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Tieyu and the Magic Powder

My new friend Tieyu is here on an exchange, living in student housing, away from her husband and daughter in China. When she mentioned that she's a good cook, I asked her if she'd like to come to my house and teach me a Chinese dish. I thought it might help her feel at home, and I knew I'd learn something new and interesting.

We started our culinary adventure with a trip to Fubonn. After about an hour wandering the aisles of this Asian food wonderland, me acting like a complete tourist (they have palm sugar! What's palm sugar for? Look at the size of those papayas! Rice gluten! What's that for? Do I need a wok? They have woks...), and Tieyu being very nice about it, we came home with our bounty and started preparing dinner: jiaozi (pork dumplings), cucumber salad, and mung bean porridge.

First we made our own dumpling wrappers. They start with a stiff flour-and-water dough that you pull out into a long rope and break off in little chunks. These you flatten with your palm into a sort of flying-saucer shape.

Using a short rolling stick, you thin the edges into a circle, leaving the middle slightly thicker. A dab of filling goes in the center, then you seal it in by folding and crimping the dough. Tieyu made it look so easy! Mine were all misshapen blobs, one for every dozen or so she made.

Here is Tieyu:

Our filling was ground pork with scrambled eggs, and masses of Chinese chives chopped very finely. This was seasoned with quite a lot of ginger and salt, soy sauce, sesame oil, and...magic powder.

See, Tieyu brought a little packet of brown powder with her from China, and so critical was it to the outcome of our cooking that when she initially forgot it in her apartment, she asked me to circle back for it: hua1 jiao1 mian4, also known as Szechuan pepper or Chinese prickly ash. It isn't really a pepper--not in the chile family at all--but it adds a pungency of the "numbing" variety that's very characteristic of northern Chinese cuisine. It's also got medicinal properties--among other things, it's good for digestion. How handy!

Anyway, a couple of tablespoons of this precious stuff went into the filling.

While we simmered one potful after another of our gorgeous jiaozi, Tieyu had me set a saucepan of mung beans on to boil. Then we julienned some cucumber and carrot and chopped up some transparent noodles, and dressed all this with rice vinegar, sugar and garlic.

The jiaozi were heavenly, with their slippery boiled wrappers and the burst of a dozen rich, steaming, combined flavors when you bit in. We just stood there in the kitchen eating them. A bit later my sister joined us. When we'd all eaten as many dumplings as we could, and scarfed up most of the salad, we had dessert. The mung beans had cooked and cooled, and Tieyu served them to us in little dishes, in their broth, with sugar. They were mild and green-tasting, very refreshing. Tieyu says that mung beans served this way have a cooling effect on the body.

Tieyu gave me the packet of magic powder to keep. She took a dozen dumplings home with her and there were still dozens left. I had cold mung beans for breakfast today, and re-steamed dumplings for lunch and dinner.

The real tasty leftover, however, was this dawning realization: all my life, food has been something to fear, control, limit, distrust, and obsess over. At best, in my culture, it's a hedonistic pleasure, akin to sin. It's always something you need to heal from, work off, undo, burn up. In China, apparently, food is actually viewed as medicine, and a well-prepared meal makes you better, and not just fuller or fatter.

So, thank you, Tieyu and the magic powder. I'm on the road to a whole new learning experience.


( 27 comments — Leave a comment )
Jun. 25th, 2007 06:12 am (UTC)
Interesting. AFAIK, we don't use hua jiao yian for dumpling filling. It's more often used in batter or sometimes as something to dip fried items in. Hua jiao by itself is sometimes used to flavor stuff like meats. I hated when I would accidentally bite into one though. That and these other little peppers whose name I forget now, but they look sorta like peppercorns but they've also got that numbing thing.

Back when we used to make our own filling for dumplings, the main ingredients were pork, Chinese cabbage, and Chinese leek/chives. For bao we'd sometimes add scrambled eggs. Sometimes we'd just do plain ol' scrambled eggs and Chinese leek itself as a dish. Mmm.

These days we're too lazy to actually make dumpling from scratch. First we started buying store bought wrappers. Nowadays we just buy the frozen pre-made stuff and throw it in a pot. :-/

Dang, now I'm hungry for some dumplings.
Jun. 25th, 2007 05:55 pm (UTC)
Well, I've got lots of leftovers! Too bad you're so far away. Thanks for the additional food ideas. I was hoping you'd weigh in with some insights. I want to learn to make bao now.

