I had a wonderful weekend in Houston last week visiting with my parents. Collin and I stayed at my dad's house which was a nice change of scene because we usually stay at my moms. My stepmom is currently in Phillidelphia where she is working on her surgical residency, she is quite the amazing woman to say the least, but I could tell my dad missed her terribly. So it felt nice to keep him company and to just have quality time with pops, it had been awhile since we've done so.
He made me his specialty, "tang yuan" which is a glutinous rice ball filled with a sweet center, usually with black sesame paste (which he did in this case) and then made some ramen noodles sauteed with spinach and red chili paste. I definitely had dessert first :)! Though my mom was the main cook of the family back then, my dad has always been adventurous in the kitchen. Granted not all of his attempts were successful, he always approached each venture with much gumption, which I admire because fear should never be an emotion when cooking.
My stepdad was also in town from Guangdong, where he is currently the assistant dean at Shantou University Medical College. The last time I saw him was back in October, so it was nice to spend time with him as well. It is also a hoot to watch my mother and stepdad interact with each other -- they both have to speak (broken) English to each other because my mother speaks Mandarin and my stepdad speaks Cantonese. Despite the language barrier, their love for each other is undeniable --they both light up when they are around each other and especially my mother, bubbling over with happiness.
She's a pretty lil lady ain't she? :) William was gracious enough to invite all of us and my cousin Yin-yin and James to Dong Thang (located on 6968 Wilcrest Dr Ste A, Houston, TX. Tel: 281-776-0068.) for a belated new year's celebration!
We each got to pick a dish, I chose the Eggplant Chicken Salted Fish Hot Pot -- which was absolutely delicious, but I'll get to that later, let's start at the beginning shall we? We started the meal with a delicious fish and crabmeat egg drop soup. I loved the consistency of the smooth silky texture, and the way the delicate meats of the fish and crabmeat swim together in harmony with whisps of egg.
We also ordered Stirfry Beef and Chinese Broccoli, Fried Salt and Pepper Squid, and Sauteed Fish Head. The beef was extremely tender and the broccoli was nice and crunchy, I really hate overcooked veggies. The squid was good and the fish head, I thought it tasted "fishy". Okay bad adjective to describe a fish dish...let's just say it wasn't my favorite dish in the world, a little too traditional for me O_O (But mama loved it).
Before I go on, I'd like my readers to please note the boss lady aka mom in the collage above. Whenever we order at restaurants, my mother gets down to business. She will whip out the good ole reading glasses and immediately begins to study the menu. As a result, I have become the same way. When it comes to ordering food, I will scan the menu at least 2 times, then go back to my top 3 favorites and then it's a slow process of elimination from there.
Now for the uber glorious dishes: Fried Lobster with Ginger and Scallion, my Eggplant Chicken Salted Fish Hot Pot, and Breaded Scallop in Garlic Sauce. The lobster was succulent just like last time. I love that they bread it in cornstarch so once they stirfry it with the ginger and scallion the sauce becomes nice and gooey. The lobsters itself were smaller than last time, but maybe other than that the dish was superb. My eggplant hot pot was quite delicious too, though Salted Fish is a very acquired taste I absolutely love it for its intense umami qualities. The scallops were cooked nicely but I thought the flavors of the dish were forgettable, the lobster dish outshines it by far!
All in all, dinner was delicious and absolutely wonderful. I always enjoy having family styled dinners together, a quality in my culture that I have always loved and appreciated. Not only do you get to eat tons and tons of different types of dishes, but it's nice to have a sit down meal with family where you can take your time to converse and catch up, drink tea and enjoy each other's company together.
We talked about William's time in Shantou and we discussed our plans for me and Collin's upcoming trip to Shanghai as well as future wedding plans (In Puerto Vallarta) for 2011!! I've also been slowly teaching Collin some basic Chinese like "How much?" or "Hello. Thank you. Please." and in case any ladies try to hit on him while I'm not around "You smell bad, go away" and "No thank you, goodbye" See, even if Collin got lost I have full confidence he could find his way home with all the (useful) Chinese lessons I've been teaching him :).
