First off, a belated, very happy mother's day to all the mothers and mothers-to-be out there! If it wasn't for our mothers, we would not be here today or had someone to fuss over us when we're sick or hurt. Now my relationship was my mother has never been calm or smooth and we may not trade secrets, but she will always be my mother. And I will always love her no matter what happens.
I was definitely never an obedient Chinese daughter growing up. I was too involved with my inner turmoil of learning how to fit in and be "American". I despaired of ever finding anything in common with my white American friends in the suburbs of northern NJ. While their mothers were baking them chocolate chip cookies with milk and making spaghetti, my mother was introducing me to chicken gizzards, hearts and cow brain. I loved the few days when my mom made spaghetti for me and my sister. Even then, her spaghetti definitely had an Asian flair; the recipe is still one which I use to this day and will share one day soon. Of course, it has been slightly tweaked to suit my tastes.
While hearing about eating offal may sound awful (I know...so bad, but I couldn't resist!!), they are some of my favorite things to eat today. It may have been the fact that when I ate them I had no idea what they were. My mom just put the plate down in front of me and I ate or did not leave the dinner table. I thank her for that, ungrateful child that I was. If it wasn't for her, I would never have known the sweet & savory flavors that I love so much now.
For mother's day this year, my parents really wanted to spend the day in by Bear Mountain to attend the Buddha Day ceremonies at Chuang Yen Monastery. Every year for the past 12 years or so, my parents make this annual 2-hour trip to the temple for the ritual washing of the Buddha commemorating the birth of Buddha. Since I attended university out-of-state and then lived in Virginia for a few years after graduating, I had obviously not attended in years. The last time I was there, the monastery had not even been complete yet.
My father performing the ritual of washing the statue of Buddha.
To my surprise, the completed monastery is set upon a sprawling ground, elegant and serene. Set within a mountainous hill right off Route 301 near the town of Lake Carmel, it has adapted the trees it was built within and made it part of their own for a harmonious appearance. With the bright sun sneaking through the tree branches and the sounds of the Buddhist monks chanting as we walked up the pathway to the center of the monastery, it was truly humbling. Even the interior of the Great Buddha Hall is unique from any other Buddhist temples I have seen. Modern-looking with the airiness and massive blonde wood pillars supporting the building, it is still breathtaking to say the least. It almost feels as if they brought the woods of the outside and tamed it with the hall. At a grand height of 84 foot, a visitor walks in and is welcomed in by light and space. At the center of it all is the main attraction: the 37 foot statue of Buddha Vairocana - the largest Buddha statue in the Western hemisphere. Encircling the large statue are 10,000 small statues of the Buddha on a lotus terrace. While I don't feel the same sense of history as I do when I walk through other older Buddhist temples, there is a sense of peace and serenity that the monks of Chuang Yen make each visitor feel still.
My parents made their donation and left a blessing in the form of the candle to protect the family.
After we finished with the celebration around noon, we headed over to the grassy area where a bunch of stalls had been set up with food vendors and some random goods to sell. I was drooling over one of my favorite things to eat shown below, braised seaweed and tofu. Yummy yummy!!
There was even this man carving pieces of vegetables into various shapes. He was working on a rooster carving on a whole piece of daikon radish here. My father used to carve carrot flowers or pagoda temples out of daikon radish for our meals all the time growing up, so I'm always enthralled watching this form of artistry.
And then my all time favorite street snacks which can be found in all various parts of Asia in different forms: fishballs on a stick grilled on a barbecue. As you can see here it is not only fishballs, but other things like tempura or tempeh. Since we were at a monastery, there was no meat to be found at the temple. Perfect for all you veggies! These were flavored with a soy-sauce base that was a little sweet.
This savory snack is what I am offering as my Mother's Day recipe because it was something my mom made for us a lot and what I would eat when I was in Taiwan visiting as a child and when I visit any Asian country. Since my mother much prefers something like this to any baked goods, I know that she would chow down on these happily especially with her love for eggplant. :)
Normally, the sauce I use is made with chicken hearts or gizzards in our kitchen. But I am toning it down here to make it more accessible as I know how frightening it can be for most people. We normally use the Asian BBQ sauce as the base, but my puny muscles couldn't open the new bottle. Sniff, sniff. It was replaced with the bottle of black bean sauce that was MUCH easier to open up. I was pretty pleased with the outcome of my Chinese kebabs...they were smoky, sweet, and salty with a slight kick at the end.
With the barbecue season upon us and this gorgeous spring weather, it's the perfect thing to throw on the grill as an unusual twist to surprise your guests. Or if you're like me with no grill in sight, just throw it into the oven for a great appetizer at your next dinner party!
Makes 6 sticks
For the sauce:
2 cloves garlic, roughly minced
1 thick slice ginger, skin removed and roughly minced
2 tbsp black bean sauce (I used Lee Kum Kee brand)
1/4 cup low-sodium soy sauce (I use the same soy sauce I had growing up in my mom's kitchen, Kimlan Ponlai soy sauce, any other brand would be sacrilegious)
Dash of sesame oil
1 tsp sugar
1/2 tsp red chile flakes (or to taste, I like a slight kick but not overwhelming)
Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
For the skewers:
3 boneless, skinless chicken thighs, cut into 1 inch cubes
1/2 Italian eggplant, cut into 1 inch cubes (I would recommend 1 Japanese eggplant since it doesn't take as long to cook and more tender, but I couldn't find it that day)
2 scallions (using entire stalk), cut into 1 inch pieces
6 wooden skewers
1. In a non-reactive, medium size bowl, add all of the ingredients and mix together with a spoon until it has all come together. Add the chicken, eggplant and scallion and mix until each piece is coated with sauce. Cover top of bowl with plastic wrap and refrigerate for a minimum of half hour. I would recommend 2-3 hours for the flavors to really seep into the chicken and eggplant.
2. While the kebabs are marinating, put the wooden skewers in a baking dish filled half way with cold water. Make sure the skewers are immersed in the water. Otherwise, put another pan on top to keep it from floating. This will keep the skewers from burning while in the oven.
3. Take the kebab mixture out of the fridge and preheat the oven to 375 degrees. While preheating, start putting together the skewers. I started with the chicken, eggplant then scallion and repeated it one more time. You can do whatever your heart desires here! If you want all chicken or all eggplant, go right ahead.
4. Cook in preheated oven for approximately 20-25 minutes until chicken is cooked fully. Take out halfway to turn over and baste with the leftover sauce. I have warned you in the past before about overcooking chicken which makes it completely dry and stringy. You will know the chicken is done if you press down with your finger and it is slightly firm, but not a lot of give. If you are grilling this outside on your barbecue, it should only take 5-7 minutes per side on a hot grill before it is cooked to perfection.
5. On a rectangular serving platter, pile the skewers up on top each other. Serve immediately. It is still mighty tasty at room temperature, but hot is obviously better. :)