Happy good eating! The importance of tradition in food

Images by Stacy Nguyen

By Stacy Nguyen
Northwest Asian Weekly

My mom banned turkey from our Christmas table this year. The reason why is because she doesn’t want to buy a vat of peanut oil or set up our industrial propane-fueled five-gallon deep fryer or risk third degree burns and disfiguration.

I know — so lazy.

Around this time of year, many of us go through these trials and tribulations just to make a genetic dud of a bird taste just “all right.” Why?

Well, there’s something to be said about tradition. We repeat these rituals because it stirs happy memories in us. Asian Americans are in a unique position because many of us didn’t learn about Santa Claus or pumpkin pie from our parents. This education came from TV and school.

I had my first sip of eggnog just last year. One of my non-Asian friends raved about it, saying, “You need to try it! You need to try it! It’s the best.”

It totally wasn’t.

But the difference between him and me is that when he drinks eggnog, he remembers his grandmother making it. When I drink it — nothing.

My traditions are different, a mish-mash of the stuff I learned on TV and brought home to my parents so they could do their best to create a mimic. Of course, the details got lost in translation, though I think it’s been for the better.

For instance:

Booze, booze, booze!

Celebrity chef Ming Tsai has an Asian-inspired cocktail recipe called “Ginger Rum with Numbing Cubes.” It takes a bit of time to make, but it is worth it. The drink is made of ginger syrup mixed with rum, sparkling water, and a squeeze of lime. Ice cubes made of ground Szechwan peppercorns, sugar, and lemon zest make your tongue feel numb, hence the name.

Maybe I shouldn’t, but I really love lychee martinis. They’re made with iced vodka, lychee syrup, and a little bit of the juice. The flavor is subtle, but distinct. The best part after finishing the drink is biting into a fresh lychee fruit at the end.

I had my first lychee martini in my 20s. It made me think of the time when I was 5 and sat at my mom’s feet as she painstakingly peeled lychee after lychee for me, letting me spit out the seeds into her palm.

If you have to have turkey …

The current trend is Peking-style turkey, but I’m not a fan. Turkey doesn’t have enough fat to warrant the Peking treatment. You’ll just be eating it and going, “Oh, man, I wish this was duck.”

My family honors the cooking tradition of Asians everywhere. We marinate the bird in a soy sauce-based mixture and then throw it into a vat of hot oil. The magic number is 160 degrees. Don’t let it get over that temperature. It takes less than an hour to do a 15-pound turkey.

Oh look, mini fruitcakes

Actually, I’ve never had fruitcake.

But around this time of year, we do eat moon cakes. I like the lotus paste ones with the golden salted egg of happiness in the middle or those durian ones. The moon cake that reminds me of fruitcake, though, is the kind that is filled chockfull with nuts and candied winter melon.


I didn’t have savory mashed potatoes until I started school where they served it with gravy during lunch. Before then, my grandma made sweetened mashed potatoes. She mashed up plain ol’ russet potatoes with a fork, poured in some milk, threw in a fistful of butter, and added a few spoonfuls of sugar.

I thought this recipe was a family quirk until I had similar sweetened white potatoes at a Korean barbeque in the banchan many years later.

When asked whether this potato treatment is Vietnamese, Phung Truong said it’s “only for kids.”

Which explains a lot.

DIY soymilk

It’s been estimated in a UC Davis study that 90 to 100 percent of Asians (including Asian Americans) are lactose intolerant.

The great thing about soymilk is that you can use it to substitute for milk, cup for cup, in a lot of recipes. I grew up drinking it, so I think it tastes better than regular milk.

It’s also not hard to make. My grandma used to soak the beans for a day before she ground them in a blender with water. She poured the whole thing in cheesecloth and sat on the floor with a bowl squeezing out every last bit of milk with her hands. After that, boil the milk and flavor. It’s that easy. ♦

For Ming Tsai’s cocktail recipe, visit www.ming.com.

Stacy Nguyen can be reached at stacy@nwasianweekly.com.

Assunta Ng’s recipe for Asian style prime rib

This rib roast is so good that it doesn’t require much dressing before it tastes great. Ng’s family recipe only uses five ingredients.

You will need:
– A rib roast (prime rib)
– Soy sauce
– Plum wine
– Salt
– Pepper

1. Rub salt all over the rib, paying extra attention to the fatty parts
2. Punch holes in the rib with a fork
3. Cover with equal parts soy sauce and plum wine
4. Sprinkle liberally with black pepper
5. To help cook the rib evenly, tie the rib with butcher’s twine parallel to the bones

Broil the rib in the oven for 20 minutes on a low setting. After that, bake the rib at 320 degrees. The amount of time you cook it depends on how big your rib is and the doneness you are aiming for. Ng estimates that for a medium rare piece, it is 20 minutes a pound. She advises that you test thoroughly, though.”


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One Response to “Happy good eating! The importance of tradition in food”

  1. I’ve invited the whole family to ours this xmas for a traditional dinner, so the roast is pretty important! I found a lot of ideas at this roast recipe site, but cant seem to decide on one in particular – there’s too many to choose from! It’s fun planning such a big family dinner though!


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