From My Wok to Yours - Taking the Mystery Out of Everyday Dining and Meals!!

Friday, June 25, 2010

Formosa Garden, San Antonio

A couple of days ago, my wife and I celebrated our 13th wedding anniversary. While that particular number may be a harbinger of doom, a superstitious warning, or an ominous landmark, it was actually a happy moment for us.

While the Chinese culture does not pay that much homage to extended anniversaries, in this day and age, there are significant “rewards” for reaching those milestones. The most recent major milestone was our tenth, which would have been marked by gifts of tin. The next significant milestone will be the fifteenth, celebrated by showering the couple with crystal.

Kim decided to surprise me by taking me to a restaurant I had never been to. Apparently, many people asked her if she truly believed that such a choice was wise, as I am hyper-critical of my dining experiences.

So to Formosa Garden we went. Formosa Garden has been recognized by several local journalists for the best Chinese food in the area. Many of my friends and acquaintences have also raved about the place, and a couple of those people's opinions actually carry weight with me.  So... Why not try them out and see…

The restaurant was welcoming, with food on the menu at a reasonable price. They offer a wide range of Chinese entrees, as well as a variety of sushi. In addition, they have a hibachi dining area that can be enjoyed by kids of all ages. Thankfully, all their food is made MSG free.

I decided to start off with their Spicy Tuna Roll, as I have always enjoyed that particular roll at other restaurants. Their sushi chef did a fantastic job of putting the “spicy” in the Spicy Tuna Roll. It was so overwhelmingly spicy that after the second piece, I could not even taste it. That was a little disappointing, as I had hoped to be able to discern the subtle differences in taste between Formosa Garden and other establishments where I go to enjoy a Spicy Tuna Roll.  The roll was also not wrapped as tightly as some that I have eaten before, causing it to be very unstable while held in my chopsticks.  (That alone was no small feat, as, due to an injury, I was using my left hand.  The loose wrap  also caused a few of the pieces to fall apart.

We followed the sushi (Kim had a California Roll as her appetizer, and the Teriyaki chicken as her entrée) with their Pan Fried Dumplings. These were standard pork pot stickers, served hot. Nothing remarkable, but thankfully not overwhelming on the taste.

For my entrée I ordered the Peking Duck. It is served with an appetizer of crispy duck skin wrapped in pancakes and an entrée of boneless roasted duck with vegetables in brown sauce. Unfortunately, most likely because it was mid-week, Formosa Garden did not have the duck available. Bummer…

So back to the menu I went….

And I selected the Seafood Pasta. It was a tasty alternative to the duck, and thankfully, it was good enough for me to get over not being able to quack my way through dinner. The seafood pasta was made with shrimp, scallops, crab meat, squid and mussels, sautéed with vegetables in a brown sauce. It was cooked well, and the vegetables were cooked perfectly.  The snow peas, carrots and broccoli were still crunchy.  It was a huge serving that, after all of the appetizers, I was relegated to packaging in a take-out box.

As first time experiences go, this one was acceptable. I have decided that one weekend we will have to go back and try their Peking Duck. I must remember to call first to confirm that it is on the menu.

I have also decided that for a thirteenth anniversary, it was a good choice. Now, it is simply a matter of both of us surviving through the next 13 years. And boy, will THAT be one heck of a celebration…

Until Then, Good Eating, Friends…

Formosa Garden on Urbanspoon

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Friday, June 18, 2010

Ode to Food & Fathers

Father’s Day is quickly approaching, and I know that my family is prepping quite the extravagant affair for Uncle David and Me. I really wish my Dad could be here with us, or that we could be there with him… (holy crap… as I type this I remember that I have to sign the card and get it in the mail slot before I miss the cut off for pick-up…bad son, bad son…)

When it comes to eating, I have one good child and one bad child. Oh gosh; that sounds like labeling, doesn't it? "BAD," I hasten to clarify, actually stands for "Battling Appetite Deficiency" (ceding that phony acronym was the only way daughter E would permit me to quote her for this story. And no, she's not anorexic; that's nothing I would joke about).

