Happy Chinese/Lunar New Year!
So even though Chinese New Year/Lunar New Year was yesterday, it appears I am not a day late and a dollar short….Lunar New Year celebrations like any transitional celebration spans a number of days–apparently by the 8th day you have to go back to work–kinda like Passover and Sukkot (lol). Chinese New Year goes on for some 15 days as ancestors, traditional Chinese deities, feasts, family dinners and celebrations and rituals mark the transition into a New Year. I kind of like the idea that the New Year isn’t just a 60 second “thing,” then again Jewish New Year technically goes from Rosh Hoshanah to the end of Sukkot–that’s about 15 days into Tishrei–the seventh month (but first month of the year’s cycle). It seems the more ancient the culture the more alike the basics seem to be. It just seems nice that you “work” on covering all of your bases for at least two weeks into the year. Just seems to start everything off right.
So, speaking of Jews and Chinese food–the connection is legendary–and well discussed. Most Christmases you can find me in the club doing the three C’s—community service, Chinese food and the cinema! Yes the Chinese food on Christmas thing is no joke. Well it is a joke, but its one that has documented roots in the realities of modern life. Beyond the fact that Chinese restaurants were open on Christmas in the old days of early urbanization, new immigration and ethnic enclaves; Chinese food had a lot of resonance for Jewish diners. A lot of Chinese food was Cantonese based–a cuisine fond of soups and broths. The signature dishes and drinks of this fairly basic early Chinese American food were leftovers–known to you Westerners as Chop Suey—a kind of kitchen sink stir fry, boiled white rice, soup, egg rolls stuffed with cabbage and chop suey like fillers, wontons—kissing cousins to Eastern European stuffed and wrapped foods like kreplach-a traditional Ashkenazi Jewish dish and hot tea—the social drink of the Russian Empire. Noodles–well that was easy–in Eastern Europe you had lokshn–which happens to derive from Persian–a name for the new food they got by way of the Mongols from China…noodles!
Pork and shellfish were either absent or chopped into little indistinguishable bits (what you can’t see doesn’t matter said the Rabbis—but early assimilating Jews took it a step further….), and boiled chicken and fish dishes like carp or steamed fish were easy reminders of the festival dishes of Yiddishland, albeit cast in an Oriental guise. Interestingly enough, thanks to the Silk Road; the Jewish cuisine and cuisine of the Chinese diaspora shared many dishes thanks to how foods and ingredients traveled from east to west and vice versa. On the Silk Road, Eastern and Western pasta traditions merged; stuffed and wrapped foods took myriad forms, the carp moved from China to the rivers of Europe, and Mongols, Muslims, Jews, Christian pilgrims and Crusaders, Buddhist missionaries and Hindu holy men and merchants carried foodstuffs in a series of networks over a 2,000 year period.
Now on to the other side of Kosher Soul, the Soul part….So even though we’re this huge group; as well as part of a Diaspora, very few people have thought to hash out this connection between Chinese food and Black folks. Asian cuisines and African cuisines have an interesting exchange history all their own. As I’ve written about before–Asian and African plants traveled back and forth in the monsoon wind trade across the Indian Ocean. From Africa to Asia–tamarind, cowpeas and long beans, sesame, okra, sorghum, spices, millets, lablab bean, watermelon and muskmelon. From Asia came bananas, plantains, chickens, Asian rice, taro and sugarcane. Both continents were similarly enriched by the “good” side of the Portuguese trade (you know the other side by now…) and peanuts, chili peppers, maize, cassava, and sweet potatoes, revolutionized foodways of tropical and subtropical Asia and Africa. Chinese traders and dignitiaries traveled as far as modern-day Somalia, Kenya, Tanzania and Mozambique in the days of the Swahili city states, and Chinese porcelain–both as dishes and as a symbol used in graves and other statuary became part of the archeological record after the Portuguese ransacked Swahili cities for their wealth. The city of Malindi, in modern day Kenya even sent a diplomatic gift of a giraffe-which arrived alive and happy at the court of the Emporer of China in the 15th century.
