Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Former Kuomintang Brings Oolong to Thailand

Formosa's Jewel: Oolong Tea Leaves.

"The general is tall and thin, with silver hair and wild, wispy eyebrows that fly from his face like a set of wings. He sits before the windows of a concrete room painted mint-julep green, wearing a brown winter jacket with a fur collar that rings his wrinkled face. It's cold up here in the mountains along the Thai-Myanmar border; wintry air invades the general's home.

Lue Ye-tein, 92, is known for soldiering. He fought in Chiang Kai-shek's Kuomintang (KMT) army against Mao Zedong. Later, he was instrumental in defeating Thailand's Communist insurgents. But first, before any talk of war, he offers tea -- a pale, peach-colored oolong grown in his garden. 'The plant is from Taiwan,' he says. 'The Taiwanese government gave the plants to the people here to help us grow them.' Tea is key to General Lue's story."

Full disclosure here: I drink tea like water. Few other pleasures in life can rival that fragrant mix of herbs and spices, combined with hot water to produce a vapory brew. I can savor a cup of English breakfast tea over biscuits and scones with friends, at home with a honey vanilla chamomile mug after a grueling day of work, or in a raucous Korean BBQ restaurant, knocking back small cups of boricha (barley tea).

So when I came across this eye-opening piece from Gourmet magazine about a former Kuomintang general who fled Mao Zedong and took refuge in Thailand, later becoming a purveyor of oolong tea there, I was hooked. Lue brought oolong seeds back to Taiwan as an excuse to reestablish communication with his homeland. In the process, this nonogenarian developed a profound love for tea and continues to grow it for pleasure. For Lue, tea is a way of life.

Small wonder that I, too, enjoy tea so much. Tea is something that runs in my family's heritage. My mom and my aunt both love tea. Mom prefers the soothing scent of jasmine and the therapeutic properties of hawthorn (which helps reduce high blood pressure). My aunt, on the other hand, goes for strong oolong tea and British brews, with milk and sugar. I myself am partial to rooibos, or African redbush tea, and a heady cup of Punjabi Indian Chai, made with lots of cardamom, cinnamon, cloves and nutmeg. Recently, I've discovered Rooibos Punjabi Chai. I have yet to try this particular version, but I'll be sure to put it on my to-drink list.

NOTE: This counts as a vegan-friendly post!

How to Make Spam: Girl Scout Version

Green Eggs & Spam...kind of.

"I do not like green eggs and ham.
I do not like them, Sam-I-am."

You may recognize these words, spawned from the childhood staple by Dr. Seuss. While I'm all for the color green, today's activity does not involve green eggs. Or eggs, for that matter. Instead, I summoned up my inner Girl Scout and conjure up spam musubi without using a musubi maker.

Background: Spam is a familiar canned precooked meat produced by Hormel Foods Corporation. The classic variety of spam is made of chopped pork with ham added, salt, water, sugar and sodium nitrite to retain its (pink blob of a) color. Spam was created in 1937 and became a war-time staple in the U.S. during World War II when fresh meat was difficult to obtain. It especially caught on in Okinawa and the Philippine Islands and was even integrated into the local diet.

Spam musubi (pronounced moo-soo-bee, with no accent) originated in Hawaii and is modeled after Japanese onigiri (rice balls). In essence, it is made with nori as its base, pressed rice, sliced spam, another layer of rice, then everything pressed and rolled up tightly into a rectangular wedge. It's essential that the spam musubi be pressed compactly -- otherwise, it will crumble when you take a bite.

For those of you who can't imagine spam being anything near a delicacy, you must first understand that Hawaiians have a long-time love affair with spam. They eat it for breakfast, lunch and dinner, putting it in soup and stews. More than four million cans of Spam are consumed every year, and this just from Hawaii!

Sliced spam. Not cut with butter knife pictured.

Okay, so you're up on the history of spam musubi. Now you're probably thinking: How is it even possible to make spam musubi without the musubi maker? (It's all sold out on Amazon, as we speak.)

Ghetto musubi maker substitutes.

With this!

I scrounged up two soap dishes, which can easily be bought at your local dollar store. Next, I covered them with Saran wrap and aluminum foil, so as not to get any soap residue in my digestive tract (ew, gross). Above: I used the green soap dish as the top, to press the musubi down. You need a smooth edge to do that. Its partner-in-crime, the foil-masked dish, plays stand-in for the rice mold. In case you were wondering, that flaky green stuff in the back is nori. Hey, never promised this was a mess-free dish.

Click on the title for the Serious Eats' spam musubi recipe that I followed, which relies mostly on improvisation, but you can also check out a more structured version here.

Naked Spam: Up close and personal.

Even though it was originally known as "poor people food," I see spam as a yummy treat that combines the natural saltiness of spam and soy sauce with the sweetness of carmelized sugar and the crunchiness of nori. The hot rice absorbs any additional saltiness.

Jasmine tea to wash it all down.

From an economical perspective, a can of spam cost me $2.50 at H mart, 8 slices of nori cost $.75 each, 3 cups of short-grained rice cost something like $1.50. TOTAL: $4.25. Feeds four. That's about a buck apiece! Just add some vegetables on the side and you've got a meal.

Enough gushing from me -- go try some spam musubi for yourself! Dang, I should've just called this entry "Spam: A Tribute."

Makeshift Meal

Sometimes, you do things you regret. And sometimes, you wake up with hair like this -- perhaps best described as a cross between a faux 'hawk and the Asian mullet. This really has nothing to do with food at all but I thought it was too amusing not to share.

Sin City-esque shot.

What to eat for a quick dinner? Racking the fridge, I tossed together an egg...

Pajun nearly the size of my hand!

...Then some kimchi pajun (pancake). Mine was, admittedly, pre-made from H mart, but you can make your own with a few simple ingredients: 1/2 head of kimchi, 5 small leeks, 1 egg, 1 cup flour, 1 cup milk, vegetable oil, dash of salt.

1. Squeeze water out from the kimchi and chop up.
2. Cut leeks up into 1-inch pieces.
3. Pour the egg and milk (or water) into the flour and mix well.
4. Mix #1, 2 and 3 together and add a dash of salt.
5. Pour a few drops of vegetable oil on a heated pan and fry to taste.

Recipe courtesy of 1StopKorea.com.

...Plus a generous helping of rice. Just add some salt, pepper and kelp (seaweed) to the fried egg. Fiiiill'erup!