The good eater, E, was birthed, and as soon as she got over that first good cry, fell to sharing her mother's meal tray -- oven-fried chicken and Jell-O cubes. Well, perhaps memory exaggerates that instance, but I know that she was downing smoked oysters at the age of 3. (Bad parenting, nah, call it an eagerness to expose her to new foods, but she survived.) She did, however, reject the first offering of carrots, well processed, when first offered.

M, offered her first rice cereal at the age of 6 months, responded with her first word, if "ptooey" is a word. I am now sure that she intended this as no less than fair warning.

These memories are prompted in part by the approach of Father's Day. My first Father's Day I recall in a warm haze, mostly of sleep deprivation. But it also bears the glow of self-congratulation, as though I had actually produced the breast milk with which I bottle-fed E. And the blessedness of giving nourishment to an eager child. How E can be so skinny now brings with it memories of her youth. We (yes, as bad parents) forever thought that when, as an infant, she cried, she simply wanted another bottle, or something more to eat. The resulting photos of her pay testament to her willingness to eat, anything and at any time. She has since slimmed down quite a bit, but boy-howdy, those memories still haunt me.

This dad's day, the much wised-up parent of two precocious pre-teens, I look back to the bottle feedings and the 3,000 peanut butter sandwiches that followed. And ahead to -- well, I'm not sure; for some time now, the girls have remained a step or two ahead of me in their likes and dislikes. E, who once thrived on chicken nuggets, is now a functional vegetarian who only likes about three vegetables. Onions, broccoli and … one more that I cannot remember. (She voluntarily consumes a number of other vegetables but says, "It feels like such a waste of time.") M at one time loved both shrimp and mushrooms and now dislikes one or the other, or both, I can't remember. (Yes, more bad parenting.)

But even stumbling along far behind my progeny, this parent has learned a few things.

Maintain perspective. Ignore the food scolds. Pizza, for instance, is decent food -- bread, cheese, tomatoes. Throw some mushrooms on it and it sounds practically, well, Mediterranean. A serving of potato chips and a baked potato with a tablespoon of butter have just about the same amount of fat. Creme brulee is made with eggs.

If a good food clicks, use it and never complain, even if they want it meal after meal. Variety is an adult value. "Don't you want something besides broccoli?" -- Jeez, I never really said that, did I?

Peer pressure and pop culture have the force of catechism. If Miley Cyrus’ next single is "I Get All Hot for Liver, Bacon, and Onions," the dish will sweep Teenage Nation. Unlikely. But the good thing is that no female star admits to eating anything but healthy food these days; their publicists make them. Jessica Alba has oatmeal and fruit for breakfast. Jessica Alba. Oatmeal. Fruit. Use this. Megan Fox is famous for preferring to starve than cook, but for her lack of cooking skill, knows to include with her meals collard greens, candied baby carrots, biscuits and white gravy and then, dessert of blackberry cobbler. But she makes it clear that there is no cobbler if the first 3 elements were not eaten. (Okay, so not the healthiest, but definitely a good example of… umm… eating?)

Texture trumps taste. Mouth feel is 90 percent of the sale, as all those diabolical food chemists know. So no pulp in the OJ, no blood in the meat ("Omigod, eew, Dad, eew!), no stewed tomatoes in the soup, no chickpeas in the salad, no discernible fat. Crisp is good, creamy is good, in-between mushy is bad. Polenta's a loser.

So is fish, usually. But again, look for the angles: Give a 5-year-old girl a super-crunchy nibble of grilled fresh sardine, hot and crispy from the fire, and she will soon be downing the crackling beasties head and all.

Please, no cooking "from the heart." Don't ever think that if you really put love and care into a meal, you're gonna hear: "Gosh, Dad, that was good -- and good for me, too." Suck it up, guys, we're here to do a job. The real-life testimony I most cherish is E's "Even on vacation, you make us eat salad." The golden moments are few, and tend to come mostly eating out. Not long ago, basking in the glamour of Houlihan’s, M gratified me by dining with ladylike gusto not just on the frites and crème brulee, but also the potage of green cabbage and the roast chicken. And E? I happily rewarded her completion of everything on the plate with a snicker’s ice cream thing, only to watch her lick the plate clean. Seriously.

