Monthly Archives: August 2015

Tribute To My Paternal Grandmother (嫲嫲)

My 嫲嫲, photo taken by my uncle

My 嫲嫲, photo taken by my uncle

I’ll be completely honest; when I was a kid I wasn’t very fond of my grandmother’s cooking. It wasn’t because it didn’t taste great, as her food was often delicious. It was because I had associated her cooking with Taishan (台山), the more rural and historically impoverished area of Guangdong Province just south of Guangzhou (previously also known as Canton). 

Her cooking was totally in contrast to what I had be socialized to think as “good Cantonese cooking.” It was less sophisticated than the culinary urbanity of Guangzhou and Hong Kong, which my mother’s side is more closely tied. At home, I mainly ate my mother and my 婆婆’s (po po, my mother’s mother) cooking which typified the comfort Cantonese and style of food in Hong Kong when they immigrated in the late 1970s. Russian ‘borscht’ (羅宋湯) and Cantonese style Mapo Tofu (麻婆豆腐) were dishes I remember fondly and would have never made it to the dinner table at my paternal grandmother’s (嫲嫲) dining room table. My mother’s side often ate out as well, with many family dinners at fairly nice Cantonese restaurants where eating things like steamed crab that was then lightly stir fried with a ginger scallion sauce was fairly routine. Add that to watching TVB shows as a kid, which documented the plentiful abundance of good food in modern Hong Kong. Together, it’s fairly easy to see how I got the classist impression that modern Hong Kong food was good and dishes from historically poor rural villages were not up to snuff.

Dungeness Crab Fried Rice

Dungeness Crab Fried Rice – a typical item at dinner on my mom’s side

I’ve rethought these early assumptions over the last few years, especially as I do work around racial, gender, and sexual justice where economic inequity is a key element. Part of that shift in framing has been a growing sense of pride that my heritage is Taishanese. After all, they were bulk of the first wave of Chinese immigration, often in search of better opportunity in the Gold Mountain. Gold was not to be found, but they continued on, doing hard labor to build the transcontinental railroad and grow California’s agriculture industry. Throughout those years, they suffered immense discrimination with lynchings and even the only known legal immigration ban targeted at one nationality in the history of our nation. Because of their resilience and tenacity, including the maintenance of contact to family back in China, my grandparents, dad, aunts, and uncles were all able to immigrate in 1970.

So when she passed away a week and a half ago, part of my grieving process and life celebration was thinking about her resiliency and how that tied into her passion for family and food. My dad’s side had little money when they lived in Hong Kong and when they immigrated to the United States, so she would make lavish dinners with the little she had. She grew vegetables in the back yard like winter melon and water spinach, vegetables that in later years my mom took home and cooked them for my brother, sister, and me. Even with her advanced age over the last decade she would still roast a big chicken, steam a whole fish, julienne pieces of winter melon to stir fry with mung bean noodles and dried shrimp, stir fry a large Chinese vegetable medley, and cook soup for a Chinese New Years Eve dinner. And while all of that is super hard work, it was so she could spend time with family and make sure that her children and grandchildren were never hungry.

Winter Melon growing on a vine, similar to how it'd be like at my grandmother's garden. "Winter Melon" by David Tan - https://flic.kr/p/hbnN9C

Winter Melon growing on a vine, similar to how it’d be like at my grandmother’s garden.
“Winter Melon” by David Tan – https://flic.kr/p/hbnN9C

It’s in this way that I will always cherish my grandmother’s food. I will miss her 粽子 (Zong – glutinous rice wrapped in lotus leaf) that were so delicious and filled with many savory items that even one satisfied me as a hungry college student. I will miss her soups with pork, bean curd skins, and shiitake mushrooms that were so refreshing on a winter’s night. I will even miss such a simple and basic dish like julienned winter melon (or whatever more savory squash was growing) with mug bean noodles and dried small shrimp. While these dishes will never be highlighted in a travel book or article about modern Cantonese food trends, they will always be a source of comfort.

