Sunday, January 23, 2011

Snacking State-by-State: California Part 2B - the Northern Half (The Best Little Shiu Mai in Chinatown)

To finish with California, I head back to the big city: this time San Francisco, home to sourdough, fog, and the thriving Chinese and LGBT communities of Chinatown and the Castro, respectively (related note: the Castro was the home of Harvey Milk, gay rights activist and the first openly gay politician to be elected to public office in the US). While we don't, alas, think of the gay community's contributions to San Francisco's culinary landscape, Chinatown fortunately has an extensive food history.

Snacking State-by-State: California

Official Name: State of California
State Nickname: The Golden State
Admission to the US:
September 9, 1850 (#31)
Capital: Sacramento (7th largest city)
Other Important Cities: Los Angeles (largest, & 2nd largest in the USA), San Diego (2nd largest), San Jose (3rd largest), San Francisco (4th largest)
Region: West, Pacific (small sections of the state can be considered Northwest or Southwest in terms of its food and culture); Pacific (US Census)
RAFT Nations: Acorn, Chile Pepper, Pinyon Nut, Salmon
Bordered by: Baja California, Mexico (south), Arizona & Nevada (east), Oregon (north), Pacific Ocean (west)
Official State Foods and Edible Things: golden trout (fish), California Valley quail (bird), grizzly bear (animal)
Some Famous & Typical Foods: Where to begin? "New California cuisine", diversity of ethnic cuisines, especially Asian, Latin American and Mediterranean (Mexican, Chinese, Japanese, Filipino, Thai, Salvadoran, Korean, Italian), citrus (especially in the south), wine (especially in the center and north), seafood, dates, and so much else

One of the oldest Chinatowns in North America, it survived the massive earthquake of 1906 to grow bigger and better than ever. If you ever visit San Fran's Chinatown, as I did a few years ago, don't spend time in any one restaurant. I mean, sure, go ahead and do that, but I had more fun trolling up and down the streets on my own dim sum crawl.

When we usually think of Chinese food, we think specifically of things that nobody eats in China - I mean nobody. Chop suey, for example, is not Chinese food. It was actually just stuff that a Chinese immigrant in California threw together for some white patrons, as New York author Jennifer 8. Lee points out in her fascinating must-read book The Fortune Cookie Chronicles (note: fortune cookies aren't Chinese either - they're of Japanese origin). As for General Tso's chicken? Nope, not Chinese either. Lee gives us the scoop on her search for it in the Hunan province home town of General Tso (aka Zuǒ Zōngtáng) himself:
Unlike kung pao chicken, which nearly every self-respecting Chinese chef can make, a request for General Tso's chicken left many cooks, waitresses, and restaurant owners [in Hunan] scratching their heads.

The refrain was consistent: "We don't have General Tso's chicken here" or "We've never heard of it." Even after I showed them pictures of the dish on my digital camera, they would frown and look at me blankly, then helpfully suggest another chicken dish, often the local specialty, mala or kung pao. [Lee, p. 68]
Out of all the foods Americans are familiar with that actually are Chinese, perhaps the most popular is dim sum. PBS mainstay Martin Yan writes in his Martin Yan's Chinatown Cooking about the place of dim sum in China's varied cuisines:
Dim sum is to China what hors d'oeuvre are to France or tapas are to Spain. Dim sum is social food, meant to be enjoyed with family, friends, and business associates along with plenty of conversation.

Dim sum has evolved into an art form over the past eleven centuries since its origins in Guangzhou. The majority of Westerners are only now beginning to realize the elegant simplicity of popular dim sum dishes like
char siu bao and maw mai gai. [Yan, p. 1]
Yan starts his cookbook with dim sum, and it's where I end my trip back to California.

The recipe: Surefire Shu Mai (Pork Version)

One of my favorite types of dim sum is the popular steamed version of the pork and shrimp shu mai dumpling, native to Guangdong (Canton) in southern China. Yan swaps out the traditional pork and shrimp for ground chicken. Never a fan of ground chicken, I followed his recipe but put the pork back instead of the chicken, and left out the shrimp.

As with the California roll, there were many varied ingredients. However, most of those ingredients were far more easily assembled than the sushi. Usually I halve the recipes but I love shu mai so much, I made the whole thing.