This hua jiao was definitely labeled "mian" and was powdery, so no problem of biting into a berry--but I understand that purists buy theirs whole and grind it in a mortar, where large bits may remain. I've also read that in Szechuan hot-pot, the whole dang pot is topped with a "thick layer" of the stuff, floating on top of the hot-pepper-oil layer! Wow.

Next stop: a cookbook.
Jun. 25th, 2007 08:26 am (UTC)
You seem to have mastered the art of win-win. What a brilliant experience.
Jun. 25th, 2007 06:13 pm (UTC)
It really was! And now I want to learn to make bao.
(Deleted comment)
Jun. 25th, 2007 06:10 pm (UTC)
I had the great good fortune of living in France for a year, and that was when I first got a glimmer of the idea that maybe food is a wonderful gift from God or nature, and not just an irresistible evil.

In the 20-plus years since, I've given huge amounts of energy to the whole issue of food and eating. I thought I'd made great progress, but I now see that in all that time, I'd only managed to tamp down my sense of sin and shame about it, allowing myself to enjoy good food, but always on a diet in my mind.

It's really revolutionary for me to awaken to the concept that food is--or can be--and active good. It seems so obvious! But the idea was completely unavailable to me until Saturday night.
Jun. 25th, 2007 08:26 pm (UTC)
What a wonderful sounding meal! And the preparation! What an adventure! I am so glad you had that experience.
Jun. 26th, 2007 02:14 am (UTC)
Thanks! Me too. It has opened up wide new vistas, and that's always a wonderful thing.
Jun. 25th, 2007 10:29 pm (UTC)
thanks for sharing your delicious experience!

...now i'm really hungry!
Jun. 26th, 2007 02:14 am (UTC)
I wish I could bring you tea and dumplings!
Jun. 26th, 2007 02:19 am (UTC)
Very cool!
Jun. 26th, 2007 02:21 am (UTC)
*waves at Miss Dani*

Did you go to the Joss Birthday Serenity showing? I totally missed it.
Jun. 26th, 2007 02:32 am (UTC)
I did! With liss and her sister. We had a great time!
Jun. 26th, 2007 02:36 am (UTC)
I was really sorry to have missed the annual event. I didn't find out about it till the Friday night showing was underway and I was already engaged (by dumplings and mung beans) for Saturday. I hear that the Firefly DVD set is still in the top ten at Amazon--not sure that's true, but always appears in "best of" lists. So I figure I'm not completely insane for dreaming of a sequel.
Jun. 26th, 2007 03:27 am (UTC)
*always hoping*
(Deleted comment)
Jun. 27th, 2007 01:24 pm (UTC)
Ha! Well, there's a great power--maybe the great power--in the stories we tell ourselves. Maybe the wine really does do him good.

I think there's a lot in what Andrew Weil says (didn't know he had a cookbook). The combination of "real ingredients" and love is powerful. Would prisoners receiving heartless and hateful portions of organic farm food benefit? Sure. Would children receiving crappy toxic junk food from a loving mother be diminished by the food? Probably. But in both cases, I'd like to believe, the powerful good offsets the bad.
Jun. 28th, 2007 04:43 am (UTC)
Late to the Party
Seconding kispexy2. Mirror image of Carlo Petrini and the Slow Food Movement. It is no wonder with the path the majority of the country has gone down in regards to food. It does become part of us and it does matter what we feed ourselves. Now if we all had the real, true food memories and experiences of growing up in a culinary atmosphere such as that of France or Italy (I'm generalizing here) then a different but better view would be pervasive in the US and we'd all be "foodies" and there would be no need for the term. :-)
Jun. 28th, 2007 08:11 pm (UTC)
Re: Late to the Party
As someone who generally cooks and eats alone, I find it very difficult to conceive of taking Petrini's approach in my everyday life--though I share 100% his beliefs about food, agriculture, and above all conviviality. What a powerful, wonderful word! I think it is important to make food a higher priority: I know people for whom real food barely registers in their grocery budget!

That said, there's a scene in "Big Night" that demonstrates how "slow food" needn't be elaborate, or painstaking, or expensive. You probably know the one--the indelible "scrambled egg" scene, in which one of the characters wakes up in the kitchen after the titular big night, lights the flame under a small skillet, pours in a few drops of olive oil, breaks an egg, scrambles it quickly, tips it onto a plate, and eats it with a hunk of Italian style bread--all in a single take, from a single angle, in total silence.

