Thursday, March 26, 2015

DIY Art: Framed Places of Memories

Two months ago, I went to China and spent a week in Chengdu, Sichuan (my hometown) visiting my relatives. I don't get to visit often, probably only once every two years or so. Every time I go back, I'm struck by how much the city has changed since my childhood and continues to change. The roads get wider and the buildings get taller; one lane streets open up into two lanes and, just a few years later, expand into four lanes. Low row storefronts that had just converted into six story walk-ups are now being knocked down again to make way for high-rise apartment buildings four to seven times as tall.

The rate of change is astounding, at times disorienting, and most of all, bittersweet. I'm proud to see the once quaint city of my birthplace transform into a urban metropolis and emerge as an international travel destination, but as mom and pop noodle shops give way to Pizza Hut's and street market vendors are ushered indoors, I couldn't help but feel that I'm losing the place I once knew so dearly.

So much of our memories are attached to places. Familiar sights and landmarks orient us and endure as the backdrop of our past. What if those places ceased to exist? Would my stories and memories become less real and more like legends?

I knew I wanted to preserve the memories of my birthplace and childhood with a map. I also wanted it to be more than just a piece of paper stashed away in a drawer; I wanted it to be a visible reminder and a portal to where I came from. So why not frame it as art?

A map is a great way to memorialize a special place or your travels. More than pictures, which are individual snapshots of specific moments in time, a map provides context and can unit entire stories that are representative of a period of time.

In my framed map of Chengdu, I can see my entire childhood. I can pinpoint the locations of my childhood home, my grandparents' homes, my elementary school, local parks and shopping centers. In these places lie the memories of spendings weekends at my grandparents' house with my cousins, going to the park for picnics with my entire extended family, and bustling summer evenings at the night market. I can literally trace the route I used to take walking from my school to my grandparents' house.

Another thing I really like about this simple project is that it serves as an understated yet meaningful piece of art that can fit anywhere in your home. It holds a travel story without having to be a photo collage, and it's certainly a conversation piece.

Friday, March 20, 2015

Make Your Own Chili Oil

If talking about chili oils and sauces made your tongue wag, then today's recipe is for you! Growing up, every Sichuan household I knew made their own chili oil. This is something true even to this day; in fact, the quality of someone's homemade chili oil is a glimpse into how good their home cooking is. A good chili oil is superbly aromatic and delightfully spicy.

The quality of chili oil is mainly dependent upon the quality of the chilis used. If you have the good fortune of living near a well-stocked Asian supermarket, you may be able to find good ground dried chilis. The ground dried chilis I'm talking about here is more of like chili flakes, it's not chili powder, so what you want to see are chili flakes and seeds. In where I live, I've only been able to find these in the Chinese grocery store.

[chili powder (left) vs. ground dried chilis, flakes (right)]
If you really have trouble finding this, a good alternative is to buy whole dried red chilis and chop it up yourself in a food processor. Another option--though I've never tried this myself--is to use the American kind of chili flakes (the kind you sprinkle on pizza, pasta, etc.) I imagine it just might do the job.

Monday, March 16, 2015

In My Pantry: Chili Sauces

When people talk about Sichuan cuisine, the first thing that will come up--because this is the thing that it's most famous for--is ma-la, which translates into "numbing spicy." The "numbing" refers to the effect of Sichuan pepper corns (more about that another time) which is prolifically used throughout Sichuan cooking, even in non-spicy dishes. And the spicy is just heat, which can be introduced in many different forms of chilis and chili sauces.

As a born and raised Sichuan girl, I always like to explain that the Sichuan spicy is different from many other cuisines that are known for spiciness. The Sichuan spicy is not about being spicy for spiciness' sake; the goal is not to render your tongue useless. Does that happen sometimes? Sure. But that's mainly due to the fact that once you fall in love with spicy food, you may actually like it when it hurts a little.

The spiciness in Sichuan food is about how it blends with all the other flavors in a dish. It's about balance, and how all the flavors and qualities of a dish come together and enhance one another to produce the utmost savoriness. When you have good spicy Sichuan food, the heat is at once stimulating enough and tempered enough that you can, and want to, keep on eating until you basically can't fit anymore food in your body. It's what we natives often talk about as the spiciness being so good that it's addicting.

Being that spiciness is such a big part of Sichuan cooking, needless say my pantry is always stocked with an array of chili options. While dried whole chilis and chili powder are also used in Sichuan cooking, from my own experience it's the chili sauces that I usually reach for. They maintain their flavors and heat for longer in storage and are more flavorful and versatile, able to be used both for cooking and sauces.

Here are the chili sauces in my pantry, from left to right:

Chili Oil
We always have at least two bottles of this perpetually in stock because we go through it so fast. A chili oil gives you mainly just pure heat and chili aromas and flavors, without additional flavors like vinegar, sugar, etc. that are often found in chili sauces. I use this for everything, from cooking to dipping sauces to dressing to just having a dollop on the side of... anything! This particular brand "Lao Gan Ma" (translation: old aunty) is my family's favorite, we just call it "old lady sauce" because it has a picture of an old lady on it.

Chili Bean Sauce
The spicy bean sauce is more of a paste than a sauce, made with fermented soybeans, salt, and spices. It's rich in flavor, aromatic, and salty. The go-to brand is "Pi-xian" (not pictured here) but for convenience (since I actually don't cook with this often) I use the Cantonese brand "Lee Kum Kee," which is more saucy in consistency, with flavors of garlic and mild vinegar.

Chili Garlic Sauce
The chili-garlic flavor is a staple of Sichuan cuisine, but I don't think authentic cooking actually uses a pre-made chili garlic sauce. Usually, fresh minced garlic is cooked with chili oil or chili bean sauce in hot oil to produce the chili-garlic flavor. But having chili garlic sauce in a bottle, although flavors may differ, is convenient for everyday purposes. I use "Huy Fong" brand (aka. rooster brand) chili garlic sauce since it pairs nicely with almost any type of Asian food. It's vinegary with a nice robust garlic flavor.

Sriracha Sauce
The sriracha sauce needs no introduction. Nowadays it's found everywhere in both Eastern and Western foods. It's not for traditional Sichuan cooking, but I keep it in stock because of it's highly versatile. Sweet, salty, vinegary, with a nice level of heat, I put sriracha sauce on any and everything--eggs, sandwiches, fries, meat, fried rice, pizza, quesadillas, vegetables... you name it.

Do you like it spicy? What's your go-to chili sauce?