My Mom was never one to really curse or yell.
Even if the occasion might justifiably call for it.
The closest I ever came to hearing her do that was long ago when I was just starting college. My oldest brother had gone out wind-surfing in the Bay as he was wont to do on breezy Sunday afternoons. Only this time, hours after night fell, he still hadn’t returned home. This was long before cell phones, so we could only wait nervously to see if he would show up. My parents grew more anxious as the hours passed. So much so, that I finally felt compelled to summon my nascent journalism skills at that time to call the Coast Guard to inquire if any accidents had happened on the Bay that day.
Of course, right after I hung up the phone, my brother arrived home — safe and sound. Turns out he had decided to go out to dinner afterward with some friends, but neglected to let his family know.
My Mom was relieved, of course. But she let my brother have it in her own way. Never raising her voice, but rather in her usual calm, soft cadence, she called my brother the b-word. You know, the word for a child born out of wedlock, the term so easily thrown around in today’s vernacular that nobody even bats an eye now.
But I never forgot my Mom uttering it. I’m pretty sure my brother never did, either. Because it was so uncharacteristic. And because she never said it again to anyone else, so you know just how upset she must have been to have used it that once.
That was my Mom, though. Always graceful, dignified and composed. Sure, she’d scold us at times for messy rooms or chores undone. But always in that quiet, measured way. Her way.
Except for that one incident, I never saw her emotions really reach a boiling point. No, the only steam I ever saw around her was in the kitchen. When she’d fill a familiar pan with a few inches of water, then set a rack into it to elevate a pie plate to steam a whole fish with ginger or spare ribs in black bean sauce or a savory egg custard laden with ground pork and deep orange duck egg yolks.
Or a family favorite of chicken slivers, shiitakes and sweet, fatty slices of Chinese sausage — all mingled together in one lovely dish. We’d scoop up spoonfuls to put over mounds of jasmine rice, using the fluffy grains to soak up the natural juices that had joined together with the soy sauce and fresh ginger to create a savory, earthy and yet subtly sweet sauce.
I was pleasantly reminded of that dish when I thumbed through Bay Area food writer Linda Lau Anusasananan’s cookbook, “The Hakka Cookbook” (University of California Press), and spotted a recipe for “Steamed Chicken and Chinese Sausage.” I always thank the stars that she wrote this book because so many of the recipes remind me of dishes I lovingly grew up with.
This dish comes together easily, which is why I’m sure so many Chinese families adopted it as a staple. Once you chop up chicken thighs, soak dried mushrooms, and cut up a Chinese sausage, just put it all in a pie pan and stir in the soy sauce, sugar, Chinese rice wine, cornstarch, a little of the mushroom soaking liquid, a dash of vegetable oil and a pinch of sugar. (The only change I made was to decrease the amount of cornstarch because the first time I made it the sauce seemed slightly gloppy.) Place the dish in a steamer, and allow to cook undisturbed for about 25 minutes.
Lift the lid and the aroma will hit you immediately — of all the flavorful ingredients that have combined to create a delicious synergy that still maintains a wonderful purity.
With char and flames, cooking is often violent by nature. But steaming is one of its most gentlest forms. It does what needs to be done without added flash or histrionics.
Kind of like my Mom — even when riled.
Steamed Chicken and Chinese Sausage
(Serves 2 to 3 as a main dish, or 6 as part of a multicourse meal)
5 dried shiitake mushrooms, each about 1 1/2 inches wide
5 dried black fungus, such as cloud ears, about 1 inch wide, or 2 additional dried shiitake mushrooms
2 cups hot water
1 green onion, including green tops, ends trimmed
12 ounces boneless, skinless chicken thighs or breasts
1 Chinese sausage (about 2 ounces)
2 tablespoons soy sauce
2 tablespoons Chinese rice wine (shaoxing) or dry sherry
2 teaspoons cornstarch
1 teaspoon vegetable oil
1/2 teaspoon sugar
2 tablespoons thinly slivered fresh ginger
Rinse the mushrooms and fungus. Place both in a medium bowl and cover with hot water. Soak until soft, 20 minutes for thin caps to 2 hours for thick caps. Lift out the mushrooms and fungus, rinse well, and squeeze out excess water. Strain the soaking water and reserve. Remove and discard the tough stems from the mushrooms. Pinch out and discard the hard knobby centers from the fungus. Cut mushrooms and fungus into 1-inch pieces. Cut the green onion, including green tops, into 2-inch lengths, and then cut lengthwise into 1/4-inch slivers.
Meanwhile, trim off and discard the excess fat from the chicken. Cut chicken across the grain into strips about 1/2 inch thick, 2 inches long and 3/4 inch wide. Cut the sausage diagonally into 1/4-inch-thick slices. In a 9-inch shallow heatproof dish that will fit inside a steamer, such as a Pyrex pie pan, mix 1/4 cup of the reserved mushroom-soaking water, soy sauce, wine, cornstarch, oil and sugar. Add the chicken, sausage, mushrooms, fungus, and ginger; mix to coat. Spread the mixture to level.
Set the dish on a rack over 2 to 4 inches of boiling water in a steamer or wok (if the bottom is round, place on a wok ring to stabilize). If the steamer lid is flat metal, wrap the lid with a towel to reduce condensation on the food. Cover and steam on high heat until the chicken is no longer pink in the center (cut to test), 20 to 25 minutes. Watch the water level, adding more boiling water as needed. Carefully remove the dish from the steamer. Sprinkle with green onions and serve.
Adapted from “The Hakka Cookbook” by Linda Lau Anusasananan
Another recipe by Linda Lau Anusasananan: Pan-Fried Fish, Green Onions, and Chiles