I know what I'll be having for Father's Day lunch: shoulder roast, made by the girls. Though I like shoulder roast, I wouldn't mind something less sweet and decorous -- say, Maine Lobster with potatoes au gratinor blood-rare lamb chops I could gnaw to the bone. I know: "Eew, Dad, eew." But it's Father's Day, girls, and -- warning: more bad parenting -- you owe me.

In closing, I want all fathers out there to remember just how important you truly are. Even in absentia, overseas, deceased, or fighting the good fight for us, no matter how tall we as your children actually grow, you will always be someone whom we look up to. My Dad is the smartest person I know. His intelligence, keen wit, and wry sense of humor make me want to be smarter, wittier and funnier. But that is what Dad’s are supposed to do. This makes MY Dad the best one out there.

My mission? I must continue to be “a cool Dad” to my pre-teen daughters.

Until Then, Good Eating, Friends…

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Thursday, June 17, 2010

Deliciousness by the Bay

These are images of the restaurants and delicious food I got to enjoy while in the Bay Area. 

For some reason (we must have hungry...) I forgot to take pictures of the food at Gin Wan when it was brought to us.  I remember that the Broccoli Beef and Kung Pao Shrimp were very tasty...

And then, from Tofu House Korean BBQ,


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Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Sticky Rice Celebration!!

Happy Duan Wu Jie! If you can't make/buy Zong Zi, make sure to eat some sticky rice today!

Today is the fifth day of the fifth lunar month. What does that mean to you? Well, probably nothing (unless you happen to be using a lunar calendar). But if you're keeping track, you'll know that it is Duan Wu Jie, also called the Dragon Boat Festival or the Dumpling Festival.

Thus, today we celebrate the Dragon Boat Festival!!  This festival remains one of the highlights of the Chinese social calendar, with dragon boat racing a major draw for locals and tourists alike. Chinese will habitually daub themselves in perfume from a pouch tied around their waist in a bid to ward off evil spirits - again harking back to the Qu Yuan legend.

Duan Wu Jie is a widely celebrated festival amongst the Chinese, to pay respect to the patriotic poet, Qu Yuan (pronounced as Chue Yuan). The legend involves a really long and complicated throne-fighting war and political history. But to make a long story short: Qu Yuan was an important minister back in Chu Kingdom in ancient China. He had been known for his loyalty for the emperor of Chu, and loved his country greatly. However, His Majesty had not taken Qu Yuan's advice seriously, and he eventually got himself trapped and captured in a foreign land by his enemies, which then lead to his own death.

Sad and angry at the corrupted, dying Kingdom, Qu Yuan tied himself to a big rock and threw himself into the River of Puo Luo. The people then made rice dumplings wrapped in bamboo leaves and threw them into the river. They believed this would stop the fish from eating Qu Yuan's body. Some would even row down stream in a boat, beating drums and shouting out loud in the hope to scare the fish away (it was believed that it is how the Dragon Boat event is related to the festival.

Since then, the 5th day of the 5th month in the Chinese calendar has been set as Duan Wu Festival to remember the incident. Although there were versions of legends and stories that indicate Duan Wu has existed way before Qu Yuan's death, the tradition still carries on.

The rice dumplings (ZongZi) are glutinous rice (or sticky rice in some countries like Thailand and Hong Kong) wrapped in bamboo leaves, or other large leaves (lotus is one of the more commonly used leaves). You can find all sorts of different fillings in the rice: pork, roast pork, chestnut, egg, salted egg, mushroom, red bean, or just simply without filling. They could be just white rice dumpling (not pre-fried), or brown (pre-fried with soya sauce).

Nowadays, you can buy Zongzi almost everyday of the year, in restaurants or hawker stores in most oriental countries such as China, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Malaysia and Singapore, and other Asian countries where large amount of Chinese reside.

My version of ZongZi?  One that hopefully many people will appreciate.

