Thursday, January 17, 2008

The Children Ate Fish Heads

The other day in the market, Lucy stood up in the shopping cart in front of the fish counter, pointed to the Red Snapper and demanded that we only buy “fish with eyes”. Then, she noticed that raw Snapper has pink scales, and since we are in our princess stage and everything pink is a good thing – the whole “fish with eyes” thing was galvinized.

My daughter wants her dead and lifeless food staring up at her while she devours it. Pre-schoolers are scrappy little buggers.

None of this is my doing, by the way. It’s Kian and Warren’s fault - the guys who live across the hall. Kian is Chinese and cooks homestyle Chinese food…and let me tell you, I’ve eaten in a lot of Chinese restaurants and I’ve never had Chinese food as good as his. He is an extraordinary cook. (I have a lot of things to say about Warren, too. But he requires his own post. His story involves duck eggs and horse urine and a passionate desire to make me eat the most disgusting delicacies he can find in China town. Thanks for that, Warren.)

My generous friend and amazing cook, Kian

So Kian and Warren had a dinner and invited us and our friends who also live in the building, Rachel, Jaffer and their 2 year old, Hidaya, who we adore and is like our third kid. We poured some wine and hung out while the kids (Hidaya looking sweet and clean and being all well-behaved, and my two in stained painting t-shirts, underpants and ransacking cupboards) ran wild through the apartment, looking for priceless antiques to up end and Wedgewood candle sticks to shatter, while Kian chopped fresh cilantro, diakon and bamboo shoots in the kitchen, ladling braising liquid over his fish head and setting veg in and out of the fire for short periods of cooking in the wok.

Kian set out cold plates (much to Edie’s delight, who much prefers cold to hot dishes) - Pickled cabbage and daikon, Cucumber salad with Garlic and Chili and Sweet and Sour Watermelon Radish Salad. Edie kept reaching for things across the table and sticking them in her mouth – eating up the cucumber, spitting out the daikon. Her favorite was the Watermelon Radishes.
She spent the night chewing on these spicy, pink candy-colored wedges. She adored them.

Edie's favorite - Watermelon Radishes
(in our favorite color, princess pink)

Then came the hot plates. One by one, so we could ruminate slowly over each of them. First plate - the heat of Kung Pao Chicken, nuggets of chicken steeped in hot chilies, was David and Rachel’s favorite. The kids avoided this one and good thing because one accidental nibble on one of those sassy red chilies and we’d have to call the Fire Department and have the children hosed down.

Next, the more subtle Steamed Tofu with Mushroom and Bamboo Shoot. I loved this dish because it has this dark, slippery broth, soft mushrooms that float over the tongue and tofu so gentle that it nearly melts in the mouth. A sensual experience.

Lucy enjoyed drinking the broth from the Chinese spoons, which reminds me...Lucy was a rapt and enthusiastic dinner companion because of one very important reason – chopsticks. What an incredible invention. I could keep Lucy busy picking up radishes and noodles at a dinner table for hours! Fantastic!

Next came the fish head. Lucy had never been served a head, with it’s eyes blankly staring up at us, so I was worried she might feel some empathy for the creature. I could just imagine her staging a protest and screaming, “Don’t hurt the fishy!” just as people were diving in. But she didn’t have one sentimental opinion about the fish – she LOVED it and kept diving into the carcass with her chopsticks and fingers and pulling out nuggets of juicy fish meat from the cheek.

“I like fish with eyes Mommy!” she told me, sloppily plopping a big piece in her mouth with both chopsticks and fingers.

And that's how the whole fish thing began. Now, we are ONLY allowed to eat fish that has eyes. The people working the fish counter think we've lost our minds.

There were two more plates after that - a steaming plate of Stir Fried Bok Choy. Simply done, very comforting and fresh but without all the unnecessary theatrics and a Stir Fried Rice with Dried Shrimp and Asparagus that still haunts me to this day. It was the cleanest, most delightful fried rice I ever had and a reminder to me that what gets served in a lot of Chinese restaurants (especially the take out joints) is not authentic, made with less than fresh ingredients, over-sauced, unnecessarily heavy and flavorless and not at all emblematic of real Chinese cuisine.

Dried Shrimp
(looks like a bowl full of insects now, but once hydrated are pretty tasty)

And then there was the impromtu Chinese cooking lesson. David and the kids mingled and drank wine (David, not the kids) and cleaned the last bits off their plates as I stationed myself right next to Kian at the stove, asking him questions while he chopped unfamiliar vegetables and poured in liquids from bottles with lots of Chinese writing on them.

He explained each step as he went along and I realized that these dishes were quite simple to prepare. They entailed quite a bit of prep and chopping up front, but the cook time was quick, so if you needed to, you could prep and chop early in the day and just cook the food 5 minutes before you want to eat. This makes homestyle Chinese cooking perfect for busy families – great, healthy, fun food with minimal time in the kitchen. Love it.

So, after David leaned in and whispered, “You have to become an expert in Chinese cooking,” I’ve decided to spend some time staring over Kian’s shoulder and learning some of his simple, completely satisfying Chinese dishes. I'll throw them in, here and there, with my Western recipes. And, of course, I'll share the stories with you as I stumble through the steps.

And then we’ll get out the chopsticks and let the little ones have some fun at the table…And maybe eat a few vegetables in the process!

xxxooo YM



Veronica said...

I haven't had authentic chinese food, but I have a korean friend and she makes the best food. It sounds very similar to the chinese food actually.

Jennifer and Jeff said...

Yummy! I didn't have authentic Chinese food until I moved to Botswana, and it is delish! I have a few friends here who are Chinese, and one of them is an awesome cook. She makes a hot and sour tofu soup to die for. And Chinese pancakes....yum.

AnnieKNodes said...

What great neighbors! And what a delish meal.

My neighbors are a crabby old lady and a young kid who likes "to rock." I need to move like, now.

Kian said...

What a great post about the dinner I prepared! I really enjoyed the evening with all the neighbors. Visit my blog to learn to make some of these dishes.