* dried mushrooms (about $2 or $3 at H-Mart - I only needed two of them)
* ground pork (I used about a pound, $5 at Whole Foods)
* sliced bamboo shoots (one can was less than a dollar at H-Mart)
* an egg (I did buy a dozen for this, but I knew I'd be using a lot of eggs in the near future)
* green onion (just one - a bunch is a buck)
* soy sauce, salt, cornstarch, white pepper and sugar (got it all)
* fresh ginger (same)
* sesame oil (almost out)
* shu mai or dumpling wrappers ($1.75 at H-Mart, in the freezer section)
* one carrot and about a 1/3 cup of frozen peas (decoration)
* lettuce leaves or parchment paper to line the bamboo steamer (I tried both. I had better luck with the latter)

In addition, you will need a wok with a steamer rack, and a bamboo steamer. If you do not have these, you just have to find some other way to steam the shu mai.

Yan also has a recipe for an excellent dipping sauce of powdered mustard, white vinegar, soy sauce, honey, rice vinegar and chili sauce. Make it while the dim sum is steaming and refrigerate.

The first part is the easiest: mix all of the above ingredients, rehydrating the mushrooms and mincing them along with the bamboo shoots and the ginger. Yan says to mix it all until spongy.

The next part is the tedious part. Here you will need two moist washcloths or kitchen towels, one to cover the wrappers while you work with them, the other to cover the dumplings that you have made but not yet steamed.

To assemble each shu mai dumpling, take a sheet of dumpling wrapper and put about a tablespoon and a half of the filling in the middle

Next, fold the sides around the filling like a purse, puffing some out until it bugs out of the middle a little bit.

Fold those sides around

Line them up like little shu mai soldiers

Top each dumpling with some shredded carrot and a few frozen peas if you like. I did that. Yan also suggests that you can smooth out the sides with wet fingers to make it look neater. I didn't do that.

Next, prepare your wok for steaming by placing the steamer rack in the center of the wok and filling the wok with enough water to almost come up to the rack. Once it sets to boiling you will set the bamboo steamer onto the rack. While the water builds up to a boil, place the shu mai into the bamboo steamer, making sure they don't touch.

Set them on either lettuce leaves or parchment paper, cover the steamer, and steam for about 20 to 25 minutes.

And of course, put the bamboo steamer lid on the top steamer tray.

I had better luck with the latter, as the shu mai that I set on (albeit small, piddly little) lettuce leaves wound up having goopy, sticky wrappers at the end of steaming, while the parchment paper produced a far more stable dumpling. Note that at no time did any of the filling fall apart. The steaming will make that pretty solid.
I had to steam about five rounds of shu mai altogether. Martin Yan says his recipe will yield anywhere from 24 to 30 dumplings. I eked out 35, so maybe mine were a wee bit smaller than they should have been.

Apart from the goopiness of the first round of shu mai, this recipe turned out very well. The filling tasted about the same as any I have had out. Only the dumpling wrappers left something to be desired, and I have to find out if that is due to their having been frozen but not quite thawed, or if the water level in the wok was too high, or if I just left it to steam too long. The next time I make this type of dim sum I will have to experiment to see what yields a less soft wrapper in the end. These are easy to heat up and eat up. After heating in the microwave for about 30 seconds (I did it in stages, 15 seconds each), it was quite good, in fact slightly better than when I first took them out of the steamer.

I leave California having learned about some foods I had never eaten until I lived in the Golden State: California rolls (and by extension, sushi), shu mai (and by extension, dumplings) and California cuisine (as opposed to, say, California's cuisine). And I made my own date shake on top of that! It is not meant as a put-down to say that Colorado, the next state on my list, will be easier to handle. It will - there just aren't as many people. And there are a few key dishes that just scream "COLORADO"! None of them, I might add, involve Coors. Yekhkhkh.


Lee, Jennifer 8. The Fortune Cookie Chronicles: Adventures in the World of Chinese Food. Twelve Books: New York, 2008.

Waters, Alice, and the Cooks of Chez Panisse. Chez Panisse Vegetables. HarperCollins Publishers: New York, 1996.

Yan, Martin. Martin Yan's Chinatown Cooking: The Companion Cookbook to the Public Television Series. William Morrow: New York, 1995.

Some information also obtained from Wikipedia's "California" page and the Food Timeline State Foods webpage link to "California".