Happy Chinese New Year! — it’s my zodiac year, and my baby will also have the same zodiac year as me!
My latest article on Thrive Global, how a Brooklyn-born Irishman’s memoir helped me to reconnect with my Chinese culture.
Carolina Ale House is a chain bar/restaurant. This review is for the Killeen, TX location.
They weren’t busy when we went, but there was no hostess at the front, so we waited a few minutes until one showed up.
The menu has a nice selection. (I asked him beforehand if he gets ID at places, and he said no, so I said they’ll ID him because of me — he thought I was joking, but everywhere we went they ID him when he ordered alcohol. Ha!) The thing was, I wanted their Seared Ahi Tuna Asian Salad… but the waitress comes back to tell me they don’t have any tuna. (An episode of Kitchen Nightmares flashes through my head, with Gordon Ramsey screaming.) So I ordered their grilled salmon instead. It tasted good, but I can’t really taste anything anyway.
I did not like their chicken soup. It was very salty. The waitress kept coming up to us like every 5 minutes asking us if we’re doing okay. I hate when they do that.
I told my Ranger, I usually don’t finish my food — he said, I know. So since his dad is a pediatrician, he had went to China to one of the rural villages to do some humanitarian work, and he said that his dad thought it was polite to finish his plate, but that they kept putting more food on his plate each time he finished his food — so he realized that in Chinese culture, leaving food on your plate is actually Chinese etiquette (versus American etiquette, where it’s polite to eat all your food). I told him I was very impressed that he even knew, ha!
I think if they had the tuna I would have liked it better. The Ranger being a guy, doesn’t care. Guys (especially military guys) are happy eating anything that isn’t a MRE. I give this place 3 out of 5 stars… the worse thing for a restaurant is to not have something on their own menu!
P/S. We went to Cracker Barrel despite the Cracker Barrel Tinder girl — I put my spoon into the bowl of gravy and ate it. He said, Are you eating gravy?! He laughed at me. Haha. ♡
Jews and Arabs have very similar beliefs (it’s so ironic that they are so politically against each other), and really it’s Christians who are the lone man out.
Christians don’t follow the laws of circumcision or dietary restrictions that the Jews and Arabs believe in, especially the ban on pork (which they both abstain from, according to the laws written in Exodus and Leviticus). If we’re going to be historical about it, the followers of Jesus were Jews. Jesus was a Jew. During the Jewish diaspora of the Roman Empire, many men gave up their traditions to assimilate with the Romans, who themselves are very similar to the Greeks. I mean, common sense says that you can’t tell a bunch of people who live on a peninsula that they can’t eat shellfish. But if you’re going to be eating lobsters and crabs, you might as well eat pork too! So Christianity is actually a very lax religion compare to Judaism and Islam.
In Catholicism, Catholics do abstain from meat on Fridays during Lent. One of the symbolism for Christianity (besides from the infamous cross) is a symbol of a fish. During the Jewish diaspora of the Roman Empire, you obviously didn’t walk around with a crucifix, which is the strong association of Jesus in the modern era; so other Jewish followers that believed Jesus was the Christ (and therefore called Christians) would draw a symbol of a fish to let others know that they were also followers, to avoid persecution.
Why? Because most of Jesus’ apostles were originally fishermen. They were to become “fishers of men” for God. Catholics believe in missionary work because that’s what the apostles did, but the Catholic Church sends men off to Africa or India or some place like that; to help the poor, the sick, the heathens… not like the Mormons or Jehovahs that come knocking on your door when you’re in your pajamas — but I digress, so back to the fish!
During Jesus’ ministries, thousands gathered to hear him preach. From a few loaves of bread and fish he fed thousands, so fish is a very important food in Christianity (I mean, the man walked on water, didn’t he?). And after his resurrection, he cooked fish for his apostles. I’d say back in the day Jesus and Peter were seafood lovers like me.