So just as I honored and thanked my 婆婆 (maternal grandmother), who passed away 10 years ago, for her many contributions to my lift, I honor and thank my 嫲嫲 (paternal grandmother) today. She blessed my life with fresh vegetables from her garden. She made sure that I never had to experience hunger or thirst. Most of all, she showed that it’s possible to have an abundance of food and family even if you don’t have very much in your bank account.

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Kin Khao, San Francisco

Kin Khao
55 Cyril Magnin (inside the Parc 55 Hotel)
San Francsico, CA 94102

If you have read or followed my blog for a while you may have noticed one big Southeast Asian cuisine missing in my reviews: Thai. It’s not that I haven’t wanted to write about Thai, but two barriers have made it personally hard for me to write about it before now: 1) Unlike other cuisines I’ve written about, I don’t have really good first hand knowledge of the cuisine, either by the lack of growing up and being exposed to the cuisine from an early age or 2) the dearth of Thai restaurants that more closely match the authenticity in Thailand. I have known early on that the Thai cuisine we have in the United States has been widely adapted to fit American palates, similarly to Chinese and Indian restaurants. (see: obsession with fairly sweet versions of pad Thai).

Now, it’s not that I have had a sudden revelation of all the nuances of Thai cuisine. It is just a confluence of events that have made me ore comfortable in writing about it. First of all, I am slowly learning more and more about the cuisine beyond the Pad Thai context. Secondly, the opening of Kin Khao by well respected Thai chef Pim Techamuanvivit in San Francisco means that home-style Thai is a bit more accessible to me now. Thirdly, a cousin of mine who had visited Thailand beyond the touristy parts of Bangkok was coming town.

The third point led to a dinner at Kin Khao last week with my brother and another cousin. We came to the restaurant a little after 7PM on Tuesday and proceeded to order. We ended up requesting the $55 per person prix fixe menu as it had everything we possibly wanted to order, like the Papaya Salad and the pork belly. Here is how it turned out:

Nam Tok Beans at Kin Khao

Nam Tok Beans at Kin Khao

  • Mushroom Hor Mok Terrine – The terrine had a nice, rich umami flavor and accompanied the very crisp rice cakes very well. Admittedly, I thought the rice cakes were a little too thick but the dish itself was very nice.
  • Nam Tok Beans – These beans were cooked and seasoned very nicely. I loved the lettuce that they included to wrap the beans and cucumbers.
Caramelized Pork Belly at Kin Khao

Caramelized Pork Belly at Kin Khao

  • Caramelized Pork Belly – The family favorite, they were marinated and cooked perfectly. The fat was very nice and helped make the pork very tender overall. It was so good we ordered another one!
  • Som Tum Papaya Salad – Unlike other papaya salads I have had in Thai restaurants where the fish sauce is overpowering, this version was very well made. There was just a touch of chili, lime, and fish sauce to give a mildly spicy and sour flavor while still allowing the flavor of the papaya. My cousin loved it!
Pad Kee Mao at Kin Khao

Pad Kee Mao at Kin Khao

  • Pad Kee Mao – This was probably the best version of the dish I’ve had. The rice noodles, ground pork, onions, bell peppers, herbs, and spices were stir fried very well but without a lot of grease. I do wish it was a little bit more spicy, but the deftness of the stir fry make this pretty good.
Stir Fried Bok Choy at Kin Khao

Stir Fried Bok Choy at Kin Khao

  • Stir-Fried Baby Bok Choy – These were stir fried very simply, but the crispness and lightness made it a nice palate cleanser to paired well with the heavier curry and pork belly.
  • Massaman Nuea – The curry was very nice and reach, with tender beef cheeks that seemed to melt in my mouth. 
  • Blistered Chinese Long Beans – This dish was pretty good, with the similar deftness of the wok seen in other dishes. They tasted fairly similarly to how my mom would cook them, which is good in my book given that this is Chinese influenced dish.
  • Black Rice Pudding – The pudding was pretty good, especially mixed in with the toasted rice and coconut cream. I also liked the caramel, but beware – just a little too much of it leaves the dessert to be a way too sweet mess.
Black Rice Pudding at Kin Khao

Black Rice Pudding at Kin Khao

Service was very pleasant as well, being attentive without being overbearing. If I were getting a cocktail, I would also recommend their Tom Yum (on the drink menu, not the entree menu) was was very refreshing and nice. 

