Category Archives: Childhood Tales

Shrimp & Pork Fried Rice

I knew I’d get at least one request for fried rice when I emailed my siblings asking about their favorite childhood dishes. Sure enough, the following reply came from my older brother, “I would say a proper Chinese/Japanese fried rice is a staple comfort food for me. It’s simple but always takes me back to childhood food”.

Disclaimer: I am a HUGE snob when it comes to fried rice, as is my older brother, which is why I understood when he prefaced his choice with the word “proper”. But what is proper Chinese/Japanese fried rice? For starters, Japanese fried rice is really Chinese fried rice. I’m not looking to veer off into touchy foreign policy issues here. It’s not an invitation to begin debating Japanese history textbook revisionism or who really owns the Senkaku islands…  This is just a simple statement; good Japanese fried rice is really Chinese fried rice.

I am willing however, to argue over what goes inside said fried rice. Perhaps it’s best to start with what should NOT be included. There shouldn’t be any chunks of softened pineapple dominating the dish with its sweetness. No bean sprouts poking out like tadpoles from a mound of rice. And no bright green broccoli florets with their promise of nutrition. As for the protein component this is not the time to start defrosting those questionable items in the back on the freezer. The rice shouldn’t be yellow from curry powder, or red from ketchup. And it should definitely not be brown from thickened soy sauce.

For me the best fried rice is flavored with both shrimp and pork; the rice is still white rather than stained brown from soy sauce, and the vegetables are uniformly cut and cooked.

The first really great fried rice I remember eating with my older brother was at the Seagull Hotel in Shanghai when he was six and I was four. We had just travelled with our parents, two-year-old brother and one-month old baby sister by ship, from Japan to China (that’s right, I said SHIP). At the hotel my brother and I would alternate between ordering the fried rice and fried noodles. I’m sure we ordered other dishes as well, but none stuck in my memory like those two big starchy plates of food.

Nowadays our massive family has a system for ordering when we go out for Chinese food (imagine the mayhem without one). Two or three of us will scan the menu and call off suggestions for the others to reject or accept, while another sibling furiously scribbles the orders on a scrap of paper. Fried rice with its salty nuggets of ham, just-cooked pink shrimp, and delicately scrabbled eggs always gets a round of head-nods and an enthusiastic “definitely” from the whole family. I’m hoping that the version below gets the same unanimous stamp of approval.

Ingredients:
Neutral oil for cooking
½ cup diced onion
1 tsp minced garlic
1 tsp. minced ginger
3/4 tsp. salt
1/3 cup diced carrots
1/3 cup diced celery 
5 shiitake caps, diced
1 tsp. oyster sauce
1/3 cup cooked peas
¾ cup diced ham or Canadian bacon
10 small or 5 large (cut into 3rds) peeled and deveined shrimp
2 eggs, lightly beaten
4 cups cooked white rice *cook’s note I*
1 tsp. chicken bouillon *cook’s note II*
¼ tsp. white pepper
½ cup sliced scallion
2 tsp. sesame oil

*As with all Chinese food timing and speed are the keys to success. Make sure you have everything prepped and ready to go before you turn on the stove.

 
  • Heat a wok or large skillet and 1 Tbsp. of oil over med-high heat. Once wisps of smoke begin to appear add the diced onion. Cook for 1 min. Add the garlic, ginger and ¼ tsp. of salt. Cook for 1 minute more.
  • Add the diced carrots. Cook for 1 minute. Turn the heat to high. Add the celery and diced shiitake caps. Add 1 tsp. oyster sauce. Cook for 1 min. Add the peas, stirring through. Remove and set aside.
  • In the now empty wok/skillet heat 2 tsp. of oil. Add the diced Canadian bacon or ham (I prefer Canadian bacon for its fat content). Fry quickly over high heat until lightly brown and fat begins to render. Remove. Turn the heat down to medium-high and add the shrimp to the pork fat. Add ¼ tsp. of salt. Cook for 2 minutes, or until shrimp are pink and no longer translucent. Remove shrimp, leaving any remaining fat behind.
  • Turn the heat down to medium and add the lightly beaten eggs to the center of the hot wok/skillet. Cook as you would scrambled eggs for 15 seconds, add the rice to the pan. Mix well with the partially cooked eggs. Sprinkle in 1 tsp. chicken bouillon, ¼ tsp. salt and ¼ tsp. ground white pepper. Continue stir-frying for 1 minute.
  • Add the cooked vegetables, pork and shrimp. Cook for 2 minutes, stirring well to evenly distribute all the ingredients. Add the scallions and sesame oil. Taste and adjust seasoning if necessary.
  • Remove from heat and serve.

