of sugar to emphasize the goji berries in a less savory broth. The dish can also be made suitable for vegetarians (assuming they eat eggs) if a strong vegetable broth is substituted for the chicken broth.

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I really like this recipe. It is as comforting and homey as an egg-flower soup can be with the added flavor of the amaranth, goji berries, and of course, the Century Eggs. In truth, the Century Eggs provide something of a foil to the rest of the soup with mouthful blasts of lightly sour, pungent flavor within the delicate broth. It is indeed good to the last, but the white pepper has a tendency to aggregate at the bottom, so be careful of those last couple of spoon fulls – they might pack a wallop of spice.

Deep Fried and Steamed Pidan

Deep Fried and Steamed Pidan

There are many other ways to prepare pidan or Century Eggs, but the ones presented here are my favorites. They can be coated with fish, shrimp or squid paste and deep fried. My favorite form of this recipe is found most frequently in Thailand where they flavor the fish paste around the eggs with lots of Thai Basil. There are also a whole family of steamed Century Eggs recipes – usually coupling the pidan with salted eggs or occasionally with tea eggs or the intriguing soy-soaked iron eggs in a ground of regular chicken or duck eggs.

I hope you’ve enjoyed this exploration of Century Eggs, and that you try (and like) some of the recipes presented. If you were familiar with and like Century Eggs, I hope that these recipes give you some great ways to enjoy the eggs. If you were unfamiliar with the eggs to start, I hope also that the recipes and discussion gives you some perspective when viewing all of those “most horrible food ever,” videos out there on the internet of young men proving their bravery by eating a Century Egg. They really aren’t any worse than a bit of strong cheese, and when prepared correctly, their flavor brings a delicious savoriness to a wide variety of dishes. Its been an interesting journey for me, and as always, I am grateful for having the opportunity to share it with you. (All words and photos by Laura Kelley.)

Thai Pork with 1000-Year Eggs

This next to last recipe for 1000-Year Eggs might be my favorite way to prepare them.  It is savory, spicy, and hot, and the Thai basil lends a wonderful lightness to both the pork and the eggs for a winning dish.  This recipe also lightly fries half of the Thai basil for a delicious, crunchy herbal topping that one encounters in lots of dishes from Thai street-food vendors.

Thai Pork with Century Eggs

Thai Pork with 1000-Year Eggs

The dish really is delicious! I urge you, however, to be mindful of the number of chili peppers used, because they can quickly overpower the other flavors. I would say that 1 tablespoon makes it mildly to moderately spicy and two tablespoons make it moderately to very spicy. Three tablespoons would probably make this, “Real Thai,” but although that may satisfy the macho or macha in you, it will be too hot for most. I also made the second tablespoons of soy sauce optional, because salt can also overpower the other flavors in the dish.

I hope you enjoy it! Since the moment I first made it, my husband has been asking for it again and again, and was telling some friends about it on the 4th. It’s that good!

Thai Pork with 1000-Year Eggs

Ingredients
4 century eggs
¼- ½ cup flour for coating eggs
1 large handful of fresh Thai basil leaves, split into two parts
½ cup corn or vegetable oil
1 tablespoon each of dark soy sauce, oyster sauce, fish sauce and palm or cane sugar
1 medium-large yellow onion, peeled and sliced
2 tablespoons garlic, minced
1-2 tablespoons Thai red chilies, minced
¼ cup pork or beef stock
0.75 – 1 pound of minced pork
1 tablespoon light soy sauce (optional)
1 cucumber, sliced for garnish (optional)

Method
Peel the 1000-Year Eggs and cut into quarters. Roll or dust the quartered eggs in flour and set aside.

If you have a mortar large enough to hold the chilies and garlic, grind briefly before using. Combine the dark soy sauce, oyster sauce, fish sauce and palm or cane sugar in a small bowl and mix well.

Heat oil in a wok and when just starting to smoke, lightly fry half of the basil leaves until crispy – about 1 minute. Remove from the wok with a slotted spoon or a long-handled Asian cooking sieve. Drain basil on paper towels. Place flour-coated eggs into the hot oil and cook, turning them gently to ensure that all sides of the eggs are cooking. When eggs are a light brown, remove them and drain on paper towels.

Discard all but a few tablespoons of oil. If however oil has become scorched, it’s fine to clean the wok and fill it with a couple of tablespoons of new oil. It’s also fine to add a tablespoon of sesame oil for flavor if desired.

When the oil is hot in the wok, add the sliced onion and stir fry for 2-3 minutes until the onion begins to color. Then add the garlic and stir fry for another minute before adding the chili peppers and frying for another 1-2 minutes. Add the minced pork and stir until well combined with the other ingredients. Pour the stock and mixed sauce over all and stir well. Cook for 2-3 minutes and add the uncooked portion of the Thai basil and stir into the mix. Cook another 2-3 minutes and add the 1000-Year Eggs and fold them into the dish. Cook another 1-2 minutes to warm the eggs and turn out onto a serving platter.

