Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Tourist foodie in my hometown

Lately I've been rediscovering the Public Market on Granville Island.

I don't know what comes to your mind when you hear the words "public market". I think of Saturday mornings with my mother at our local palengke, an open-air market with stalls after stalls of fresh fruit and vegetables, dried fish and sacks of dried corn and rice, meat and fish being butchered and dressed right before your eyes. I remember one time, a man strolled up behind me with an entire slaughtered pig across his shoulders. Definitely not a place for the faint of heart or weak of stomach.

In contrast, the Market at Granville Island seems a pretty tame affair at first. I remember visiting it for the first time, and being astonished at how clean it all was.

It's an indoor market with an outdoor feel. Here are mounds of fruit and veggies, jewel-bright; gourmet butchers; bakers and patisseries. It's definitely a feast for the eyes, and offers artisan goods and ready to eat food in addition to grocery items.

It's open year-round, and winter and spring are great times to visit it, before it gets taken over by summer crowds.

Enjoy a bowl of hot, flavourful soup from the Stock Market - or hearty oatmeal, if you are there for breakfast. Lee's Donuts are freshly made every day in the traditional, time-honoured (read: deep-fried) manner.

While my friend and I were having dinner there yesterday, we were intrigued by a couple of people walking by with tall, white bowls covered by a dome of puffy pastry. What could be in those bowls? Soup? Stew? Chicken pot pie?

We'll have to make it a point to find out, next time we go. 


Sunday, April 25, 2010

Fried chicken livers - perfect warm weather appy

The recipe for fried chicken livers came through my Twitter feed this week from Saveur magazine. After drooling for days, I decided to make it as an appy for Sunday lunch. It was absolutely worth pulling out the deep fryer for. Here's the tweaked recipe, with my notes:

*To make self-rising flour, just mix together 1 cup all-purpose flour, 1 1/4 tsp baking powder, 1/8 tsp salt.

* If you don't have any buttermilk on hand, make your own with a cup of milk and 1 tablespoon of vinegar or lemon juice. Mix and let stand for five minutes.

*The recipe calls for 2 cups of self-rising flour, but I just used 1 cup and it was more than enough.

*Enjoy with a glass of ice-cold beer. We had it today with Stella Artois.


Enough canola oil to safely fill your deep fryer
1 lb. chicken livers
1 cup buttermilk
2 cups self-rising flour
salt and pepper
1 tsp poultry seasoning - I used a chicken rub mix from Anatol's, my favourite little spice store in Montreal
Hot sauce, for dipping (I experimented with a combination of Bulldog and Louisiana Hot Sauce and found that was quite good, too.)

Prepare the livers: trim off the fatty, stringy bits and rinse them (the livers, not the bits) in cold water.
Set your deep fryer to the "chicken" setting (340 - 350 degrees).
While oil is heating, soak the livers in buttermilk for 5 minutes.
Combine flour, salt, pepper, and poultry seasoning in a small baking dish.
Fish each liver out of the buttermilk - use a fork to keep your fingers clean - and lay them in the flour mixture.
Use another fork, gently toss the livers until coated lightly with flour.
Shake off the excess flour and place in the deep fryer basket.
Fry the livers in batches of 5-6, until they are golden brown, about 3–4 minutes. Let the excess oil blot off on a paper-towel lined plate.
Serve with hot sauce. 


Friday, April 23, 2010

When your teeth break, swallow them

We do what two people do to get to know each other. Share meals, laughter, opinions, advice. Trade stories that reveal ourselves, layer by layer. And apply questions like a pick-axe to ice: carefully chipping away to reveal the depths below, while trying not to cause any irreparable cracks.

When we have lunch, we always go to the same food court, where there is a Chinese take-out counter of which my new friend, Ying*, approves. She ought to know; she's Chinese. Not Hong Kong Chinese either, but what I privately consider “real” Chinese, mainland Chinese (perhaps being grossly unfair to offshore Chinese, but there it is). She's a relative newcomer to Canada, having arrived here almost six years ago, upon her marriage to a Canadian, with whom she now works as a secretary.

Today, before we tuck into our lunches, we do something we haven't done before. Instead of just politely inquiring how each other's food is, we share it. She offers me a spicy chicken wing; I give her some choice pieces of garlic pork. She piles onto my plate some of the mushrooms she loves.

