Chinese New Year and a recipe for Zhaoqing diced pork and green mango

by Forager on January 31, 2011

With another Chinese New Year peering around the corner, it seems ripe for reflection again. With the recent publication of Amy Chua’s controversial book: “Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother” and the arguably even more inflammatory publicity in the Wall Street Journal, Chinese parenting has taken a hard knock in the media in recent times. Whilst I can’t say my own parents were quite as demonic as what was described in that article, certain elements still rang true and inexplicably after reading the article I had to suppress urges to call my parents and explode at them, at length and with great force.

But once the rage subsided, I could eventually concede that my parents only meant well. I’m thankful that they wanted me to study hard and perform well academically. I’m even more thankful that neither of my parents can read English, so could never really tell whether I was studying or procrastinating, could never read my school report card, just encouraged me to do well and left me to figure out how to actualise that. I’m also thankful they approved of my decision to pursue science too, although admittedly my mother’s sage reasoning was “science is a good fit for you – your arms are weak and there shouldn’t be much heavy lifting” as though the only other clear viable career option for me was being a labourer.

But they knew not how to do anything else – they were merely passing on the lessons of their parents, and their parents before them, and so on. Whether one agrees with it or not, the Chinese way of parenting is steeped in Chinese history. From when the Chinese language and character system was being developed some 7000 – 8000 years ago, the impetus to learn, study and excel surely followed suit.

For  a more objective and thoughtful study in Chinese parenting, I highly recommend the excellent documentary, Last Train Home (归途列车) by director Lixin Fan. The documentary is centered around the lives of one migrant worker family, the Zhangs; the impact of industrialisation on them; and the spectacular annual human migration that occurs when 130 million migrant workers return home en mass from the big cities to their rural home towns for Chinese New Year. On one hand it had me marvelling at the persevering Chinese desire to improve one’s circumstances and on the other it frequently brought tears to my eyes and angst to my heart as unfortunately familiar scenes and conversations played out in the tragedy of misguided parenting. Those that are are quick to judge the unorthodox Chinese parenting styles might gain some insight via this film, and whilst it is unlikely to convert you into an avid supporter of Chinese parenting, it will shed light on the Chinese parents’ hopes and motivations for their children as study is the fastest and most effective method to breaking the cycle of poverty.

In 2008 I embarked on my own migration back to rural China in a bid to discover more about my family, understand my heritage and see it through adult eyes. I accompanied my parents on a trip to Taiwan, visiting relatives in Hong Kong and re-discovering my family origins in China, topics I touched on briefly in early posts. But there’s no two ways about it, it was a very taxing experience. Particularly when in a haze of organisation I made the fateful mistake of booking the three of us into a triple hotel room on the Taipei leg of the trip. I learned the hard way that your parents are not two old friends you don’t think twice about sharing a room with. They are old people who sleep at sundown, have trouble sleeping through the night, sleep talk, talk to each other loudly, complain, snore, use the bathroom frequently, and then wake at the crack of dawn with yet more loud inane chatter.

But it was all made worthwhile when we visited my father’s village, Licha village (pinyin: Líchá Cūn) in Zhaoqing, China, a small city in Guangdong which existed some 2000+ years ago. The village itself is a mere 700 years old and is very unique in that it is designed like a lucky bagua maze where the houses radiate from a central bagua and are constructed using curved wok-handle roof tiles and “green bricks” (where green is more aptly described as green/blue referring to the character 青). These features are rare even in China and have ensured the village, unlike so many others across China will be preserved, protected from urban development and tourism fostered. The tourism project is obviously underway as I was very surprised to discover that the Chinese version of Amazing Race actually visited the little village last year and that the village even gets a mention in Lonely Planet China!

Zhaoqing village

My father's quaint bagua style village in Zhaoqing. Rice grains were being sundried with the iconic ancient Banyan tree and a picturesque trickling stream as a backdrop

Ancient houses Zhaoqing bagua village

Some of the many ancient but long abandoned houses in the bagua village. Each of the lanes and alleys looked identical in the maze with their green bricks and wok handle tiles and I found myself frequently lost. Most of the residents have left the village and the remaining have been moved on to nearby urbanised units.

