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Every Grain of Rice

by: Blonder, Ellen and Low, Annabel

New York NY: Clarkson Potter 1998, $25.00, Hardbound
ISBN: 0-609-60102-4

Reviewed by: Jacqueline M. Newman
Winter Volume: 1998 Issue: 5(4) page(s): 14

Subtitled: A Taste of Our Childhood in America, this cookbook authored by aunt and niece born sixteen days apart, tells about them and what they ate. Raised almost as siblings, together they provide more than one hundred twenty recipes mixed with memories, photographs, and watercolors by Ellen; a charming mix.

As in Ken Hom's most recent cookbook Easy Family Recipes from A Chinese-American Childhood published by Knopf in 1997, we are treated to treasured memories. Fascinating tales tell of their combined family meals, major life-cycle events, and their multi-generational families.

When Annabel's sister is getting married, this book is born because Ellen sets out to put a few family recipes together. She incorporates others in her thought processes and increases family togetherness since Ellen's Mom and her Grandma were pregnant at the same time. Confused? Annabel is Ellen's aunt and Ellen's mother is Annabel's sister. The book's background materials clarify this and culinary matters in the introductory chapters, written by each of them.

Learn what a difference a generation makes, why the authors only do prep work in their parent's kitchens, and why they begin to teach their own daughters who, alas, only know how to deal with corporations not congee. This lack of knowledge increases their desire to gather materials for this wedding present and family legacy; it sets the tone for required explorations that finally does become Every Grain of Rice.

Written in memory of Annabel's mother who needed food for the family and traded her jade jewelry for five pounds of rice while her father was in America, the book is peppered with recollections, recipes, even reasons why they knew so little about food. It also is a venue to share as conversations at the table were rude intrusions into the serious business of eating. Surprising, from a family that spent much energy arguing the merits of this vegetable or that fish, how little they knew about how they were made.

Things will be different for their children. The book educates about table etiquette, food notions, and foods to savor. Try their Fried Green Tomatoes with Flank Steak and their Green Loofah Squash with Prawns, both follow a page about preserving traditions.

Read about San Francisco banquets then cook up the Clams and Mussels in Black Bean Sauce and Squid Tossed with Soy Sauce and Oil, and more. Be enticed by the page about eggs then try to make the Salt Preserved Eggs, Stir-Fried Rice Noodles (Chow Fun), and the Tomato Beef or Vegetarian Chow Mein.

Learn of birthday parties and Batter-Fried Chicken, Chinese Chicken Salad, Chicken in Foil or Parchment, Steamed Chicken with Cloud Ears and Black Mushrooms, and more. Try Annabel's father's Boned Stuffed Duck or her mother's Stand Back Chicken. Relish Ellen's mother's Roast Chicken and everyone's Thanksgiving favorite, Sticky Rice with Sausage and Taro Root.

You will love the drawings, smile at family facts, and note a few shortcomings that provide awareness of little depth about their own cuisine. Never mind, be thrilled that the recipes are easily made. As the fly-leaf says, they are a perfect introduction to the art of Chinese cooking and a moving celebration of food and family. Try their Chinese New Year Cake, it is detailed, delicious, and appropriate to make for the upcoming Year of the Rabbit.
Chinese New Year's Cake
1 pound Chinese brown sugar bars
1 and 3/4 cups water
1 and a 1/2 teaspoons vegetable oil
4 and 3/4 cups glutinous rice flour
1 and a 1/3 cups mashed cooked or canned yams
1 jujube, for garnish (optional)
1/4 teaspoon sesame seeds, for garnish (optional)
1. Bring sugar and water to the boil, lower the heat and simmer six to seven minutes until the sugar has dissolved, then cool.
2. Mix in the oil and set aside one-quarter cup of this syrup.
3. In a large bowl, combine the flour and the yams. Then add the remaining syrup and combine. Then mix with your hands squeezing the batter through your fingers for at least ten minutes. The longer done the better and the chewier the cake will be.
4. Generously oil a nine-inch round cake pan (or a two-quart heatproof bowl with straight sides such as one for a souffle). Pour the batter in, smooth the top, then tap the pan several times to force bubbles to the top.; resmooth the top and spread the reserved syrup over it.
5. Steam over at least two inches of boiling water for four hours. Replenish the water with more boiling water every twenty minutes or so; be careful not to get water on the cake.
6. Garnish, if desired, five minutes before completion by putting a jujube in the center and sprinkling with sesame seeds; then steam five minutes longer. When done, cool to room temperature. When cool, cover with foil and let rest overnight or up to three days in the refrigerator. When ready to serve, steam for ten minutes, then re-cool to room temperature before serving. Turn the cake out but do not turn it over.. To serve, cut it in one-quarter-inch thick slices. This recipe serves sixteen.

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