SOMETIMES THE communities around the Beltway seem to form a big ethnic cafeteria; almost any weekend, especially in the fall, you can find neighborhood centers and churches offering international foods cheaper than you will find in restaurants and sometimes more exotic and authentic. Nowhere was this more apparent than at a September fair by the Taiwanese Church of Washington held in the Wheaton Presbyterian Church.
We were lured to the Taiwan food bazaar by the promise not only of such traditional Chinese fair fare as spring rolls, fried yun tun (won ton) and moon cakes but also some dishes we had never heard of, much less tasted -- including ba oan (pronounced bah-WAN: shrimp, pork, mushrooms and such inside a translucent, gelatinous globe of "rice skin" and topped with sauce); ba chang (sweet rice, mushrooms and pork boiled in a packet of bamboo leaves), and an unusual Taiwanese dessert called tzua bing, a sweet red bean snow-cone-like ice served with cubes of "Taiwan Jell-O," a gelatin made from agar-agar, which gels at room temperature.
If you ever felt self-conscious about going to a foreign food fair, don't. There is nothing people seem to enjoy more than explaining the dishes they grew up with to strangers who show a genuine interest in them. And explanations of the dishes often include fond recollections of childhood traditions back home -- traditions which the fairs are often intended to duplicate for the benefit of the children being raised in America.
"I want my children to grow up in the United States, but I also want them to keep the Taiwan cooking traditions," explained Joseph Chun Fu Hsu, minister of the church group that sponsored the fair. "Taiwanese food is symbolic; it's my identity, my tradition, my heritage."
Most of the members of the Rev. Hsu's church are professional people in their thirties and forties, explained Katy Chen, a registered dietician who says she has temporarily retired to raise two children. Typically they finished college in Taiwan and came here for graduate studies and advanced training.Few of the women, and almost none of the men, knew how to cook when they arrived. When they discovered that they missed the dishes they had grown up with, they started learning how to cook Taiwanese here -- from each other, from Chinese cookbooks and from parents and other relatives who came to visit. Church women take turns preparing the simple lunch that is served after the 11 o'clock service each Sunday -- a meal that the members of the church share as a way of extending their time together.
"Food is a great part of our culture," explained the Rev. Hsu. "When the Taiwanese meet, they don't say 'Good afternoon,' they say 'Have you eaten?' and they often invite each other to their homes for tea or a meal. When it is time for the spring fair, families cooperate in making the dishes that are complicated, sometimes splitting up the parts of a dish, sometimes coming to one house to work together. One person will chop scallions, one will control the fire, one will provide the work that is seasoned just right."
Taiwan, we learned, is a melting pot for the regional foods of China. Chinese people from all over the mainland brought their cuisines to the island, and few truly Taiwanese dishes are found now. Taiwanese cooking tends to be less greasy than some other Chinese food, and less spicy, although it features heavy use of scallions (often fried before being incorporated into a dish) and garlic (sometimes minced, kept in water, and sprinkled raw up top of a dish just before it is eaten).
"In Taiwan they eat little beef," explained the Rev. Hsu. "They don't eat much beef because 50 years ago the Taiwanese treat cow like the human, because they work with them in the field. My grandmother doesn't eat cow because they're a companion. It's almost like India. Pork, chicken, and duck they use -- and many fish and shellfish (you can't find them all here), because it's an island.
"The one fish they will cook many different ways. You can order a live fish from the tank in a Taiwanese restaurant and they can fillet it, or fry or smoke some of it, and from the leftover bones they will cook a soup for you -- while you are waiting. And sometimes you will eat some of the fish raw. In other parts of China, you often get salted fish. In Taiwan, they tend to use fresh. I remember my mother used to make soup with fresh fish. Before the water boils, you slice a couple of pieces of ginger in it. If you want it dark, you fry the fish first, and then put the water in; you have a slight color and it tastes different, too. I never got tired of that same fish from the fish pond because there were 20 different ways to cook it. I enjoyed that. I missed it, too."