It was a short trip that had a profound effect on me – I experienced where my family was from, wandered through our deserted ancestral homes, absorbed the quiet simple life the villagers had, and ate the simple local food that they were immensely proud to share.

Zhaoqing village banquet

A village banquet held in our honour. Offal-laden dishes included local chicken in soy sauce; giblets with celery; ginger and shallot river fish; fried school prawns; king do lotus leaf spare ribs; pigs stomach two ways and unidentified meat balls.

Though there was no one tactical element I can pinpoint but I simultaneously became very humbled and proud of my history. I concede that my parents are at heart like the simple folk in that village and in more ways than one, like the migrant workers in the Last Train Home, who to ensure we had a better life migrated across vast oceans to Australia. The Chinese have long been criticised for their ability to copy but not innovate – I’d say my parents fall largely into that category. They have copied their parents and ancestors, didn’t think to question, and did their best to pass on long-held Chinese traditions and Confucian teachings of filial piety. And it seemed a winning formula that served the village well enough for the last 700 years.

To honour that history, I’d like to share with you a dish that my father used to make for me when I was young – not a new year dish per se, but one that was inspired by the dishes of his childhood in Zhaoqing. It’s merely a simple rice side dish – one that incorporates rich, strong flavours and is designed so that a small amount stretches a plain bowl of rice out further, a common theme in rural village towns. The green mango in this dish is unusual as my family traditionally never ate or bought green mango save for this dish. Its addition lends the overall dish both a sweet and tart flavour. The purple perilla herb is one I was very familiar when growing up. It is a member of the mint family and is called chiso or jiso in Cantonese, shiso in Japanese or beefsteak plant in the Western world. It has a strong flavour, is fairly uncommon in popularised Cantonese cooking and is an acquired taste but was commonly used in my father’s village in Zhaoqing.

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Zhaoqing style diced pork and green mango with black bean, perilla and chilli

Ingredients:

  • 350g of pork, diced into 2-3cm cubes (the recipe calls for fatty pork but I used scotch fillet steak)
  • 400g green mango, diced into 2cm cubes
  • 3x birds eye chillis, finely chopped
  • 2x large garlic cloves, finely chopped
  • 2 spring onions/shallots, chopped (keep white and green sections separate)
  • 5 tbsp sliced perilla
  • 3 tbsp whole salted black beans
  • 2 tbsp preserved vegetable, chopped
  • 1 tbsp Shaoxing rice wine
  • 1 tbsp light soy sauce
  • 1 tsp potato starch
  • 1/2 tsp sesame oil
  • white pepper
  • 3 tbsp water
  • 1 tbsp vegetable oil, for stir frying

Method:

  1. Mix the Shaoxing wine, soy sauce, white pepper, potato starch and sesame oil together and marinate pork in the mixture for about 10 minutes.
  2. Soak the black beans in warm water for a few minutes to remove the skins. Rub beans gently until the skins come off. Rinse and repeat until skins are removed.
  3. Heat half the vegetable oil in a wok over medium heat and pour in pork. Cook through and set aside.
  4. Wipe wok clean, pour in remaining vegetable oil and fry the black beans, chilli, garlic and white section of the spring onions until fragrant.
  5. Add in a little water to create a sauce, bring to the boil then add in preserved vegetable, perilla and green spring onion shoots and stir fry briefly. and .
  6. Add in the pork, then the green mango and just heat through – about a minute or just long enough to soften the green mango slightly.
  7. Serve with steamed white rice.