Top with fried Thai basil leaves. If desired add some sliced cucumbers around the edge of the platter, or serve separately. Enjoy!

Fried Rice with Thousand-year Eggs

We are nearing the end of our exploration of Thousand-Year Eggs (for now). There was just something congruous (perhaps logarithmic?) about offering 10 recipes for 1000-Year Eggs that really floated my boat. This is number eight, and it is a really delicious way to cook pidan. It is so good that we had it for breakfast this morning along with some steamed spicy Chinese sausage. But you can eat it any time. This dish or some variation of it is enjoyed around the Eastern and Southeastern Asian countries that eat Century Eggs. And it is usually eaten at a lunch or dinner, but if you think beyond the edge like we do, breakfast is a fine time to tuck in as well.

Fried Rice with Thousand-Year Eggs

Fried Rice with Thousand-Year Eggs

This dish is savory and delicious. Because the pidan are used as a topping for the rice, they are quite flavorful. The rice is a little bit sour, a little sweet, a little spicy, and a bit hot – and really good. The garlic and tomato add a depth of flavor that works well with the Century Eggs and complements them without overpowering them or toning them down much.

This is also a really flexible dish with nearly endless potential variations. If you love veggies – throw in some matchsticked carrots and chopped bell peppers or celery. A ginger aficionado -add some fresh or pickled ginger to brighten up the composition. Whatever you do – enjoy the eggs. This is a great way to make them.

Fried Rice with Thousand-year Eggs

Ingredients
1/2 teaspoon coarse sea salt
1 teaspoon sugar (I use demerara or jaggery)
1 teaspoon sesame oil
2 tablespoons Shaoxing or other Chinese rice wine
¼ – ½ teaspoon ground white pepper
3 thousand-year eggs, peeled, rinsed, and cut in quarters or eighths

1-2 tablespoons vegetable oil
2-3 teaspoons garlic, minced (2-3 cloves)
2 dried, red chili peppers
4 spring onions, minced
2 teaspoons light soy sauce
1 tablespoon pickled mustard, minced
½ tomato cut into a small dice (or 1-2 teaspoons tomato paste)
2-3 cups cooked short-grain rice, broken up with a fork into individual grains
1-2 regular eggs beaten until they lighten in color
1 tablespoon pork floss

Method
Mix the salt, sugar, sesame oil, rice wine, and ground pepper in a small bowl until well blended. Place the roughly diced Century Eggs into this and set aside for 10-15 minutes.

When eggs are done or nearly done marinating, heat the vegetable oil in a wok. When the oil just starts to smoke, add the garlic and stir fry for about half a minute until the garlic starts to swell and color. Add the spring onions and stir fry another minute. Add the remaining Shaoxing and the soy sauce and stir once or twice. Add the pickled mustard and the tomato or tomato sauce and stir well.

Add the rice and stir well, lifting rather than stirring so as to not squash the cooked rice. Stir fry for about 1 minute. Add the liquid from the century-egg marinade (reserve the eggs) and stir lightly to distribute around the rice. Add the beaten eggs and stir once or twice. Turn into a serving dish, garnish with pork floss and Thousand-Year Eggs and serve with extra pickled mustard and sesame oil or condiments of your choice.

Variations: Works with noodles as well. Cook or soak noodles according to package directions and drain. (Add a touch of sesame oil if desired to keep the noodles from sticking). You can top the noodles with the spring onions, floss and Century Eggs with marinade along with the pickled mustard without cooking (and omit the garlic and tomatoes), or lightly stir fry the garlic and tomatoes and stir into noodles or add to the toppings and serve.

Additionally, you can toss in a few shrimp or a couple of teaspoons of fish sauce in lieu of the pork floss for a more Southern Chinese or SE Asian approach to the dish. (Words and photo of Fried Rice with Thousand-Year Eggs by Laura Kelley.)

Woo with Extra Hoo for my 200th Post!

Making a Silk Purse from a Sow’s Ear

The phrase, “You can’t make a silk purse from a sow’s ear,” was coined by Johnathan Swift’s punster Mr. Neverout in A Complete Collection of Polite and Ingenious Conversation In Several Dialogues published in 1738. When quill touched cotton, the phrase was used to refer to the strange character of Sir John. Mr. Neverout uses it to proclaim that Sir John, being of low birth, is not a proper Duke and deftly goes on to disparage his character. Although this turn of the phrase is still in play, it has over the years also been used to discourage ingenuity and inventiveness or to encourage people to accept things as they are – in other words, to not rock the boat.

This month’s 5-Star Foodie Makeover Challenge was Junk Food. Specifically, we were asked to use junk food or a favorite snack in a real dish of our choosing. I really hated this idea at first and didn’t want to do it, I thought of telling the group organizers that I was unable to participate due to illness, overwork or travel – something – some excuse NOT to participate.

