It's been a while since I participated in Weekend Herb Blogging hosted by Kalyn so I thought I should contribute again even if my post does not expound positively on the "herb" of choice. Hopefully it will pass mustard ...
It’s tough overcoming childhood prejudices and trauma. One of my greatest culinary trauma was being sent to visit an aunt at a young age.
Aunt Jane married a Shanghainese man and swiftly entered family history as the only one to marry a Chinese until Aunt Kris joined her rank decades later. However, unlike Uncle Francis, who had to endure the unnerving judgement of the family, Aunt Jane’s spousal choice was made without consultation. So when she turned up with a cheerfully round Chinese man as fait accompli, they were left with no choice except to learn more about the newest member to the family.
Fortunately, Uncle Ed was a very nice guy. Round, short, dark and perpetually cheerful, he was an odd foil to hatchet-faced, bad-tempered, catty and bitter Aunt Jane. There was only one problem with him. His cuisine.
To be honest, we knew as much about Shanghainese cuisine as the workings of jet propulsion. Wait … one of us, being a rocket scientist, might actually know more about the latter. When Uncle Ed started teaching Aunt Jane to cook Shanghainese cuisine, she was understandably quite keen to showcase her new skills to us and we were delighted for her.
Some background information on Aunt Jane … I am not fond of her but rationally, I can understand what made her such a bitter person. In our family, every newborn has his or her fortune read at birth and that document is kept hidden by our grandmother. Every decision regarding the child’s upbringing is decided by that document. I think it is unconscionable as it has created many tragic situations in our family.
Aunt Jane was one such victim of this ridiculous tradition. Apparently, it was foretold that she would bring misfortune to her blood relations and be a terrible blight to her parents. Thus, she was fostered out to allay this catastrophe. From a very young age, she was separated from us and sent to a Chinese family who took her away and unbeknownst to us, forced her to work in their factory as child labour.
The family lost all contact with her for many years till by some lucky coincidence, a relative relayed news of her existence. Grandpa located her and brought her home. By then, Aunt Jane was a young teen and a very angry teen at that. She came back to the family home embittered, hateful and with a chip on her shoulder that would have crippled Atlas. She never recovered from what she perceived as the family’s betrayal. She never forgave my grandmother and spent the rest of her life hating her and begrudging every member of the family.
Her time away from us also gave her a marked difference from us. She spoke Chinese and barely a word of English. She was uneducated but taught herself how to read – a feat I greatly admired and give her huge kudos for. She was very Chinese in attitude and preferences. We might have doubted her lineage if not for the fact that she had the aquiline family nose, light coloured and wavy hair, deep set eyes, pale vanilla skin and high cheekbones that marked almost all the sisters. She was also a less attractive version of my mother.
Aunt Jane’s alienation from the family meant she did not have the benefit of culinary training. She could barely cook and what she did cook was absolutely disgusting. When Uncle Ed began her Shanghainese cuisine training, we were over the moon, thinking it would improve her dismal cooking skills as she steadfastly refused to learn anything from us. How wrong we were. I do not know which part of Shanghai Uncle Ed came from but it must have been some village where they only eat big, flat, elliptical-shaped, white noodles with tasteless broth and lots of spring onions.
Aunt Jane’s Shanghainese food was ghastly and I remember being very hungry and ill during my visit. My mother had gone off on one of her trips again and was loathed to return me home in case her visitation rights were revoked so she dumped me with Aunt Jane instead.
I spent a week listening to Aunt Jane detail the faults of every member of the family, complain about how mistreated she was, rail about how spoilt I was and how I was the spawn of the devil – she hated my father. Not that she particularly liked my mother either as she was always jealous that my mother received all the beauty and opportunities denied her. Placing me in Aunt Jane's care was the most irresponsible of all the irresponsible acts my mother committed.
Aunt Jane was also very cheap so each meal was extremely spartan. For some reason, she had an aversion to salt so her food was incredibly bland. One of the most traumatic meals that scarred me for life was a soup made of radishes with the ubiquitous white noodles that she declared to be typically Shanghainese. I barfed after the third bite as the radishes tasted like pooh – not that I would know what pooh really tastes like ...
