November 11, 2014

Wok's Cooking: Eating Your Way Around China

Photo Credits: Taimur Rafiq aka The Husband


What’s not to love about Chinese food, right? The heat, the spice, that divine fragrance of fried garlic and ginger, the chopsticks (which I still frequently stumble and fail to use with any sort of finesse or elegance), those adorable little white cardboard take-away containers; love at first bite, I tell you! But there’s bad news, babies…we’ve all been duped. 

Now why on earth would I say such a horrible thing? 

Well, because Chinese food, at least as most of us know it, is so far from the real deal, it’s hard not to feel a little disillusioned. 

See, believe it or not, trying to order off a typical (read: traditional) menu in China means you’ll probably be hard-pressed to find familiar favorites like Chicken Manchurian, Sweet & Sour Prawns, or even a simple American Chop Suey. That’s because most of these dishes didn’t originate in China at all. Instead, they’re the love-children of local culinary influences on the global Chinese diaspora. 



So what should you know about eating authentic Chinese cuisine? 

Well, first and foremost, it’s all about location, location, location. The kind of food you’ll find varies vastly from region to region in China and it can leave the uninitiated’s head spinning. Sichuan, Hunan, Cantonese; the list goes on and the options are incredible and endless, but they do have one thing in common — while the locavore movement might have only recently started regaining traction in the western world, in China “eating local” is centuries old tradition and plain common sense. That means everything from the climate, to the availability of ingredients, and of course, local preferences determines what could end up on your plate. 

Take Zhejiang cuisine, for example, which is native to sea-facing eastern China, and you’ll find it heavily features both fresh-water and salt-water fish, prawns, crabs, lobster, squid, octopus, and all sorts of other underwater delicacies, often live and on display in large tanks at many restaurants. That’s right! You can pick your prey and request the chef to cook it to order, guaranteeing fabulous custom culinary delights at their absolute freshest and finest.


By the way, while a lot of Chinese food is simple fare — think soft steamed dumplings and plenty of fuss-free stir-fried vegetables and meats — don’t underestimate the amount of care and deftness that goes into prepping and cooking ingredients using authentic Chinese cooking techniques. Seriously, have you ever tried creating those curious little creases that seal wontons shut? How about having a hand at trying to recreate the devastatingly delicate beauty of Dai fruit carvings?

Didn’t think so. 

The point is, don’t be fooled into believing that Chinese food comes without its fair share of flair and drama. In fact, in some cases, the crazy-quotient can be so high, it is definitely not recommended for the squeamish or faint-of-heart. Hairy crabs, anyone? How about some deep-fried duck heads? No? Perhaps some snake soup or a sniff and taste of stinky tofu will do the trick? Jokes aside, though, what’s important to remember before wrinkling your nose or making a beeline in the opposite direction, is that the untrained palate could (and probably would) have the same reaction to a number of our own local delicacies such as brain masala, or curried goat testicles, or barbecued chicken hearts, so it’s mostly a matter of being an acquired taste for the adventurous eater.   



Finally, what’s most important to remember when eating your way around China is this: though the food culture of the country is as wide and varied as it’s regions and it’s people, and what lands on your plate might leave you in shock and awe, no matter where you go, it always entails giant and equal doses of warmth, generosity, and camaraderie, especially if you happen to be a guest of one of the locals.

Much like in Pakistan, a hosts hospitality is directly proportional to their propensity to force feed you and meals tend to be long, loud affairs where everything from the conversation to the food and the drinks flow freely for what seems like forever. No complaints here, though. Only happy campers. A wee word of warning: you’d be wise not expect a stingy sandwich-and-soda scenario at a traditional Chinese table. Portions are likely to be large, plates are usually shared, and yes, double-dipping is absolutely acceptable, so unless you’re a genuine germo-phobe, just keep calm and keep eating ‘cause it’s not common for people to cringe and complain about cooties in China. 

Happy eating, babies!

October 15, 2014

Crisp Autumn Apple Crumble


There’s something about the fall that is absolutely fabulous; that slight chill, those snug socks, and the endless cups of chai and coffee paired served with something sweet to warm your soul. Honestly, all that coziness and comfort food makes a killer combination.

