"Wish You Happy Every Day": An Expat's Life in China

Dumplings 101
February 8, 2016, 1:25 am
Filed under: Asia abroad, Chinese culture, food, holidays

Happy Chinese New Year, everyone! I’m always grateful for a second chance to celebrate the New Year, especially because I was trapped in bed with the flu the first time around.

We stayed up all night watching Chinese news–exciting fluff about people celebrating the New Year, soldiers sending video messages back home, etc.–and made it through half of Chun Wan before falling asleep. Chun Wan is four-hour live show of skits, comedy acts, dancing, singing–the Chinese version of SNL, essentially, and a treasured tradition of modern Chinese. 

By 8am San Francisco time, the New Year had begun. We woke up, said Happy New Year, and went back to sleep.

Later, we got a big group of people together for a New Year’s dinner at a Sichuan restaurant. This has become a tradition for us . . . even though the more Chinese thing to do is to eat dumplings.


At the stroke of the New Year, Chinese families sit down to a second dinner of dumplings (in the north east, at least; in the south I think they eat tangyuan, a dessert worthy of its own blog entry–I WILL get to it, trust me).

But wait! We did make dumplings–two weeks ago, anyway, in honor of my wonderful college Roomie’s visit.

We had made beef, radish, and carrot dumplings. Get ground beef and marinate it with soy sauce for about fifteen minutes. Meanwhile, shred carrots and radish with a microplane, and toss it in. Stir in one egg white, to keep everything sticky.


Our dumplings, not beautiful–yet.

Our dumplings, sadly, were not perfect. We missed a step–you need to boil the radish separately first, so that it cooks longer. We also made the amateur mistake of forgetting salt. Yes, I know, who does that . . . Our dumplings, however, were rescued by simple sauce of vinegar and garlic. With sauce, no dumpling can disappoint.


A big space sprinkled with flour is ideal for wrapping dumplings. On the left are dumpling wrappers we bought from Chinatown . . . as much as we love dumplings, who has time to make the dough from scratch?

While Lipeng’s job is to make the filling, mine is to wrap them in dumpling skins. I hate arts and crafts, I hate using my hands to make things–but I love wrapping dumplings. I love teaching my friends to do it, too.

image1 (2)

Do you know how to wrap dumplings? It’s not as hard as it looks. If I can do it, I’m sure anyone can: growing up, everyone in my family could spot the Christmas gifts from me by the awful wrapping job. Here’s how my mother-in-law taught me:

Once you’ve wrapped them, cook them in boiling water until they float to the surface–then, they’re done!

So if you want to get in the spirit of Chinese New Year, consider a dinner of homemade dumplings–simple to make, and a fun bonding experience with family or friends.

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Jiang, Suan, Cu, Repeat
November 9, 2015, 1:20 am
Filed under: Asia abroad, Chinese culture, food | Tags: , ,

If you live in the middle of nowhere but are discontent with Chinese take out, life can be difficult. I’m talking to you, returned expats and overseas Chinese. Even in the Bay Area, a region brimming with Chinese restaurants, it can be hard to find the real deal.

There’s no getting around it: you can either continue the endless search for a good restaurant . . . or make your own food.

Luckily, Chinese food is not that complicated, at least according to my mother-in-law. I used to watch her cook every day, and one thing that surprised me was just how few ingredients she used. In fact, while my pantry is lined with spices like cumin and cayenne pepper and crushed herbs, hers was quite minimal.

As she bustled in the kitchen, stirring the soup, cutting the eggplant, frying the peppercorns, she would repeat the same advice to me, like a mantra: “Jiang, suan, cu.”

Ginger, garlic, vinegar: the trifecta of minimalist Chinese cuisine.

Obviously there’s other oils and spices out there, but even if you have nothing but those three things you’ll still make something more authentic and healthier than the sugar and MSG-laden take out.*

And if there’s an Asian market in your area, I would recommend also looking for numbing peppercorns, which is the first thing that hits the oil in stir-fried dishes.** That’s your edge. Spring onion, or scallion, is also an ever-present ingredient in Chinese food.

chinese cooking staples
So there you have it! That’s the secret to Chinese cooking, according to my mother-in-law. Don’t believe me? Let’s break down the math:

numbing peppercorns + spring onion + eggs + tomatoes = scrambled eggs and tomato (xihonghshi chao jidan)

numbing peppercorns + spring onion + garlic + (ginger) + whatever veggies you like = standard stir fry

garlic + vinegar + (sesame paste) + raw vegetables = cold vegetable side dish (bancai)

garlic + vinegar = basic sauce for your dumplings

Here are some secondary ingredients you will find in Chinese dishes:


oyster sauce

sesame paste (zhimajiang)

soy sauce (jiangyou) (and there’s a range of different kinds)

Sichuan pepper

Numbing oil (mayou)

sesame oil (zhimayou)

various bean pastes

rice wine

star anise


dried chili peppers

*Restaurant tip: At a Chinese restaurant in North America, if you want your food to be more authentic and healthier, ask that the cook does not add sugar.  Most Chinese restaurants load on the sugar, perhaps to accommodate the American palette, but the result is that the food loses its original flavor.

