Fish and Noodles; family and food.


Happy Chinese New Year. There’s my grandmother on my father’s side along with my grandfather, looking pretty awesome. Tiny people!

Though I’m mostly Chinese and grew up with Chinese customs mixed into our American life, my family, strangely, didn’t really celebrate Chinese New Year in any huge fashion.

I went to Chinese school once a week every week, so during that one day of the year we would get little red envelopes with a $2 bill folded crisply in half, but that was about it for me and my sister. Other kids in my Chinese School class would boast how much money they received at home; even at the tender age of 9, I knew that $100 was an exorbitant amount for a second grader.

In lieu of cash, and I suppose without any regrets from any of us in retropect, the only consistent tradition observed by my family every year was an emphasis on food; a meal together on at least one night surrounding the New Year holiday. Even though this emphasis would always seem to come about more casually that naught, with either mom or dad saying something like, oh shoot, it’s Chinese New Year tomorrow, we should definitely have fish for dinner.

dried noodles

chinese ingredients

If not fish than it was noodles, sometimes dumplings or 10-ingredient stir fry and 8-jewel-sticky rice or nien gao for dessert. Throughout dinner we would be asked the same question, as we were asked every year: do you know why we’re eating (insert so-and-so) now?

Though we rolled our eyes at the time, we were also nervously excited to carefully, with the calculated concentration so practiced by children, give the right answer. After all, if it’s anything that the Chinese are, it’s superstitious, and everything has a meaning attached. Peaches for fertility, dumplings for wealth, oranges for luck, cakes for prosperity, the list goes on.

The two big-occasion dishes of our household during all Chinese gatherings were fish, and noodles.

Fish was a favorite of mine, for its multiple symbolic qualities, some of which I could remember, some I could not. Always whole, usually steamed, with its beady, glazed eyes always seemingly pointing at me. On the table only because it of an eponymous misfortune (for the fish, at least); the word “fish” in Chinese is a homonym with the word for prosperity, and so, eating fish over the new year is extremely good luck (for the diner).

In traditional fishing cultures, as was the tiny island of Taiwan where my parents are from, it brings especially great luck in the year ahead. However one should NEVER flip a fish over on the serving platter, for this indicates a sunken boat and bad luck at sea. Rather, the spine should be lifted off the plate once the meat is picked cleanly from the bones.

stir fry noodles

My sister preferred noodles, because she was a normal child and liked noodles over fish. I remember we were told, year in and year out, that noodles signified longevity, and more so than usual, we slurped as if the louder our inhalation of an entire noodle, the longer we’d live.

I’m surprised as to how much of this knowledge I’m able to recall all these years later, without hesitation and with great pride. Food serves many important roles, most fundamentally in its nourishing qualities, but to me, it’s also a reminder of where I’m from, and the family that I’m tied to.

It’s Chinese New Year today, and to celebrate, these noodles will likely make an appearance…well, sometime this weekend.

Chow Mein, aka Longevity Noodles


  • 1 small knob Ginger, about 10g or 2 tsp. peeled and grated
  • 2 cloves Garlic, minced
  • 2 Tbsp. Soy sauce
  • 1 Tbsp. Sesame oil
  • 3 spring onions, thinly sliced, whites and greens separated
  • 1 chicken breast, approx. 200g
  • 4 servings egg noodles (see your package’s directions) + sesame oil
  • 1 small red onion
  • 6 leaves (approx. 275g) Chinese napa or savoy cabbage, thinly sliced
  • 8 shiitake or oyster mushrooms, thinly sliced
  • 2 carrots, julienned


  1. Cut chicken into thin strips. In a medium bowl, combine chicken with ginger and garlic, the whites of the green onion (reserve the green to add into noodles later), soy sauce, and sesame oil. Cover. Marinate for at least 15 minutes, or 1-2 hours if possible for more flavor.
  2. After chicken has marinated to your liking, cook noodles according to package directions. Drain, and drizzle additional sesame oil and toss. This will not only add a great flavor and fragrance to your dish, but it will also keep the noodles from congealing and sticking together!
  3. In a wok or large saute pan over high heat, add 2 Tbsp. Cooking oil (peanut or grapeseed are the best for Chinese cookery). When oil is hot, add onion. Saute for two minutes, or until onion starts to become translucent. Add napa cabbage and mushrooms, cooking for another 3 minutes. Add the marinated chicken, stirring constantly. When chicken is no longer pink (just about 30-40 seconds), add carrots and green onion. Continue to saute until chicken is cooked through, about 3-4 minutes, occasionally tossing with a wooden spoon.
  4. Add noodles to the pan, carefully turning noodles into the vegetables with the help of tongs or chopsticks. Cook for another minute or two. Taste, adding another Tbsp. of soy sauce if you would like more flavor. Transfer to a large dish or bowl, and serve immediately.

Optional: substitute shrimp, peeled and de-veined, instead of chicken. Or, broccoli, for a vegetarian option!


Lard (How to render Pork Fat)

I’m not normal.

You know how I know this?