Here are recipes for four of the most popular, and unusual, dishes served at the Taiwan food fair. KWEI HUNG'S COLD NOODLES (2 or 3 servings as a main dish, 4 to 6 as a side dish)
This colorful cold noodle dish makes a quick and easy one-dish meal and is very attractive on a buffet table. The ham, carrots and scallions should be cut into thin slivers that echo the shape of the noodles. We may also try adding slivered almonds next time. 6 ounces cooked ham 3 medium carrots 4 large scallions 4 cloves garlic 1 pound spaghetti, or other thin noodles 1 tablespoon vegetable oil Sauce: 1 tablespoon sesame seed paste 1/2 cup soy sauce 1 teaspoon vinegar 1 tablespoon sugar
Bring a kettle of water (unsalted!) to a boil. While it is heating, cut the ham, carrots and scallions into very thin strips. Crush the garlic and mince it. When the water is boiling and the vegetables are ready, cook the noodles until they are tender, rinse them in cold water, and drain. Stir in a tablespoon of vegetable oil, and let the noodles cool. Mix the ingredients for the sauce, add the sauce and the other ingredients to the noodles, mix well and serve immediately. The noodle dish is best eaten soon after everything is combined. CRYSTAL BA-OAN (Makes 15 to 20)
This elegant dish (pronounced bah-WAN) requires a bit of effort, but for any cook who once enjoyed molding Play-Doh, it should be fun. The final effect is a translucent globe in the center of which you can see little treasures of shrimp and pork (one could certainly vary the treasure part). Not every oriental store carries sweet potato flour, but Chinese grocers usually do. (That's the Play-Doh part.) 1 pound medium shrimp, fresh 1 ounce dried Chinese mushrooms * (FOOTNOTE)
* Available in Chinese food stores.(END FOOT) 3 shallots, chopped 1 pound uncooked fresh pork roast 1 cup canned bamboo shoots, drained 3 tablespoons soy sauce 1/2 teaspoon Chinese five spices * (FOOTNOTE)
* Available in Chinese food stores.(END FOOT) 3 cups sweet potato flour * (FOOTNOTE)
* Available in Chinese food stores.(END FOOT) 7 1/2 cups water Sauce: 1/4 cup hoisin sauce * (FOOTNOTE)
* Available in Chinese food stores.(END FOOT) 2 tablespoons catsup 2 tablespoons sugar 1/2 cup water plus 1 1/2 teaspoons 1 1/2 teaspoons cornstarch 1 1/2 teaspoons water 1 1/2 teaspoons sesame seed oil Cilantro (Chinese parsley *) for garnish (FOOTNOTE)
* Available in Chinese food stores.(END FOOT) Hot pepper sauce (optional)
Peel and devein the shrimp and have it ready in a bowl. Soak the mushrooms until puffy and soft, then cut them into tiny cubes and have them ready in a bowl, too. Chop the shallots and fry until crisp, being careful not to scorch them. Cut the pork into thin slices the size of a nickel. Dice the bamboo shoots. Stir-fry the pork and bamboo shoots with soy sauce and spices until pork is cooked through. Season to taste. Add the fried shallots and stir well.
Then, heat 5 cups water to just before simmering. Dissolve the sweet potato flour in the remaining 2 1/2 cups cold water, pour this mixture into the hot water, and stir constantly over low heat until the mixture turns the consistency of white paste. This should take only a few minutes. Remove from heat. Rinse a 1/4-cup ice cream dipper in cold water, fill the bottom half of it with the white paste, add a shrimp or two, 1/2 teaspoon mushrooms and a tablespoon of the pork and bamboo mixture, then press the fillings down slightly and add more white paste, enough to cover the filling and fill the dipper. Unmold onto a steamer rack covered with a cheesecloth which has been wet and wrung out. Cover the steamer and steam the ba-oan for about 15 minutes, until translucent.
To make the sauce, cook the hoisin sauce, catsup, sugar and 1/2 cup water together until boiling, stir in the cornstarch (which you have meanwhile dissolved in the 1 1/2 teaspoons of water), and add the sesame seed oil. Stir well.