Sticky Rice Surprise


2 cups glutinous rice

1 pound boneless chicken thigh, cut into half inch cubes

2 shiitake mushrooms, soaked, stem removed and diced same size as the chicken

2 Tablespoons rice wine

3 Tablespoons dark soy sauce

2 Tablespoons fresh ginger

2 Tablespoons lotus flour

6 lotus leaves, soaked in tepid water for half an hour


1. Cook the glutinous rice in three cups water for half an hour, then drain and set rice aside until cool enough to handle.

2. Mix chicken, mushrooms, rice wine, soy sauce, ginger, set aside for half an hour.

3. Using one lotus leaf, put one half cup of rice in the center, flatten it and add one quarter of the chicken and liquid in the center of it, then covering it with another half cup of rice; be sure chicken is sealed inside the rice.

4. Turn the sides of the leaf in over the rice, and then roll the leaf the long way until all the lotus leaf is enclosing and wrapped around the rice. Set package down on the side where the seam is placing it on the bottom of a steamer basket. Cover the steamer and steam over boiling water for one hour. Serve.

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Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Tofu House: Castro Valley, CA

I got to visit my family and friends in the Bay Area last week, as I was in San Mateo to be the Best Man in my Best Friend’s Wedding. It was a whirlwind week, with activities and gatherings every day, and I could not have asked for more beautiful weather during that time.

Thursday the family and I spent the day with my Dad and Sister. The girls got to meet Clover, Dad’s best friend, and she did not hesitate to shower Madi with kisses and plenty of puppy love. After introductions were made, and we had gotten familiarized with the surroundings, Dad took us to a little restaurant in Castro Valley for lunch called Tofu House.

I had no idea what to expect other than being advised that it was a little Korean restaurant. The sign happens to call it a Korean BBQ. Okay. Always a fan of new experiences, I followed Dad in. We were greeted by a friendly server and the wonderful aroma of food that accompanied her. The menu, while unfamiliar to me, was accompanied by photos on the wall, perhaps better descriptors than the written ones.

We joined a lunchtime crowd of fellow Asian diners, all of whom were already seated and enjoying their food. The menu was simple, with various types of soft tofu stew priced around $8.99 and some typical Korean dishes (bulgogi, bibanpap, japchae, pajeon, etc.) These were all available as combinations which comes with tofu soup, which I decided to try. Little did I know just how much food I would get. My combination of pork bulgogi was ordered mild, (from very spicy, spicy, medium spicy or not spicy at all) and came with 8 banchans to share with the rest of the table, and rice.

Banchans are small dishes of food served along with steamed rice as an accompaniment to the main course. (The most famous type of banchan is kimchi.) They are set in the middle of the table, intended to be shared, quickly followed by the secondary main course. Ours included fried tofu sliced, oi sobagi, which was spicy cucumbers, yeolmu kimchi, a thin summer radish, and my favorite, kongnamul, cold boiled bean sprouts with sesame oil. The one that got the most attention was Japchae, translucent starch noodles cooked in a slightly sweet garlic sauce. Those are good enough to be served as an entrée in their own right.

(Dad ordered something similar to my combination, Kathy ordered the seafood pancake, and Kim and Eleyna ordered the teriyaki chicken.)

When our food came, both Dad’s and mine were served in sizzling hot stone pots, with raw eggs available to crack in and cook. The main feature of the soup was the broth, perfectly spiced, with an abundance of soft tofu and seafood. I also received a sizzling platter of the pork bulgogi, served on a bed of sautéed onions. The seafood pancake that Kathy ordered was a little peculiar looking, and while I am sure that in the interests of objective analysis, I should have tried it, I was to intent on enjoying my own meal to be interested in any one else’s.

There was so much food left over, even for the 6 of us, that we had to pack it up in take-out boxes and take it home. (Unfortunately, in the excitement of visiting my family, we forgot about it and left it in Dad’s refrigerator.) Oh well. I hope he got to enjoy it, because it was a wonderful, flavorful meal. I can’t wait to go back.

Unfortunately, the pictures that I took were left on a memory card that I inadvertently left in Dad’s computer. I will post them as soon as I receive it, as he has agreed to mail it to me. I can’t wait…

Tomorrow: Chinese food by the Bay.

Until Then, Good Eating, Friends…

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