Beyond all of that, there must have been considered culinary exchange as well. Asian foodways made subtle inroads in East Africa and Madagascar which was colonized by waves on Indonesians. Chinese sailors and traders are known to have settled in several parts of Africa where they married among the local population. There are some African Americans whose paternal roots go back to Han Chinese thanks to this cultural exchange that happened during the Middle Ages. The Portuguese also spread African foodways into Asia—in Macao, okra dishes are popular and the vegetable is known by its Kimbundu name from Angola–quilobo—another way of saying kingumbo–or gumbo 🙂 Sound familiar?
Asian and African foodways have a lot in common. Traditionally, both wer based on a starch and a soup, stew or savory mix that served more as condiment than main dish. As witness the classic Chinese combo of tsai/fan—(meat, vegetables, sauces) with fan–or rice–the main part of the meal. With all the cultural mix ups that went on between the Middle Ages and the age of exploration there were a lot of similar dishes on both sides. In America, the relationship between the Chinese and African Americans has been based on a strange interplay of competition, convergence, and distant admiration. Chinese laundries and African American laundresses fought each other in Philadelphia at the close of the 19th century while Chinese and African American workers cut sugarcane together and worked in the businesses of New Orleans together in Louisiana. Chinese were in an un-easy place in Mississippi where Chinese immigrants from the late 19th century onward found themselves in one of the most racially segregated states in America. To this day–African Americans make and sell ya mein in New Orleans–based on chow mein originally marketed to them by Chinese cooks; and Chinese American families in Mississippi eat a fusion cuisine heavily based on the African and African American cuisine of the Mississippi Delta. Here, collards go into stir fry, crawfish take the place of lobster and shrimp in some traditional dishes; and chopped Southern barbecue might replace traditional Chinese barbecued pork–or char siu—in fried rice.
In a lot of African American communities the Chinese carry out is almost institutional. Chinese businesses are often some of the few non-African American busineses left in urban Black neighborhoods. Usually in Megalopolis that means you’ll see a carry-out joint selling Chinese-American-Subs-Fried Chicken. In Baltimore Chinese and Korean cooks have “Soul Food” stalls at Lexington Market. On the flip side–nobody eats more KFC than the mainland Chinese–but….since we haven’t controlled that since the day the Colonel ripped his recipe off the family Help—ya’ll know what I mean–don’t start…..we really can’t claim anything other than the Chinese love African America’s singularly most incredible gift to world cuisine–Southern fried chicken. I would like to see however, Chinese carry outs employ more African Americans in African American neighborhoods…..nuff said–just saying…
Let’s get to it shall we?
1. Chinese Fried Chicken—weather its fried chicken wings or whole chickens, Americanized Chinese deli/carryout/restaurant cuisine hits us in a good place when it comes to these foods. Touched up in the case of wings with garlic, white pepper, and a touch of chili; or served alongside mombo sauce—which sounds curiously like mwaba (the classic palm oil sauces from Central Africa)–although no relation—Chinese fried chicken dishes are the other side of the looking glass when it comes to this popular fast food. Chinese cooks learned quickly to cater to the tastes of their audience. Here that usually means fried chicken wings served with rice–and have you ever met a community that doesn’t like chicken and rice? Besides it is unknown to most people that Black people really enjoy chicken. You can thank me later for letting you in on that secret.
2. Fried Chicken Chunks in Spicy Sauces—Whether spicy General Tso’s, orange or sesame chicken sauced chunks of fried chicken thigh or breast loom large. General Tso’s chicken—which is vastly different in China where its innovator was disgusted with what passes as his dish in America–has all the good stuff–the sweet, the crunchy and oily and the spicy–three parts of the African Atlantic palette that aren’t always healthy for us but they get us in the gut really good. General Tso’s, orange and sesame chicken–and other versions at their best gleam with long red Kung Pao peppers (which I’ve grown in my home garden) that shimmer in the emulsified glaze. The addition of sesame calls to a part of the African American soul–our ancestors brought sesame from Africa and called in benne. Although now not widely eaten in African American cuisine outside of the Lowcountry of South Carolina and Georgia; sesame was once a widely grown plant valued for its unctuous little seeds. This little addition reminds us of our culinary DNA. The orange chicken thing–well its kinda like what Black cooks did to the Southern hickory smoked ham. The same flavor mixtures are at work–spicy with fruity sweetness against umami flavors and oily fatty notes. Did I mention we love chicken?
