I am nostalgic for my paternal grandmother. She had a way of loving you and being really tough on you, all at once. My family on the Castillo side is going through a tough time on a number of fronts and I can’t help but feel that if she were still with us she’d know how to make it all right.
Her name was Patria, but we affectionately called her “Lola,” which means grandmother in Tagalog (the official language of the Philippines). It was in her kitchen that I learned how food can bind friends and family as well as create memories that last long after one has passed on. I was a rambunctious teenager in her final years and I had my fair share of arguments with Lola just before she became sick. Sometimes I wonder if I cook to be closer to her and to atone for some of my adolescent meanness. I imagine her looking down on me and smiling when I’m alone in the kitchen cooking a meal for a Castillo family party or when I’m teaching a sister or some of my younger cousins how to prepare a particular dish. Certainly she scoffs when I do something wrong or when I throw good food in the trash. Like many people from the old country, she hated waste.
My grandfather left a relatively high-ranking position in the Philippine government to bring our entire family to California. As most immigrant stories begin, there was a time when more than ten and at one point, up to 15 of us --aunts, uncles, grandchildren, and grandparents-- lived together in a single suburban tract home, fighting over the one television, the last liter of Coca Cola, leftovers, the shower. To make ends meet, Lola would prepare specialty Filipino foods and sell them to the local Asian markets. Uncle Ben, their next door neighbor who I have called “uncle” my entire life, owned one of the better known local markets and she began at first by selling to him, and over time to others in the area. Sometimes she’d let the grandchildren help out. These were joyous times for me - sitting at her dining table, cutting pulveron (a crumbly butter cookie, like shortbread, but flakier) and wrapping them with brightly colored tissue paper, or making delicate dumplings for her famous pancit molo (a delicious dumpling and meat broth soup that we’d savor at midnight every Christmas and New Year’s Eve and on other special occasions), or rolling fresh and fried lumpia (similar to the fresh Vietnamese spring roll and fried Thai spring roll, respectively). All of this was punctuated by more than a little giggling with my sisters and cousins. Lola would come around and spank our hands if we were doing something wrong or remind us that we were working too slow or wasting wonton wrappers. On occasion, she would tell my left-handed cousins that their dumplings were not as good because they were rolled or pinched in the wrong direction. Tough love, yes. But when you brought her a beautifully rolled dumpling or lumpia and could see the pride in her face, you couldn’t help but be the happiest little girl for the rest of the afternoon.
Lola would have turned 80 tomorrow. Lolo, our grandfather and Lola’s husband, is 2 days younger. As we celebrate his birthday this weekend, I am sure Lola will be at the party too, probably shaking her head because the food has been ordered from a catering company as opposed to someone in the family making it themselves. Last week we hosted an ad hoc dinner party which was attended by my sister Rachel, two of my cousins, and two close friends. Since my sister and cousins were there, I wanted to celebrate Lola, and we did so with a dim sum feast. As a result, for our group’s recipe #8, I thought we could all make siopao (steamed pork bun, or Chinese char siu bao; found in any self respecting Chinese bakery) and shu mai (steamed dumplings). Elaine assured me that everyone in the group cooks Asian food and would therefore have some, if not all, the required condiments. The steamed pork bun dough recipe is Lola’s. I remember sneaking bites of her uncooked dough and enjoying the cooked treasures straight out of her commercial sized steamer. The filling recipe is that of my Auntie Harriet’s mother (in a small world story, she is also my grandfather’s second wife (after our Lola passed) or our “Lola Viado”). A lovely woman and wonderful cook who joined my Lola a few years ago. The shu mai recipe comes from my dear friend Kaoru. I would love it if she told me her grandmother handed this recipe down to her. I don’t know if that is the case, but it makes me smile to think of another happy lola, this time in Japan, smiling down on all of us as we enjoy her century-old dumplings.
Siopao (steamed pork bun or Chinese char siu bao)
2 cups warm water
3 packages yeast
¼ C shortening
1 C sugar
6 C flour
Disolve yeast in warm water. Add sugar, cover and let sit for a few minutes. Add in rest of the ingredients. Knead until smooth, adding more flour if needed. Cover with damp cloth and let rise (~45 minutes).
10 oz bbq pork (buy pre-cooked and chop up)
3 T soy sauce
2 T sugar
1 T sesame oil
1 T flour
1 T corn starch
½ C stock or cold water
Dilute corn starch in stock or water. Mix all ingredients together. Cook until sauce thickens.
Cut off a decently sized chunk of dough. Ball, flatten, then roll out using extra flour if needed. Add filling to center and close up ball by pinching sides together. Place on square of parchment paper (Filipinos place them pinched side down whereas Chinese cooks make them pinched side up, sometimes with openings or sections that are not completely closed). Cover with damp cloth and let rise again. Steam for ~20 minutes and enjoy right away with a cold Asian beer to wash it down.
Shu Mai (the best dumpling recipe I have tried at home)
1 # ground beef (don’t use a cut that is too lean)1 medium onion (minced or grated on a cheese grater)
1 # ground pork
1 # fresh shrimp (chopped well but not fine nor ground)
6 T potato starch (found in any baking aisle)
2.5 t salt
3 T sugar
Dash of pepper
1 T sake
1 T sesame oil
1 t soy sauce
Mix together, don’t over-mix as you will toughen meat. Place on wonton or shu mai wrappers (which are thinner and smaller). Smush down so they’re wrapped tight and sit upright on their own. You want the top to be open. Steam (place cabbage leaves or oil on steamer bottom to prevent sticking). Eat with asian mustard and soy sauce (TJ’s has a nice wasabi mustard that worked perfectly)
If having a dim sum party, make the filling ahead of time and have the group prepare the dumplings and steam in batches throughout the night while sipping sake or plum wine. That’s what we did and we had a blast – reminiscing about our grandmother, laughing about some of the recent (and silly) antics of our grandfather, and calling sisters and cousins on the speaker phone in between batches.
If you’re in the mood for more, like I was, here is Kaoru’s Chinese Sticky Rice recipe. Nelson (in the photo below) gobbled his up so fast. We all loved it.
Chinese Sticky Rice 3 C Japanese sweet rice (soak overnight)
2 C broth
Shitake mushrooms, chopped (if using dried, save broth)
1 medium carrot, minced
1 small can bamboo shoots, minced
1/2 # pork (not ground), minced and soaked in grated ginger
1/2 # ground pork (also soaked with grated ginger)
1 T sake
1 t salt
2 T soy sauce Stir fry meat. Add vegetables and cook (can also add shrimp, peas, etc.). Add rice and cook After a few minutes, add broth and other ingredients. Cook until rice has absorbed liquid. Wrap portions in tin foil and steam for 20 minutes.
We finished the night off with coconut tapioca and piping hot green tea. I used the tapioca recipe on the back of the ubiquitous red box but substituted half of milk portion with coconut milk. Delicious. After a 20 minute break we broke out the green tea ice cream and ginger ice cream.