Having selected my junk food and prepared my dish, I think it was a great challenge and although I am new to the group, I hope that future challenges will be so . . . well I’m not sure whether thought provoking or emotion inspiring is the right phrase, but there it is. I used bar snacks: Beer Nuts, 5-Alarm Chili Peanuts and Planter’s Creamy Peanut Butter to make delicious Malaysian Chicken Satay that we all loved – even the kids. What’s not to like about that.

I suppose the there was a bit of artful dodgerness in the selection of junk food – its not really junky. I mean, come on, its not a Twinkie right! That said, I never use processed or flavored peanuts in my satay sauce, and despite the millions of recipes on the web for peanut sauce from peanut butter, I have never used it before the challenge for that purpose. So the challenge forced me to abandon my habits and preconceived notions and to try something outside of my food box – which, covering the continent of Asia, is generally pretty big.

Junk Food used in Challenge

This recipe is a wonderful example of how meat is eaten all across the Indo-Malay archipelago. It is marinated for hours in a sweet and spicy paste, then barbequed on a grill and drizzeled with a rich and flavorful peanut-based sauce. Feel free to substitute beef or shrimp for the chicken and adjust the cooking times, or make a mix of all three meats and allow diners to mix and match flavors.

Grilled Chicken with Peanut Sauce (Satay)

1 lb, chicken, chilled and cut into thin slices

Marinade
8 shallots
2 teaspoons garlic, peeled and diced
2 stalks lemon grass, sliced
2 tablespoons ginger
1 teaspoon ground turmeric
1 cup water (more as needed)
2 tablespoons coriander seeds
2 teaspoons ground cumin
1 teaspoon dark soy sauce
1 teaspoon salt

In a food processor, or blender, make a smooth paste out of the shallots, garlic, lemongrass, ginger, turmeric and water (using water ½ cup at a time). Set aside.

In a wok, dry roast coriander seeds over medium heat until they become fragrant, 3-5 minutes. Remove from heat and empty into food processor or grinder and blend into a fine powder. Mix dark soy sauce and salt with the ground coriander and then add to the lemongrass paste.

Rub paste mixture into both sides of the chicken. Sprinkle the cumin powder over the chicken and marinate for at least 2 hours at room temperature. If you wish to marinate overnight – cover and refrigerate.

When almost ready to cook, prepare the peanut sauce (see below) below and set aside. Thread seasoned meat on to fine metal or soaked bamboo skewers. Grill over charcoal or gas fire or under hot grill 3 minutes per side.

Chicken and Beef Satay

Spicy Peanut Sauce (Satay)
5 shallots
2 teaspoons garlic, peeled and diced
2 stalks lemon grass, thinly sliced
¼ cup lime juice
Water (as needed to make a thick sauce)
2/3 cup beer nuts
1/3 cup Planter’s five-alarm chili peanuts
2 tablespoons Planter’s creamy peanut butter
6 dried red chili peppers, diced
1 tablespoon grated ginger
2 teaspoons salt
2 tablespoons sugar

In a blender, grind shallots, garlic, lemongrass and lime juice into a fine paste – adding water as necessary. Add ground peanuts and peanut butter and grind until blended. The key to this recipe is not to add too much water too soon, so use a gentle hand.

Heat oil in wok or saucepan and stir fry peanut paste for 3-5 minutes. Lower heat and cook covered for another 5-10 minutes until lemongrass softens.

Add chili peppers, ginger, salt, and sugar and cook over a low heat for 5-10 minutes till sugar is dissolved, stirring constantly. The sauce will darken considerably as it cooks.  Cool peanut sauce and serve with barbecued meat.

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Even made with junk food, this recipe is a winner.  Unlike a lot of satay sauces it balances the peanut flavor with the flavors offered by the other ingredients.  What I like most about this recipe is the strong gingery flavor that the marinade and sauce combined offer to diners.  The recipe for the sauce makes a lot, so either cook a lot of meat or do as I do – save the sauce for later use.  It can be reheated and used on meats and vegetables or used cold as a dip for veggies.

Sows Ear Purse

In closing I’d like to attest that it is possible to make a silk purse from a sow’s ear – both figuratively AND literally. In the first sense, it is possible to use salty snacks that one would pop back while watching TV or enjoying a drink to create a great chicken satay. In the latter sense, well . . . I think you all understand what literally means.

It seems that in 1921, Massachusetts industrialist Arthur D. Little was tired of hearing Mr. Neverout’s discouraging phrase, and set out to prove him wrong. He instructed the scientists and engineers working for him to make a silk purse out of “pork by-products”. From a meat-packer they obtained a form of glue made from the skin and gristle of sows’ ears. Taking an amount roughly equivalent to one sow’s ear, he had it filtered and forced through a spinneret into a mixture of formaldehyde and acetone. This glue emerged as 16 fine, colorless streams that hardened and then combined to form a single composite fiber. Little soaked the fiber in dyed glycerin. Then he wove the resulting thread into cloth on a handloom-and fashioned the cloth into the elegant purse shown here, the kind of item carried by Medieval ladies.