Did you know that the Catholic practice of abstaining from meat on Friday was the reason for the creation of McDonald’s Filet-o-Fish sandwich? Because hamburger sales dropped off noticeably on Fridays, the owner of the franchise in Cincinnati introduced the new offering, and sales picked up again. Sadly, many Catholics are not aware that the Friday abstinence rule is still in effect. The post-Vatican-II modification in Church law only allowed the consumption of meat if some other sacrifice or good work was substituted in its place. (This is not even a problem with me at all. I am definitely not a meat lover.)
I’m not religious, at least not anymore; but I do believe that our religious beliefs provide us the moral compass of our values. Like confessing sins for absolution (the truth shall set you free), and penance for redemption (do to others as you want done to yourself). Lent is actually an awesome 40 days because I LOVE fish.
My favorite fish dish is very simple. Cantonese whole steamed fish. A steamed whole fish with ginger, scallion and cilantro is a big favorite on any Chinese table, and it’s almost always served at holiday meals and special occasions. This is definitely true for Cantonese families at formal wedding and Chinese New Year banquets, but also for family gatherings at home. (For those from Shanghai and other parts of China, you may get a braised fish instead, which is also a great meal.) There are many whole fish recipes that vary in cooking methods and flavors depending upon where you are in China.
So I know most people think their mom is the greatest cook ever, but my mom really is. Like, seriously, my mom cooks better than yours. It’s just a fact. ♡ My mom is currently in Hong Kong with my uncle. They left after Chinese New Year for a month. We still have land in China, and each year one of my uncles or aunts, or both, goes to make sure our homestead is being maintained by whomever they left in charge.
My mom is a first generation American, so I’ve been really spoiled when it comes to food. Even now, in her 60s, she still doesn’t know how to use a microwave or the washer! My brother bought her a washing machine and she basically uses it as a shelf to stack things on. But now that I’m older, I realized how spoiled I am with all her cooking. (She’s the reason men go broke buying me lobsters!) Nothing I ate growing up ever came from a can, package, or a box; everything was fresh and made from scratch. I didn’t grow up eating processed foods, sugar, junk, soda, etc.
I remember weekends from my childhood of going to Chinatown with my mom to buy food. The best was getting crabs. The fishmongers would have barrels of live crabs, and I get to choose them. They were then put into a big, thick brown paper bag. On the train, I’d keep looking inside the bag and poking them to make sure they were still alive. When we got home, my mom would dump them in the sink, and I’d continue to poke at them with a chopstick… sometimes I tried to race them, or have them fight each other. (Once, one of them clamp on to my forefinger and it hurt so bad!)
I’m going to show you how to prepare a whole fish (including how to serve it at the table!), so you can impress your friends (or perhaps your Chinese in-laws)… authentic Chinese food is extremely healthy (have you ever seen a fat Chinese person??? — and my people live until they’re in their 90s at least).
You can steam just about any whole fish that comes in good eating sizes (1 to 2 pounds). Sea bass is a common fish used for steaming in Chinese cooking, but I’ve found the meat is not as delicate as striped bass. Flat fish like flounder, fluke, or grey sole are also very good for steaming as well. I grew up by the Atlantic Ocean, and it’s what I miss the most — fresh seafood. (I don’t like freshwater stuff, especially catfish.) For those of you who cannot easily access whole fresh fish, using fish filets are the next best thing and usually easier to prepare.
If you can get fresh fish, don’t be intimidated by this dish. The hardest part is simply figuring out how you’re going to steam it. Once you have your steaming arrangement worked out, it is really easy to prepare and will impress your family and guests.
whole fish, cleaned
fresh ginger, finely julienned
scallions, finely julienned with green and white parts separated
fresh cilantro, roughly chopped
After you get your fish home from the market, it’s important to cook it as soon as possible. The fishmongers in Chinatown sells live fish, so it is super fresh. (Some restaurants also sell fresh fish from live tanks, but be prepared to pay a ridiculous price.) At Chinese restaurants, fish is often sold by the pound since they vary in size, and it is not unusual for a 1 ½ pound striped bass to cost $30 or more. By contrast, we purchased a fresh fish to cook at home for $8, I think the most my mom ever bought one was for $13. The fishmongers usually does all the messy work of gutting and scaling it for you too, for free.
