When I was growing up, “Chinese Food” meant gelatinous, hot pink chicken and pineapple balls, chop suey (bean sprouts, frozen peas and carrots and some white rice in soy sauce), and egg rolls as greasy as Elvis’s pompadour. It wasn’t until my undergraduate years at the University of Windsor that I first tasted authentic Chinese food.
I know, Windsor, Ontario doesn’t exactly strike one as the hub of all things Oriental. In those days, though, Windsor was (and for all I know, may still be) the Canadian college with the largest percentage of Chinese students (at about 45%). Why? There were many theories (such as ” it’s a great way to get into the States, being so close”; or “it has the lowest standard for English-as-a-second-language requirements”), but my favorite was “it’s the southernmost city in Canada (further south than its American cousin, Detroit), so when potential students consulted a map, they likely decided it must also be the warmest city and chose it before all others.
(All I can say is, it’s been winter since the end of October. So, how do you like Windsor now?)
Perhaps surprisingly, my entrée into the world of authentic Chinese dining was facilitated not by a Chinese person, but a native (Caucasian) Windsorite.
RB, a fellow undergraduate English major, was much taller than I at 5 feet 7 inches (just over 170 cm) and had what we call “big-bones.” Yet she also somehow always struck me as fragile. With impeccable posture, she trailed a mane of undulating, naturally auburn hair; and her skin was so pale, smooth and translucent it reminded me of my mom’s antique teacups. While not classically “pretty,” RB was certainly uniquely attractive. Even her voice, quiet and steady like a breeze in autumn, seemed too soft for the heft of her body. When she spoke it was barely above a whisper.
But it wasn’t her physical attributes of which I was envious; it was her mind. You see, RB was another protégé of my mentor, Dr. Ditsky, and he frequently called on her in class to “save us” when no one volunteered to answer his question (when he called on me for the same purpose, my cheeks usually flushed red and I stammered something unintelligible). But RB always rose to the challenge, fairly offering a lecture of her own on occasion.
RB was, quite simply, brilliant. Like, Bill Gates brilliant. Mozart brilliant. Marilyn Vos Savant brilliant. A Beautiful Mind brilliant (well, without the encrypted magazine articles and hallucinatory FBI agents, of course).
I will never forget her final essay for our Faulkner course: a 50-odd page treatise on “Deconstructing The Sound and the Fury: Parallels and Pedantry in Godel, Escher, Bach.” Well, I, too, had purchased Godel, Escher, Bach out of curiosity (like the rest of the academic population in the 1980s) and could barely get through the first 10 pages (even that took me a couple of hours). Yet here was RB, composing an entire essay (which, presumably, she actually understood!) that used it as a basis for comparison.
RB also had the ability to acquire information–particularly languages–as easily as I acquired cookbooks. She loved the fact that Windsor was an “international” city welcoming people from all over the world. One day, she decided that she loved Chinese culture the most. Within a couple of months, she was teaching herself Cantonese with the aid of tapes and a book. I’d notice her hunched over a table in the cafeteria, madly scribbling little curlicues and pictograms across her notebooks. She’d emit guttural sounds in the back of her throat as she walked by in the hallways. After another couple of months, her gorgeous auburn hair had been shorn in a tight pageboy and dyed jet black. If there had existed a counterpart to gender reassignment surgery called “Cultural Reassignment surgery,”her name would have been at the top of the list.
Eventually, RB married a man from Hong Kong whom she’d met at a dim sum restaurant. (She was writing a postcard–in Chinese–to a friend as he walked by; he glanced at the card, asked, “Do you actually understand that stuff?” and when she nodded, he sat down to join her. Less than a year later they were married.)
[It may not be a whole lotus bean inside, but it’s still delicious.]
Given her affinity for all things Chinese, it’s no wonder that RB eventually took me to her favorite spot for Dim Sum. Right there on Wyandotte Street, just steps from the university dormitory, was a fantastic dim sum restaurant. It was so authentic, in fact, that none of the servers really spoke English, and orders were given by patrons who wrote their choices (in Chinese) on little slips of paper. Of course, RB was proficient in the language, so she served as translator and placed the order.
I won’t dwell on the meal itself, which involved various steamed buns, pan-fried dumplings, noodles and RB’s favorite–chicken feet. (The image of her sucking on their splayed, pointy tips will forever be branded in my memory). But it was the dessert that proved to be a revelation. That day was the first time I tried steamed lotus seed buns, and I ate them every time I could after that. The white, spongey and barely sweet buns encased a whole lotus bean, cooked until soft and squishy. Imagine, if you will, a medjool date that’s even softer and sweeter than normal, served slightly warm and caramelized–that’s what the lotus bean tasted like. I loved them instantly. When I moved to Toronto with its three Chinatowns, I anticipated more of the same, and was sadly disappointed to learn that the buns made here, while tasty, contained red bean paste instead of lotus seeds.
