Lunar New Year Celebrations across Asia and The Asian Grandmothers Cookbook
The Lunar New Year is celebrated in many parts of Asia, not just in China, so I wanted to find out what foods are eaten and what rituals are observed in other countries. I was fortunate to have the chance to interview Pat Tanumihardja, author of The Asian Grandmothers Cookbook: Homecooking from Asian American Kitchens. Pat was born in Jakarta and raised in Singapore, but her book covers many different Asian countries and cultures, and she did all the research for her book here in the U.S.
RC: How did you get the idea to write your book?
PT: Sometimes, the perfect project can really just fall into your lap. I was interviewing the Sasquatch Books publisher (now my publisher) for an article I was writing for a local community paper and we started talking about food, cooking and cookbooks. He told me that he’s always wanted to publish a cookbook about Asian grandmothers and their recipes and I jumped at the opportunity.
I’ve always been interested in how food, history and culture intersect and the idea instantly appealed to me because I never knew my grandmothers and I think that deep down in my heart I’ve been seeking the grandma-granddaughter bond I never had. I remember when I was growing up I was always envious of my friends who had grandmas living at home with them or just a short drive away who cooked for them, gave them sage advice and, of course, lots of gifts!
I offered to send him a proposal and the rest, as they say, is history. In an industry where we’re frequently told how difficult it is to publish a cookbook, I think my story is one of hope. While serendipity and being at the right place at the right time help, you’d have to be a good fit for the project as well!
RC: What kinds of research did you have to do? How did you find these grandmothers? Can you describe the recipe collection process?
PT: I cooked with as many people as were willing and recorded the recipes as they were showing me how to make the dishes. Every time I cooked with someone, I’d bring my arsenal: timer, measuring cups, measuring spoons, measuring tape, my notebook and my camera. It’s a good thing I’m quite the multi-tasker! When grandma merely motioned to chop cilantro or add soy sauce, I’d stick my cup or spoon in front of her and take measurements before she could do anything else. I found myself fishing packaging out of sinks and yes, garbage cans, as well just to note down the weight of those pork ribs or chicken wings grandma just threw into the pot. It required a lot of dexterity and a lot of patience but it worked! Taking photographs also helped record many details I would have otherwise missed, and of course when I got home I’d test the recipes to make sure they tasted the way they should.
Many of the grandmothers were related to friends or acquaintances so I got lucky many times over. Friends would be like, “my mom is visiting from Ohio, would you like to cook with her?” I was also very well connected to the Asian American community in Seattle so I had a very good network to tap.
When personal connections failed, I just tried my luck! I really wanted to learn about Lao dishes and recipes so someone put me in touch with the deacon of a Lao church in Seattle and he told me just to show up on a Sunday and he would introduce me to some good cooks. That’s what happened and these women opened up their kitchens to me!
I also collected recipes through email and via phone from various people. There was a lot of back and forthing with these recipes as inevitably ingredients or steps were left out which led to some “interesting” results in the kitchen. I also consulted old cookbooks, especially community cookbooks like church or temple cookbooks that were very popular fundraising projects.
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Read Pat’s essay about deciding how to incorporate Lunar New Year celebrations into family life that appeared in Leite’s Culinaria.
The Asian Grandmothers Cookbook is about to be issued in paperback.
To learn more about Pat’s work, see her website, Edible Words.
Pat describes Lunar New Year foods…
The dishes served on Lunar New Year eve are often chosen based on homonyms, words that are spelled or sound the same as other words. Fish (yu) is often served because it sounds similar to the Chinese word for plenty. Serving the fish whole, with the head and tail on, signifies a favorable beginning and end for the New Year.
Clay Pot Lemongrass-Steamed Fish
(Pla Nueng Morh Din)
Steaming whole fish on a lattice of lemongrass in a clay pot leaves it silky, tender, and imbued with a subtle citrusy scent. Any white fish with natural fat works well in this dish. Ocean-friendly options include striped bass , barramundi farmed in the U.S., or tilapia farmed in the U.S. You will need a 12- to 14-inch clay pot for this recipe, or you can use a steamer.
Time: 30 minutes (20 minutes active)
Makes: 2 servings as part of a multicourse family-style meal
1-pound whole fish, head and tail intact, scaled, gutted, and cleaned
4 plump stalks lemongrass, trimmed and bruised
1 tablespoon sea or kosher salt
1/2 cup water, or more as needed
Lay the fish flat on a cutting board. To ensure the fish cooks evenly, use a sharp knife to make 3 or 4 diagonal bone-deep cuts in the fish perpendicular to the backbone about 1 inch apart. Turn the fish over and repeat.
Fold one lemongrass stalk in half and rub it all over the fish, inside and out. Discard. Gently rub the salt into the skin of the fish and inside its cavity.
Tear each of the 3 remaining lemongrass stalks into 4 strips. Lay the lemongrass strips in a grid-like pattern on the bottom of the clay pot in 3 layers. Trim the stalks if they don’t fit. Place the fish on top of the lattice, tucking in the tail if necessary. Add enough water to reach the bottom layer of lemongrass without touching the fish.
Cover and bring the water to a boil over medium heat. Once steam starts to appear from the hole in the lid, about 5 minutes, check the water level and add more water if necessary. Steam for another 8 to 10 minutes, or until the flesh is opaque and flakes easily when tested with a fork at its thickest part.
Check on the water level at least once more during steaming.
Serve the fish from the clay pot, or carefully transfer onto a serving plate using two spatulas. Spoon the liquid over the fish before serving.
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Shrimp with Homemade Black Bean Sauce
Shrimp, considered a luxury food for many Chinese, are symbolic of happiness. There are some ocean-friendly shrimp options, but you can use 2 to 3 pounds manila (littleneck) clams if you prefer, which symbolize coins and represent wealth and prosperity. Mix and match with different vegetables—broccoli, snow peas, or carrots are suitable additions.
Time: 25 minutes
Makes: 4 to 6 servings as part of a multicourse family-style meal
1?3 cup chicken stock
2 tablespoons Chinese salted black beans, rinsed, dried, and mashed
1 tablespoon soy sauce
2 cloves garlic, minced
2 teaspoons cornstarch
1 teaspoon oyster sauce
1 teaspoon sugar
2 tablespoons vegetable oil, divided
2 green and/or red bell peppers, cut into 1-inch squares
8 ounces (10 to 12 stalks) asparagus, trimmed and cut into 1-inch lengths
1-1/2 pounds medium shrimp (36/40 count), peeled and deveined
2 tablespoons water
In a small bowl, mix together the stock, black beans, soy sauce, garlic, cornstarch, oyster sauce, and sugar. Set aside.
Preheat a large wok or skillet over high heat for 1 minute. Swirl in 1 tablespoon of the oil and heat until it becomes runny and starts to shimmer.
Reduce the heat to medium and throw in the bell peppers and asparagus. Stir and cook until just tender, about 2 minutes. Transfer the vegetables to a plate.
In the same wok, swirl in the remaining oil and heat until it becomes runny and starts to shimmer. Add the shrimp and stir and cook until they just turn pink, 1 to 2 minutes. Add the black bean mixture and stir to coat the shrimp.
Add the cooked vegetables and stir everything swiftly around the wok. Add the water and stir with a couple more flourishes until all the ingredients are cooked to your liking. Serve immediately with freshly steamed rice.