3. Rice—Need I say more? African and Asian rices flourish across Africa. Africa has several rice areas where rice is just as important to the people in the African rice belts as it is in southern China. In both places “rice” is often synonymous with “meal” or “food.” Both regions have leftover rice recipes that resemble fried rice. According to Damon Lee Fowler there are fried rice recipes all over the Lowcountry where enslaved Africans introduced the cultivation and preparation of rice as a dietary staple three centuries ago. Again its like we’re remembering something in our culinary DNA. The main difference is that African American and West African rice kitchens favor separate longer grains of rice consumed with the scooped hand or a spoon; while Asian sticky rice is a shorter grain meant to be eaten with chopsticks.
Because I want to stay with ten things–because I already determined that number 🙂 I want to mention that just as African and African American /Diaspora foodways love their fried tidbits–fritters, plantains, meat bits, we love fried tidbits from Chinese cuisine–eggrolls, spring rolls, shrimp toast and the like. We are just both very good with leftover things….and making them taste like new!
4. Spicy stuff–Chinese hot oil, hot peppers, hot mustard, hot sauce are all a draw for Black folks into Chinese food. It’s the same thing that gets me when dealing with Thai food and some elements of Vietnamese cuisine–albeit much subtler and closer to classic Chinese cookery. Sichuan and Hunan regional dishes with their bent towards the hot or peppery are big hits as well. Remember the chili pepper hit Africa then Asia not far apart.
5. Barbecue–Chinese “barbecue” is prepared a little differently than the New World version as rooted in African and Native American cuisines. Its more of a crispy roast pork, beef or poultry thing. The slightly sweet glaze froms a light bark on the outside with the skin at the crackling point (and we never really lost that love of crackling skin) and the red glaze–whether from spices or teas or red food dye calls out to us–hints of smoke rings, sauces, all of it….Furthermore there is a certain admiration from one meat man to another as the Chinese butchers off Canal Street in Manhattan chopping up char siu on old logs with a cleaver without missing a trick. Its kind of thrilling actually–your mind immediately goes to expert uncles and fathers chopping that cue on a wooden slab! I can’t help but love the chicken wings, spareribs, beef ribs, ducks, geese and chickens hanging neck, head and all in the windows, the drippings collecting in pans that you just want to sop with a biscuit. GRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRR! Roast meat is without question the edible welcome mat of testosterone. Chinese restaurants have gone beyond the traditional roast or oven-suspended char siu and have invested in making something akin to a cross between American barbecue and Chinese char siu. Sticky Chinese ribs and meats have become another diasproic adaptation.
6. Soup–Everybody likes soup. Most cultures that have a soup or broth tradition value that clearing, blood-purifiying feeling of a good hot soup. At really good places you can doctor that bowl of noodle, egg drop, wonton, sweet and sour, or vegetable soup with chilies, garlic, green onions, soy and other condiments. Need I remind you that all over the African Atlantic–the soup is the key daily meal eaten with a starch. In New Orleans a stoupy kind of dish ya mein is front and center blending noodles, broth, spices and sauces. After jazz and brothels, the sporting life men needed something to grub on in the we hours of the morning-hence the Chinese food connection. There’s that pesky culinary DNA again…
7. Stir Frying–believe it or not a lot of good savory dishes across Africa are based in stir-frying. Its not particularly un-healthy for the most part, makes and economical use of oil and cooks food quickly and cuts down on the use of fuel. (When you have to carry wood several hours a day you know the value of not burning up al the logs.) Many many dishes on both continents rely on this method even though we typically think of it as strictly a Chinese or East Asian culinary phenomenon.