Perhaps it's an indication that we've reached a new level of ease and familiarity with each other; a sign that we can put away our pick-axes and just let the ice melt. After all, although Ying was raised in the cold northern province of Heilongjiang, very close to the Siberian border, nothing about her betrays even a hint of such frigid origins. Her skin has a warm golden tinge; her expression is open and smiling. Laughter is never too far from the surface. Soon, were not just sharing food; we're sharing confidences.

She tells me about the high school courses she's taking. They're reading The Taming of the Shrew in English 12 and she has the role of Petruchio in the end-of-term class dramatization. Normally when she talks about her courses she's enthusiastic, but noticeably not so this time. “I guess I'm just a bit discouraged right now,” she says. “I work so hard but it's so difficult. And I need to take college-level courses if I want to qualify for what I really want to do: teach Mandarin Chinese.”

Last term, she studied Biology 12. “So interesting! I never studied that in school.” Ying grew up during the Chinese Cultural Revolution, when traditional education and normal work and family life gave way to such practices as performing a “dance of loyalty” to Chairman Mao every evening before dinner, and being taken out of school to work alongside farmers and be “re-educated.”

“School was closed many days during the winters,” Ying recalls. “They would say there was not enough coal and wood to burn for warmth. But later on I realized they just didn’t pay much attention to education, to the students. We did a lot of hard farming work in the summers; in the winters we picked up frozen manure on the roads and lanes with an axe.”

Curious, I ask her if, picking up manure along the road, she found herself missing school; if she ever thought about the future and dreamed, as children do, of what she would do when she grew up.

“I didn’t plan anything, to be honest. I didn’t think much about my future at all. I simply accepted what it was. No, I didn’t miss school. There was a saying from the central government: the more knowledge you have, the more counter-revolutionary you are. People knew that knowledge got them into big troubles. Many intellectual people were put into prison or tortured to death.”

Understandably, a university education was not her first choice when the Cultural Revolution ended and schools re-opened.

“Everyone had to take exams to get ‘permanent jobs’,” Ying explains. “This was part of the new Open Policy. A permanent job came with benefits and security. I wanted to get a permanent job in a factory, so I took the exams along with all my friends.”

Many of Ying’s friends passed the exam, but she didn’t. “I was very disappointed.” There was nothing left for her to do but take the university entrance exam. She took the English exam, as a kind of short cut, because she knew there was no way she could be accepted as a science student. “I didn’t learn any math and chemistry in high school because of the poor state of the educational system. It was much easier to be a language student.

“I remember the dialogue we had at the first English class,” she says with a laugh. “Are you Wang Da-gang? No, I am not, I am Li Ming.”

When Ying graduated, she was assigned to teach English at the Engineering College in the city of Harbin. It was there, through friends, that she met her first husband. “I think I married him just because he was a man,” Ying says with devastating frankness, and such a comical face that we both start laughing, loud and long.

“Growing up, I didn’t feel loved by my parents,” she continues after a while, with the same frankness but with a much more sober face. “Especially by my mother.”

Wasn’t that the way of all Chinese parents? “No,” she replies. “Many Chinese parents are openly affectionate with their children. I had a friend who came home late one winter night, and her mother got up to get her a basin of hot water to warm and wash her feet. I remember thinking, my mother would never have done that for me. So I was very susceptible to anyone who showed me a little bit of kindness.” A pause, then she grins. “And also because he was a man. But –” Ying quickly points out “ - he did not prove to be very manly later on.”

The marriage lasted six years and gave Ying a child, her daughter. Through it all, she continued teaching. And then one day, a Canadian businessman named Peter* came to her university to give a presentation on stock market regulations. Ying assisted him as a translator.

“He was there for two weeks. After he left, we kept in touch by letters, emails, telephone calls.” Within a very short time, he proposed, and Ying accepted.

“We were supposed to get married in Vancouver, but I got refused when I applied for a visitor’s visa. We had to marry in Harbin, where I was a registered citizen.”

And so Ying and her fifteen-year-old daughter crossed the ocean to start a new life. “There are challenges everywhere. New family…” Peter, a widower, has five children of his own: four boys, working and in university, and a girl, a few years younger than Ying’s daughter. “Then there’s the language barrier. And old friends and family too far away.”