Because, even though I just came back from Cape Town, I feel the urge to tell you about rendering pork fat into good ole’ lard.

Because, when I’m stressed about writing and can’t seem to find the right words for a couple projects, the only thing that makes my fingers fly off the keyboard typing are these words, which will soon describe nothing of importance, unless you find fat important (I do).


Because, when I saw the huge plastic bag hoisted up from behind the counter of the butcher shop, the plastic bag that not only contained pork bones for a broth but also sheets of pork fat and skin, I clapped my hands with joy.


Because, I happily, attentively, patiently waited for over a day for my pork skin to cook down in the slow cooker, eventually ladling the residual product into small glass jars like a mad scientist.


Because, instead of using olive oils and coconut oils and whatever other “healthy” oils are available, I choose to use my own, homemade lard.

Because, the word “LARD” is as funny to me as the word “FART” but also sexy in a way that farts are most definitely not.

Because, I couldn’t wait to take pictures of pork fat cradled in a small wooden spoon.


How to render pork fat into lard

According to Paleo guru and our new household hero Robb Wolf (or rather, an author on his website),

Leaf lard is from the interior of the animal near the kidneys and back fat is from, well – the back of the pig, between the loin and the skin. If you purchase back fat it will almost always have a little bit of red meat layered with the white fat while leaf lard tends to be more purely white in color through and through. Both types of fat are delicious and versatile but back fat does often have a richer flavor that may arguably make it somewhat less suitable for a few particular purposes such as certain desserts or baked goods.

Most recipes instruct the use of back fat, and I agree with this. I had to actually pick through my pile of scraps to find the ones with the most fat, but hey, this is Africa.

If you ask for back fat from the butcher in the states, you will most likely receive your pieces, nice thicky fatty pieces with a thin layer of skin. Still, no matter how thin this skin, it will seem as thick as leather when you try to cut it at home. Therefore, ask your butcher to cut it for you into small pieces, even minced, if possible, as opposed to doing in online. Especially if you’ve got dull knives, and dull kitchen shears. Trust me, these fingers I’m typing with were nearly gone on several occasions.

I’ve also read online that the smaller the pieces, the more fat you’ll get off of the skin.

Anyway, on with the instructions:

  1. Start with any increment of pork fat, but at least a pound, up to 5-6 pounds (or really, as much as your crock pot can handle), cut into pieces.
  2. Pour a small amount of water, about 1/4 cup into a crock pot. This will prevent the skin from sticking to the bottom, but does not need to be an exact amount.
  3. Place your pork skin and fat into the crock. Set on low to medium heat and let the crock pot work its magic.
  4. If possible, check the crock pot once an hour or so, stirring if possible, to ensure even cooking of the skin.
  5. The fat will slowly start to melt into a puddle of oil. My lard took over 10 hours to render, but just keep your eye on it. It helps to spoon out the fat as it cooks down, straining through a fine-meshed sieve as you go.

This Lard will keep on the counter top if you prefer as such, but can last several months in the fridge.This rendered fat also freezes extremely well!



A Full Fridge Dressing

The DiploMan and I have been trying to get back into shape lately- me after a long string of health problems and him because I wasn’t in town to feed him properly (kidding, sort of).

We’ve been doing P90x every morning for the last few weeks, and though I’m not newly ripped like the DVD covers indicate, I can do a few more push ups than when I first started. That, and I can recite lines from the workout videos. Lines like,

Like a pteradachtyl, backin’ up outta trouble…cawwww!!

So anyway we’ve been working out, and trying to eat “right” too. Eating right means more greens and less meat, more raw foods and salads, and more home-cooked meals. Basically like how we used to eat in California, minus In’n’Out. Mark Bittman, eat your heart out.

Eating out in China can, unfortunately, be much cheaper than cooking at home. Especially when we’re trying to recreate some of the meals we’re used to eating back in the States. But, that’s what the COLA adjustment is for, right? Frisee that costs $10!!

I’ve been making trips to the wet market and the supermarkets more frequently, because I find that a stocked fridge = a healthy diet. It’s a good trick, not to mention the onset of rotting vegetables renders it completely unreasonable to dine out for the third night in a row. But the problem now is, there are nubs of vegetables stored, leftover, in Ziploc bags scattered throughout our fridge, in addition to tiny portions left over side dishes in pyrex containers beginning to stack up.

Apparently a stocked fridge=lots of leftovers + a really stocked fridge. uh-oh.

There needs to be a way to clear out these leftovers. Enter, the salad.

I like to think I’m a master at making salads. I’m not going to be modest here, people. Ask any of my old co-workers in NY, and they can tell you it’s true. I can make a damn good lasagna and braise some crazy flavorful meat dish, but I really prefer to show off my culinary prowess by bringing a high-end salad bar with me to a pot luck. Don’t think it hasn’t been done.

Combining leftovers on top of a plate of greens can be an easy weeknight salad, just like pureeing leftover bits of vegetables with some lemon and oils can make a zesty dressing. And that’s exactly what a did a few nights ago, when I threw in all sorts of scraps and bits into a salad and dressing combo.