Assembling the ingredients for pork and green mango

Assembling the ingredients required: pork, black beans, chilli, garlic, green mango and perilla

Stir frying pork

Stir fry the marinated pork until cooked then set aside

Dry frying aromatic spices

Dry fry the spices until aromatic

Stirring through the herbs and pork, Zhaoqing diced pork and green mango

Stirring through the herbs and pork

Add in the green mango and heat through, Zhaoqing diced pork green mango

Add in the green mango and heat through

Zhaoqing style diced pork with green mango, black bean, perilla and chilli

Zhaoqing style diced pork with green mango, black bean, perilla and chilli

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Now, my parents have really delivered when it comes to drumming in the importance of honouring Chinese New Year traditions. Chinese New Year is a time for families to re-unite and indulge in big feasts that signify plenty. My own family observes Cantonese traditions and we have a one-off large feast to close off the old year, typically held on New Year’s Eve but it is acceptable beforehand. We are expected to buy new clothes to wear during on New Year’s Day (a most welcomed tradition I thoroughly embrace) and have our hair cut in the preceding days to new year as hair has traditionally been considered sacred, an extension of one’s self and cutting off hair (or even having unkempt, unruly hair) during the new year period is considered very unlucky.

On New Year’s Day, observing Buddhist traditions has over time become widely accepted cultural practice and we abstain from meat and start the year with vegetarian dishes. These dishes will typically contain vegetarian food stuffs with colourful auspicious names like “growing fortune” (lettuce), “golden shoots” (carrots) and “strike a fortune” (black hair moss) and foods with inauspicious names like gourds which have a name that sounds homophonic to the Cantonese colloquial term for ‘death’, or pears which sound homophonic to ‘divide’ are as welcome during new year as flesh eating bacteria. As posted previously, there are new year ingredients like oysters, that clearly aren’t vegetables but the Chinese studiously ignore all accepted animal classifications and steadfastly believe they are. Cantonese-style new year dishes tend to be either mild in flavour or sweetened as experiencing sweetness during the new year is obviously auspicious – thus for the same reasons bitterness, spicyness, sourness or saltiness during the new year period is considered unlucky. If all these rules and millions more are strictly observed, then a good year is sure to follow – or at the very least, a very tightly regulated one.

So with the impending Chinese New Year looming, as as millions of Chinese, migrants or otherwise, prepare to embark on another journey home to be with their families, I’d like to wish you a prosperous, lucky and importantly happy year of the rabbit.

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{ 23 comments… read them below or add one }

1 joey@FoodiePop January 31, 2011 at 8:55 pm

Loved Last Train Home, even though the situation with the daughter got a little too realistic towards the end and remained unresolved.

Nice recipe too! Happy New Year!

2 Helen (grabyourfork) January 31, 2011 at 9:29 pm

What a moving visit to your cultural homeland and one you won’t ever forget (esp sharing a room with your parents! lol).

3 Corinne @ Gourmantic January 31, 2011 at 10:07 pm

Heart warming post, Trina :) Going back to one’s roots can be a humbling and life affirming experience. You’ve captured the sentiments nicely.
Corinne @ Gourmantic recently posted..Emmilou Tapas Bar- Cocktails- Happy Hour and Cinq à Sept in Surry HillsMy Profile

4 nic@diningwithastud February 1, 2011 at 8:31 am

Goosebumbps from your post and drooling from your pork. As always, it looks delicious!

5 JT @areyouhungary February 1, 2011 at 9:11 am

A really really lovely post. You’re so lucky to have made the trip with your parents and to have a father who cooks! Happy new year to you for Thursday – hope the year of the rabbit is a good one for you!
JT @areyouhungary recently posted..Friday Favourites – You’re the VoiceMy Profile

6 chocolatesuze February 1, 2011 at 9:26 am

trina this is one fantastic post, i loved every bit esp the triple hotel room haha

7 L-bean February 1, 2011 at 4:14 pm

Great post. Made me feel very sentimental indeed. Love you babes.

8 Rebecca @ InsideCuisine February 1, 2011 at 5:12 pm

I really need to take stir fry lessons! Here’s lesson number 1.

Happy New Year! for my sign the pig I think this is supposed to be a good one?
Rebecca @ InsideCuisine recently posted..Alex Herbert Bird Cow Fish – Witlof Poached Egg SaladMy Profile

9 kay@Chopstix2steaknives February 1, 2011 at 9:17 pm

It is always a humbling and profound experience to go back to where our ancestors come from. I have yet to visit mine. Thanks for recommending the documentary, I definitely have to watch it.
kay@Chopstix2steaknives recently posted..Chinese New Year Goodies- Bak KwaMy Profile

10 Tori @ eat-tori February 2, 2011 at 5:26 am

What a beautiful post. Hoping this year is a prosperous and happy one.