Silk Purse Made from a Sow’s Ear

If you would like to know more about this interesting tidbit from the History of Science, click on Suki’s snout on the picture above for a full period description of the effort. I think its ingenious and charming and I absolutely adore the subtitle: A Contribution to Philosophy. To all who encounter a Mr. Neverout from time to time. Take a look at this every time you start to feel discouraged. It won’t last long.

(Words by Laura Kelley, Photo of Chicken and Beef Satay by Btktan @ Dreamstime.com; Photo of purse and pamphlet on creation of a Silk Purse from a Sow’s Ear from MIT Archives and Special Collections; 5-Star Foodie Challenge Hosted by 5 Star Foodie & Lazaro Cooks!)

Games of the Great Silk Road – Mancala

Most parents will be quick to agree that they learn a lot from their kids. When you have kids, you cease to be the center of your own life and the lessons range from the mundane to the profound. When they are little, you realize how little they know when they come into the world and how much you, as an adult, have come to take for granted. When they are older, you begin to see fragments of yourself or of your spouse or partner who helped raise them. But these characteristics are not a direct reflection. Rather, they are more like a mosaic. From mother to daughter or father to son the tesserae can be the same, but the patterns that they are arranged in can be very different.

Ethiopian Mancala Board, 6th or 7th C.

I am beginning to pass into a new stage, with a teen and a tween in the house, they are beginning to introduce me to things I have never heard of before. By exploring their interests with them, I am learning things about the world that I never knew. This is quite humbling to someone like me who has always considered herself something of a well-traveled brainiac.

A couple of weeks ago we were at the National Geographic Society to see the latest treasure trove of Anglo-Saxon weapon fittings and religious items (The Staffordshire Horde) that have recently been uncovered in England. Rich, finely worked 24-carat gold with sparkling garnet inlay filled the display cases. Videos to explain the details of the craftsmanship accompanied the exhibition, along with recordings and quiz games of Old English helped to bring the exhibit alive and make it a wonderful way to spend an afternoon.

Endodoi Board – Tanzania

On the way out, we did the obligatory pass through the gift shop on the way to the exit. While we were browsing, my daughter came flying at me – begging for a mancala set, telling me how fun it was and explaining how it was played. We got the set and later that evening she taught me how to play. That night, I learned that the game is played all over the world and has been for the better part of the last couple of millennia.

Pallankhuzi Board – Sri Lanka and S. India

What my further research has shown, is that the Silk Road trade of goods, ideas and cultural elements was probably responsible for its spread – at least across the Old World. From Vietnam and Mongolia, through Central and Western Asia, across Central and Northern Africa and into Europe through Andalusia, the Old World plays this game. It passed into the New World with the slave trade and is played from Louisiana and Haiti to the Dominican Republic and Brazil.

Toguz Kumalak Board – Kazakhstan

If you’ve never seen or played mancala, count and capture or any other variety of the game, it is often played on a board containing at least two rows of cup-shaped depressions or holes in which the pieces are arranged and moved. The number of cups varies across cultures and over time, but the game remains the remarkably the same. The goal is to move all of your pieces off the board before your opponent, and there are strategies, societies and in some nations, major competitions in which people play mancala. Our board is a nicely carved wooden set with small, irregularly shaped stones as pieces, but some mancala boards consist simply of holes dug in the ground or bored into stone into which other stones or objects are moved.

Girls Playing Oquan in Vietnam

There are 19th and 20th Century claims that the game is arose in ancient Egypt, Jordan or even Mesopotamia – but none of these are accepted by modern game scholars (did you know there was such a thing?) or archaeologists specializing in these areas. The oldest definitive set comes from Axum (Ethiopia) and date from the 6th or 7th century ACE, but an earlier set may come from a 4th Century Roman-era fort in Egypt along the banks Red Sea. The earliest European set is found in Spain’s the Museo de Burgos. It belonged to a daughter of Abd-al-Rahman III, the emir (912-929) and first caliph (929-961) of Cordoba. The scholar Murray, writing in the mid 20th Century, concluded that the game spread from east to west across Africa and from west to east across Asia – which again points to an Eastern African or Levantine origin.

Importantly, Arab and Muslim traders were probably an important force in moving the game around the Old World. The very name, “mancala” comes from the Arabic verb “naqala” meaning, “to move”. It is not mentioned in the Koran by this name, but must have been known to the Arabs in the Middle Ages, as it is referred to in the commentary to the Kitab al Aghani, the “Book of Songs,” which speaks of a “game like mancala.”

Ornate Congkak Board – Malaysia

Today, the game is played competitively in many Central Asian nations, with Kazakhstan having a national association for their version of the game, Toguz Kumalak, whereas in most of Africa, it is a game to be played while relaxing after the day’s work.  Interestingly, in the New World it is sometimes played as part of mortuary or funerary practices – to amuse the spirits of the dead.  This suggests that this might have been a practice among the Africans who carried the game with them to the New World, although this practice seems to have vanished in modern-day Africa.

