If the title of this post does nothing for you, stop for a minute and listen. The sounds you hear are squeals of excitement and moans of hunger from all the people for whom the three words zha jiang mian evoke yearning memories of their favorite comfort food, a deeply flavorful noodle bowl from childhood.

A Chinese-Korean hybrid, zha jiang mian may soon join the noodle bowls from around the world – ramen, pho, pad thai – that have become mainstream American fare. Korean food is expanding out of urban Koreatowns: restaurants are cropping up featuring bimimbab, the spicy vegetable and rice bowl, or light, crispy Korean fried chicken, glazed with a sweet garlic sauce. Momofuku’s David Chang is taking over the world. Zha jiang mian can’t be far behind.

Like curry from India growing into the national dish of England, zha jiang mian (pronounced zah-jahng-myun) is a Chinese dish that has been enthusiastically adopted as Korea’s most popular comfort food (phoneticized from Korean it’s jajangmyeon). In Korea, it’s as popular and ubiquitous as pizza in America.

Zha jiang may look mysteriously dark, but it’s simply an Asian take on spaghetti with meat sauce. Instead of tangy tomato, zha jiang is infused with a satisfyingly intense richness, salty and a bit sweet, with the heft of meat and the soft crunch of finely chopped vegetables.

The story of zha jiang mian is the story of my family. My parents both came from Shandong, the coastal province in northern China that is also the ancestral home of Confucius and zha jiang mian. Beginning in 1897, when Germany leased from China the main city of Qingdao (and promptly set up breweries, such as Tsingtao), Shandong endured a tumultuous half-century, from German control to Chinese-Japanese dispute post-World War I, to Chinese warlords, to Japanese invasion, to civil war and finally the iron curtain of Communist control in 1949.

No wonder that desperate people from Shandong left to seek opportunities elsewhere. Like many men of their era, both my grandfathers labored in Korea, sending money home to their wives and children in China and visiting rarely. When the situation in Shandong became dire, both of my grandmothers took what children they could and begged, borrowed and bribed to find transit to Korea.

War broke out in Korea shortly after. My parents grew up in shanty towns with other Chinese refugees, and though my mom lived in Korea for over a decade, she speaks no Korean at all. The main cultural exchange was through food. Like many others, my mom’s family sold food by the roadside for income. My parents developed a lifelong love of spicy Korean kimchi, and Koreans were exposed to many Shandong specialties, including zha jiang mian. read on…

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yogurt and strawberries

Yogurt at home

29 August 2014

If you don’t make yogurt at home, you may wonder why anyone does. Sure it’s cheaper, but yogurt is not expensive and you’re probably not eating enough to care. For me it’s the taste (pure and natural), the health benefits (DIY probiotics) and the digestibility (low/no lactose). You can’t buy the equivalent at the store at any price.

People thought it was a little odd when I started making yogurt a decade ago, but now there’s more awareness about gut health and its impact on all kinds of chronic conditions. Food didn’t end up being the cause of or solution to my mother-of-all-eczema-episodes a few years back, but since then I look at food in a more health-focused way, and I see the nutritional wisdom behind many traditionally-prepared foods (true sourdough bread, yogurt, long-soaked beans).

Now I find myself giving yogurt away frequently to friends and family eager to try it. This summer, I gave jars of yogurt to two family members on strong antibiotics, to help them replenish beneficial bacteria in their systems. I hooked my neighbor, who was happy to find that my yogurt doesn’t irritate her throat the way store-bought yogurt does. And I gave both yogurt and starter to a friend who, upon sampling the yogurt, was near tears because it reminded her so much of her childhood in Germany.

So I decided that maybe the world could use one more recipe for homemade yogurt after all. I took these pictures three years ago but didn’t think enough people would want to make yogurt at home. Now I think the interest may be there.

Homemade yogurt is really easy to make – heat up milk, cool it to warm, add starter and wait. And the benefits are many:

Probiotics – Commercial yogurts are not fermented nearly long enough to have high levels of probiotic bacteria, but homemade yogurt is a live probiotic source you can count on. My great friend with gastroesophageal reflux, her husband with pancreatitis, plus his good friend with ulcerative colitis all swear by homemade yogurt as a major factor in their improved conditions. Gut health has gained focus in recent years as people realize that the food you eat only provides benefits if the body is digesting and absorbing nutrients, as well as eliminating toxins, as it should.