11 OohLookBel February 2, 2011 at 12:52 pm

You have a fantastic way of telling a story – very readable! It’s always interesting to find out about our families’ background, though it can also be quite stressful, too. Love the recipe, it’s sounds traditional and perfect for new year. kung hei fat choi!
OohLookBel recently posted..Freeze me now – Berry yoghurt ice creamMy Profile

12 Jenny @ Musings and Morsels February 3, 2011 at 9:48 pm

Lovely, lovely post. Coincidentally, I also just posted about regional/rustic sort of cooking, food that came from necessity. I love that. All the little nuances from varying regions within a province, within a country, within a continent…it’s amazing to experience.

Unfortunately, I’ve never been to Asia as of yet but really hope to make a trip to my ancestral villages one day as well. I consider myself Aussie being born and bred here but just knowing about my ancestral past will really cement my place in the world I’d think. Maybe not absolutely necessary as I’m pretty certain how I identify myself but it would probably allow things to fall into place much more neatly.

Thanks for a beautiful post.

13 mademoiselle délicieuse February 4, 2011 at 12:04 am

The older I get, especially through having grown up in Sydney, the more I appreciate my mother having had drum Chinese cultural nuances, practices, taboos and beliefs into my childhood. It definitely aids in understanding why certain things are done or not done, although some reasons are no longer relevant in today’s society. And I feel proud that I understand at least some parts of my heritage.

Wishing you a happy and prosperous new year!

14 Sara (Belly Rumbles) February 5, 2011 at 5:05 pm

What a great journey visiting your roots. Lovely sounding dish for CNY.

Did I instinctively know something? Got my hair cut on CNY Day, pretty funny :)
Sara (Belly Rumbles) recently posted..The Teahouse – Camellia GardensMy Profile

15 angie February 6, 2011 at 8:59 pm

Aww I know I’m a bit late but Happy New Year =) I love the little old village, and here I thought they only existed in movies. I was actually talking to the boy and telling him how our culture and traditions within our family are already getting diluted with western society, when our kids emerge into this world I’m hoping that I am able to pass the little things I still hold on to onto them.
angie recently posted..Slice &amp Bake Cookies – Christmas Baking Project 3 Christmas GiftsMy Profile

16 Adrian in Food Rehab February 7, 2011 at 9:33 pm

I grew up eating green mango. My parents would serve it with shrimp paste, in salads, in mains, in everything! Personally, I think they’re just obsessed. Only thing is though…now I am!!!

Thanks for sharing your history and diggin the dish. But I won’t be tlling my mum about this otherwise she will end up making it over and over again because it had green mangoes!
Adrian in Food Rehab recently posted..How we do Brunch in Melbourne- Madame Brussels Style Daarling!My Profile

17 foodie and the chef February 9, 2011 at 12:48 am

Thank you for sharing – what a wonderful time for you! And your recipe looks delicious.
foodie and the chef recently posted..the best ice cream in Sydney watch out Mr WhippyMy Profile

18 Xiaolu @ 6 Bittersweets February 9, 2011 at 4:54 am

Great-looking food! This recipe uses several ingredients I didn’t even know were ever used in Chinese cuisine. Happy Chinese New Year!
Xiaolu @ 6 Bittersweets recently posted..Guest Post- Frozen Brazo de Mercedes CakeMy Profile

19 Jen February 9, 2011 at 2:31 pm

Such a lovely and heartwarming post Trina! Very lucky to have been able to visit your family origins in China. I can’t wait to do the same. Happy Chinese New Year! x
Jen recently posted..Teochew Peach-shaped Kueh 红桃粿My Profile

20 Trissa February 13, 2011 at 6:59 pm

Hi Trina,

Thanks for sharing your father’s recipe… Does look amazing – I guess you must have gotten your great cooking genes from him? Thanks too for sharing the pictures you took on your trip back with your parents – I had to laugh when I read how you describe them as NOT being old friends… and have trouble sleeping etc… same with my parents! Also, wishing you a Happy Chinese New Year….
Trissa recently posted..Serendipity Chocolate and Pistachio CookiesMy Profile

21 Forager February 28, 2011 at 8:18 am

Hey Joey – Wasn’t it a great doco? It’s hard to really summarise it in words, but so powerful. And a happy belated new year to you too!