Btw, if you haven't noticed by now, this is probably the longest post I've ever done. Which is probably why it took me 4 days to write/edit it. But I had so much to share!! I just couldn't help myself so thank you for hanging in there. On Sunday morning I had lunch with my best friend Courtney, whom I've been friends with since middle school! Though we do not see each other as often as we like (She a slave to law school, I a slave to...eating?), everytime we get together it always seems like we pick up right where we left off. She recommended a cute place called "Dry Creek" located in the Heights of Houston (544 Yale St. Hou. Tx 77007 Tel: 713-426-2313) at the cross street of Yale and 6th.
I really loved the set up of this place, which is housed in a refurbished 1930's gas station (how cool is that???). For those of you who have heard of Onion Creek Cafe, Dry Creek is actually the sister cafe to that restaurant. Upon walking in, you instantly felt at home with the laid back setting of metal tables and wooden chairs, a nice mom and pop place if you will.
We decided to sit outside though it was cloudy, it felt really nice outside, plus I couldn't pass up the cute picnic tables (and lighting). Started the meal off with a hot cup of joe, which they serve in various kinds of mugs that you would probably find...you guessed it, at home. Like I said, the character of this place was too cute for words. I meticulously studied all the items (which I already looked over once at home) and finally decided on the epitome of Southern comfort -- Crab Cakes with Cheesy Grits. MMMMM HMMM that's right, can I get a hallelujah!!
MMmm just thinking about the flaky morsels of crab meat enveloped in a crispy cornmeal crust is making me drool uncontrollably all over my keyboard, okay not literally but if I could produce that much mucus it'd definitely happen. The crab cakes come with two eggs any style (I picked over easy, but it was a bit hard), english muffin, and last but not least...cheesy grits. O-M-G, after eating this meal I've decided that crab cakes and cheesy grits should always belong together like pork and beans or carrot and peas, both not as good as crab cakes and grits but you get the idea!
Collin ordered Bagel and Lox which was quite deeerricious as well, I like the addition of the capers and the consistency of the bagel was just right. Not the best bagel and lox I've had but definitely not too shabby either.
It was nice to catch up with Courtney and Dave (her boyfriend) and we laughed over stories of Collin's first trip overseas to bad neighbor stories to Dave's secret love for "curling" in the Winter Olympics. At times I laughed (and talked) too loud and realized everyone outside (and probably inside too...) could hear my boisterous voice, maybe Collin is right, maybe I am making myself deaf. But I couldn't help it! It's hard to contain my excitement when I am hanging out with the people I love :).
So I saved the best part for last. I would like to invite you guys to witness the magic of my mother's cooking. A private insider's look of the woman who inspired it all -- Mrs. Jingyu Zou. I am glad she doesn't know how to use the internet because frankly she would kill me for posting pictures of her that has not been granted the "Mama Zou seal of approval". But I had to share this with you guys because she is the reason for why I have my deep rooted passion for food.
The most important element in my mother's magic is the "Almighty Wok". She has always told me -- "Xin xin ah, you make Chinese food you MUST have wok! Taste better and you cook outside so less messy at home." And it's true, the wok really is the most important element in Chinese cuisine -- the intense roaring fire heats up the oil at a much higher temperature than you can ever reach with a regular household burner. In order to achieve that nice smokey flavor along with perfectly cooked ingredients, the temperature of the oil is essential.
The second element in my mother's magic: fresh ingredients. She shops with much precision whenever she goes to the stores, picking only the freshest and quality ingredients -- pictured above are fresh water chestnuts, baby pea shoots, lily flower, black fungus, and bean curd. For those of you who are not familiar with these ingredients you are probably reading on with horror...black fungus??? lily flower??? One sounds deadly and the other, a bouquet.
I assure you that all of these ingredients are delicious. Black fungus, though tasteless has an unique slippery and rubbery texture that adds an unexpected twist in any dish. The lily flower has a natural sweetness and the texture is reminiscent of spinach but more resilient, without any floral taste to it at all.
Is your mouth watering yet? Stay with me... The last element in my mother's magic is the seasoning. I am not sure how to explain this one, maybe this part is her "secret". Her flavors for her dishes are always on point, never too salty never too sweet -- perfect to the tee. She always tells me "As you cook, you must taste! Always taste!" I definitely had no problem being her personal taster for the first 18 years of my life but she is right. Always taste, and then adjust to what you think would be the most appealing flavor to whoever you are serving.