Easier to digest than milk – Long-fermented yogurt is near lactose free, making it an excellent source of calcium for the dairy-sensitive. Yogurt bacteria eat the lactose for us, and we eat the bacteria. Everyone wins. read on…

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It might be okay that I’ve discovered the perfect summer salad after summer fruit season is past its peak. When peaches are at their juicy prime, the kids devour them before I get a chance to cook with any. Now it’s my turn. I’ve had this salad five times in four days, and I can’t imagine tiring of it before peach season ends.

I first had a version of this salad at the Saveur event in May, and it was so deliciously fruity and creamy I wished I could have a giant portion as both dinner and dessert. I really loved it – and then, because I’m 40-plus, I forgot about it completely. Fortunately my awesome friend Cynthia, Manhattan laywer by day, Brooklyn blogger by night, posted her take on this salad last week. I’ve been thanking her every day since.

It’s hard to find burrata, an extra-creamy version of fresh mozzarella, in Ohio, so I’ve made this salad with both vacuumed-packed fresh mozzarella (fine) as well as mozzarella packed in water (better). Use the best, freshest mozzarella you can find, and don’t sweat it too much. The luscious presence of mozzarella in any form provides a quiet, creamy foil to the sweet softness of the peaches. read on…

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juicy honeydew

Melon divination

5 August 2014

A melon purchase is a commitment in a way that buying an apple, say, is not. A mealy apple can be philosophically tossed, but a mealy watermelon is a sloppy, head-shaking disposal project.

Summer is the season to practice melon-picking skills, since your risk of getting a total dud is low. Even so, shipments vary in quality, so the first thing to do is scan the melons to see if they look like a good batch. Even the best of a green or overripe batch is probably marginal, so you’ll want to find a good group first and then pick the best of the bunch.

Conventional melon wisdom – buy a heavy, hollow-sounding one – never helps me. Maybe I have a bad ear, but watermelon-thumping leaves me confused. And melons all seem pretty heavy, so gauging relative weight never gives me confidence either. I rely on visual clues for watermelons and a mix of look and scent for thinner-skinned melons like honeydew and cantaloupe.

Watermelon

  • Dull rind – Watermelons turn from shiny to dull as they ripen.
  • Field spot – A yellow or creamy underside indicates the watermelon ripened on the vine.
  • Rough tracks – My mom, melon-picker extraordinaire, swears that rough brown/tan scars on an otherwise smooth and firm melon indicate sweetness. I don’t know what causes them (they are sometimes called bee stings, though it would take some giant stinger to make it through a watermelon rind), but my mom’s record of supersweet, well-scarred melons has made me a believer.
  • read on…

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shucking corn

Discovery blogiversary

23 July 2014

I need to start thinking of my birthday the way I think of my blogiversary. Now that I’m on the scary road past 40, I’m not sure what it is I’m supposed to celebrate on birthdays anymore. But as I mark four years of this blog’s existence, the reasons to celebrate are happily clear: another gratifying year of exploring, sharing and growth at chinese grandma – and one more year with you, my kind readers, who cook, laugh, cry, wonder and learn with me here.

Four years! I created this blog in the spirit of giving, but I had no idea how much more I would get back. (There’s probably an enlightening Biblical reference there, but I don’t know what it is.)

To heck with the age thing, I want to see birthdays this way too: pausing to acknowledge the persistence and effort it took to get to this day, appreciating another year of connection and communion with this world, celebrating the relationships and personal joys that sustain us in this life. If we’ve done well, we’ve earned a few badges of maturity and wisdom. They don’t come easy, so it’s nice to take a day to polish them and be glad that we’ve made it as far as we have.

In the past, I’ve celebrated my blogiversary with an annual giveaway of some favorite item or other I’ve written about during the year. This year I can’t really think of any, so I’m just going to give away $25 Amazon gift cards: four winners, one for each year.

Leave a comment below – a favorite recipe or something you found interesting here, or a suggestion for improvement, or an idea of your own to share – and you will be entered to win. I’m on a road trip next week with the family, so I’ll pick winners a week from Sunday, August 3. It’s random selection, because I cannot pick favorites among you wonderful people.