There is always some work to be done to process your fish before cooking, no matter how good your fishmonger is though. Of course, you can ask him to do all the steps below. I’m going to get pretty detailed, so if you’re squeamish, you might want to just head over to the steamed fish recipe right about now.
PREPARING THE FISH
1. Remove any scales from your fish using a sharp knife. The areas to look for are the belly and the edges of the fish including the top, near the dorsal fins, and the head.
2. Cut off any fins with kitchen shears. They are pretty tough, so be careful with this step. Leave the tail and head intact for presentation.
3. Look at the cavity, and you should see the backbone. You may also see a membrane that you should pierce and cut, revealing a blood line near the bone. Run your finger or a spoon across it to clean it thoroughly.
4. Check the head and gills. You should not see any gills left, and if there are, remove them with the kitchen shears and rinse the area clean. (Folks who like dining on the fish head will appreciate this step, like my mom!… Ever since I was a kid, my favorite part of the fish was the eyes, ha!)
5. Give the fish a final rinse, shake off the excess water (no need to pat it dry) and transfer to a plate for steaming. No salt, seasoning, or wine should be used on the fish before steaming. (Repeat. Nothing on the fresh fish before steaming!)
Ok you’re ready to cook the dish!
For steaming, I used an elongated plate. It’s simple enough. I used a wok and metal steam rack… I can’t think of any Chinese person without a wok (no matter how Americanized they are!).
Steam for about 10 minutes (more time if you have a fish that’s bigger than 1.5 pounds). Next, carefully pour out all of the liquid accumulated on the plate from steaming, and spread half of the ginger, the green portions of the scallion, and the cilantro over the fish.
Heat oil and the other half of the ginger in a saucepan until the ginger begins to sizzle, and add soy sauce. Once simmering, add the white portions of the scallion and stir until the liquid begins to simmer and sizzle once again. (Sorry about measurements, I just eyeball everything — it’s probably why I can’t bake!)
The fish should look spectacular, so you’ll want to present it whole (it should definitely be the last dish prepared so you can serve it right away). Once everyone has oo’ed and aahh’ed at the table, you could just dig in (many Chinese families do), or you could remove some of the bones and prepare it for your guests at the table. It’s like carving the turkey at Thanksgiving, you can bring it back to the kitchen and prepare it there as well. ♡
Periwinkle are edible sea snails. It originated in Europe (specifically in coastal countries like England) as delicacies, and are eaten in France, Italy, Scotland, England, etc. In areas of China that has a large European expatriate like Hong Kong, there is a lot of Asian-fusion in its cooking. Hong Kong is a Cantonese region, and has a large English population from China’s 100 year lease of the area to Britain.
China has the world’s largest population, but different areas have completely different dialect and customs — the difference between Spanish and Portuguese (Mandarin is completely different from Cantonese, so it’s not very “politically correct” to ask a person if they speak “Chinese”).
My family is from the Canton region of China, therefore they speak Cantonese. In China, the largest city with a Cantonese culture is Hong Kong and Macau (where the people speak Cantonese and English, and Cantonese and Portuguese, respectively). These two areas have cuisines that combines the influences of foreign cultures to traditional Chinese customs; English in Hong Kong, and Portuguese in Macau.
One of my favorite seafood dishes is periwinkle, Cantonese style (of course). My pen-pal of almost 15 years is actually from England. (I love his accent!) In England, they sell them in food carts like how New York City sells hotdogs, shish-kebab, sausages, etc. (Well, if you’ve never been to NYC, I just don’t know how to explain it to you!) My UK pen-pal says the English like to eat it by boiling it and usually with butter. (That is not how the Chinese eats it, as most Chinese are lactose-intolerant and diary products like butter are never use in authentic Chinese cooking… probably why you’ll rarely see an overweight Chinese person.)
My mom always makes this for me when I go home (that and my favorite, whole steamed fish), and my kids love it because it’s fun when you eat food that you kind of have to work at — they like sucking it out of the shells! Of course, there’s always the few occasional ones that they just can’t get out, so I get it out for them — reminds me of a mom bird feeding worms to her baby birds, ha!