Ying’s eyes fill. She recently travelled back to China to nurse one of her sisters who had terminal cancer. Her sister has since died. “I’m sorry. I still get so emotional.” She wipes the tears away and continues. “What do I miss most?” she echoes my question. The twinkle in her eye returns. “Shopping. I love shopping. Somehow it’s not the same here in Canada.”

Later, she turns serious again. “I get homesick when I need emotional support – not from my husband, not from family – but from friends.” She talks about the challenges of raising a blended family, about her feelings of displacement, about nights when she dreams she has fallen into a dark chasm full of nameless fears.

I ask her about a Chinese expression I’ve read about, which translates into “eating bitterness.” She thinks about it, then says, “Where I come from, we have a similar expression. Similar, but different. We say, if your teeth break, swallow them.” For some reason we find this irresistibly funny, and again we start laughing.

As we leave the restaurant, Ying chatters about the trip to China she and Peter are planning to take in a couple of weeks. “It will be busy. I have to visit my late sister’s children, and repay some debts to my sister’s friends – they took care of her when she was sick last year. Then we need to get some suits made for Peter.”

Last but not least, “I want to show Peter this place called Mirror Lake; it’s very beautiful,” she says. Her dimples flash. “And I want to go shopping.”

*Names and some details have been changed to protect privacy


Monday, April 19, 2010

The words not spoken

We all have a long list of things we wish we'd never said. I must confess I never gave the flip side much thought before, but I'm starting to realize that my list of things I wish I did say is equally long.

What got me thinking about the things I wish I did take the time or muster the courage to say? I read about this website that was started up quite recently by a young woman named Jackie Hooper. It's called The Things You Would Have Said, and Vancouver Sun writer Shelly Fralic calls it "a dignified website" that offers people "a chance to say the things they always meant to say, to loved ones and to strangers."

I've read some of the posted letters. They contain words of love, appreciation, gratitude, kindness, apology. Some of them are poignant, even painfully sad. Yet I find the whole idea strangely and wonderfully inspiring. There is a lesson to be learned from every letter, every story of regret and lost chances on Hooper's website.

Perhaps there is nothing much we can do about the past, and there's no controlling the future...but we can make the present moment count. And if that means getting a chance to say the right words to someone who needs to hear them, then by all means let's seize it with both hands. 


Saturday, April 17, 2010

Asian Pesto

I've been on an Asian food kick for the past few weeks - maybe because I've been working on a feature article about a woman who grew up during the Cultural Revolution, and we've had several lunch meetings at her favourite Chinese restaurant. Anyway. I've just polished off the last of a jar of (homemade) ginger and onion sauce. With apologies to my Italian brother-in-law, I call it Asian Pesto. It's delicious, versatile, good for your throat and sinuses - and it's so easy to prepare, it doesn't need a demo.

All you need is a piece of ginger about as big as your palm, a bunch of green onions, and 1/2 - 3/4 cup of peanut oil.

Peel the ginger. Tip: use the edge of a spoon to scrape off the ginger's thin brown skin and get around all the knobby bits. For easier handling, hold the spoon where the bowl meets the stem. Grate the peeled ginger finely. Slice the green onions thinly. Heat the oil in a heavy-bottomed sauce pan. When the oil is hot, dump in the prepared ginger and onion, give it a good stir, and take it off the heat. Allow it to cool before placing it in a clean jar.

Asian Pesto keeps for up to a month in the fridge. Serve it as a dipping sauce for roast and steamed chicken, fish, pork, or tofu. You can also use it to flavour steamed white rice or noodles.


Tuesday, April 13, 2010

We are what we eat

Many of us are very, very picky about the food we eat: whether it’s the way our breakfast eggs are prepared, what brand of coffee we use, or where and how our fruits and vegetables are grown. When it comes to our meals, we always want the best-quality ingredients, and rightly so.

So why are we so indiscriminate when it comes to the stuff we feed to our intellect?

Too often we read books and watch movies that are, at best, a waste of time, and at worst, do very real damage to our minds and hearts. Too many times in the past, I’ve finished a story or show with a bad taste in my mouth, and sometimes with a soul-ache that takes a long time to heal.

