Soup Days

Today is another in a string of Soup Days. The weather is fantastically disgusting, and has been for the past week. Rain. Rain for days. Usually at night, or during the middle of the day, so I could avoid it, and watch from the comfort of my well air-conditioned room. However, Thursday morning as I left for work, the skies opened for a torrential downpour. I actually had to ford three rivers-that-used-to-be-streets to get to the office. My shoes were completely soaked–the water in the streets was halfway up my calf. The thunderstorms aren’t bringing any relief to the air, however. When it’s not raining the sky is a cement gray, the air is filled with toxic fog. It’s hot and soupy, walking into a damp towel or a broken sauna. Biking is like struggling through pea soup. I hate being outside. I refused to go to Summer League yesterday the air was so awful–I walked outside to go to Wumart and just standing there broke into a sweat.

Very little of anything exciting has happened lately. Well, besides me realizing that sometimes I really just am absurd. I came home, tossed my purse on my bed and went to get a drink of water. Ginny, playing with Hector, decided to throw him onto my bed. “No don’t let Hector get on my bed he’ll find the bacon in my bag!” “What?” “Don’t let Hector on my bed, he’ll find the bacon in my purse.” “…Robot, normal girls don’t carry bacon in their purses.” Well, it’s not my fault that Jenny Lou charges for grocery bags and I have a big roomy purse so I stop and pick up a few things like bacon and cheese and carry them home in my purse instead of a separate bag like ‘normal’ people. Well, you can’t say I’m not enjoying life, at least. Because I enjoy life. And bacon.

I’ve been trying to eat healthily (mostly precipitated by an evening where I ate potato chips for dinner because I was too tired to care). Mostly that entails ordering salads for lunch, eating a lot of sweet potatoes, chick peas and cucumbers at home, and trying to eat more fruit. Yesterday, I finished off the jiaozi filling that I froze a few weeks ago. With the humidity, I didn’t even bother trying to make the skins myself, but bought them freshly made at the vegetable market. For 3 kuai, I get a bag of fifty skins. It’s cheap and much easier than making them myself, although I have to use them the day they’re bought. Ayi was impressed that I knew how to fold the dumplings and tried to help, but gave up after two. I have had a lot of practice, what with my mom always making wontons for family get togethers and impressing my sisters and me to help. Made some more chili oil since our stock was depleted: mince together garlic, ginger, leek and mash with torn up dried red chili and chili powder, then ladle boiling oil over the paste, store in jar. I keep mine in the fridge to avoid any nasty botulism or whatever, since we don’t use it that frequently at home.

I did finally find the money to go on my tailor shopping spree. Unfortunately, even buying a lot and getting a good deal from the tailor Bambi recommended via his old boss, it was more expensive than I’d hoped for. I had to let go of a shirt and dress that I had wanted, but I’m still getting 10 items of clothing for about RMB 2700, and considering that that includes a three piece wool suit, a dress, jacket, skirt, pants and three shirts, I’m still pleased. I also decided to get a bed sheet set made, since the ones I bought at Wumart are pretty awful (and China apparently just doesn’t sell fitted sheets). There’s a fabric/pillow/blanket making shop down the street from us. Their fabric selection was pretty awful, but I found one not-too-offensive striped blue pattern that didn’t include flowers, words, or horrible clashing colors. I had some trouble trying to explain fitted sheet, because the word in the dictionary “zhuang chuan dan” isn’t correct. I got a little frustrated when they didn’t understand at first, trying to explain that it was the sheet underneath that wraps around the bed, and even trying to draw it, but then I remembered the word for corner–“jiao” and that’s when they realized what I was trying to say. For your information, if you are trying to get fitted bed sheets made, they’re called “chuang li.” Altogether, it cost just about 180 kuai for a flat sheet (they hemmed the flat sheet in five minutes, but took overnight to make the fitted) and a fitted sheet, which is actually less than what I paid at Wumart originally.

