ASIA WEEK: Sanbeiji
I remember a cartoon depicting a Chinese man coming home from
work, briefcase in hand. He opens the door to his house to find his family
gathered around the dining table, chopsticks poised. The caption reads: What?
Chinese food again?
This just cracks me up, especially coming from a country of immigrants where it
is not unusual to eat cuisine from several different cultures in one day.
Oatmeal for breakfast. Tacos for lunch. Pasta for dinner. When
we lived in Taiwan, we ate Chinese food every day. Maybe not every meal,
but when in Rome...
We had a live-in housekeeper, but I did all the food shopping and cooking. (I
did not do the dishes!) This pretty-much was not appreciated by our ahma, as she
felt it was her job to cook for us, but if you have been reading this blog for
more than a day or two, you can just imagine how I would feel about someone
cooking every meal for me from my own kitchen.
Not gonna happen!
Buying food in Taiwan was a struggle. The concept for the American-style
supermarket was just catching-on (mid-1980's) and it was still necessary to
visit one shop to buy meat, another to purchase vegetables, another for fruit,
another for fish... you get the picture? No? Well, here is a photo:
This market was at the bottom of the
hill from our house in Tianmou (Breastfeeding Mother...
not kidding, that is the literal English translation of
our neighborhood name). If I wanted chicken, I had to
wait for someone to kill and pluck the bird.
There were two small stores in Tianmou catering to
Westerners. They sold American "necessities" - Cheerios,
Kraft Mac & Cheese mix,
peanut butter, dried pasta, etc - and South African
wine. (In the 80's Taiwan and South Africa were
There was a KFC, a few "American" restaurants, an Irish
Pub (of course!) and a McDonald's opened in Taipei
before we moved back to the States, but basically every
restaurant was a Chinese restaurant.
The mantra of the Expatriate Family is "Bloom Where You
are Planted", and we did just that. Our life was
basically the same as if we were living in Oregon - we
just lived a bit differently.
Taipei living room
We had a very Western-style home. It was
built by the US Government as military housing during
the Vietnam War. Four bedrooms, 2.5 baths, living room,
dining room, kitchen with quarters/bath for live-in
help, a laundry room, lots of patios/balconies and a
nice little garden. We had a view over the city of
Current Portland living room
And yes, nearly 30 years later, we still have the same coffee
table, end tables and lamps.
Lisa attended Taipei
American School (K-12), where the only requirement
for admission was holding a foreign passport. Dave's
company paid her tuition. The school followed American
curriculum and schedules. Class size was limited to 15
and each class had a teacher (almost always American)
and an aide (almost always Taiwanese). TAS was like
attending a very good private academy in America...
except if you were on a sports team, you had to fly to
your game. TAS sports opponents were their sister
schools in Hong Kong, Bangkok, Singapore, etc.
Halloween at TAS 1987-ish - Lisa was a flapper (?)
My Taiwan visa did not allow employment,
so I kept myself busy volunteering at Lisa's school,
playing Mahjong most Mondays and was on the board of the
Taipei International Women's Club.
Mahjong Monday was a blast! We would
walk the kids to the bus stop and proceed directly to
the home of the weekly neighborhood host. Players were
from England, Scotland, Africa, America, Saudi Arabia,
Columbia... well, we were from everywhere! Coffee and
pastries would be served when we arrived. About 11a you could hear corks
being popped in the kitchen and wine or beer was offered
along with sandwiches or other suitable luncheon fare.
Next came sweets and then it was time to walk back to
the bus stop and fetch the kids. Tough life!
I was in charge of fundraising for the women's club. The
largest money-maker was the annual Holiday Bazaar. I went to a
few factories in Taiwan (in the 80's everything
was MADE IN TAIWAN) that produced Christmas
decorations and tree ornaments, bought them at wholesale
and sold them at retail at a big bazaar held on the grounds of the
American School on a weekend in mid-November, along with homemade crafts and baked goods.
Monies raised by the organization were used to help the
needy, mostly with medical care.
All dressed-up (second from left), listening to the TIWC
The Taipei International Women's Club
was founded in 1951, with backing from
Madame Chiang Kai-Shek (Soong May-ling, or as she
was usually referred, Madame Chiang - pronounced
Jong) and she
served as the Honorary President until her death in 2003
- at the age of 106. Madame Chiang was already quite
elderly and living in New York while I was on the
board of the TIWC, but one time she attended an event.