I think part of the problem is that intellectual junk food is often disguised as the good stuff. The Da Vinci Code (so I’ve heard) is a breathless page-turner. The hit TV show Glee seems to be no better than a soap opera; the reason why the suds go down easy is because they’re sugar-coated with great music. “Even the ones that realize the themes aren’t the best are under the assumption that they are not impacted by these ideals and it’s just the music they are tuning in for,” Tiger Print’s Katie Hinderer observes about this show.

We need to be very careful about the ideas we ingest. Bad ideas are as sticky as tar, are never fully digestible, and are all the more dangerous because their effects are much more subtle than a stomach-ache or food poisoning.

And when in doubt, consult an expert you can trust. As with everything in life, it’s always the best policy.

Click here for Katie Hinderer’s full comment on Glee.
To look up books and movies, go to

And for some good ideas, check out Hot Topics, Food for Thought, and The Daily Watch, above. 


Monday, April 12, 2010

TRENDS helps girls become great role models

There is a sad lack of good role models for teens in today’s world – or is there? An upcoming conference featuring former Miss Canada Nazanin Afshin-Jam aims to show young women that they still exist.

The Vancouver chapter of Teens Reacting Effectively aNd Discovering Style (TRENDS) is organizing a conference entitled “Beauty with a Purpose”. The conference aims to showcase the need for true inner and outer beauty in our world today. The keynote speaker will be Nazanin Afshin-Jam, an international human rights activist, singer/songwriter, actor, former Miss World Canada, President and co-founder of "Stop Child Executions" – and role model par excellence.

The conference takes place at the Richmond campus of Kwantlen Polytechnic University, May 13, 2010, at 7pm.

For more information on TRENDS, please visit

Wednesday, April 07, 2010

Lost - and found

Have you ever come face-to-face, quite unexpectedly, with your younger self? I did, a few days ago. A friend of mine emailed a photo she found of a group of us, taken circa 1992, during a picnic in Tagaytay. Some of us are sitting, others leaning, on a fence. We're laughing and windblown. And maybe because I haven't seen most of these friends since circa 1992, I suddenly found myself with tears in my eyes.

When I left the Philippines for Canada, the internet was still a brand-new phenomenon, and long-distance dialling an unaffordable luxury. Very few people I knew had email. My friends and I tried to keep in touch the old-fashioned way, but predictably, our correspondence died out after a couple of years.

And so we lost each other. In the intervening years, we all grew up, moved on, made new friends. A few of us have found each other again. But in my mind, we all stayed seventeen, trapped in amber, as it were. This is perhaps a rather unsavoury simile, until you remember that amber is precious, fragrant, and often holds something tiny and perfect in its heart.

Thanks to the new social media, this story has a happy ending. Sending this photo out into cyberspace acted a little bit like a lure at the end of a fishing line. A tentative nibble from me on Facebook, and I recovered a friend I thought I had lost for good.

Finding her couldn't have come at a better time. Because right now, for the first time in my adult life, I'm finding out what it means to be on my own. Often it seems like there is a whole new me that I need to get to know. And sometimes there are no better people than old friends to help you figure out who you are...because chances are, they've held on to some part of you - maybe even the best part - that all this time you thought you'd lost along with them. 


Monday, April 05, 2010

A match made in heaven

Food and books have always been an irresistible combination for me. Ever since I was a little girl, my favourite stories involved food. Just ask my mother how many times she was asked to read aloud Chicken Little, the title character relentlessly pursued by Mr. Fox as the main ingredient for his evening meal, stewed hen with dumplings. (I must admit that I was on Mr. Fox's side in this particular conflict.) There was also Tina, who had a Magic Pot that churned out quantities of porridge until you uttered the magic words to made it stop. And The Big Pancake, which a poor widow woman made out of her very last bit of flour and butter and eggs, and which promptly leaped out of the skillet and rolled out the door to avoid being eaten.

It was a good thing that Reading Aloud was always followed by Merienda. By the time the poor widow's seven sons, after a merry chase through town and countryside, finally caught the Big Pancake and devoured it, I was more than ready for some eats myself.