Hey Helen – No, not one I’m going to forget in a hurry! Won’t be making that mistake again!

Hey Corinne – Very much so, especially when you hear the stories of their hardships and struggles. Really puts our priviledged life into perspective!

Hey Nic – Thanks and definitely give the recipe a shot!

Hey JT – I definitely appreciated his cooking growing up. Live having a restaurant at home! And a belated CNY to you too!

Hey Chocolatesuze – Ha, yes, clear and utter stupidity on my behalf with that booking. I was just not thinking, but now, will not make that mistake twice!

Hey L-bean – Me too x

Hey Becca – A definitely very easy recipe to start on! Not sure about the specific horoscopes – but let’s just settle for a great year for all!

Hey Kay – It’s a fantastic doco, very moving and maybe a bit too real at times.

Hey Tori – Thanks! And to you too!

Hey OohLookBel – Thank you – such kind words! I can look back on the experience now and appreciate it, but it was very stressful at the time. It sounds like you’re all too familiar!

Hey Jenny – I think experiences like finding out where you’re from will be powerful no matter what stage of life you’re at. Particularly if you ready to seek it out yourself. Good luck on your journey too!

Hey mademoiselle delicieuse – Me too! I now appreciate how traditional my upbringing was as a kid. Didn’t back when I was growing up unfortunately though!

Hey Sara – Surely a great and lucky sign!

Hey Angie – I feel the same way. Although no matter how hard I try, I’m realistic that they won’t have a similar experience and absorb all the teachings – probably a fraction of what I took in.

Hey Adrian – Ha! I felt that way about rice growing up actually so I know exactly how you feel!

Hey foodieandthechef – Thanks and though the flavours are unusual, it is really delicious!

Hey Xiaolu – Unusual huh? I would have sworn blind that it was tainted with SE Asian flavours had I not been back home to Zhaoqing!

Hey Jen – It will be such an enriching experience for you!

Hey Trissa – Ha, you jest! I can’t cook Chinese food a fraction as well as he does! So much to learn from him still!

22 jessica April 15, 2011 at 9:45 pm

hello trina,

i just found your blog through ellie’s ‘almost bourdain’ and was touched by this article.

there seem to be few mainland chinese in their 20s and 30s, who have immigrated to australia with their parents, that have had the opportunity to visit their parents villages in their adulthood. like you, i am fortunate that i have had this opportunity, the pictures of your fathers village look very much like my own dads :) (although he is from a semi-rural area in nanhai, guangdong)
each time i visit (generally every two to three years) i am struck by the austerity but also the purity of the place. whilst not impressive, it makes me immensely proud of my heritage, even if it was humble. my grandfather, along with his brothers, built the house my father grew up in with his bare hands.

on earlier visits, i even remember a kind of ‘straw’ was still burnt to heat the wok to cook the chicken that was previously scrambling around the village! 😀 whats also amazing is that whenever i visit, the few remaining residents will always come up to me, say hello, then introduce themselves and tell me how they are my grandfathers old neighbour or chess buddy and so on and so forth. i feel immediately ‘within the fold’.

though i have lived in australia for twenty years now (i am twenty five this year) i hope that as the years go by, my own children will identify, explore and be similarly proud of their ancestry… and that they too will find a sense of ‘home’ when i take them to my fathers village.
thank you trina, for such a thoughtful article and of course for another wonderful recipe

kind regards, jessica

23 Forager April 21, 2011 at 4:57 pm

Hey Jessica – That’s a great story you have as well, and more impressively that at only 25, you’ve already learned to appreciate the roots of your heritage. It took me a few more years of er..”wisdom” before I could be appreciative. I remember those straw fed fires as well – from the sounds of it, our villages were very similar. And thank you for visiting my blog – good to hear the stories of others out there!

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