All in all, I loved my meal at Kin Khao. Overall it was definitely the best Thai restaurant I have been, and the quality of the food seems the reflect chef Pim’s skills as well as her passion for her home cuisine. We didn’t get the highly raved Khao Soi, but I’m sure to put that at the top of my list on my next visit.

Taiwan Bento, Oakland

Taiwan Bento
412 22nd Street
Oakland, CA 94612

I’ve mentioned the Bay Area’s prowess in terms of Cantonese food numerous times on my blog, including last week’s post on Dragon Beaux. While I do appreciate the sheer multitude of Cantonese people in the Bay Area that help propagate many good dim sum parlors and cha chaan tengs, there is an unfortunate downside. Up until recently, there has been a discernable lack of good non-Cantonese Chinese food in the metropolitan area, meaning that the Bay Area severely lags Los Angeles, and even New York City, on other popular Chinese regional cuisines like Sichuanese, Shanghainese, and Taiwanese.

Therefore when I stumbled upon Taiwan Bento about a month ago, as I was trying to find a good, reasonably priced place to eat on my way home, I was ecstatic. I thought, finally I had a chance to get really delicious and authentic Taiwanese food to replace my longings of the excellent places I ate at when I went to college in Irvine. The menu of this year-old restaurant cemented my excitement with such dishes as Beef Noodle Soup (牛肉麵) and the Braised Pork Bento (滷肉飯).

So over the course of a few weeks I tried out a few of their items:

Beef Noodle Soup at Taiwan Bento

Beef Noodle Soup at Taiwan Bento

  • Beef Noodle Soup (牛肉麵) – Their beef noodle soup tasted as if I was transported to a Taiwanese home kitchen. The beef was marinated well and tender that worked beautifully with the thick wheat noodles. The carrots and preserved mustard greens helped brighten the dish and helped cut the fat of the beef and broth. I did wish the broth was a little bit richer and spicier, like how I was used to in Irvine, but overall the noodle soup help significantly ease my cravings.
Braised Pork Bento at Taiwan Bento

Braised Pork Bento at Taiwan Bento

  • Braised Pork Bento (滷肉飯便當) – I tried this dish twice, and both times it turned out well. The minced pork is broiled in a nice marinade that has a good balance of shallots, soy sauce, rice wine, and sugar, none that I could tell really overpowered the other. The rice was pretty good as well, as were the pickled vegetables, even though I would have preferred the preserved mustard greens instead of shredded lettuce and carrots. The tea smoked egg had a good tea flavor as well. However, I could done without the edamame in this dish.
Zha Jian Mian at Taiwan Bento

Zha Jian Mian at Taiwan Bento

  • Zha Jiang Mian (炸醬麵) – I did really like the noodles in this dish and the use of fresh bean sprouts, cucumbers, and carrots. However, I felt the sauce was a bit too sweet and there could have been a better ratio of bean oaste to vegetables, in that there should have been more bean paste.

Overall, I really liked Taiwan Bento. It’s a very nice mom and pop operation that is working really hard to bring authentic Taiwanese flavors to the East Bay. While I can’t say it totally replaces the Taiwanese restaurant in Irvine (those are just that good), it will definitely satisfy my cravings until my next trip to Southern California.

In the future I would like to try their Gua Bao, Fried Popcorn Chicken, and their 3 Cup Chicken Wings. Thankfully, the location is reasonably close to work and my new apartment, meaning I will enjoy many more trips back to Taiwan Bento.