You could show that scene to junior high kids and say, "Let's taste the difference between free-range eggs and regular ones. Let's see if we can tell the difference between olive oil and melted Crisco. Let's see if sea salt is any different from Morton's iodized. And can you tell the difference between Wonder "bread" and this ciabatta?

What an educational starting point that would be!
Jun. 30th, 2007 08:22 pm (UTC)
Re: Late to the Party
Aside from the 'dinner' scene, that is my favorite! The focus on the one goal (the meal) and the smooth deliberate movements, it's really a ballet in my head when I watch that scene. It's like doing what we humans do on the most basic level and yet is full of meaning.

Seeing/tasting the differences would be helpful in building a new appreciation for real food. So would seeing and actually occupying the space where food is grown or raised. Most would make a turn towards sustainability and more humane treatment, etc.
Jul. 1st, 2007 01:27 am (UTC)
Re: Late to the Party
Excellent point.

I'm trying to remember if I've ever been on a farm. I've been in orchards and vineyards, and people's vegetable gardens, and once as a little kid I went to Alpenrose Dairy. I've walked alongside acres of ripe barley in England and past flocks of domestic geese in France, and I have a vivid childhood memory of freshly machete'd raw sugar cane in a field in Hawaii. It doesn't add up to a full appreciation of the world of agriculture, but each experience was memorable and life-enhancing.

This is a very though-provoking topic! Have you ever seen Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall? Not a name that instantly conjures up great cuisine, being so veddy veddy British and all, but he is a great exponent of sustainable, local, traditional and excellent eating, and his "River Cottage" cooking shows on British television are both entertaining and inspiring. I suspect you would enjoy them.
Jul. 5th, 2007 03:22 pm (UTC)
Re: Late to the Party
What a great group of experiences! I knew of farming, ranching and hunting wild game at an early age; even helped a friend butcher an elk at one point, but to see anything else besides the predominant meat-eating culture that is/was Wyoming at the time..... that would have improved my own view of where food comes from.

Thanks for the info. Definitely someone I should know more about. Wonder if I can Netflix some eps.... will check on that.
Jul. 5th, 2007 04:44 pm (UTC)
Re: Late to the Party
Netflix doesn't have Hugh, but ::looks around:: I've acquired the first series. When you guys come over for home-made dumplings (which will be soon, I promise!) I'll burn you a couple of CDs.
Jul. 6th, 2007 03:04 pm (UTC)
Re: Late to the Party
That would be great! And of course, we can't wait to come to your abode/museum what with a certain textile to peruse, a perfect bathroom and soothing landscaping. We'll be there in a heartbeat.
Jun. 28th, 2007 08:30 pm (UTC)
Re: Late to the Party
Wait..."Maillard R. Eaction"??? Huh?
Jun. 30th, 2007 09:33 pm (UTC)
Re: Late to the Party
Just a little food porn/geekery creeping in. If you haven't done this already.
Jul. 1st, 2007 12:53 am (UTC)
Re: Late to the Party
That is so cool!
Jun. 28th, 2007 05:07 am (UTC)
What a great experience! I see you're talking about learning bao next...if/when you do, will you invite us for dinner? Makes my mouth water just thinking about it.

What you say about food is so true. One thing about being married to a chef, you really do start to see food in a whole new light. In fact, I talked about that about a month or so ago in this post (the whole post is about food; the point about own food philosophy is what ties it all together at the end).

Your entry jogged my memory about a book I heard about on NPR not too long ago called The Last Chinese Chef" that sounds intriguing and also ties into the belief that the food we eat has healing properties. I remember the author (who also wrote Lost in Translation) talking about what a radical impact the Chinese philosophy of food had on her own way of eating, and how it moved her to write the book.
Jun. 28th, 2007 08:27 pm (UTC)
The novel looks wonderful! Thanks for the reference--I hadn't heard of it. My latest book acquisitions are Fuchsia Dunlop's Land of Plenty for Szechuan cuisine, and The Revolutionary Chinese Cookbook for Hunan.

You should have seen me yesterday on my lunch hour, drooling over the Shun Asian-style carbon-steel knives at Williams-Sonoma!

My new cookbooks should arrive in a few days, and I'd love to invite you to partake of a taste-test. Not only would that be fun and wonderful, but it would bring that all-important conviviality to my house that str8ontilmornin and I were just talking about.
( 27 comments — Leave a comment )



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