What Should I Eat?: Or How to Feed a Chinese Girl in America
Leftovers, Greens and Rice~~
“What should I eat?” is my daughter’s standard greeting. Not “Hi,” “Good morning” or “What’s up.” When she comes home from school, home from a friend’s or just out of her bedroom, she starts the conversation with “What should I eat?” The question has evolved with her grammar over the past three years as she learned English, from “Wo keyi chi shenme?” to “Me eat what?” to “You have something to eat I like it?” and finally to perfect English. But the obsession with her next meal or snack is constant.
Older Chinese often start a conversation with “Chi le ma?” or “Have you eaten yet?” It’s a standard greeting in that food-obsessed culture, but it’s just a pleasantry and requires no real info in response about your state of hunger. This, however, is not what Fong Chong is doing. Her question requires an answer. Pronto.
And I have to admit that a lot of times I don’t have one. There are only so many answers you can have when you live in America and your child wants to eat like she still lives in China. Peanut butter and jelly, cereal, sandwich, hot dog or hamburger are not acceptable answers. I can’t even get away with “cookies” or “ice cream”—and believe me, I would if I could—since sweets are not her thing.
Her favorite answer—and mine too—is “last night’s leftover Chinese food.”
That is why I always try to make enough for dinner to have leftovers. This is sometimes hard when cooking in a wok, since overcrowding it will turn a stir-fry into a braise and ruin the effect. But I do often double, or at least increase, the recipes I’m adapting from The Cookbooks, since they often make quite small dishes. Chinese authors, in particular, assume you’re going to make multiple dishes at every meal. But I’m not Chinese, so I just get as much as I can into the wok without it being too much.
Wok-authority Grace Young says that for a standard-size wok on a standard-btu burner the max is about 1 pound of protein. I usually push it to that max unless I’m adding a lot of vegetables to the dish. But that’s pretty much always, since my daughter, like most rural Chinese, grew up eating more vegetables than meat and likes it that way. She always picks the veggies out of a stir-fry first, and I have to admonish her to eat some meat with them. So when making a stir-fry with both meat and vegetables, I generally use only about 3/4 pound of meat. The trick to making it all fit in the wok is (usually) cooking the meat and vegetables separately, before combining them at the end.
The only other option for having extra food is making extra dishes. As a family of three, we can get by on a normal night with one protein stir-fry plus one other dish, usually a quick vegetable stir-fry, and still have some left over for the next “What should I eat?”
So below I offer the easiest, quickest of vegetable stir-frys: baby bok choy (or other leafy green), garlic, chicken broth, salt…boom!…another dish is done. Actually, when possible, I urge you to use young yu choy. This fabulous green is called you cai in Sichuan, where it’s extremely popular, and edible rape in English, which may be why it has yet to be discovered, a la bok choy, by mainstream American markets. But most Asian markets have it, and it is even more flavorful than bok choy, without being bitter in the least.
The instructions below are not so much a recipe as a technique for stir-frying greens, and you can adapt it to your needs by varying the type and amount of greens and garlic. Just remember that thicker-stalked green vegetables like broccoli will take longer to cook than young ones.
The other key to feeding an always-hungry Chinese girl is having ready-made rice at the ready. We’d be no where without this trick: Every time we make rice (we prefer jasmine rice), we make the max amount our 20-year-old Japanese rice maker can handle. After we eat dinner, but while the rice is still hot, we spoon individual servings straight out of the rice maker into sandwich baggies, flatten the rice out to fill the bag in an even layer, seal it and pop it in the freezer. The next time we need rice for leftover Chinese food, we take it out of the freezer, unzip the baggie and put it in the microwave for three minutes. Take it out, and you’ve got convincingly fresh and moist, steaming hot rice. The heat trapped in the baggie makes its own steam when re-heated, and it works like a dream every time.
So try these tips if you’re got a Chinese—or Chinese-food-loving—mouth to feed, and at least part of the time you’ll have an answer to “What should I eat?”
~~Do you have your own tricks and tips? Please share in the comments section!
- 1 to 1½ pounds leafy greens such as baby bok choy or baby yu choy or 1 pound baby broccoli
- 4 large garlic cloves, left whole, sliced or minced
- ¼ to ⅓ cup chicken or vegetable broth
- ½ teaspoon kosher or sea salt
- Cut greens into bite-size pieces, about 2-3 inches long, wash and dry well (a salad spinner works great).
- If using whole cloves or large slices of garlic: Heat a wok over high heat until hot. Add 2 tablespoons peanut or canola oil and reduce heat to medium. Add the garlic pieces to the oil when it it hot and cook until golden, turning down heat if they brown too quickly.
- Add the greens to the garlic oil and stir-fry for about a minute, until they just start to wilt.
- If using minced garlic: Heat a wok over high heat until hot. Add 2 tablespoons peanut or canola oil, and when oil is starting to smoke add the greens. Stir-fry for a minute, then add the minced garlic and stir-fry briefly.
- For either method, after the first minute or so of stir-frying, add salt and about ¼ to ⅓ cup chicken broth. Cover wok, turn heat down to medium-low, and let greens simmer/steam until they are cooked through, about a minute, or to your liking.