Serve the ba-oan hot, topped with the sauce and a sprinkling of chopped Chinese parsley, and optional hot pepper sauce. Count on about two per serving. KWEI HUNG'S BA-CHANG (Makes 12)
Chang, or jong, little packets of sticky rice and other goodies wrapped in bamboo leaves and boiled, are popular festival fare all over China. Frankly, we couldn't achieve the pyramid shape Kwei Hung obviously mastered in the kitchen of an expert, but the little packets we tied up held together perfectly well and looked very clever. The combination of bamboo leaves and sticky rice gives a heavy flavor that not all Westerners will cotton to, but you can vary the contents to suit your taste. Some Chinese fill the rice packet with sweet red bean paste, some with dried shrimp, some with egg yolk, water chestnuts or beans. If you serve ba-chang as leftovers, re-boil them again until they are hot. 24 dried bamboo leaves * (FOOTNOTE)
* Available in Chinese groceries.(END FOOT) 1 pound glutinous rice (sweet rice) 1/4 pound shelled raw peanuts Filling: 1 ounce dried Chinese mushrooms * (FOOTNOTE)
* Available in Chinese groceries.(END FOOT) 2 scallions, chopped 12 ounces pork, in 1-inch cubes 3 tablespoons soy sauce 1/4 teaspoon Chinese five spices * (FOOTNOTE)
* Available in Chinese groceries.(END FOOT)
Wash and soak the leaves overnight. Wash and soak the rice overnight. Boil the peanuts in water for 45 minutes. Soak the dried mushrooms until soft, then cutthem into quarters. Stir-fry scallions, then add pork, mushrooms and seasonings and stir-fry until pork is cooked through.
Mix the rice and peanuts together.
To make ba-chang, lay two bamboo leaves parallel and overlapping each other. Twist the leaves to form a cone. Fill the cone one-third full with the rice-peanut mixture, add 1 or two tablespoons of the pork-mushroom filling, then add more rice-peanut mixture to cover. Fold the leaves down to cover the top of the cone, and shape it to resemble a pyramid having a total of four points total. Tie with string.
Boil ba-chang in a large pot filled with water, adding more water as needed. Boil for one hour. Serve hot with soy sauce. TAIWANESE RED BEAN ICE (Makes about 1 1/3 cups)
This refreshing dish is a sentimental favorite with Taiwanese-Americans who recall buying it from street vendors in their childhood.The street version features shaved ice with flavoring, not unlike our snow cones (but with a radically different flavor). Su-Mei Wang has created this version for kitchens with no equipment for shaving ice. Many Taiwanese vary the flavor, adding mung beans, or almonds, possibly a little crushed pineapple and other ingredients -- and they top the ice with little cubes of Taiwan Jell-O (made of agar-agar), which is less cloying and more firm than American gelatin, and top that with sweetened condensed milk or sweet cream. This dish is not much trouble and provides an authentic conclusion for an Oriental meal, or an interesting snack. 1/2 pound small red adzuki beans * (FOOTNOTE)
* Available at Chinese groceries.(END FOOT) 1 quart water 2 1/2 cups granulated sugar 1 cup cold water
Cook the red beans in water until tender and the beans crack open, adding a little more water if needed. This may take 1 1/2 to 2 hours in a regular pot, 25 minutes in a pressure cooker. When the beans are ready, add sugar and the cup of cold water to the beans, mix, let cool and freeze.To serve, remove the red bean ice from the freezer about an hour and a half before serving time, stir it well, and serve with jellied agar-agar on top. You may also dribble a little sweetened condensed milk on top, but it is fine without it. JELLIED AGAR-AGAR (Makes about 2 1/2 cups) 2 ounces agar-agar * (FOOTNOTE)
* Available at Chinese groceries.(END FOOT) 2 3/4 cup water 1 cup sugar
Soften agar-agar in water and then cook until it has completely dissolved. Add sugar, stir well and let cool to gel. (Unlike gelatin, agar-agar will jell at room temperature.) Cut into tiny cubes, and chill in refrigerator. Serve on top of red bean ice.