Oh, and my fun discoveries for today…a hilarious app you gotta try, non-flopping Havaianas, summer reads, Apple tech tips, and a peek at food 4000 years ago. I waited too long again and have too many, but you guys know how to scan.

Funhouse makeup mirror…Hilarious amusement for adults and kids, Makeup Genius (free; by L’Oreal) is like a funhouse mirror, except instead of distorting your body it uses your smartphone’s selfie camera and puts makeup on your real live face (alarming, I know!). The girls love to put together a crazy look and then have unsuspecting aunts, uncles or boy cousins look into the phone to see their unexpectedly made-up faces. Occasionally the app will slip and put lipliner on your nose, but overall the technology is eerily good.

read on…

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blondie bake-off

Blondie bake-off

15 July 2014

She looks normal, my friend Jenny – slim, medium height, blond and cheerfully energetic – but she’s the Takeru Kobayashi of sugar. I have a sweet tooth, as does my husband and all of my kids, but in a sugar-eating contest the six of us would be groaning with pain under the table while Jenny could keep putting away pies, cakes and cookies with contented ease.

Descended from a line of great bakers, Jenny’s been in training since birth on both the production and consumption of sweets. Her lovely mom Angie, the image of Mrs Claus with perfect snowy hair and twinkling blue eyes, was the kind of mom who had fresh-baked cookies waiting every day after school, and each Christmas she baked scores of caramel sticky buns to give out to friends and family. When having lunch out with friends, Jenny’s impish dad Bob would order two slices of pie and a pint of Guinness – and at home could eat a whole of Angie’s fresh pies in a single sitting.

Because of her unreliable oven at home, Jenny often bakes in my kitchen. She loves not only the double ovens but – bless her patient heart – the enthusiastic child labor as well. Her sons are grown, but she still rolls out decorated cookies for them every Hallmark holiday, and my kids love to create with her rainbow collection of edible confetti.

But blondies drive Jenny crazy. Every so often she attempts a batch, using an index card handwritten with her aunt’s recipe. Every time they are cakey, and she wants chewy. This has been going on for years.

I came to Ohio this summer waving a new blondie recipe for us to try: Cook’s Illustrated’s blondie recipe featured by Food 52 in its “genius recipes” column.

In the blogosphere, there are two leading blondie recipes: Mark Bittman’s from his 1998 classic, How to Cook Everything, popularized by Smitten Kitchen in 2006, and Cook’s Illustrated’s from 2005. The two recipes are similar – flour, brown sugar, melted butter, egg and vanilla – but Bittman uses only egg for leavening, while Cook’s Illustrated adds baking powder.

Someone has already done a side-by-side comparison of the two recipes (thanks, How to Eat a Cupcake!) and found them near identical, with Bittman’s recipe just a bit fudgier. But Jenny wants chewy, not fudgy, and since the Cook’s Illustrated recipe is sized at twice Bittman’s, it seems a better base for our crowd. read on…

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Chopped taco salad

9 July 2014 Food
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At the end of our friends’ visit to Ohio last summer, Paul left wistful for more pie, and Venus dreamed of Jeni’s ice cream. This year they came again for a longer stay, and we indulged in so much pie and Jeni’s that by the end, the only food they wanted more of was this […]

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Kitchen geekery

27 June 2014 Favorite gadgets
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The fact that I cannot buy anything casually is tied directly to my hard-knocks immigrant training not to throw useful things away. Anything I buy, I’m likely to keep forever – which means I’d better love it. So the things I geek out over in the kitchen are multi-use, smartly designed items that are priced […]

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Kitchen, the sequel

18 June 2014 Favorite gadgets
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Well, we did it. We finally moved into our new place, more than three years after we bought a leaky old house on a lot with potential. Funny how much can change in three years. Suddenly I’m not the mom loaded down with kids in her arms. My first child just graduated from elementary school, […]

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Getaway beef (hello Vegas)

2 June 2014 Food
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It’s never easy to get away when you have mouths to feed and people to care for, but it seems to me if you leave them with heaps of food, they notice you being gone a little less. I didn’t win the Saveur award or the free trip to the award dinner in Las Vegas […]

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