Because “mint-pea-cilantro-half a lemon-olive oil-garlic-honey-shallot dressing” is way too much of a mouthful, let’s just call this the “fridge full of Ziploc bags dressing”.

*Also, I’d like to add that this dinner was made after a failed attempt at Bulgogi. So don’t think I’m getting totally nutty healthy and righteous on you just yet.


  • 1/2 cup frozen peas
  • 1 shallot
  • 1 clove garlic
  • 5 sprigs fresh mint, leaves only
  • 1/2 bunch cilantro, leaves only
  • 1 Tbsp. honey
  • 1/2 lemon
  • 2 Tbsp. red wine vinegar
  • 1/2 cup Extra Virgin Olive Oil
  • Salt and Pepper, to taste


  1. Put peas in boiling water for a few minutes until tender. Drain.
  2. Add all ingredients in a medium bowl, and blend with an immersion blender. Season liberally with salt and pepper. Allow it to sit for 5 minutes for the flavors to meld.

The Spaghetti Chronicles, because it’s a long story.

As I may have mentioned before, I am still awaiting the shipment of my kitchen (andohyeah, the rest of my things too), which should arrive at my door sometime next week.  In the meantime I’ve made do with the DiploMan’s kitchen goods, which are fine but you know, they’re just not mine.  Plus the DiploMan doesn’t have crazy kitchen girl things, like a mandolin, a scraper, mini whisks and mini spatulas, and not even a French Press.  But he has lazy kitchen boy things, like an automatic wine opener.  Why?

Anyway lest I stray too far into gadget land, despite the lack of kitchen gear available as well as staple pantry items, I really wanted to make a big pot of spaghetti last week.  This weather has me looking for one-pot wonders, as the week before I made my mama’s chicken curry (which lasted us through the week).  I fully accept the fact that I am a food snob (and proud of it!) like to use the best, most authentic ingredients (particularly when cooking Italian food) and generally try to make everything out of scratch.  Because it’s always better that way.  Before I left Brooklyn I loaded up on essential spices, pastas, canned goods, salsas….my shipment looked like my 3rd grade earthquake kit on MAJOR STEROIDS.  But since none of this has arrived yet, I had no choice but to throw up my hands in defeat and head to the store to see what I could find.  And here are a few things I brought home:

I know, I grimaced in horror too when I was forced to use these “chopped peeled tomatoes” instead of the requisite San Marzano brand I’ve been spoiled with back home.  And, don’t even get me started on the “Spaghetti Bolognese” mixed dried spices.  The food snob inside of me is kicking my own arse.  But, spices Italian Spices are expensive here, and with some coming in the next week, I couldn’t afford to stock up on every spice in the store.  Right?

Aside from these dried goods and the parmesan cheese nabbed at the supermarket, I also went to my favorite wet market just across the island, where I was able to find the base for my ragu sauce: carrots, celery and onion for a mirepoix and lots of tomatoes, which I roasted to add in the sauce for extra flavor since I didn’t have any tomato paste available.  I took a cue from Smitten Kitchen and my friend Donna, and though I didn’t have beautiful summer baby tomatoes to slow roast, these turned out just the way I wanted.  Suddenly a little ray of sunshine shone on my mission to cook Italian with Chinese ingredients!

with garlic, ready to be peeled, chopped and tossed into basic tomato sauce

I also bought some ground beef, from a lady selling all sorts of ground meat and meat fillings to wrap in dumplings- a common sight to see in the markets here in Guangzhou.  There were two major differences with this meat, than with the meat I would have bought in an American Supermarket.  First, the grind was much finer, almost to a paste consistency, it was ground so thin.  I realized the Chinese most often use ground meat to make chinese meatballs, or stuff inside tofu or veggies, or wrap inside of buns- the Chinese would never be so blatant as to sautee their ground beef into a sauce!  Additionally, the fat to lean content was higher than I was used to, which was disturbing only because I knew it would affect the texture of the meat once cooked.  And with these two observations, I threw it into the pan.

As a sidenote, I was initially extremely wary of buying any meat in China, and am now only moderately wary but have marched on and even bought myself a whole chicken from the butcher the other week (more on that later)!  Buying the ground beef for this sauce spawned an inner debate with myself about how exactly to go about buying meat in China, especially ground meat.  Just because I am buying all my food at my local markets here doesn’t mean it comes from farmers with ethical and environmental practices, nor does it mean that the food is the freshest, untainted or unadulterated.  You can’t trust that the practices for raising or slaughtering these animals is regulated, and furthermore I am not in any place (in my language skills nor being in a host country) to raise these questions at the market.  It puts me, an ultimate omnivore, at the constant crux of a huge dilemma- one to be continued.

Anyway into my sauce eventually went mushrooms and zucchini, because my mom always put zucchini in our spaghetti sauce growing up.  It also got a hunk of salted dried ham, for flavor, while it simmered on the stovetop.  I sauteed a side of spinach, boiled the noodles al dente and voila!  A spaghetti dinner to warm our hearts and stomachs.  Pretty good for cooking out of my own comfort zone, if you ask me!