8. Ginger—ginger is endemic across tropical Africa and Asia and it happens to be a third of the Chinese holy trinity of garlic, green onion and ginger or soy, ginger, and garlic. Senegalese and Ghanaian cuisine love ginger. It is popular in the Caribbean as well; and African Americans were famous for infusing beverages, teas, savories and light sweets like ginger bread and marketing those flavors. When we taste ginger and garlic, we taste home.
9. Peanuts–Kung Pao chicken notwithstanding—with its spicyness and peanuts all rolled into one like an Asian groundnut chicken saute, the peanut–and by consequence the cowpea and the sweet potato and okra are important condiment dishes in both Chinese and African diaspora traditions. How did those wiley indigenous South Americans know that their little plant would become the darling of the Old World? Following the peanut into Southeast Asia I’m in love with the way Thai and ethnic Chinese cooks incorporate peanut based sauces into noodles, rice and vegetables, spiking them with just enough hot pepper. Any Senegalese would be proud–and interestingly enough there are Asian restaurants in Senegal–mainly because of Indochinese immgration from the French colonial period–and peanut sauces are just one of the culinary bridges there.
10. Savory Vegetables–add up all the stuff from above and this is easy to break down. I am a sucker for garlic sauce, brown sauce and spicy sauces of any kind in Americanized Chinese food-and when you put just enough on some spinach, broccoli, and the like–especially green s like bok choy or spinach–I’m loving life. Some of these dishes are as simple as sesame-our old favorite or chilis–another favorite–being tossed in for flavor. Green onion–or scallions–an ingredient neither I nor many Chinese chefs can live without–is another bridge of flavor. Add to this that much like the traditional African diet–meat is a condiment–the vegetables, starch and sometimes fish are much more important. Although not Chinese, but in fact Westernized Japanese–I get a big thril out of tempura–just because of the bits of battered cooked sweet potato–so it all comes around full circle!
We have ancient tastes for umami flavored things (deep dark savory and meaty), sesame, peanuts, chilies, sweet stuff, chicken, rice, and green vegetables….That’s why.
Good Luck Foods
In Black culture–cowpeas and black eyed peas (fertility, change, change as in money, good luck, multiplicity), greens (for cash money, prosperity, vitality and friends) the heads of things, fish (fertility and good luck and the watery heaven of the ancestors), sweet potatoes and pumpkin (love, sweetness and wealth) have symbolic significance. In Chinese culture puns are made on the names of good luck foods eaten for the New Year. Chinese languages (there is more than just one—are often tonal like many Niger-Congo languages in West Africa–and a change in tone can change the meaning of a word…)My favorite is the eating of shrimp or lobster (ha) so that sounds like a person laughing–so if you eat shrimp during the Lunar New Year celebrations–you’ll laugh in joy and humor the whole year. The word yu for fish sounds like another word for “surplus.” People eat long noodles for longevity. People eat sweet things for a sweet year and good luck. Leafy greens are served to parents (remember there is a different type of feast for each day) to wish them a long life. Spring rolls are likened to bars of gold and oranges and tangerines pun on the words for gold and luck.
My Char Siu Marinade
As much as I love African and African American/African Diaspora foods I love making Asia-Pacific Rim foods at home as well. They are generally healthy, vegetable based and make good use of turning leftover ingredients into new dishes. I go to the various area Asian supermarkets and get good deals on rice wine vinegar, Chinese and Japanese soy sauce, sesame seeds and oil, palm sugar, chili-garlic sauce, fish sauce (believe it or not there are fin-fish only and vegetarian versions), ginger sauce, gravy browning, hoisin, and all the other basics. If you have five spice powder, Sichuan peppercorns and garlic, ginger and green onion–all available at much better prices than your usual supermarket–you have a pretty much fully stocked pan-Asian kitchen. You can do just about anything with salt, pepper, oil, stock, and whatever tsai/fan combo you like. Believe it or not all of the things I mentioned can be obtained from the different markets in the DC-Baltimore metro areas for about 50 bucks or less altogether, sometimes with ten dollars to spare. It really doesn’t cost that much and you then have everything you need to make dozens of different dishes, fairly quickly. Be your own Dop Mah said Jim Lee–author of my family’s treasured Chinese cookbook—Jim Lee’s Chinese Cooking. Translation–be your own mise en place chef—have everything chopped, measured and waiting in small bowls or plates at the ready so when you cook at your wok–its a cinch.