I’ve played a few games with my daughter and can attest to the game being both fun and a great way to teach strategy and the consideration of future consequences when deciding current moves. Thanks to my daughter, to whom I dedicate this post, I’ve found an unexpected echo of the Silk Road found in an ordinary board game. (Words by Laura Kelley. All photos from Mancala Wiki).

N.B. I will be in China for the next couple of weeks and will blog if I can. Hopefully, I will return with loads of tales and photos.

Autumn Means . . . A Bounty of Pumpkins and Squash!

I love this time of year! I love the blustery days and the chilly evenings and snuggling under blankets to keep warm. I love the cacophony of colors offered up by the deciduous trees, and of course, I love the panoply of fall produce – my favorite of which are pumpkins and squash.

They are just so beautiful – all the shapes: round, oval, flattened, tubular, and fluted like an amber bead, or goose-necked, with bumps and warts and all. And the colors – warm shades of orange, ochre, yellow and deep earthy green – some striped, some with a gradation of color fading from one into the next. Such variation in color and shape – and flavor! There are so many ways to prepare pumpkins and squash, that it seems unfortunate that we generally relegate these vegetables to pies or soup. All too often with the familiar triumvirate of spices – cinnamon, nutmeg and cloves and more often than not – too much sugar.

Autumn Pumpkins

By themselves, many pumpkins and squash are already quite sweet and don’t need much sugar to make their flavors really shine. My two favorites – the Butternut and the Kabocha – are amongst the sweetest. I often use them to temper dishes with sour flavors offered by pomegranates, sour grapes, lemons, or limes.

Across the Asian continent there are a myriad of ways to prepare pumpkin and squash. As main dishes, many cultures stuff them – with rice, or a combination of meat and grains. They appear mixed with curries, stews and braised meat dishes. They are layered in casseroles, topped with sauces, curried, stir-fried and coated with spices and baked. However they are prepared, they are another gift of the New World to the Old and have been dearly embraced since their introduction only a few hundred years ago.

In Western Asia, they can be stuffed with marigold petals or pomegranate seeds in Georgia, layered in an Armenian casserole called Ailazan; baked with eggs in an omelet called a “kuku” (after the Persian work for egg) or braised with fowl or lamb in a delectable cardamom and pomegranate sauce in Iran, used as a stuffing for pastries or prepared with tomatoes and sour grapes in Afghanistan.

In South Asia, pumpkin and squash are curried in rich ginger and garlic-laden sauces, baked and pounded into dips with or without yogurt, used in rice pilafs, mixed with pulses for dals, mixed with seed spices (such as fenugreek, onion, mustard and poppy), cumin, a handful of chili peppers and lemon juice in sweet and spicy dish, and sweetened with coconut cream.

The Central Asians use squash in casseroles like Damlyama flavored with copious amounts of cumin and black pepper, stuff them with their own pulp flavored with tarragon and lemon or nuts, sour cherries and nutmeg and pepper or baked with cinnamon and black pepper, or cooked with tamarind, fenugreek leaves and garlic.

In the Himalayas, the Bhutanese have delectable pumpkin fritters spiced with cumin and use squash or pumpkin layered in their biryani, the Nepali have their Tarkari curries with garlic, ginger and lots of cilantro, the Tibetans coat squash slices in chickpea or lentil flour spiced with chili peppers, star anise, lots of black pepper and some cinnamon and fry the slices until golden, and the Burmese have make a stew of them with shrimp and soy sauce, lime juice, ginger and garlic and lots of pungent peppers. And in the Indo Pacific, one of the most common ways to prepare them are using a tomato-based sauce flavored with sweet soy, vinegar, nutmeg and pepper.

Pumpkin Curry

In the far-east, the Korean’s have their black-peppered squash cooked with soy, ginger and garlic and garnished with sesame seeds. The Japanese cook them similarly using sweet soy or a soy-ginger sauce, and in Southern China there is fish-flavored eggplant named after the method of preparation with brown bean paste, fish sauce and rice vinegar, often used to cook fish. In Thailand, pumpkins or squash are used to flavor the rich spicy curries and are used with a variety of meats or cooked rapidly in a stir-fry with lots of spicy Thai basil, or cooked with crushed black peppercorns, lemon juice and fish sauce to form a rich sour sauce around a sweet kabocha squash. The Cambodians use squash in mixed vegetable stews and stir fries, and use them with in stews with beef, coconut milk, and their ginger-spice paste called Kroeung, the thick fish sauce tuk prahok and lots of Kaffir lime leaves. And lastly in Vietnam, squash and pumpkin are sometimes enjoyed with stir-fried with lemongrass and peanuts, and roasted and pounded into a dip with lime juice, fish sauce and basil.

