In My Kitchen February 2013

Celia at Fig Jam and Lime Cordial hosts the In My Kitchen series, and it’s a lot of fun to read, so head over there and check it out!

This month I have been blogging in slow motion because I haven’t got the Internet at my new apartment, strictly speaking. So this month’s IMK has some things that were in my kitchen last week but aren’t there any more…

In my kitchen there is:

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This beautiful and very effective ginger grater that my cousin Elaine sent me. I love how deep it is, and I have to concur with her opinion that it is the best one she has been able to find. Isn’t it nice to have good looking things in the kitchen!

In my kitchen there is:

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This photo of my grandparents. I always hang this picture up in my kitchen, no matter where I am. I never met them; they died before I was born. But they have loomed large in my upbringing, like mythological figures. My mother has always told me stories about them, and one of my favorite things about when we would have family get-togethers was to hear my mom and my aunt and uncles talking about when they were all growing up together. I think of them a lot at this time of year because of the next thing in my kitchen this month:

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Every year at Chinese new year, my kitchen becomes host to a little swamp of dried ingredients in bowls of water. Lily buds, tree moss, “tree ear” fungus, mushrooms, doufu sticks, lotus seed, peanuts — these are some of the building blocks of Jai, a Buddhist (hence vegetarian) dish made to celebrate the new year. Making this dish is an act that makes me feel the narrative thread between my life and the life of my grandparents in the most tangible and enjoyable way. The first time I made it, I was 22 and living in a tenement apartment in New York, on Allen St. I had a board balanced on the bathtub in the kitchen to host the swamp, I remember. Making Jai is just a “little bit of this and a little bit of that” process — you cook everything together and add fermented red doufu and slab sugar until you reach a balance that is pleasing to you. The fermented doufu has a very particular smell and a pungent and salty flavor. My kitchen was filled with familiar smells and as I looked up at that same photo of my grandparents, I knew I was smelling and tasting something very similar to something they had enjoyed themselves, long before I was around.

Making Jai is also something that joins the people in my family who are still around. My cousin Elaine sent me the ingredients to make Jai this year (by prevailing upon my long-suffering friend Meltem who was visiting NYC to take them back to Turkey and send them to me. Thanks Meltem!). And I can’t make Jai now without remembering the year that Elaine and I made it together at her house and she spaced out while we were gossiping and cooking and put a whole jar of fermented doufu into the Jai instead of one cake of it. We washed it out and started again (I kept the jar and use it to hold my chopsticks in the garden kitchen).

Happy year of the Snake, everyone!

There’s a reason that Chinese new year is also known as Spring Festival; in my kitchen there is:

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a makeshift potting station that comes out after the boys go to sleep (you don’t want to know what happens when they get their hands on potting soil). I have been starting nightshade family veg (well, tomatoes, peppers and eggplants, anyway) in black bags at the apartment; I thought the bags would be good since they are bigger than paper pots, so I can just let the seedlings grow in them until they are big enough to be planted out. I have paper pots in the greenhouse in the garden with some greens, and will start direct sowing a few things under cola bottle cloches. It is nice to have a bit of garden life in the apartment. I don’t keep houseplants here because I tend to kill them — I don’t know why it is, but I can’t look after indoor plants at all. I always thought I had black thumbs and was like plant kryptonite, but it turns out all I needed was a little bit of earth to plant my feet in and put my plants in and I could look after them just fine.

oh, all right…

I have always been pretty grumpy on this, the holiday engineered to create maximum misery among the unloved. I would scowl at the bunches of flowers, and fantasize about jabbing mylar balloons with a hat pin. Then I took to ignoring it all. That worked great for a while. But this year, with Baki the 6 year-old budding romantic and total holiday enthusiast in the house, I shed my curmudgeonliness (temporarily, of course).

Good morning, Valentine.

In other words, on this day, the holy day of love, as on so many other days of the year, having a kid around the house has definitely improved the general outlook of things. Here’s to you. my little valentine.

a.k.a

We are back in the garden at last! Four days in Istanbul was more than enough running around for me. It was so busy that I didn’t even have time to stand still long enough to wish all and sundry a very happy year of the dragon (or, for that matter, to thank anyone for their new year greetings).
Somehow, though, we did manage to sit down for a new year’s meal. My mom and I had experimented with making dumplings using lamb; while I was teaching in Harbin, I had really nice lamb and cabbage dumplings (and rather a lot of them too, at an establishment known as Eastern Dumpling King. While scarfing dumplings, you could flag down waiters with kettles of hot dumpling water to wash them down with. And I won’t even start on the black vinegar for dipping. I could bathe in black vinegar.)We picked a Chinese (Napa) cabbage from the garden, parboiled it, and made a dumpling filling with lots of ginger, green onion, a bit of sesame oil, soy and salt. We froze it raw and brought it to our friend Maia’s house, in my mom’s old neighborhood, Cihangir. Maia, in addition to making a dumpling wrapper (she’s something of an expert) made Georgian chicken with walnut sauce; our friend Ranit made Baki’s all time favorite super spicy Sri Lankan chicken drumsticks; and of course, we steamed a fish. We all pitched in with folding the dumplings. As usual, none of mine stood up, which spparantly means I am lazy (how true. The dumplings know the truth of it). It was a great way to start the new year: among good friends and good food.
I am also starting this new year with a new name. Three years ago, I began the process of applying for Turkish citizenship, and while we were in Istanbul I was finally awarded a Turkish ID card. I asked if I could use my maiden name, but that’s not allowed; you can only add it to your married name. So that’s what I did. And since we were in Istanbul to get Kaya his US passport, I applied for a US passport with my new name in it. I’ve had trouble traveling with Baki because our surnames are different, so I guess this might help.
A name is just words, but it is a bit like putting on a costume to assume a new name. I remember when I went to China, it felt strange to use my Chinese name, as if I were pretending to be someone else. In a way I was, since speaking another language is another thing that can remove you from yourself by a step or two. It also made me realise how strongly attached I was to my name, which surprised me. I grew into the name though, as I am sure I will into this one. And thankfully I get to keep my father’s surname as well, since I don’t think I’ll ever be ready to sever that tie.