Well, today’s SOS offering is my take on that pastry. I had actually attempted a steamed bun first (based on this recipe–which, I later realized, is Japanese), but steaming instead of frying resulted in a mess of white and red goo, a little too reminiscent of the goo splattered all over Tommy Lee Jones when Will Smith shoots the alien at the end of Men in Black. Attempt number two involved actually frying the balls as directed–I was going to beg your forgiveness if they worked out–but those, alas, were also fairly gooey inside, very greasy on the outside, and clearly not orb-like.
So, I went back to what I do better: cookies! In keeping with the Asian theme, I used rice flour (two types) filled with red bean paste. The cookie itself is crisp and light, while the dense paste inside provides a pleasant surprise with its textural contrast. And while they’re not authentic, they were delicious. I bet even RB would approve.
Chinese-Style Bean Pastry Cookies (ACD Stage 3 and beyond)
Ricki Heller (http://rickiheller.com)
These cookies provide a little pocket of smooth, sweet bean paste inside a crisp, light cookie casing. To make them this small may seem too fussy for everyday cookies; if you’d rather, place a layer of dough in a parchment-lined loaf pan, spread with paste, then more dough; bake and cut in squares for an easier treat.
For the bean filling:
1 cup (240 ml) cooked adzuki beans, well drained
1/4 cup (60 ml) agave nectar or vegetable glycerin
1/4 cup (60 ml) water
10-20 drops vanilla or plain stevia liquid, to your taste
pinch fine sea salt
2 tsp (10 ml) refined coconut oil, preferably organic
For the cookie dough:
2 Tbsp (30 ml) coconut or palm sugar
1/4 cup (60 ml) unsweetened plain or vanilla soy, almond or rice milk
1/4 tsp (1 ml) pure stevia powder or 15-20 drops liquid, to your taste
2 tsp (10 ml) pure vanilla extract
1 Tbsp plus 1 tsp (20 ml) ground chia seeds or meal (if you grind your own, use 2 tsp/10 ml whole seeds)
1/2 tsp (2.5 ml) apple cider vinegar
1/4 cup (60 ml) coconut oil, preferably organic, soft (I prefer refined for this as it is tasteless; but unrefined is nice, too)
1/2 cup (70 g) brown rice flour
1/4 cup (30 g) sweet rice flour
1/2 tsp (2.5 ml) baking powder
1/4 tsp (1 ml) baking soda
1/2 tsp (2.5 ml) xanthan gum
1/4 tsp (1 ml) fine sea salt
2 Tbsp (30 ml) sesame seeds, optional
Make the filling:
Place all ingredients in a blender and blend until smooth. Turn the mixture into a small pot and heat over medium-low heat, stirring constantly, until it begins to thicken, about 5 minutes. Add the coconut oil, stir well to combine evenly, and keep stirring until you have a thick paste that begins to look slightly glossy. Remove from heat and allow to cool. NOTE: This makes about twice as much filling as you’ll need. You can try halving the recipe, but when I did so, it didn’t cook up quite the same way. Instead, you can form the filling into a disk, freeze it, and use it for cookies later on. Or, form into balls, coat in melted unsweetened chocolate, and enjoy red bean truffles!
Make the dough:
Preheat oven to 350F (180C). Line two cookie sheets with parchment or spray with nonstick spray.
In a medium bowl, mix the coconut sugar, soymilk, stevia, vanilla, chia and vinegar. Stir for 30 seconds or so to allow the sugar to begin to dissolve. Add the coconut oil and cream well. Sift in the remaining ingredients and stir to form a fairly firm dough (you may need to knead it with your hands). It should be moist but fairly firm.
Assemble the cookies:
Roll out the dough until it is very thin, about 1/8 inch (3 mm). Cut into small circles about 1-1/2 inches (3.75 cm) big. You should have about 32 circles.
Place about 1/2 tsp (2.5 ml) of the paste in the center of one circle of dough; top with another circle. Pinch edges all around to seal in the bean paste (be sure there are no openings or your cookies will leak when they bake!). Gently form into a round disk. Dip one side of the disk in the seeds; place seed side up on cookie sheets. Bake in preheated oven for 20-22 minutes, until bottoms are deep golden brown and cookies are firm. Remove from oven and cool completely before transferring to a covered container. Makes 16 pastries. May be frozen.
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