**Always discard the peppercorns after a minute or so of frying. Their flavor gets absorbed into the oil, but they are not meant to be eaten. Otherwise, you’ll be constantly picking out burnt bits of peppercorn while you eat. Talking from first-hand experience here.

Eating from the Wild
August 29, 2015, 8:45 am
Filed under: daily life in china, food | Tags:

“Allison! Come out here!” came the shrill command of my mother-in-law. Lipeng had already met her at the front door, but I’d been lagging behind. I shuffled out sleepily in my nightgown, not in the mood for what I anticipated to be another reminder that we should carefully organize our new life together, cook healthy meals, make money, that kind of thing.

I did not expect to see this:

mao haiyen1

Because Lipeng’s parents live near the beach, his mother makes a habit of going swimming every night. She’s not alone–the whole neighborhood is out there enjoying the cool refuge of the ocean. It doesn’t seem to matter that the city is erecting a bridge over the water, and that grime from the construction has been reaching the shore. Rain or shine, pollution or no, every night these Dalianren flock to sea.

So during her swim, she managed to catch wild seaweed–a rarity these days.

“When I found it, I yanked it out from its roots–like this!” She hunched her shoulders together, lifted her leg like a baseball pitcher and yanked the air. 

Filled with the power of her victory, like a hunter enjoying her spoils, she hurried/hopped to the kitchen to dump the tangled mess into a pot and start cooking it. And that’s what we ate for breakfast the next day: fresh seaweed braised in garlic and vinegar.

I’m sorry to say that the seaweed was largely neglected in favor of other, more flavorful dishes. OK, so I’m not the only one, I thought, who doesn’t like seaweed! To be more accurate, I hate seaweed in all its incarnations. Even my love of vinegar and garlic was simply no match for this hate. We did nibble at it out of politeness, but . . . but . . . there was so many other wonderful dishes on the table, like fried fish and eggs with tomato . . . I hope our reluctance to eat didn’t damper her sense of accomplishment!

美味周末/Delicious Weekends: Sobo Ramen
June 28, 2015, 8:12 am
Filed under: Asia abroad, 美味周末/Delicious Weekends, food | Tags: ,

Hooray for the first entry of a new series I’m starting, called 美味周末 (meiwei zhoumo), which translates to “Delicious Weekends.” Disclaimer: I’m no cook. My dad was a great cook and used to give me tasks in the kitchen, but unfortunately being his sous chef didn’t impart any great skills in the kitchen onto me. BUT . . . I love food, and I especially love Chinese food, and I know a few things about it that I can pass on to you. And if all else fails, there are restaurants.

It should come as no surprise that the first installment of Delicious Weekends is going to feature a restaurant.

OK, fine, it’s not even a Chinese restaurant. It’s Japanese. It’s RAMEN! And not just any kind of ramen. Savory, flavorful ramen, worthy of every appreciative slurp. Sayonara, Ajisen. Hello, Sobo Ramen!

Sobo Ramen1

We got to Sobo Ramen at five to five to join the queue of people waiting for it to open. That made us realize that, yes, we are hardcore ramen fans. The owners should really consider opening a fan club and offer discounts . . . as it is, we’ve already started a Sobo Ramen budget . . . ahem.

Eating at Sobo Ramen feels like bypassing customs and settling in a little slice of Asia. Everything is graced with an orderly, geometric design. I love that each wooden table is equipped with a glass of chopsticks, also made of wood.

We each ordered the Tonkotsu Ramen with Mayu, a homemade broth of miso and black garlic oil that comes with tea tree mushrooms, half of a boiled egg, sliced pork, bean sprouts, spring onion and sesame seeds. Yum!

Sobo Ramen2

The real fun comes when you adorn your ramen with various delicious accouterments. Quail eggs, a common addition to noodle soups in China, are a must. I’ve yet to find them at other restaurants here in the States. Another recommendation is the fried garlic, which Lipeng chose. Because I’m trying to up my vegetable intake, I added bamboo, baby bok choy, and, to appease my ever-grumbling health conscience, kale. Now, my loathing for kale is legendary among my friends. I’m baffled by all the hype. I once saw a kale restaurant in Manhattan and wondered if I’d entered some kind of Murakami-esque alternate universe. I mean, do they actually get enough customers to pay the rent? What kind of person thinks, Oh boy! A kale restaurant! Yum! But it turns out that, once it’s been soaked in miso and garlic oil, even kale can transcend its own wretched banality.

Anyway . . . Although I haven’t tried the other ramen choices on the menu, they do sound intriguing. One of the specials is lobster ramen. They also have Tsukemen Ramen, in which all parts of the dish are disassembled so that you can dip each item into the broth. Sounds potentially messy, but I’ve heard it’s good. Another time, we also tried their pan fried crab dumplings . . . mmm!

Where is Sobo Ramen, you ask? Japantown? Somewhere supposedly hip, like the Haight? Wrong. It’s in Oakland, a few minutes walk from 12th Street BART. Take that, SF!

To sum up: ramen budget. You’ll need it.