Cook’s note I: To get the best results the rice needs to be cold. Freshly steamed rice is too sticky to fry properly. Use leftover rice or cook it early in the day and let it cool for a while in the refrigerator.

Cook’s note II: In an effort to develop a recipe as close to the version my older brother remembers from his childhood I’ve used chicken bouillon. I doubt it comes as a surprise to anyone that this is an ingredient frequently used for seasoning in Chinese food. It received a bad rap for a while due to its MSG content, but these days it’s pretty easy to find a MSG-free version.

Examining the Mixed Up Minds and Palates of Third Culture Kids

In her book According to My Passport, I’m Coming Home author Kay Branaman Eakin describes a Third Culture Kid as, “someone who, as a child, has spent a significant period of time in one or more culture(s) other than his or her own, thus integrating elements of those cultures and their own birth culture, into a third culture.”

Educators and psychologist who study Third Culture Kids (TCKs) have found that, among other things (really I’m only sharing the good stuff), they have a lower divorce rate, communicate well, and tend to be more welcoming and understanding of other cultures. TCKs are more likely to earn a college degree in their 20s, and many go on to earn advanced degrees. However, after graduation it is unlikely that they will enter the same career field of their parents (which tends to be missionary, military, or government).

My siblings and I are all TCKs. We have a Canadian father and a Filipina mother. Two of us were born in the Philippines, one in Macau, five in Japan and two in Taiwan. I’m the only one who speaks Japanese, but two of my brothers can understand a bit. Four of us girls can flip to Chinese if we ever want to gossip about you in front of you. But our youngest sister is the only one who can say anything in Tagalog that isn’t a cuss word.  Only the oldest two (my older brother and I) have ever lived in the Philippines. Interestingly, we are also the only two who have never lived in Canada.

The 3rd culture we’ve created is a mix of Japanese and Chinese culture, with a sprinkling of Canadian-ness here and there. In other words we remove our shoes when we enter the house but there aren’t tiny slippers designated solely for the bathroom (I am not exaggerating here, Japanese really do have a set of slippers used just inside the bathroom). We can’t spend two nights together without pulling out the karaoke machine and belting out cheesy 90s ballads, our song choice reflecting the slightly dated Americanized pop culture we were surrounded by while growing up in Asia. In the late 80s-early 90s the most popular English songs sung in Japanese karaoke bars were the hits of the 70s sibling duo The Carpenters. So the song choices could be worse. Although perhaps I’d prefer my 11-year-old sister know the lyrics to Touch Me When We’re Dancing rather than enthusiastically sing along to the salacious I’ll Make Love to You by Boyz II Men.

As for sports there’s really no debate—here Canadian-ness shifts from a mere sprinkling to a heavy dousing—hockey is king. When hockey season is at its peak my family living room is filled with shouts, squeals, nerves, tears, jubilation and disappointment on par with the backstage of a Baby Beauty Pageant. While my brothers dabble with other sports, true worship takes place at the altars of Mark Messier, Joe Sakic, Jaromir Jagr and Markus Naslund.

Perhaps one day I will pay a shrink thousands of dollars to dig around in my TCK head. No doubt he/she will tell me how my childhood is to blame for my taste in music, my incessant need to de-clutter my apartment and why I struggle to select cheese at Western grocery stores—seriously why does there have to be 150 different types? But that is not now, and definitely not here.

Here, I will focus my linguistically and culturally confused brain on doing a little experiment involving TCKs and food. Specifically, if nostalgia plays a key role in a person’s perception of what constitutes as “comfort food” then did growing up in various countries influence each of my siblings’ tastes differently?