Certainly not an exhaustive list of Asian pumpkin and squash recipes, but ones that reach far beyond the familiar flavors of cinnamon, nutmeg and cloves and too much sugar, and all of which are available in the Silk Road Gourmet volumes already published or yet to come.

So enjoy our seasonal bounty of pumpkins and squash, but think outside the box and try an unfamiliar recipe or two. You may discover a favorite vegetable you’ve never tried before – like the Sri Lankan curry posted below. (Words by Laura Kelley. Photo of Autumn Pumpkins by Haywiremedia @ Dreamstime.com; Photo of Pumpkin Curry by Sarsmis @ Dreamstime.com. Recipe in Silk Road Gourmet Volume 2).

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Curried Pumpkin in a Ginger-Garlic Sauce

This curry is sour, sweet, and hot due to its curry leaves, vinegar, coconut milk, sugar, and ground chili peppers. Blended together, these flavors make this dish quintessentially Sri Lankan, but it also complements a wide variety of other cuisines as well.

Ingredients
1 medium butternut squash or small kabocha pumpkin, peeled, sliced and seeded
2 tablespoons oil
1 medium onion, finely chopped
½ teaspoon turmeric powder
1 teaspoon cumin powder
1 teaspoon coriander powder
1 teaspoon whole mustard seeds, ground
2 teaspoons garlic, peeled and diced
1 tablespoon grated ginger
½ cup coconut milk
1 teaspoon chopped chili peppers
10 curry leaves, crushed
1 tablespoon cider vinegar
1 teaspoon salt
2 teaspoons sugar

Method
Preheat oven to 375°. Place sliced squash or pumpkin on an oiled or sprayed baking sheet and when the oven is hot, bake for 20–25 minutes. Remove from oven, cool, and slice into quarters or eighths, depending on the size of the slice.

Heat oil in a medium sauté pan and sauté onion until it softens and starts to color. Add the turmeric, cumin, coriander, and mustard and stir for a couple of seconds. Add the garlic, ginger, coconut milk,
chilies, and curry leaves.

Add the vinegar, salt, and sugar and bring slowly to a boil. Add the squash or pumpkin pieces, stir, and simmer on a low heat for 5 minutes until the pumpkin is warmed.

Durian: The Fruit We Love to Hate

No Durian Sign – Upscale Hotel

Either you love them or you hate them – there’s no in-between.  Durians are one of those foods.  Some people anxiously try to pick the best one and can’t wait to get it home to open it, and others make faces of disgust at the mere mention of the name.  For those of you not already divided into one camp or another – the odor of the fruit – which can smell like a cross between smelly athletic socks and rotten meat –  puts a lot of people off.  The flavor is, by comparison, quite mild, and to me tastes like a cross between vanilla custard and onions not fresh enough to cook with anymore.  Since its almost durian season again, a post both extolling and denouncing the flavorful, pungent fruit seemed like a great idea. Because of the odor, the fruit is banned from many public place across Asia, as the,”No Durian”, signs here attest.

No Durian Sign – Subway

The British Naturalist Alfred Russell Wallace noted in describing the sight, smell and taste of a durian: “The five cells are silky-white within, and are filled with a mass of firm, cream-coloured pulp, containing about three seeds each. This pulp is the edible part, and its consistence and flavour are indescribable. A rich custard highly flavoured with almonds gives the best general idea of it, but there are occasional wafts of flavour that call to mind cream-cheese, onion-sauce, sherry-wine, and other incongruous dishes. Then there is a rich glutinous smoothness in the pulp which nothing else possesses, but which adds to its delicacy. It is neither acid nor sweet nor juicy; yet it wants neither of these qualities, for it is in itself perfect. It produces no nausea or other bad effect, and the more you eat of it the less you feel inclined to stop. In fact, to eat Durians is a new sensation worth a voyage to the East to experience. … as producing a food of the most exquisite flavour it is unsurpassed.”

No Durian Sign – Airport

The culinary uses in Southeastern Asia and the Indo-Pacific are many. In addition to sweet uses of durian fruit in ice cream, milkshakes, candy, mooncakes, sticky rice and popcorn (yes . . . popcorn), almost all cultures from Thailand to the Moluccas (except for the Philippines) have a savory or spicy use for the durian as well. In parts of Malaysia, durian is cooked with onion and red chili peppers and served as a side dish (not unlike the recipe for pat sataw) vinegar is sometimes added to this; in Indonesia a variety of sambals are made with both fresh and fermented durian, and in Sumatra it lends its distinctive flavor to fish dishes or other curries. Unripe durian is cooked like a vegetable all over the region and the leaves are used as greens. The Malays have both sweet and salty durian preserves, durian honey is a local delicacy in parts of Indonesia and Malaysia, the ash of burnt durian rind is added to some special cakes and blossoms are eaten in many ways – not unlike banana flowers.