The room was completely abuzz with excitement that the
widow of General Chiang Kai-Shek was in the room! I had
to speak and my palms were so sweaty, I thought for
sure I was going to electrocute myself when the
microphone was placed in my hand. No matter, Madam
Chiang didn't listen to a word I said (probably
announcing the latest fundraiser), but had a private
whispered conversation with her attendant during my
Chiang Kai-Shek and Madam Chiang
Dave and I at a TIWC gala -
yes, that is the club logo as an ice sculpture
Lisa went to school, I played Mahjong
and DT went to work. DT was the big cheese at the Taiwan
office, so we were often invited out for dinner with his
business associates. And by dinner, I mean Chinese banquets -
where at least a dozen dishes are served and there was
plenty of toasting (i.e. drinking). Fancy!
Top center of this photo, don't I look
thrilled? Or perhaps am I burping? Not sure... but this
was our life at least two nights per week - more often
during Chinese holidays.
Because I was the Laobanya
(wife of the boss), it was up to me to perform such
interesting tasks as cracking open a chicken cooked in
clay. What I wouldn't do for my husband! No one would
eat until I ate. My glass was never empty. I was never
allowed to go to the ladies room alone. Ever aware of my
shellfish allergy, there was always a platter of chicken
fried rice on the table. And flowers. Lots and lots of
Celebrating the New Year with long noodles
The recipe I am sharing tonight was
never served or even offered at a fancy banquet.
Sanbeiji (pronounced san-bay-gee) is house
food, local-joint food, night market food, something
your grandma would make, something enjoyed in the
countryside - often made with rabbit. It is one of the
most popular dishes in Taiwan.
Originating from a
southern Chinese province, the Taiwanese brought Sanbeiji across the Strait of
Formosa and made it their own.
The title of the recipe translates to Three Cup Chicken (san=three,
bei=cup or glass, ji=chicken), as there are three sauce
ingredients - soy sauce, sesame oil and rice wine -
This dish is just a teeny bit spicy, so it is nice to add a few whole dried chilies to alert
diners that spice is present - not necessary though - don't go out of your way
to purchase whole dried chiles if they are not already in your pantry. (Do not eat the dried chiles or the ginger
pieces, unless you are a fire eater.) Star anise is available in the bulk spice
section of your local hippy grocer. And just use dry sherry - just a plain
old $5 variety.
1/3 cup soy sauce
1/3 cup toasted sesame oil
1/3 cup dry sherry (or Chinese rice wine) (I use sherry)
1 Tablespoons sugar
2 pieces star anise
1 teaspoon ground Szechuan (or black) peppercorns
2 teaspoons dried chili flakes
2 or three whole dried chiles (optional, as decoration)
Peanut or vegetable oil
5 cloves garlic, peeled and sliced
2 inch knob of ginger,
peeled and sliced into 1/4-inch-thick matchsticks
1.25 pounds boneless, skinless chicken thighs,
each thigh cut into 4 or 6 pieces
1 cup, loose-pack fresh basil leaves (Thai basil, if you can
find it), do not chop
3 green onions, green part only, cut into 2-inch pieces
Steamed rice, to accompany
Mix the soy sauce, toasted sesame oil, rice wine or
sherry and sugar into a small bowl or glass measuring cup. Set aside. Place
the star anise, ground pepper, dried chili flakes and dried whole chiles
together in a small bowl. Set aside.
Heat a heavy large skillet or Dutch oven over medium heat. Coat the bottom
with peanut or vegetable oil. Add the garlic and ginger and saute for a
minute or two. Do not let the garlic burn. Add the chicken and stir-fry
to brown, another two or three minutes. Pour the soy sauce mixture carefully over all
(it will bubble),
add the dried spices and stir well. Bring to a simmer and cook on a
low heat, stirring occasionally, until sauce is nearly cooked away, about 15-20
minutes. Add the basil and green onion, stirring to coat.
Remove star anise; discard. Use a slotted spoon to transfer to a platter,
discard any remaining sauce. Serve
immediately, with steamed rice. Serves 4.
visit recipe page or
Tomorrow night? Chinese in your slow cooker!
Until my next update, I remain, your three cup correspondent.
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