On an average day, I’m far from a die-hard dessert fan, but the second that heater is even close to switched on, my hankering for some sweet seduction starts to sneak up on me.

Frankly, I don’t consider fruit a confection, but if you place an apple crumble in the picture, I’m sold. Seriously, that heady scent of cinnamon-spiced sugar is heaven sent. The crumble is crisp, buttery and studded with walnuts and tucked beneath the topping, beautiful autumn apples bathed in sticky syrup.

Warm, wonderful and well worth the trouble!

Crisp Autumn Apple Crumble (4 servings)


Ingredients

Filling:

3 large apples (1/2 kg)

1 lemon, juiced

2 tablespoons water

½ cup raisins

½ cup brown sugar



Crumble Topping:

1 cup whole-meal flour

1 teaspoon cinnamon

75 grams butter, chilled and cubed

½ cup walnuts

½ cup brown sugar

Pre-heat your oven to 190 degrees Celsius/ 375 degrees Fahrenheit.

To make the crumble topping, in a medium bowl, combine the whole-meal flour and cinnamon.

Add the chilled butter to the dry ingredients and, using your fingertips; gently rub the butter into the flour until mixture starts to look like coarse breadcrumbs.

Stir the walnuts and sugar into the butter/flour mixture and place in the fridge.

For the apple filling, peel and quarter the apples and remove the core and seeds. Slice the apples 1/8 of an inch thick lengthwise and toss in a bowl in the lemon juice, sugar and water.

Butter an oven-proof pie dish and layer the apples inside the dish. Pour any excess liquid left in the bowl over the apples.

Sprinkle the crumble topping over the apples and bake for 40-45 minutes, or until the crumble is crisp and golden brown.

September 30, 2014

Spinach & Sun-Dried Tomato Frittata


It’s that time of the year again! Party people are beginning to prep for the wave of winter holiday hoopla - a time-honored tradition amongst the trendy. The food and drink flows, conversation comes easy and the meet-and-greet lasts for months. And while it’s all incredibly exciting, it does leave you a little drained! That means if you’re in mood to make the most of the upcoming months of madness, upping the energy is essential.

Frittatas are a fabulous way to fight both post-party headaches and hunger; rich, filling and positively packed with good-for-you ingredients. This frittata turns average breakfast eggs into something exceptional with sautéed spinach, fragrant garlic, and the chewy tang of sundried tomatoes. Baked until fluffy, the frittata is beautifully light and festively flecked with green and red. The best part: it’s delicious served warm or cold.


Spinach & Sundried Tomato Frittata (4 servings)

Ingredients
2 tablespoons olive oil
½ medium onion, chopped
1 large garlic clove, finely minced
1 cup fresh spinach, chopped
4 whole eggs
4 eggs whites
8 sundried tomato halves, softened in hot water and chopped
1/3 cup up grated parmesan (optional)
¼ teaspoon salt
1/8 teaspoon black pepper, coarsely ground

Directions

Heat your oven to 220 degrees Celsius/ 425 degrees Fahrenheit. 


Thinly coat a 9 inch pie pan with some olive oil and set aside. Glass pie pans are ideal because they heat slowly and evenly, resulting in a perfectly cooked frittata. 

Over a medium flame, heat the oil in a large frying pan. Add the chopped onion and garlic, cooking until the onions are soft, but not brown, and the garlic is fragrant, about 2-3 minutes..
Add the chopped spinach to the same pan and cook for another 2-3 minutes or until the spinach has wilted. 

Remove from the heat. 

In a bowl, lightly whisk the whole eggs and egg whites together. You could use 8 whole eggs, but the use of egg whites results in a lighter, airier frittata. 
 
Gently stir the chopped sundried tomatoes, parmesan and the spinach mixture into the eggs and season with salt and pepper. 
 
Pour the mixture into the pie pan and bake for 20-25 minutes or until firm in the center. Serve warm or cold.