So if the fruit and all of its parts are such traditional centerpeices of regional cuisine, why is it banned from so many public places? Is it really just the odor, or is it modernism squeezing out tradition with rules; or western “sensibility” pushing out native customs in the name of progress?  I leave you with a poem extolling the sight, taste and aroma of the durian by Malaysian-American poet, Juli Herman:

Cracks upon cracks, riches revealed,
Slivers of gold, treasures concealed,
Grasping fingers prying apart
Doors to rooms, now no longer hidden.

Every room is amply filled with
Golden riches on pure white pith.
Guards of green, prickly menacing,
Litter the field at every inch.

On beds of glossy shiny white,
Soft golden pillows greet your sight.
Nestled close, cradled with love,
Molding in to every curve.

Wafting aroma, strong and bold,
Releasing tales of young and old.
Pungent and putrid, revolting to some,
Yet delectably fragrant — how can that be?

A whiff chock-full of controversy,
Opinions riddled with fallacy.
Banned in places of fancy manners,
Lest it render people unconscious.

A golden treasure now in your hand,
Airy and soft, yet it feels so grand.
Moistness dissolving, lilting the senses.
Flavor so rich, it tastes so divine!

Buttery, custard-like, tastes like heaven,
Alluring appeal intricately woven.
Golden pillow releasing its magic,
Emanating warmth, inside and throughout.

Airiness filled with ultimate richness,
Subtlety bursts with utter creaminess.
Soft yellow flesh promising enchantment.
Leaving you sighing in sheer contentment.

(Words by Laura Kelley; poem, “Durian” by Juli Herman. Photos of No Durian Signs borrowed from Google Images. For more Durian posts on Silk Road Gourmet, see East Asian Market Day from 2008.)

Lady Lizards for Lunch

Grilled Lizard

A news item caught my eye recently that blended two of my favorite subjects – cuisine and biology. Long story short is that a species of asexual lizard previously undocumented by scientists has been discovered in Southern Vietnam recently. Neat thing about the story is that the lizard was discovered in a restaurant – grilled and plated and ready to be consumed. Lizards for lunch.

A Vietnamese scientist stopped for a bite at a local eatery-pub in Southern Vietnam and noticed that the lizards on the plate were all female, which he thought a bit unusual. Not looking like other regional asexual species, he realized that he had potentially identified a species “new” to science and contacted colleagues at La Sierra University in the United States to help him confirm the find.

Well, sure enough. The Americans sweep in to check out the new lizards and lo and behold the restaurant has grilled up the last of the crop and there are no potential type specimens to inspect. Being resourceful, the scientists pay a bunch of kids to go catch some more of the ones usually served up at the restaurant. They hit paydirt when the kids came back with bunches of the critters – all female, all reproducing asexually, all identical genetically (with minor, standard variations due to replication error). A new species and an interesting one to boot.

Vietnamese Market

All manner of lizards, insects and small mammals are on the menu in Southeastern and Eastern Asia, so it is no surprise that people are eating them. In fact, these new lizards (Leiolepis ngovantrii) are usually marinated and grilled with lemongrass after being prepped by boiling and soaking in banana leaves and are apparently quite tasty. The Thais forego the lemongrass and serve lizard on a heaping bed of their delicious basil.

Interesting thing is that the locals knew all about this “unknown” species and had been enjoying it for years. So, in addition to remote jungles and mountaintops, scientists should add “local pub” to the places where they can make great new discoveries. From experience, scientists have over the centuries made many great discoveries in pubs – but none before like this. (Words by Laura Kelley; Photos by Scientific Staff of La Sierra University. Read more about the discovery in Zootaxa 2433:47-61 (2010)).

Thai Sunrise

Before sunrise, pots bubble on the gas stove of a small kitchen lit only by a few oil lamps. The kitchen smells of burning oil, lime and cumin as a small lizard darts across the floor. Outside, the steady patter of the morning rain is broken by the sound of bare feet softly padding up the damp, concrete path. A young, bald man stops at the screen door, adjusts his yellow-orange robes across his smooth chest, places his palms together in front of him and bows his head in greeting. The cook wyes in return and grabs a spoon and a bowl of rice and walks over to him. As she opens the door he pulls a large gourd bowl from his side and holds it out to her. Bit by bit, the cook carefully places rice into the depths of the ochre bowl, taking pains not to touch the smooth sides of his bowl with her long spoon. He watches each passage of the spoon carefully to make sure that his bowl remains pure and untouched by the spoon. She adds some curried vegetables to the rice and bows when she has completed the offering. The man murmurs a few blessings for the woman and the family she works for, then bows and turns to go.

Monk at Monastery

I was usually still sleeping upstairs when the monks came round to beg for their food every day. But sometimes, I got up before dawn, stepped out of the netting that protected me at night from falling reptiles and made the offering myself. I spent several months in Thailand, in a small village near Haddyai, Songkla with no running water, electricity or telephone. Happily off the grid, I learned a great deal about Thai language, customs and culture, spent some time as a Buddhist nun, chewed bitter betel, and learned how to batik really well. I also learned a lot about Thai home cooking.

