Our little grandson is due to arrive for his first visit to Ireland this day 3 weeks. He has been growing in our absence. Here he is enjoying his first stay in a hotel room after his first plane journey to the city of Changchun where Shan has her hukou and where they travelled to try and sort out the permits for his journey home. I will explain the complex hukou system of household registration and its ramifications some other time when I have figured it out for myself but for now I’m reminded of the biblical journey to Bethlehem to register for the Census, albeit with more comfortable accommodation and not a donkey in sight.
To distract myself while I await his arrival, I’ve been cooking again and tonight I recreated the braised pork rib recipe that Chef Chao taught me when I attended Hutong Cuisine cookery school in Beijing. This is one of the dishes I served at our Shananigans’ Feast in Sydney the following week where it was a big hit.
It is simplicity itself to prepare but needs to be cooked slowly over a low heat to achieve the correct sticky, melt in the mouth texture. The magic ingredient is a few tablespoons of bai jiu – which translates literally as “white wine” but is in fact a distilled spirit with an alcohol content by volume of between 40% and 60%.
In China, the best quality bai jiu is associated with the practice of toasting gan bei style – the Chinese equivalent of “cheers” which translates as “dry glass”. The liquor can be horrendously expensive with a price of a bottle for a special occasion banquet running to €100 or more but you can by a cheap and socially acceptable bottle for less than a euro. It is knocked back in shot glasses.
My first encounter with bai jiu was when we visited Shan’s family in Urumqi in Xinjiang province last summer. During our visit we attended a number of formal family banquets and on each occasion the ritual of formal gan bei toasts was an important part of proceedings. There is a definite hierarchy to these toasts. The host will toast the most important guest first, then the next most important and so on. The toaster always stands to make the toast and the glasses are filled to exactly the same level (in practice to the brim) as to do otherwise would imply disrespect. The glasses are clinked gently and low in a manner reminiscent of bowing. Sipping is not an option. Each toast involves the proposer walking around the table to stand beside the person proposed too while the rest listen in respectful silence and then cheer noisily. Mercifully only those directly involved in the toast are required to drink.
The first family gathering held in our honour was an amazing experience. Twenty five people gathered in an ornate private room in a local hotel at a big round table with a lazy susan at the centre. A large screen TV remained on at low volume in the background throughout but for the chatty Gao family this wasn’t a distraction. A chandelier hung over the table and a huge flower display, formed the centre piece.
The family was arranged strictly in seniority order – as honoured guests we were at the top of the circle, Shan’s MaMa to our right, first uncle and wife to our left, 2nd and 5th uncles to either side beyond them with their own direct offspring, their spouses and children if present. Next in order the daughter of Shan’s MaMa’s sister, her sister’s daughter and first cousin and finally any remaining members of that generation. Everyone was addressed by title and family rank rather than name. Nai Nai if you were the granny generation, Ayi for the aunt, Shu Shu for uncle.
The consequence of this table arrangement was that Shane and Shan were a long way away from us leaving us pretty helpless at making conversation as only one of the younger son-in-laws at the far side of the table had any English at all. Still we got by as the food started to swirl around the lazy susan, hot and cold dishes of local fare and what they called “hotel fare”. Shan’s Mum, who I had only just met at that stage, was trying to teach me the names in Mandarin for tofu, pork, beef, lamb, chicken, noodles, dumplings and many vegetables I didn’t then recognise.
It wasn’t long before the ritual of bai jiu started.
First Shan’s Mum proposed a toast of welcome to us, then, with our permission, she passed the responsibility of host to first uncle. Second uncle repeated the ritual with the same challenge to “gan bei”. And so it continued around the table as, one after the other, each branch of the family said their piece and made us welcome with Shan translating every speech.
Generally speaking only the men were required to toast but Derry was off the hook as he doesn’t drink alcohol. Instead he responded with a perfectly pitched speech on our behalf, and managed to make Shan cry as she translated it. Meanwhile I decided to do my bit for the family honour and quickly earned a reputation as being li hai (deadly) by downing two shots of bai jiu in a row. The truth is that I swallowed the first one fast to avoid the taste and was immediately proffered another one. I quickly migrated to red wine in tiny glasses but by then the Uncles had decided I was good fun and insisted on telling the entire family of my prowess with bai jiu for days to come.
Shane had the bigger challenge. As someone entering the family on marriage, he had to make an individual toast to each of the uncles and male family members present – no shirking for him and I’m astounded he was still standing by the end of 10 toasts and able to walk home in the summer heat.
Shane ended by toasting Shan, the woman he loves, making her cry again and then her brother Gao Feng spoke in his capacity as head of the immediate family, asking us to take good care of his sister who he loves very much – more tears and by this stage we were all emotional wrecks.
There was much talk of welcoming us into their family and of making their already large family an international one and huge appreciation of our coming such a long way to visit them and saying how easily we fitted in. There was even a toast for me from First Auntie when she realised I had once worked for the Department of Transport in Ireland because she works for the equivalent Department in Xinjiang province. Another was needed between me and one of the cousins when the lazy susan stopped with the whole fish pointing head to me, tail to the other end of the table. I made a brief toast to Shan’s Mum at the end thanking her for making me feel so welcome and like a sister and saying how special Shan was. Cue more tears.
Eventually we were asked about the proper way to bring a family gathering like this to a close in Ireland and we explained there was none so the honour fell to First Uncle to make a final toast and invite us all to dinner on our last night in Urumqi so that we could do it all over again. He enquired if we were Catholics and if that meant there were any foods we couldn’t eat and on having been reassured on that score they planned another Chinese meal.
The meal below is more like Chinese comfort food than banquet cooking but the use of bai jiu brings back happy memories indeed, especially now that Dermot has arrived to cement the family relationships.
The bai jiu I used is one I picked up for about 70c on my shopping expedition with Shan’s MaMa in Beijing and is 42% proof. If you cant get a bottle of it in your local Asian market, substitute vodka (or potcheen which is closest to the flavour!!) The eagle-eyed among you will recognise it as one of the 10 ingredients featured in the recent competition on the blog.
Braised Pork Rib with Soy Sauce and Sugar – Hong Shao Rou
- 1 kg belly pork or pork ribs
- Cooking oil
- a few slices of ginger
- 200 ml water.
- 2 pieces of star anise
- 1 ½ tbs of dark soy sauce
- 4 tbs light soy sauce
- 4 tbs sugar
- 2 tbs bai jiu (at least 30% alcohol)
- 4 tbs Chinese black vinegar
- Chop the pork into sections about 5cm long.
- Brown the pork pieces and ginger slices in a few tablespoons of oil for about 5 minutes.
- Add 200 ml of water, star anise and all the other ingredients.
- Bring to the boil and stir until the sugar has dissolved.
- Cover and cook over a low heat for 1 ½ hours.
- Remove the lid and reduce any remaining liquid over a higher heat until the pork is coated in a thick sticky sauce.
Serve with boiled rice and a simple stir-fried vegetable dish such as:
Stir-fried baby corn and peppers
- About 400g baby sweetcorn
- 1 red pepper
- 1 green pepper
- Cooking oil
- Cut the baby corn into 2 cm lengths and the peppers into chunks of similar size to the sweetcorn.
- Heat a few tbs of oil in the wok, add both vegetables and stir-fry over medium heat for about 5 minutes until the corn is tender.
- Season to taste and serve immediately.