September 2, 2014

Aunties & Aaj Kal Ki Larkiyan and Dazzle 'Em Beet-Pickled Deviled Eggs



Some of the most misogynistic men I know are women  -  Sarah Silverman

#truestory #justdiscoveredhashtags #hashtagsarehip #rainbows #blessed

What do you do when a sighing, swooning eleven year-old girl dramatically declares that she can’t wait to get married so she may finally have the freedom to do what she wants, whenever she wants?  

Well, if you’re me, mum’s the word. 

I know, I know, complete cop-out, but, come on, having that particular conversation with an adolescent would’ve been kind of weird and awkward and probably age-inappropriate, and I didn’t want to sound cynical, and laughing like a lunatic wasn’t an option. #isuck

Plus, pissing on a little girl’s parade is not a part of my life-plan. 

Yes, I have a life-plan and I happen to be pretty passionate about it.

Probably because I’m a pro at planning. #justsaying

Honestly, assign me any activity and watch me work OCD wonders, because fun knows no boundaries when you’re faultlessly organized, right?

Spontaneity is for suckers, yo! #imbringingboringback

So what if the survey says the actual success rate of my magic-making is kind of murky, and sad, and really can’t be confirmed. Daring to dream is half the battle, right? 

The point is, planning might not make it perfect, but, it definitely downs the probability of f***ing up and freaking out, dramatically

That being said, even though hurdles and hassles are inevitable, some curveballs are so insane beyond your imagination, it’s impossible to account for the craziness coming your way, so crashing and burning is somewhat of a standard reaction. 

Like, before T and I got hitched, I had painstakingly planned a two-part fairytale life in which neither of us would burp or fart and we sure as shit would never share a bathroom. We were going to “talk” through tough times because tempers were for tools, and he was going wake up at the butt-crack of dawn to whip up a gorgeous gourmet breakfast and serve it to a still-sleepy me in bed, and we were going to be beautifully balanced and blended beings, just like Jayoncé, but better. #crazyinlove 

Part two of Project Perfection was equally exciting and glamorous; we were going to grow up and embrace adulthood and become unquestionable commanders of our combined destiny, goddammit! #roseandjack #kingoftheworld #sharethedamnboardyouselfishb*tch

I felt a wise woman and completely in control as I readied to sign some paperwork, put on my big boy pants, and roll out Plan Potty-Free Future. #whatafeeling

Five years later, flatulence isn't funny, it's a fact of life, and the annexation of my bathroom has been brutal. Bonus: I’m a regular bathroom-barista attending to requests for mineral-water-bottle refills when traveling to countries where the muslim shower hasn’t caught on.

Speaking of bathroom behavior, how many couples other out there feel compelled to announce an oncoming bathroom break to their counterpart? Why? What is that? A word of warning? A goodbye? An invitation? 

Anyways.

“Talking” turned out to be a cute concept, but mastering maturity is still a struggle. Confession: when the gloves come off and it’s go time, it’s almost like I’m allergic to logic. 

Oh, also,  the only dude dishing up my breakfast is the baira and his expertise extend as far as the fanciness of fryee andaa and aamlette. #masterchef

So, yeah, for future reference, I really need to shut my loud face and listen to my Mom more, because that particular scenario didn’t pan out according to plan…at all. 

But I blame myself for the monumental bust. Those doe-eyed delusions were destined to doom. Fortunately, f*cking up and freaking out didn’t follow. 

Because big girls don’t cry. #FergiethePhilosopher

Unless, of course, the cruelty and injustice of an act is so OTT it straight up kills your mojo, which was exactly the case when Part Two of my plan for a fabulous future — being all out badass adults, and redefining the rules, and laying down the law, and doing some serious decisions — fell apart. 

Consequences? A catastrophic collapse of composure followed by some serious flipping and spazzing. 

Going from girl to a grown up is crazy complicated in this country, okay!

Again, must lace up lips and listen to Mom.

To tell you the truth, I’m still sort of hazy about how unfettered adultness is achieved, but what I can confirm is — and pay close attention ‘cause this pretty important — for us lady-folk, living in a prehistorically patriarchal society can be a super pain in the butt, but nothing and no one in the world has the ability to undermine and interfere with the process and progress of your evolution like an aunty. #couturecurveball

February 28, 2014

Social Standards That Are SO Last Year & Fool-Proof French Onion Soup


My school has it’s 35th year celebrations coming up soon and even though it’s been over a decade since I graduated, there’s no denying high school was hard! The crews, the cliques, the competition to be cool. Fans and followers aren’t just a Facebook phenomena, friends.