I made Thai fried chicken, sticky rice and green chili dipping sauce for dinner tonight. This is a plan ahead meal, since you need to let things sit and soak. First of all, let the sticky rice soak for 8 hours. This is not regular rice, its sold as “glutinous” or sticky rice in the store, and the grains are whiter than normal rice (jasmine is my idea of normal rice). Marinate the chicken–mince or mash up 6 or 7 cloves of garlic, 2 Tbs of coriander seed, 1 Tbs white pepper, and 2 Tbs cilantro (I couldn’t find any cilantro, so the coriander seed will have to do). Mix this with 3 Tbs of fish sauce, 3 Tbs of oyster sauce and a Tbs of chili powder. I bought little wings and drums from Jenny Lou, mixed these together with the marinade, and stuck it in the fridge for 6 hours.

The dipping sauce is something that I’ve been craving from my chef-friend. I had a really great winter before I came to Beijing, having the good fortune to befriend her at a fundraiser and then to be invited to hang out at this celebrity chef’s restaurant kitchen was astounding. Being able to learn and cook and serve real customers (while getting paid in delicious food) was really an amazing experience. One of the dishes she served was based off the Thai chicken and sticky rice, and she served it with what the staff at the restaurant called “crack sauce.” Spicy, green, it had chilies and lime juice and fish sauce and was a little sweet. Clear, with flecks of green herbs and chilies. Dipping either the chicken or the sticky rice into the sauce was amazing, and addictive, hence the “crack.” I recently came across an article talking about her new restaurant, which brought back fond memories of amazing meals, the crack sauce in particular. I never had the chance to ask for the recipe, so I tried to recreate it.

The first recipe I found online looked promising. 2 large green hot peppers, 3 cloves garlic, 5-6 birds eye chilies, 3 chopped shallots, 3 Tbs palm sugar (I used a mix of brown and castor sugar), 3 Tbs lime juice, 2 Tbs fish sauce. It tastes good and almost the same, but it’s not the sauce I’m looking for, since you blend all the ingredients together and it’s an opaque, almost paste-like sauce. Next time I might try just birds eye chili, fish sauce, lime, sugar, cilantro, rice wine, and ginger sliced up and not blended. Also, the recipe only called for 5-6 birds eye chilies and now I have a big package of them and no idea what to do with the rest. Unfortunately, when I was seeding some of the chilies the capsicum or whatever juices got under my nails, and even after thorough scrubbing with soap, the tip of my left thumb is tingly and painful.

After letting the rice soak and the chicken marinate in the morning, do stuff that works up an appetite–like bike to work, teach adorable children, iron all your laundry, work on your resume and job applications, play with your nipping little kitten, pick up your fitted bed sheet–then get started. Make your chicken batter: 3/4 cup of rice flour, 3/4 cup of regular flour, 2 tsp of baking soda, 1 tsp of salt, and 1 1/2 cups of water. Beat that together and also, heat a wok full of oil (soybean, in my case, but any low burning oil like sunflower/corn/vegetable) to about 350F. Dip the chicken into the batter, and immediately “fry until done” says the recipe I found. More research on the internet told me that this meant about 8-12 minutes. When done, lay on a plate lined with paper towels to drain off extra oil.

I don’t have a steamer basket (I never bothered to buy one at Dongjiao Kitchen Market since there’s a large-holed steamer tray in my rice cooker, which is suitable for dumplings, just about the only thing I steam), and none of the grocery stores around me sell them. Making sticky rice traditionally just isn’t worth the trek to Dongjiao, so I improvised. Used a metal sieve, small enough netting that rice wouldn’t slip through (you could line with cheese cloth or coffee filters, which I would do with a traditional bamboo steamer) and slipped that in a pot with two inches of boiling water. Covered and steamed for 15 minutes (shaking half way to redistribute the rice to cook evenly).

The best way to eat this? Hands on! Roll the sticky rice in little balls and dip in the sauce (carefully, because it’s really quite piquant). I served this with very simple sliced cucumber because I needed to include a vegetable but didn’t feel like cooking anything else. It all came out very well. The bottom of the sticky rice was a little soggy because I put too much water in the pot, but I just scraped the bottom off and the rest of it was the perfect consistency. The chicken was crispy and bubbly on the outside, moist and delicious (careful with the temperature of the oil, or the outside will burn before the inside cooks). And despite not being exactly what I was looking for, the dipping sauce was spicy-sweet and addictive on everything.

Thai fried chicken, sticky rice and green chili sauce

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