Chinese Red Beans: The Sweet

The week before she died, [my mother] called me, full of pride, full of life: “Auntie Lin cooked red bean soup for Joy Luck.  I’m going to cook black sesame-seed soup.” “Don’t show off,” I said.  “It’s not showoff.” She said the two soups were almost the same, chabudwo.  Or maybe she said butong, not the same thing at all.  It was one of those Chinese expressions that means the better half of mixed intentions.  I can never remember things I didn’t understand in the first place.

-from The Joy Luck Club by Amy Tan

 

The problem of translation, the problem of being wedged between two different cultures, the problem of processing an unexpected death, the problem of that colon after the word life.  I teach punctuation just as I teach The Joy Luck Club, and one of the purposes is as a gate between the general (life) and the specific (cooking black sesame soup or a red bean soup).  Cooking and eating are examples of enjoying life.  Of course, they are.

 

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Red kidney beans on the left, azuki beans on the right.

 

Both red bean soup and black sesame soup are eaten as dessert soups, or tang shu.  Tang shu is a concept that doesn’t translate very easily into most American foodscapes.  Melted ice cream is about as close as I’ve come to a dessert soup over the course of my American upbringing.  I’ve eaten many a kidney bean in my life, but I’ve eaten them as a savory dish.  Which doesn’t translate very well into Chinese foodscapes.  As my erstwhile Chinese roommate said, when she saw that savory red bean recipe, “Red beans are such a big part of Chinese dessert (if that’s a thing), I will always naturally associate them with sweet.”

So here is my sweet red bean soup recipe- simple and not really mine at all.

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Dried mandarin peels.

Red Bean Soup

  • 2 cups of Chinese red beans, also known as azuki beans
  • 3/4 cup of sugar
  • 8 cups of water
  • a handful of dried mandarin peels*

Bring the beans, sugar, water and mandarin peels to a boil.  Lower the temperature and simmer until tender, about 3 hours.  Pour milk over it before you eat.  Chinese cereal, as Winnie would say.

 

*You can buy dried tangerine peels online, but it seemed easier and less wasteful to save and dry my own in sunlight.  I used the peels from 3 mandarins.  Also, this step is optional.

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Red bean soup.

 

 

 

Chinese Red Beans and Rice: The Savory Recipe

My friend Winnie recently gave me a big bag of Chinese red beans. She’s moving away to Australia, and I recognize in her the same intense hatred of waste that lives inside of me. We had dinner together the other night, and she showed up with a paper bag of food items that her Cantonese mother had given her.

“Let’s see,” she said. “We’ve got some jasmine tea, here. And a big bag of mystery tea, very exciting. And a few pounds of dried Chinese red beans. Do you know how to cook them?”

“Of course. I’ll make red beans and rice. I brought a new and improved recipe back from my last trip to Slidell.”

“Eh… sure. My mom says to just cook them with sugar and add milk over the top when you’re ready to eat it.”

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Chinese red beans, also known as adzuki beans.

 

At least one of my eyebrows raised up.

“You know, like Chinese cereal. I used to eat it all the time when I was little. OR you could make red bean ice cream, or red bean mochi balls…”

In the debate between savory and sweet, I always land on the savory side. But I do have quite a few red beans, enough to justify a little experimentation. My savory recipe is grounded in the firm culinary principles of South Louisiana, but the flavor profile is all Houston Chinatown.

 

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Some of my favorite Chinatown ingredients: fresh ginger, green onions, dried shiitake mushrooms, and baby bok choy.

 

 

Sichuan Chili Oil Recipe

  • 1 1/2 cups of Canola oil
  • 1 cup of crushed red pepper
  • 3 tablespoons of Sichuan pepper
  • 4 whole star anise
  • 4 bay leaves
  • 5-7 cloves
  • 1 cinnamon stick

Heat the oil on the stove.  When the oil begins to simmer very lightly, remove it from the heat.  Add the rest of the ingredients to the oil, and let the oil come back to room temperature.

 

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Some of my favorite Chinatown spices: cinnamon stick, star anise, black peppercorns, Sichuan peppercorns, and bay leaves.