Thai food has become very popular in the west, but I’ve found, much to my disappointment, that few of my favorite dishes are ever offered on the menu. Where is the pat sataw? Where is the curried fish for breakfast? And where are the sweet treats made of sticky rice and sliced fruit that are tied up in banana -leaf packages? Also missing is the freshness of the meal ingredients: rice from the fields behind the house, fish from the river and sataw beans from the tree next to the house. In my mind, I can still see one of the sarong-clad local men running up a coconut palm to knock a few of the barely ripened seeds to the ground for the women to cook with. He crashes a machete through the green shell and sips the fresh coconut juice inside before he hands me the other half. I bring the coconut-cup to my lips and take a little sip of heaven.

Since the Thai peninsula played an important part of maritime and land trade on the Silk Road, southern Thai cooking has Indonesian and Indian elements in it that are often lacking in the regional cuisines of the rest of the kingdom. The copious use of tamarind, lime and strong rice vinegar as souring agents are a couple of these elements as is the enjoyment of skewered and roasted meats with peanut sauce. the use of sataw are shared with the Indonesians and Malaysians who use them as part of some sambal preparations. The Thais (and the Malays on the peninsula), however have put them centerstage in a spicy, garlic laden stir-fry made with or without the addition of meat or fish. Occasionally, the Thais have even imported entire dishes and put a Thai twist on them that made them uniquely their own. This is most evident in their mussuman curry with cardamom and cinnamon and chicken with basil with India’s spicy, holy basil. Thai cuisine also has lots of Chinese elements, such as enjoyment of noodle-based dishes, stir frying, and the use of light and dark soy sauces – but these are not limited only to the south.

Phuket Beach

During my sojourn in Thailand, I also spent some time on Phuket and Phang Na before they had been developed as resort destinations. Of course there were a few bungalows for rent – but these were occupied mostly by vacationing Thais. For the most part, the west had yet to discover these islands and they were still unspoiled tropical paradises. Completely absent was the “desire and the carrot and the carrot and desire. . .” of western living as stated beautifully by the late, great Spaulding Gray in his masterpiece, Swimming to Cambodia. At that time, there was little to do there except relax in freeform or study at one of the local monasteries. For every eden, however, there is always a Lilith or a snake, and the waters around these islands were prowled by sharks which often came into the shallows and in some places there were incredibly strong rip tides that could transport swimmers far out to sea. Islanders often spoke about the predatory seas and tallying the ocean-caused injuries and deaths was something of a local hobby. In microcosm, the sea held captive the danger that was absent on land, sort of like the sea monsters that often lurk just offshore on antique maps.

I remember one evening I stood by the edge of the sea and allowed it to nearly bury me in the sand. With each rhythmic stroke of the waves I sank deeper into the sand. First my toes, then my feet and then my ankles were devoured in turn as I watched the sun set. As the sky darkened, the waves began to lap at my knees and my self-preservation instinct belatedly kicked in. Even though I had decided to free myself, the ocean was wont to let me go and I had to struggle to get out of the premature watery grave that the waves had dug for me. My Phuket was a strange land filled with wonders and demons alike.

Only a handful of years after I returned, I saw a cashier at a Chinese noodle shop in the upper east side of Manhattan with a Club Med Phuket t-shirt. I froze, unable to move or speak as I stared at her shirt, remembering the island, the monks and the brief life I had known there. Eventually, I stammered something incomprehensible, paid for my noodles and stumbled back to my office, more or less having lost my appetite.

Even though my trip took place many years ago, there was a great deal of political unrest at the time in the south that took the form of killings, bombings and general Muslim-Buddhist tension. I read with interest a recent post over at the Rambling Spoon which attests that the situation has changed little in the intervening years – except that it may have gotten worse. At issue – then as now – is the desire by some for the secession of the southern three provinces from the kingdom of Thailand. For me, however, the violence of the cities, rarely spilled over into the countryside and that’s where I spent most of my time, so it hardly impacted my consciousness at all.

On the whole, the time I spent in Thailand was a transformational experience. It reset my life-clock and gave me a view of the world that only solitude and study far away from the hustle and bustle of a city can do. I still think of the troop of little children who followed me around everywhere I went, and I still hear the chorus of little girls studying traditional dance who stretched their fingers backwards and held them to the count of ten: nung, sung, sam, see, ha, hok, yet, pet, cau, sib. I miss the midnight songs and the clattering on the tin roofs of the big, bruiser cats that were twice the size of the tawny, emaciated felines we call Siamese in the west. And yes of course, I miss my favorite dish – the pat sataw. (Words © Laura Kelley; Photograph of the Monk at the Monastery by Laura Kelley; Photograph of Phuket Sunset © Mikhail Nekrasov| Dreamstime.com)