One of my most memorable Christmas presents was the entire set of Little House books by Laura Ingalls Wilder. Little House in the Big Woods is positively enchanting, with its detailed descriptions of sugaring-off, pig-killing, and cheese-making. However, my favourite book in the series, hands down, is Farmer Boy. For years I was convinced that to be a farmer was the best job on earth, because after a hard day's work you could come home to a groaning, candlelit table, and the lovely sight of your mother coming out of the kitchen bearing a platter of sizzling ham.

(I went to dig up my tattered copy of Farmer Boy for a sample bill of fare to reproduce here, only to discover that one of my girls' club members has checked it out of our small lending library. This is a bit like going to the refrigerator and finding out that someone else got there before you and has eaten the tidbit you were looking forward to eating. I salute her choice of book. I hope that right now her stomach is growling.)

There was also good eating in The Good Earth - in between bouts of drought and famine, that is - and in The Joy Luck Club, Amy Tan's debut novel about four women who forget life's miseries by having regular get-togethers involving food and mahjong. On her New Orleans honeymoon, Scarlett in Gone With the Wind gorges herself on "Gumboes and shrimp Creole, doves in wine and oysters in crumbly patties full of creamy sauce, mushrooms and sweetbreads and turkey livers, fish baked cunningly in oiled paper and limes." And who could forget The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, in which unlikely friendships were forged around a feast of roast pig...?

...Pardon me, but now my stomach is growling. Time for a midnight merienda! 


Easter eggs

We didn't have an Easter egg hunt this year, because the youngest member of the Vancouver branch of my family is now sixteen and rather too old to look under bushes for gifts supposedly left by a rabbit that can somehow lay eggs. So this year, all our Easter eggs were to be found in the dessert.

And to make said dessert, I got to use The Heirloom: my grandmother's llanera, i.e. the pan for making leche flan.

The Heirloom is a queen among llaneras: a round eight-inch stainless steel pan, with snaps to hold the lid in place while the flan steams away inside the pressure cooker, and a chain handle to lift the whole thing out when it's done.

I think it gives me so much satisfaction because it's perfectly designed and constructed for its sole purpose. Not to mention the fact that it fulfills that purpose so well, turning out a beautiful leche flan every time.

In my family, the perfect leche flan must satisfy the following criteria:

1) The caramel topping must be a rich, dark gold, with a slightly bitter taste.

2) The flan must be smooth and creamy; light golden yellow in colour; and not too firm, but slightly wobbly.

3) There must be enough syrup to drip down the sides and form a pool of around the flan.

I'm not going to claim that I can make the perfect flan. But I think I'm getting there. In the meantime, I'm enjoying the journey.


Thursday, April 01, 2010

Promises, promises

Educator and family expert James Stenson has this advice for parents. As early as possible, teach children to say the following:


Thank you;

I'm sorry;

I give you my word.

The last item may well give you pause, as it did me the first time I heard Mr. Stenson say this. I give you my word? Can we really expect a child to make and keep a promise? And what real value is there in a child's promise?

The value, I realize now, is something that's in potency. It comes to fruition in the promises that child will make when he is older. I will be home at the time agreed upon. I will bring the car back in one piece. I will show up to work every day and do the best job I can. I will love, honour, and cherish you, all the days of my life.

Sadly, the value of a promise is never fully appreciated until that promise is broken. This has never been made more painfully clear than nowadays, as we hear all kinds of horrific cases of children being harmed by the very people pledged to protect them. The statistics are staggering. I'm not just talking about priests here: the most common abusers are family members. There are also teachers, coaches - just about any person who has authority and custody over a child is in a position to abuse that authority.

And yet, no matter how frail and flawed we all are, so capable of breaking even the most mundane of commitments, we cannot do without promises - because we cannot live without trust. Precisely because we are frail and flawed, the promises we make to each other cause us to try harder, to overcome our weaknesses, to prove ourselves worthy to hold in our hands the heart of another human being.

Some promises are harder to keep than others. Some might even seem impossible, so why bother making them at all? Why, indeed? Human promises have no value, nor even any sense - unless we believe there is one Person above all others who does keep all His promises - and gives us the strength to keep ours. In the end, ironic as it may seem, the key to keeping a promise is learning not to trust in ourselves, but in Him. 

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