It always surprises me how much the first rain of the season improves San Francisco. For several months we become used to the dense fragrance of the city, then a bit of rain washes it all away, and the air smells earthy and fresh again. It is a blessing.
Today is not cold, nor particularly wet. In fact, it feels rather like a smooth summer day, albeit one in a far moister climate than here. A warmer climate, too. And it smells like it also.
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Two dozen years ago, in a city inhabited mostly by Chinese.
Downstairs is a Kopi Tiam - a small restaurant specializing in coffee, milk-tea, snacks (including 香饼 Heung Peng - filled sweet buns), and a few home-style dishes. This one also had 肠粉 (Cheung Fan - steamed rice sheet noodles with savoury fillings), which I remember particularly because that is what I had for breakfast - they're very good if you drank too much the night before.
Unless you drench them with chilipaste and dark vinegar. Which I did. My stomach told me I was an idiot the rest of the morning.
After breakfast I went out and was rained upon. The water came down in a steady hard drizzle that cooled the air and made everything smell clean. There were many vehicles, few actual pedestrians. And despite the precipitation it seemed very bright outside.
By two o'clock I was desperate for something to settle my stomach, and I returned. Common sense dictated 河粉汤 (Ho Fan T'ng - river noodles in chicken and ginger broth with fresh herbs).
So naturally I made the worst choice possible and had something rich and heavy instead.
One of the dishes which has the soulfood ta'am for many people of Chinese ancestry in Malaysia, Singapore, and Indonesia is a Hokkien dish that can be made with either chicken or pork. Or chicken AND pork. People with kashrus concerns will probably not want to consider the pork version. But do not worry - it tastes fine made with chicken, and you could even use duck. If the meat is fatty, serve a fresh pickle alongside. It is a very lovely dish.
One pound fatty pork (ng-faa yiuk, 五花肉), cut in large cubes.
Sixteen dried black mushrooms, soaked in water to soften, then de-stemmed.
Two cups sliced bamboo shoots.
One onion, chopped fine.
Half a dozen cloves garlic, crushed.
A small thumb of fresh ginger, also crushed.
One tablespoon taucheo (salted yellow soybean, 豆瓣酱), mashed smooth.
Two tablespoons sherry or rice wine.
Two tablespoons ketjap manis (Dutch or Indonesian sweet soy sauce), plus a dash regular soy sauce.
Three cups water.
Three whole star anise.
A piece of cinnamon (approx one inch).
One or two whole cloves.
First gild the onion, then add the garlic and ginger. When the garlic starts to turn add the taucheo and sherry and seethe a bit, then add the meat chunks and colour on all sides. Now add the mushrooms, bamboo shoots, and ketjap manis. Stir for a few minutes, add the whole spices and water. Simmer on low for about an hour and a half. Garnish with sliced chilies. Serve with steamed rice and warm crusty French bread for sopping.
Note: if you cannot find bamboo shoots (where ARE you living?!?!), you may substitute potatoes cut in chunks. Add them later, about half-way through cooking, as they will fall apart otherwise. Personally, I feel that doing so is simply making another version of Irish Stew. A fine product in its own right, which I almost never touch. I do not live in Ireland, and my mule has not passed away.
Another note: For a really Cantonese flavour, add a small jigger of oyster sauce. All treif tastes better with oyster sauce. And hot sauce.
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The kids of the family that owned the kopi tiam sat at a table in the back, doing their homework and being quiet, while the customers sat nearer the front, and enjoyed the cooling breeze - the entire front was open, like most such shop-house businesses.
From my table along the wall I could observe the entire place - the pimply young man with an oversized leather biker jacket out front, the Cantonese housewife talking animatedly with (in other words, shrieking at) the owner directly opposite, the elderly skeleton sipping hot milk-tea while reading his newspaper with one foot up on his chair at the middle table, and the three kids in the back, obediently bent over their books.
No fuss, no misbehaviour, no noise. Cute kids - so studious, so well-behaved!
But such deception.
All three of them had skinned knees, and dirt-scuffs on their school clothes.
Two hours earlier I had seen the nine year old chasing a boy down the street, screaming at the top of her lungs 'faan-pei ngoo-ah' (give it back), while trying to whack him with a bamboo pole. Classmates scattered before them as he tried to escape with her school bag. The little spit-fire eventually caught him.
She's probably grown up to be a real tiger by now.
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