 

Chinese Red Beans

  • 1 yellow onion, chopped
  • 5 inches ginger, grated
  • 4 cloves of garlic, minced
  • 5 dried shiitake mushrooms
  • 2 cups of Chinese red beans
  • 5 cloves
  • 5 pinwheels of star anise
  • 1 tablespoon of fennel
  • Sichuan Chili Oil

Rice

  • 2 cups short-grained rice
  • 2 tablespoons of rice wine vinegar
  • 4 cups of water

Garnish

  • green onion, thinly sliced
  • radish sprouts
  • chopped watercress

Saute the onion, ginger, and garlic on medium-high heat.  When the onion starts to become translucent, add the shiitake mushrooms, the red beans, and enough water to cover them.  Bring to a boil.  Wrap the spices in a cheese cloth and steep in the beans.  Lower the temperature and simmer for 2 hours.  After the beans become tender, add salt to taste.

Meanwhile, cook the rice in the vinegar and water.  When done, serve the beans on top of the rice and sprinkle the green garnishes over the top.

 

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My red beans and rice. I simmered the bok choy with sliced garlic in a 1/2 cup of water or so, and dressed with sesame seed oil after the water evaporated.  

Dear Springroll

A guest post by Megan Deng. 

I.  The Vietnamese Lady

Me: That night, my father came home from his first day in MD Anderson Cancer Center. The first few words he blurted out were “what a kind lady!” I stared at him with bewilderment, his face flashing with a huge smile. “Why don’t we sit down and listen to your father’s amazing first day?” said my mother, laying out plates of delicious colors on the dinner table.

It turned out that the kind lady was a Vietnamese colleague in her fifties. “Her name is Terry,” my dad said, “she was the first person that smiled at me.”  I learned that my father was shocked at first, but who would refuse a warm welcome from his new colleague? So he smiled back. Terry was the most sophisticated researcher in the whole epidemiology department. She introduced my father to different co-workers, taught him the rules of collecting data and led him through every big, small and hidden room in the labyrinth of the epidemiology floor.

“My first day without the help of Terry would be too tragic to imagine.” Dad said.

“I wish I could meet this Vietnamese Lady, Dad” I replied, thinking how lucky my father was.

Very soon, my wish came true. Today, the Vietnamese lady is standing in the front door, holding a mysterious basket.

“Chào bạn!” she greeted us with Vietnamese, “ready to taste the traditional Vietnamese spring rolls?”

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II. Taste of Home

Terry: It has been two months since I got to know Yang, our new researching scientist from China. Several weeks ago, I invited Yang’s whole family to my neighborhood’s outdoor swimming pool and that was when I met the mother and the daughter, a perfect family. The daughter was faster than a dolphin, together with her athletic father, travelling through the sparkling blue. The mother, on the other hand, was the most patient swimming coach in the world. She gently took both of my hands and led me into the unknown of dark blue. That was when my legs found the rhythm of splashing water, as fast as the shifting ray of the sun.

The mother’s hand gradually slipped away. I was floating freely on the Pacific Ocean, towards my homeland, Vietnam. On the shining horizon, Yang and his daughter waved at me and applauded. I laughed and laughed as I approached. That was when I decided to make spring rolls again, for the happy Chinese family I so admired.

Smiling at the memory, I place another spring roll into the daughter’s plate, using chopsticks. I can see how much she enjoys the food. She is grinning at me with mint leaves on both hands and oil shining like lip balm. In an instant, I saw myself eating spring rolls back in Vietnam.

I was 8 when my mother taught me how to make traditional spring rolls. “You have to pick the freshest mint leaves to wrap around the spring rolls.” My mother said as if that was the most important thing in the world. I was born in the middle of the Vietnamese war. The outside world was my worst nightmare and I only felt safe with my steaming spring rolls. They were the taste of my mother’s protection, the taste of my sweet, sweet home.

One day, my mother went out to the far end of the village, hoping to collect the freshest mint leaves. I knew she would come back with empty hands. With so many airstrikes, none of the mint leaves could survive. So I stood at the front door, holding the last few bunches of fresh mint leaves, waiting to comfort her when she came back with disappointment.

She never came back.

I woke up the next day, leaning against the cold wall. The mint leaves in my hand had withered away. That year, my aunt took me to the United States with other Vietnamese refugees, leaving my spring rolls behind.

Me: Somehow, the satisfying smile of Terry reminds me of my grandma when she made Chinese spring rolls on the night of Spring Festival. I always liked to watch her mixing the stuffing for the rolls. There were sweet ones made of mashed red beans and salty ones made of agaric, cabbage and meat slices.