When I feel ill, all I can think about is a big bowl of tonkotsu ramen. Sibling #4 craves Chinese congee. While sibling #3 told me that his idea of comfort food is buttered toast dipped in milk. (I shudder to think how many loaves he’s consumed trying to ease the pain of his beloved Canucks losing the Stanley Cup Final last week.)

I have asked each of my siblings what they crave when they are sad, sick, or just looking for something that reminds them of “home”. Over the coming weeks, I will share their answers on this blog, as well as a recipe for each dish. I fully expect to be cooking up a lot of Taiwanese street food, but I’m also ready for a possible poutine or tuna casserole from the more Canadian among us.

As for the toast and milk request from my younger brother—maybe I’ll write a post on how to milk a cow… ‘cause that’s a hell of a lot more interesting then a piece on how to turn on a toaster.

Worm Hunts, Chore Swapping & Games of Chicken: Growing Up One of Ten

My oldest brother is 32. My youngest sister is 11. In between are three younger brothers, four younger sisters, and myself. It sounds like the set up for an SAT math question. The answer, for those who are bad at math, is 10. I come from a family of 10 children.

Many are surprised to learn that I grew up poor. Not the kind of poor where you only get to eat out once a week, or even once a month—the kind of poor where we picked off the fuzzy mold growing on our bread rather than throw the loaf away. We used every part of a vegetable, from the yellowing head of the broccoli down to the tough stalk. We rescued grains of rice that escaped into the sink while being washed, rinsed off the slimy milky substance encasing our tofu, and drank expired milk.

Things are better now. Several of us are working adults, and my family no longer lives in the developing world. Still, on a recent visit I found myself dancing around the shower like I used to as a kid, trying to find the perfect angle for the 5 thin streams of water to hit my body. I dried off with a threadbare towel before scurrying down the hall to bunk up in a squeaky twin sized bed with one of my sisters.

However, all of these little inconveniences don’t really bother me. I love spending time with my legion of siblings. In part because it’s one of the only occasions where I can sit back and not stress about cooking all the meals.  From the 32-year-old down to the 11-year-old, everyone cooks.

My husband jokes that our family gatherings consist of three activities: Fishing, karaoke and eating. It’s not entirely true. We do other activities as well, but we pepper them with tantalizing discussions about food—which are really just elaborate games of chicken. The goal is to provoke each other until someone cracks and runs off to the kitchen to put together a snack.

Last week I arrived at my parents’ home to find my 13-year-old sister in the kitchen baking off batches of her chocolate chip cookies. The next morning the youngest was busy pulling out metal mixing bowls and measuring flour, butter and sugar. Within 15 minutes—and working solely from a recipe she had memorized—this precocious 11-year-old produced a stack of beautiful crepes sprinkled with sugar and drizzled with lemon juice.

They were so good that the following day I made a deal with her… make them for breakfast again, and in return I’d teach her how to make strawberry syrup like I’d learned last summer at the restaurant.

This type of bargaining is rampant in my family. Chores and responsibilities can be traded like commodities in a sibling open market, “If you make me a ramen, I’ll collect and put out the trash” or “If the girls make a night snack, the boys will do the dishes.” Food, and the ability to either cook or provide it, is the dominant currency in our house.

Of course with six girls and four boys the division of labor isn’t always fair. When we were younger my brothers somehow convinced me that every time we went fishing my responsibilities included finding the worms, baiting the hooks, cleaning and cooking the fish. The actual fishing was a “chore” they graciously volunteered to take on.

Thankfully as each of the brothers passes through puberty and they learn the magic of the line, “Why don’t you come over and I’ll make you dinner?” they can more frequently be found in the kitchen honing their cooking skills. Is there anything more motivating to a young boy than the prospect of being popular with the ladies?

Someone asked me the other day if I ever wished my childhood was more “normal”. Maybe. Does that mean a quiet house with a room and bed of my own? Dinners at nice restaurants with cloth napkins and real silverware? Coming home from school to cupboards stocked with tasty snacks? Yeah, that would have been nice. But honestly I’ll take foraging for chestnuts in forests with my siblings, catching trout in rivers, crawfish in cold streams and feeling the satisfaction of turning borderline tofu into delicious fluffy fritters over a “normal” childhood any day.