I lost 2 kg in a week and I was already a very skinny child. When I returned home a week later, my grandmother sent me to the doctor and he diagnosed that I was suffering from starvation. That’s how bad Aunt Jane’s cooking was. I would valiantly force myself to eat her food only to puke my guts out. Lucky guts ... at least they could escape while I was trapped with Aunt Jane.
The repercussions from that visit were manifold. One, my mother was refused visitation for a long time and the custody battle was prolonged for more years. Two, I never had to visit Aunt Jane again – ever. Three, my diet was monitored closely for years after that and I had to eat way too many health supplements, giving me a phobia of taking pills for life.
Four, I developed a hatred of radishes and refused to eat them for years. The only acceptable radish was horseradish and even then, as a condiment only. It was only in my mid-20s when I had to eat daikon at a Japanese dinner that I learnt to accept and appreciate it. Even now, eating radishes is a conscious effort.
Recently, in a bid to boost my health, I bought a red radish. OK, OK … I was attracted by the vibrant crimson hue. I am such a visual creature sometimes. I liked the red radish so much I spent an inordinate amount of time photographing it. I rather think it flirted ridiculously with my camera as the ruby seductress came across rather sexily on “film”.
I decided to make a crisp, fresh salad paired with prawns for a healthy lunch. I sorely needed colour and texture to perk my lagging appetite and restore my health. The end result was wonderfully gratifying and, I must say, a great success. I present my Spring Time with Stephanie Salad but as usual, measurements are iffy as I cook instinctively … so taste as you season.
Spring Time with Stephanie Salad
1 ½ cup red radishes, sliced into semi-circular pieces
1 cup haricot verts, trimmed and cut into 3-inch pieces
1 ½ sugar snap peas, trimmed
1 cup zucchini, cut into thick matchsticks
1 ½ cup fennel, sliced – I included the leaves as well
1 cup carrot, julienned
1 tbsp sesame seeds
About 1 tsp dried Italian herbs – I used the McCormick brand
1 tbsp olive oil
Juice of 1 lemon
About 2 tsp honey
About 1 tsp nam pla aka fish sauce
Despite my aversion to radish, the salad was quite tasty. The fresh crunch of the raw vegetables intermingled with their softer, cooked counterparts worked well with the plump, succulent prawns. The clean, sweet, aniseedy flavours of all the veggies really played well with the aromatic bite of the white peppered prawns. It was very satisfying and delicious and I felt all virtuous and healthy with each morsel.
- 4 large tiger prawns, unpeeled
- ½ red onion, sliced
- 2 cloves garlic, peeled and lightly crushed
- 2–2 ½ tbsp white pepper powder
- ½ tbsp Shaoxing wine
- Pinch of salt
- 1 tbsp olive oil
1. Heat up some oil in a pan and add the haricot verts, fennel, sugar snap peas, zucchini and half the radishes
2. Add a couple of pinches of salt and the dried herbs and sauté the veggies till they are just cooked through but still crisp
3. Meanwhile, toast the sesame seeds
5. Toss all the vegetables together, both cooked and raw
6. Whisk the lemon juice, honey and nam pla together. Taste and adjust seasoning till it is lemony, sweet and salty at the same time.
7. Pour into the salad, add the sesame seeds and toss well. You'd wanna let this sit for a wee bit so that everything has a chance to meld together and intensify in flavours.
8. Heat another pan with some olive oil and sauté the garlic cloves and onions till softened and starting to turn golden
9. Add the prawns, the wine, salt and pepper and cook on high, covered, stirring occasionally till the prawns are cooked through and the pan is quite dry
10. Plate the salad and garnish with the peppered prawns
My eyes were seduced by the colourful mélange while my teeth relished each crunch. The complex flavours cavorted merrily on my tongue. By turns sweet, peppery, tart, salty, herby, licorice-like and juicy, this dish was a playful culinary adventure. I had fun making and eating it but I do admit that it was a fair bit of prep work.
I give the Spring Time with Stephanie Salad a 10/10 for health benefits and an 8.5/10 for taste. Perhaps one day I might eat radishes again without flashbacks and any hint of nausea. Perhaps then this salad can warrant a perfect 10. Till then I rather photograph than eat it.
Weekend Herb Blogging