On the dinner table, I would be the first one to taste the spring roll and every time I exclaimed with compliments. My grandma would laugh with triumph, saying “eat more, eat more” and the dinner then began.

“I miss you grandma.”  I whisper as our whole family is immersing in the taste of spring rolls, the taste of our Chinese home.

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III. Buddha in the Rain

Terry: Several months ago, a destructive flooding added another chapter to Houston’s long history of storms. My usual parking spot was robbed by a huge puddle and I was forced to park in an unusual place. When I came back from work, the car was towed. The torrent of rain started to pour all over again. I stood helpless in the slot, feeling my face smudged with makeup, rain,and desperate hot tears. I pulled my collar higher as wind blew across the desolate parking lot.

“Do you need any help?” A voice came behind me causing me to turn. It was a gentleman in his thirties. I mumbled that my car was towed. “Let me drive you to that place where your car is located.” He said and led me into his car.

As I paid for the ransom, I turned around to thank the gentle man but he had already disappeared in the dusky summer storm. Buddha, why did you help me without leaving me the chance to express my gratitude? I thought.

The Buddha must had heard me because the next day I saw him. The gentle man, right there across from my office table. I felt a smile broke across my face. He seemed to be shocked by my sudden attention and after several seconds, smiled back. He didn’t recognize me, I thought.

“What’s your name?” I grabbed the perfect chance.

“Call me Yang.” He replied.

I decided not to remind him of yesterday.

I don’t thank people with words. I thank people with real act.

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IV. New Family

Me: Tonight, I start to feel hopeful with myfuture lifein the United States. The laughter, like wind chimes in an old French townlet, fills our little apartment. I like the harmony between mint leaves and spring rolls just like the harmony between my family and Terry. Maybe it’s time for our Vietnamese friend to join our family in this foreign land across from the Pacific Ocean.

Terry: As I collected the freshest mint leaves in my little garden before coming to Yang’s home, I thought about my mother. “Ma, I am ready to make spring rolls again.” I said with a handful of shining mint leaves, imagining that my mother is picking mint leaves next to me, smiling.

“Why?” she would ask, “You haven’t made those rolls ever since leaving Vietnam!”

“Because,” I turned, “I found a newfamily, Ma”

As I drove towards Yang’s apartment, with a basket full of spring rolls and mint leaves, the sun set the sky on fire with red, orange and purple flames.

Then, gold spread across the horizon.

Just like the color of my dear springrolls.

 

V.  The Recipe

Total Time: 50 minutes

End Products: 7 spring rolls

Ingredients:

  • Several cups of fresh mint leaves
  • 14 round rice wrapper sheet
  • A big bowl of black agaric (soaked in water for a whole night and cooked in water)
  • One to two shrimps per roll (depending on the size of the shrimp), cooked, peeled and sliced
  • Two onions sliced
  • Three carrots sliced
  • 3 bowls of sliced chicken leg/chest cooked OR 3 bowls of sliced pork cooked
  • 2 cups of cooked rice noodles
  • Several little plates of rice vinegar/soy sauce
  • 1 cup of water
  • 3 spoons of sugar
  • 1 big bowl of water

Steps:

  • First, use a bowl of warm water to soften the rice wrapper sheet for 1 min. Two sheets is more preferably for they protect the rolls from breaking. Lay the soft sheets on a clean piece of table cloth.
  • Then, at the top of the two piling sheets, horizontally lay 20% chicken/pork, 40% shrimps. Above them, lay 40% carrots, black agaric and white noodle. Remember to leave space around the pile to the edge of the wrapper.
  • For the mints, you can choose to stuff them inside the rolls or wrap them around the rolls after cooking the rolls.
  • To wrap the roll, fold the left side of the wrapper first, covering half of the pile. Fold the right side and meet the left side in the middle, above the pile. Finally, get out the wrapper at the bottom of the pile and push the pile across the whole wrapper until it’s a roll.

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  • In the sauce pan, add rice vinegar, water and sugar. Heat the sauce until the sugar dissolves. You can add sliced onions in the sauce if you like.
  • If making of sauce is inconvenient, just use soy sauce.
  • Now enjoy the delicacy with your friends and family.

 

About the Author:

Megan Deng was born in Shanghai, China in 2000. She arrived in the United States in the summer of 2015 and is currently studying in Bellaire High School in Houston, Texas. She writes little poems and reads all kinds of books and novels in her spare time. Her passion for genetics and playing various kinds of sports with her family are other components of her life.