Stir fry cabbage with bean curd, lily flower egg and black fungus -- a wonderful vegetarian dish that would satisfy any palette/tummy. She also made "spoiled Collin" one of his favorite dishes -- Pork with Garlic Sauce. She always makes sure Collin is taken care of whenever he comes down to visit "Xin xin ah, ask Caahleen what he want to eat! I cook for him." Sometimes she almost takes better care of him than me...:(! He loves it though, soaking up any reigning moment he can get because let's face it, I am always the champion :).
This is actually one of my favorite dishes too -- this spicy and slightly sweet and tart dish is phenomenal. My mother opted for fresh waterchest nuts (trust me they are 1000 times better than the canned), garlic, red chile paste, red chiles, black fungus and pork. I love the smell of the garlic and chiles sauteeing in the hot oil, it instantly awakens your senses. Once it's done cooking she likes to garnish it with a little bit of cilantro, green onion can be used here as well.
GLOOOOOOORIOUS!!!!! I think now you guys can understand why I may be slightly "snotty" when it comes to Chinese food -- Pei Wei just really doesn't do it for me. Imagine eating like this ALL THE TIME when you were a kid, I mean it was ridiculous. When I left for college, it was quite the rude awakening. No more mama's magical food, just scary looking dorm food, nasty fast food and greasy gross everything else (I gained 30 lbs in college). Sad Panda :(
My mother always made sure I was well fed. Even when she was swamped at work, trying to manage her hair salon, working 12 hour shifts almost every night, she always made sure I had dinner on the table waiting for me. I would come home and find not one dish, or even two dishes but always three -- which is why for the longest time I thought she was magic.
Now I come to realize her magic was really just her love and dedication as a mother. Granted I still do not understand how she found the time to do what she did, she always made sure it was done. No matter how busy, every day I would come home literally with food on the table -- wrapped up perfectly, sometimes labeled and always delicious.
Also, with the dishes she made me, there were never repeats -- unbelievable, I know. This is the reason why I always say "Food is Love" because it was always my mother's way of saying, "Hey I love you, and I am thinking about you all the time." amidst her busy hectic schedule. I rarely ever saw her, I would always leave for school before she got up in the morning and she wouldn't come home til after 9:00pm.
She never ceased to amaze me to what lengths she'd go to make sure I was well taken care of. I consider myself to be very fortunate and as a result I now cook for the same reason. I cook because I love, I cook because it is my way of saying -- hey I am thinking about you and hopefully this food will bring you comfort. This way of thinking always ensures that I will cook to the best of my ability, because there is nothing else more important than taking care of the ones I love.
Wow guys, now that's a lot of love. Maybe I got a little mushy there so I am taking a Layla break. Layla tagged along with us to Houston and before I move on I'd like to rewind to a story. During the initial meeting of my mother and Layla, the first thing she immediately said was "Why you pick black dog? You cannot even see her face, so scary like ghost!" But ghosts are white mom... "Oooooh nooo, I do not like this dog, she look mean!"
Little did she know, Layla is probably one of the coolest dogs I know and after the 3rd or 4th time of my mom meeting her, she fell in love. Now when she sees Layla she gets excited and in a very LOUD (and happy) voice she will greet her: "LAAAAAYLAAAH LAYLAH LAYLAH!! HI HI HI *cooing high pitched noises*" Not only that, my mother will jump around with Layla outside and then say "Oh...Layla she very strong! I jump and she jump and push me, I almost fall back!" Mom, I don't think that's a good idea to do that. "OH SHE IS GOOD GIRL! SO FUNNY...dui bu dui Layla? LAaaaayla!"
She then will proceed to feed Layla some "treats" and as she is feeding Layla she will pet her whispering softly "Layla guai, Layla good girl" Guai meaning obedient or good. And whenever I say "Layla loves her grandma!!" my mother immediately will say "WHO IS WHO'S GRANDMA?! HOW COME YOU CALL MOMMY GRANDMA I DONT THINK SO!" Hahaha ooooh mommy, you really are the best.
I will be returning to Houston this weekend, unfortunately one of my dear friends' father has passed away. I would like to write a tribute to him upon my return for he was a great man, a loving man and truly a man with a heart of gold. The world will be a sadder place without him but the footprints that he has left behind as a result of his beautiful heart and soul will last forever. Immortality is best achieved through the good deeds and positive effects that you make on others.
See you guys when I get back and thank you for sticking through this post for this long, you guys are great :)!