photo by Vanessa

Chinese New Year: The 2011 Rabbit

The first week of February found me down at the Chinese Community Center in Houston, TX. Decided to be a complete 外国人 and use my official-looking DSLR (that’s really just a Nikon D60) to give myself access to all kinds of places.

Dragging my sister, L, out of her shell was more of a challenge. She’s currently the photo editor for her high school yearbook, but wasn’t blessed with the pushy gene that I landed in spades. Needless to say, the first hour was a drag. But once she realized that Asians are more flattered than annoyed when you snap a few photos in their direction, she relaxed.

Smells of a Chinese street market coaxed us outside between “lion dance” performances. Tents lined both sides of a narrow parking lot, facing the crowd between with the difficult choice of which line to brave first. L and I found the crawlspace behind the vendors and set about maxing out our memory cards.

The whole event left me craving my favorite street fare — chuanr— for weeks. So, here it is. Straight from the streets of Xi’an to your suburban backyard grill:

Ingredients:

  • meat*, cut into thin strips against the grain
  • cumin, fresher the better
  • red pepper, flakes or crushed
  • table salt
  • sesame oil (optional, if meat is really lean)
  • flat bread, like naan or Navajo bread; flour tortillas will work in a pinch

Utensils:

  • clean bicycle spokes (trust me on this one), sharpened on one end
  • open flame, preferably from hard wood or charcoal but a typical American grill will work

Directions:

  • light charcoal / heat up grill
  • thread strips of meat on bicycle spoke, leaving about four inches on one end and one inch on the other
  • be sure to add at least one chunk of fat to the middle or ends of each spoke
  • place a few raw chuanr over open flame, keeping your spices nearby
  • season to taste while rotating to ensure even cooking
  • be careful — spokes are made of metal and conduct heat!
  • grab a piece of flat bread; treat it like a plate to transport finished chuanr
  • … and repeat!

How & Why:

  • *meat — this dish originated in the West with the Uygurs and (for obvious reasons) usually uses lamb. Beef is what my parents used when I was a kid, usually a tenderloin or a top sirloin cut. Try to get something with a prominent ring of fat still in tact. For this reason, I’ve never used chicken or leaner meats. If you’re watching your girlish figure, you are welcome to use sesame or olive oil…. but you’ve been warned: the flavor will be completely different. If you have a butcher you trust, tell him what you’re up to and he can recommend a good piece of beef.
  • bicycle spokes — in a city where the population density doesn’t lend itself to everyone owning a full-sized sedan, bicycles run rampant. Which translates to a stockpile of replacements for parts that bend easily… spokes. Cheap, reusable, easily sharpened.
  • flat bread — to collect all those juices, of course! When I’m in a hurry or didn’t have access to a grill (… college dorm, anyone?) I found the quick and dirty way to get my fix of that distinct chuanr taste: flank steak and a sauce pan. At the very end, I cleaned the pan with a couple tortillas, mopping up all the sauce. Turned out to be my favorite part of the entire experience.
  • social —  every so often, you’ll run across a true craftsman behind a chuanr stove. He’ll only be cooking 8-10 spokes at a time over a box stove no more than 14 inches across. That’s how these should be done at home — buy enough meat for 100+ spokes and invite the neighbors over. Chill your favorite drink and grab a patio chair or blanket. Get everyone involved in threading the spokes, take custom orders for the spices. If you’re lucky, the evening will feel suspended in a slice of perfect space and time.
  • outside — remember, this is currently popular street fare in all major Chinese cities. Its the kind of dish a man from the West could come into the city with, buy ingredients for cheap, and sell to starving students just outside the University gate.

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photo by Lisette

First Post: Two things…


… but not the two you’d think.

1) It’s tax season. Which means one of two things: you’re either broke or have just come into some money.

2) We’re well into 2011 and those New Year’s resolutions are looking more and more like my grandpa’s potato fields. I heard a radio ad for a local church last week, actually, that tugged at these very heartstrings. “You wanted to be a better person, to seek God, and be happy. It’s almost March. What happened?”

Given that both my parents work long hours w/ teams in foreign countries and my sister has more extracurriculars than a set of triplets, the role of House Elf lands on me. This includes but is not limited to cooking, cleaning, running errands, and general servitude. I secretly love the domesticity of it all.

Each Sunday night, I perch at my kitchen bar and jot down a rough menu for the week while chatting with my dad about the Sabbath Day’s proceedings. It’s always a lively conversation and reminds me what a beautiful pair (pear?) good food and the Gospel make.

So, tonight, let’s take your two things, add them to my two things (preparing for a mission and being a more consistent blogger), and see what we get.

I promise to blog at least twice a week: once about something from the reading list and once about the week’s latest culinary adventure.

And you promise to set aside some of your tax money to pick up a book or a new ingredient at least once a month.

Deal?

Done.