I was born on the island of Hong Kong during its British colonization, but two weeks ago I made my first journey to mainland China. When China lost the Opium War, it gave up Hong Kong to the British for 99 years. In '97, the lease was over. But, like a child given up by its parents, I never felt allegiance to the motherland, which is why I never visited China in my earlier years. I was a native of Hong Kong, not China, and always made that distinction very clear when people asked where I was from.
I'm older now and a mother of two Chinese-American boys born in Florida. I felt a strong need to visit China and explore my ancestral roots. I couldn't bear to hold the grudge any longer; it wouldn't be fair to my sons.
The first step toward reconciliation was to start with an easy subject, one in which we could establish good will and common ground: food. Only after a full stomach and happy heart could we ease into more controversial subjects like politics, personal freedoms and bad karaoke.
Prior to leaving, I dreamt of writing and photographing elaborate, exotic delicacies from each region on our two-week tour across the country. I fantasized about showcasing authentic versions of Kung Pao chicken and sweet-and-sour pork that resembled nothing like the overly sweet, calorie-laden American versions.
But that's not what happened. For several days, I trekked through Beijing's major tourist attractions — Tienanmen Square, the Forbidden City, the Summer Palace and the Ming Dynasty Tombs. And while I enjoyed the relics immensely, after a while I forced myself to look past the country's trademarks and instead study its people. Not the tour guide or the souvenir hawkers, but the locals on the fringe, those people who normally never appear within a camera's viewfinder.
At a local restaurant minutes from the base of the Great Wall, a girl no older than 7, with a plum-shaped face, simple clothing and crooked pigtails that looked like the tips of ancient calligraphy brushes, sat with her parents. She probably spared no thought for Hannah Montana, High School Musical or Brangelina as she waited eagerly for her supper. Her mama scooped a mountain of snowy steamed rice with the bamboo spatula into the little girl's bowl. Her baba carefully balanced a spoonful of preserved vegetables with slivers of pork on top of the rice. With a wide-eyed "waaaahhh!" — Chinese slang for "wow!" — she hungrily lifted the bowl just to the tip of her lips and grasped her chopsticks to shovel it all in.
That's when I knew I could no longer write about Peking duck with scallion pancakes or about steamed mitten crabs. In order to fully appreciate authentic dishes from China, I first had to pay respect to the foundation of Chinese cuisine and the most humble food of all, rice. And this began my journey to reconnect with my country.
We enjoyed congee every morning for breakfast in China, usually with a variety of toppings like minced scallions, picked vegetables and fried wonton skins.
1 cup raw rice
1/2 lb ground beef (marinated in 1 tbsp soy sauce, 1 tbsp cornstarch, 1/2 tsp Chinese cooking wine or dry sherry)
2 cloves garlic, minced
2 tbsp dried shrimp (optional)
10 cups water or stock
1 1/2 tbsp soy sauce and ground pepper to taste
Toppings: minced scallions, cilantro, deep fried wonton skins, shredded ginger
1. Wash rice, drain and repeat three more times, until the water runs clear. Marinate the beef for 10 minutes. Soak dried shrimp in a half cup of hot water and drain.
2. Heat large stockpot over medium-high heat with two tbsp cooking oil. When hot, add ground beef, dried shrimp and garlic. Fry until ground beef is browned. Add the stock or water, soy sauce and rice. Turn heat to high. When boiling, immediately turn heat to low and simmer 40 minutes. Taste and adjust with more soy sauce and pepper.
Jaden Hair blogs at steamykitchen.com.