This is my mom’s recipe. (You’ll probably never get to eat this unless you’re in a coastal state, you’ll definitely never find it in Iowa!) Periwinkle are sea snails, it’s a fancy way of saying it, kind of like escargot. Although, you should know that periwinkle and escargot are different though. You’ll find them at fish markets. They’re not very expensive, usually like $3.50 a pound, (definitely not more than $5 a pound). A bag full is usually around $8 or so.
First, you have to clean it to get all the sand out. (They are found on seashores.) Wash them until the water runs clear. Then boil them covered. This insures that they are thoroughly cooked and any sand or dirt is removed. Drain your periwinkle.
Chop up finely garlic and red/green chili peppers (I like using cayenne, jalapeños, or serrano). In a wok (or a large skillet), heat oil (my mom uses vegetable oil) and add the finely chopped herbs. Stir for a few seconds, add the periwinkle, add soy sauce, Hoisin sauce (it means “seafood” in Cantonese… you’ll find all this stuff in the Asian aisle next to the soy sauce); oyster sauce, salt, black bean sauce, and a bouillon cube (the brand that my mom uses for all this stuff is Lee Kum Kee — it’s a Hong Kong company that specializes in Chinese cooking sauces). Stir-fry for about 5 minutes, add a few tablespoons of water, cover and steam for about 2 minutes, and you’re done! (If you haven’t quite gotten how to get the meat out, use a toothpick, it’s what I tell my kids to do.)
This is super easy (and fast) to make — and this method can be made with just about any vegetables that are used in Chinese cuisine… plus, it is very healthy. (I mean, seriously, have you ever seen a fat Chinese person? — or one with cholesterol problems???)
This takes about five minutes to cook. Get your spinach clean by washing it. Leafy vegetables shrink in size once it’s cooked, so how much you need depends on how much is going to be eaten. You’ll need one garlic bulb; peel your cloves and keep the cloves whole.
In a wok (or skillet if you don’t have a wok), heat cooking oil, add your whole garlic cloves, sauté for about a minute; add your spinach and sauté that for about three minutes or so (you’ll know when the leaves are wilted), add salt (or soy sauce if you’ve got it) and plate; finish off by drizzling sesame oil over it. See — how easy was that!?!
In Chinese cuisine, we eat rice for every meal — breakfast, lunch, dinner, and everything in between (and always accompanied by tea). For dinner, there is usually a vegetable dish, a seafood dish, and a meat dish… for holidays and family gatherings, there are multiple varieties of these dishes.
I was really spoiled by my mom’s cooking. My mother never knew how to use a microwave and I don’t know of any markets in Chinatown that sells DiGiorno or Lean Cuisine and Hot Pockets; so everything my mom cooked was homemade.
One of my favorite Chinese vegetable dish is bok choy with ginger sauce (some use garlic too… it’s individual preference). I like baby boy choy, but they never have it in the store here (here is the middle of nowhere Iowa).
So this is very basic — chop off the stump end and wash the bok choy, and then chop the bok choy into parts (you don’t have to do that if you’re using the baby kind).
To make it with ginger and garlic — chop up both, stir it around in a wok with hot oil, and add soy sauce and oyster sauce for about a minute. (I can’t give measurements because I eye-ball everything instead.) Add the bok choy into the wok, stir fry for about three minutes, cover your wok and let it steam for about five minutes… adjust your cooking time to how big your batch is.
To make it with ginger sauce instead — use vegetable oil, scallions and ginger. Now, if you have one of those mince gadgets, good for you!… I do it the way I saw my mom doing it, which is basically beating it with a cleaver. With your peeled ginger, slice it, and then chop it. Chop the scallions finely, and then just mince the two together until they’re immersed. It should be smooth… kind of like baby food consistency. Add that mush up ginger and scallion into your bowl of oil — how much oil? It depends on how big your mashed up ginger and garlic is… enough to cover it, but it shouldn’t be drowning in it. Add a pinch of salt, and then stir like crazy.
If you’re using the ginger sauce, you would just cook the bok choy in oil alone, and when it’s cooked, you’d add the ginger sauce at the end to give it flavor.