Almost everyone wanted to be a part of the wolf-pack, but the commandments of cool were constantly evolving and consistently cruel. I commend the kids who had the capacity to cope and keep up. 

For the rest of us, foolish feats were the fast and fool-proof way to fit in.

Back in the day, it was all about being aboard the band-wagon and because peer pressure was more powerful and persuasive than any parent on the planet, I pulled some seriously stupid stunts. 

Who hasn’t, right? 

Of course, said dim-wittedness had to be a precise degree of dumb and dangerous to dignify any kind of acknowledgement from the upper crust, but I missed that part of the memo and totally botched my bad-assery.

Some of my most mortifying moments include crank-calling a crush after the invention of caller ID and getting caught, feeling fabulously fashionable only to come home to the horror of finding my fly hanging wide open, or my personal hallmark of humiliation, being pulled over by a pissed off uncle amidst an enthralling egging expedition.

Oh, the trials of being a teenager! 

In a time when image was everything, it was all unbearably awkward and terribly tragic. 

Fortunately, fifteen years is plenty of time to put things into perspective and forget these faux pas as a painful, but passing phase. 

Or was it? 

It's assumed that as an adult it’s easier to keep the buffoonery at bay because, obviously, we’ve grown up, gotten over the high school hunger games and are completely capable of putting the past to bed.

But I had a weird winter and it made me wonder, does the drama ever end?

Here’s what happened: in the time-honored tradition of dumb december decisions, I designated “Do More, Dammit!as my mantra for the twelve months of 2013 and, damn, did it bite me in the butt!

P.S. The sting was still sore so this year I played it safe by praying for the power to poop Paulo-Cohelo-esque profundity because, clearly, that’s more of a spiritual request than a resolution, right?

Really, who knew resolutions were woeful regrets waiting to happen, huh? More on that in a minute. 

Gratitude before gripes, babies. 

So, on the upside, it was a year full of firsts.


I broke a vow to never get behind the wheel and dared to drive. Granted, it was a golf-cart, but still gutsy by my standards. I finally caved into fashion and conceded to rock red lipstick and, really, it was revolutionary. I made more desserts than I have in the last three decades without any fiascos or the feeling of impending doom. I also managed not to miss a single second of MasterChef and finally ditched the denial and dropped those pesky pounds that made my pants fit funny. 

However, if you ask the husband, the real highlight of this hallowed year had to be my willingness to head out on a (semi)regular basis without being a perpetual pain in the a** about it.  

That’s right! Contrary to custom and as a nod to my complete commitment to that nagging new year’s resolution, I skipped my annual hibernation and had a seriously hedonistic holiday season instead. 

My only comment on the craziness: fun times, but I’m not fit for the fabulous life.

The reality is, any activity that has me end up the Just-Took-Four-Finals-After-Popping-Fistfuls-Of-Pills-And-I’m-A-Crazed-Maniac-Who’s-Slept-Sixty four-Minutes-In-Five-Days-And-I’ll-Be-Crashing-On-My-Couch-For-The-Rest-Of-The-Forseeable-Future edition of exhausted is against my religion.

BUT, and the husband will probably experience genuine joy when he hears this, partying really isn’t the problem. Who doesn’t love to dance?

And for the most part, people aren’t the perps either. Frankly, there are some fantastically captivating characters milling around in the mix. 

The soul-sappers are those sneaky little suckers known as social standards. I’m not implying that all edicts are evil or equal. Seriously, ’don’t pee in public,’ is a splendid societal precedent. Clearly, it hasn’t caught in our country, but that’s a separate story. No, I’m speaking specifically about those snarky pillars of preposterous pretensions stipulated by the snotty set, presumably for the purpose and pleasure of seeing “outsiders” squirm. 

In other words, I suspect Lahore is a parallel universe and the legendary laundry list of dos and donts lives on and lives large.