This is really not all from scratch so don’t throw things at your screen. I like several packaged mixes combined with my own improvisations for char siu. The pics are of a char siu platter I made for a friend’s party but did not partake of–I was told the result was good. You can use this with beef, lamb, pork, but I suppose its okay with chicken or poultry if you play it right….in which case use a whole bird–and btw–you get that lovely skin effect by letting the skin of the bird dry out while you brush on layers of the marinade rather than letting it sit in the marinade as in the case of red meats. This is not a traditional red-cooked mix –so if that’s what you’re looking for–get right back on Google please. This is my version of the sticky half Chinese half American with some Black folks thrown in barbecue.
For 2.5 pounds of meat (lamb, beef ribs, spare ribs, rib tips,, halved or whole chicken) you will need:
- a package of char siu or Korean bulgogi mix (I like the Noh brand for the former)
- a package of sweet and sour sparerib or Hawaiian barbecue mix (again I like the Noh brand–but you will see about a dozen different types at your local Asian supermarket)
- 1 cup of water
- 1/2 cup of oil
- 2 tablespoons of chopped garlic
- 2 tablespoons of chopped ginger
- 3 tablespoons of sliced green onion
- 2 tablespoons of honey
- 1/4 cup of soy sauce and/or your favorite tomato based Southern barbecue sauce 🙂 trust me it will work….
- 1 teaspoon of sesame oil (optional)
- 2 tablespoons of rice wine vinegar (you can substitute regular white vinegar)
- 2 tablespoons of Shaoxing wine or sherry
- 1 tablespoon or more to taste of hot sauce–I use fish pepper sauce, from the African American heirloom pepper.
- coarse black pepper, to taste
Mix the dry package mixes with the water and oil in a bowl. Stir and mix well. Whip up the other liquid ingredients in a separate bowl. Take the meat and rub it down with the garlic, ginger, black pepper and green onion, getting the seasonings well into the meat. Put everything in a plastic zip bag–marinade, spicy/sweet dressing and meat and give it a good shake. You could put a few drops of red food dye–red is a good luck color in China and char siu is known for its rusty red color…Allow to stand for 4 hours in the refrigerator, giving them a toss now and then to evenly coat. then roast slowly at 375 for about an hour or until thoroughly done, crispy on the outside but still nice and juicy. Sometimes I cook the marinade–making sure its well-boiled and glaze the meat while it cooks. I generally do not leave any over–the purpose is to give the outside coating a little more flavor. Hoisin sauce or sweet garlic-chili sauce goes well with the meat or poultry. Avoid oversalting in this recipe. The mixes have plenty of sodium already–and so does the soy sauce–so don’t go overboard–just let the meat cook and then afterwards adjust the salt content.
My favorite way of roasting the meat is by taking meat hooks–you can even make them yourself—from wire—and hanging the meat in the oven from the top rack, so that the drippings fall onto a foiled pan on the bottom rack. This is easiest to do with large pieces of lamb, beef ribs or spareribs. The meat should be hung to evenly distribute the weight of the meat. A large foiled pan can accomodate several pieces of meat securely hung from the top rack.
Jennifer 8. Lee—The Fortune Cookie Chronicles
Jim Lee—Jim Lee’s Chinese Cookbook (my family’s first Chinese cookbook.)
Grace Young: The Wisdom of the Chinese Kitchen, The Breath of a Wok and Stir Frying to the Sky’s Edge (Grace says use a carbon steel wok–NOT non-stick.)