Even if it means I have to bait the hooks.

(Here’s our attempt at a family photo with only 6 of us. I don’t think we’ve successfully taken a 10 sibling photo in several years)

Why I Love to Cook

I can’t remember the first time exactly. Rather than one instance, the memory is more likely a combination of several—a quiet house, the mellow morning sun glowing from behind Japanese paper doors, the clean woodsy smell of the soft bamboo mat flooring. As a child I would silently slip out of my warm bed, taking care not to wake any of my sleeping siblings. Tiptoeing down the narrow hallway, I’d make my way towards the kitchen. The light clanking of metal and the tic, tic, tic of the stove pilot light would tell me that my dad was putting the kettle on for his morning cup of coffee.

With ten children, my family can be accurately described as shockingly large. Our house was always filled with friends, visitors, sleepovers, and play dates. Naturally two things were in short supply and in constant demand—a peaceful room and the undivided attention of our parents. Maybe that’s why cooking became so important to me; it was a moment in which my dad or mom focused on me. Was I holding the knife safely? Cutting the vegetables the right size? Rinsing the rice correctly? The kitchen before everyone else rose for the day became my place to find parental attention and complete calm.

It was here that I learned to make my very first dish: scrambled eggs, a dish with the ability to be utterly pedestrian, or worthy of a place on the menu of a 5-star restaurant.

As a kid I remember the horror of showing up to my friends’ breakfast table, and seeing a pile of something that vaguely resembled food. A rubbery, overcooked grayish green mass where bits of whites and yolks could still be differentiated in the pile. A papery burnt film shuddering atop an oozing undercooked section. I recall being mystified as to how someone could both burn and undercook eggs at the same time.

Maybe it’s the adoration of a little girl towards her father, but I still believe my father’s scrambled eggs were perfection. He moved slowly, methodically through the steps. He would crack the eggs into a large bowl. Then slide the bowl over, allowing me to whip the eggs. He preferred to use a fork, but sometimes the volume of eggs would be too much for my little wrist and he would hand me a whisk. He showed me how the addition of a little milk would make the eggs creamy and fluffy, and the importance of salting them before cooking so that they didn’t taste of salt but rather fresh, rich eggs. A careful constant stirring over medium heat resulted in the fluffiest, most savory plate of eggs this little girl had ever tasted.

We would probably only have thirty minutes in that quiet kitchen—me intensely stirring the eggs, while my dad sipped his coffee and buttered slices of whole wheat toast to accompany them. By the time everything was ready, the house would be coming alive with the sounds of people eager for breakfast.

Last week at the 5-star restaurant where I now work, I learned how to make the ultimate upscale version of my childhood breakfast food. A few professional secrets elevate this simple dish—extra egg yolks are added to enrich the flavor, crème fraiche replaces milk and the eggs are cooked slowly in a saucepot, stirred constantly with a small whisk and finished with a round spatula. Of course, cooking them in truffle butter and garnishing with a generous shaving of white truffles from Italy doesn’t hurt. When it comes to the table the pungent earthy aroma of the truffles envelopes you and for a few blissful moments you are lost in the luscious, savory, buttery eggs. Simplicity elevated.

However, for me no amount of truffles, caviar, or smoked salmon will ever elevate anyone’s scrambled eggs over my dad’s. The simple joy of spending time with him, cooking in our tiny Japanese kitchen while the rest of the house slept. Quiet moments like this didn’t occur very often, making the times that they did all the more memorable.

If I close my eyes I can still feel the warm morning sun coming in the small window above the kitchen sink. A little girl is standing at the stove, dad close by—wisps of steam disappearing off the top of his mug, filling the room with the robust and faintly sweet aroma of freshly brewed coffee. For her, this is the best moment of her day and the most perfect plate of food she will ever eat.

When I tell people that I have started a new career in the food world the common reaction is a head tilt and an inquisitive “why?” Why? Simple—it makes me smile. Sometimes the quiet, simple moments in life resonate the loudest and the longest.