Foodbuzz 24, 24, 24: A Chinese-Caribbean Celebration

I seem to spend half my waking hours cooking up enormous amounts of Chinese food, and the other half blogging about such endeavors. Which was why I was excited to participate in month's Foodbuzz "24 Hours, 24 Meals, 24 Blogs", a live blogging event in which 24 foodies around the world host and blog an amazing meal on the same day. (Foodbuzz also recently officially launched their Featured Publishing Community. Find out more here.)

While many people are learning more about traditional Chinese food, few are aware of the hybrid foods that naturally evolve when the Chinese move overseas. For this event, I wanted to highlight the vibrant new dishes that came out of the Chinese diaspora in the Caribbean. (Many started arriving in the early 1800s, mainly to work on sugar plantations.)

Part of reason is personal. My family's saga from China to the Americas began with an uncle who lived and worked in Cuba until Fidel came into power, then moved to Puerto Rico and started a Chinese restaurant. Other family members then followed, starting up their own restaurants. When I lived in Puerto Rico, between my time in China the US, I was thus introduced to a whole spectrum of foods that merged Chinese techniques with local tropical produce and spices. Wok-fried chicken, seafood Spanish fried rice, and coconut shakes are forever lodged in my mind as an ideal comfort food combo.

The other part of my theme choice is logistical. Chinese-Caribbean food offered much more finger-food potential. And unlike with traditional Chinese banquet food, it was something my guests (5 Americans, 3 Chinese, 2 French, 1 Aussie, 1 Canadian, and 1 German) were unlikely to get living in Beijing. The food I served was by no means strictly Chinese-Caribbean fusion. Part of the menu showcases how Chinese ingredients and techniques became a part of mainstream Caribbean food; the rest made the best of both tropical and local ingredients.

I was originally planning on hosting the event in my (tiny) apartment, but then at the last minute was able to borrow the kitchen at The Hutong, the local cooking school/community center where I teach. It's a renovated courtyard home smack in the middle of one of Beijing's remaining hutongs. I spend a ton of time in this open kitchen that doubles as a dining area, so it seemed natural to bring my friends together in such a community-oriented space. Did I mention that the kitchen, part modern and part rustic, with gorgeous China-focused photography on the walls, gets compliments from guests all the time?

On to the food. One of the most popular creations of the night was a Black Bean, Lime, and Onion Dip. I cooked up dried black beans and processed them with caramelized onions, garlic, and a swing of fresh lime juice. The pita chips I made by baking Chinese pancakes. I also make a large batch of my Chicharrones de Pollo (recipe here). These Puerto Rican fried chicken cracklings, marinated in soy sauce, ginger, and rum, represent for me some of the best of the Chinese influence in Caribbean cooking.

I also had to take advantage of The Hutong's industrial-sized oven, big enough to fit 2 or 3 large pizzas at once. Pizza isn't very Chinese or Caribbean, but chicken wings are.  In Jamaica, jerk means dry-rubbing medium to large cuts of meat with with a mixture that  includes Scotch bonnet peppers and allspice, then barbequing. Of course, Chinese restaurants in Jamaica (and Chinese-Jamaican spots in the US), serve jerk chicken wings or jerk chicken on chow mein. For "Jerk" Chicken Wings, I adapted a recipe in Food and Wine by Chef Paul Chung. I made my with a spice rub of blended habanero (a common substitute for Scotch bonnet), garlic, soy sauce, five-spice powder, and nutmeg. Baking 30 wings took up half the oven. I had another 30 left, and made Cumin-Rubbed Chicken Wings, a deference to one of the most popular spices in Western Chinese cooking. To round out the meat-heavy selection of appetizers, I also made a Roast Pumpkin and Chickpea Salad with Lime Vinaigrette.

Sweet and sour anything is perhaps the most well-known and loved Cantonese cooking styles to be adapted in the West, and its popularity is no less in the Caribbean. For the main course, I made a Sweet and Sour Shrimp dish with pineapple chunks and a sauce that includes orange juice, mango juice, and white vinegar. For the vegetarians in the group, I added a Sweet and Sour Eggplant; the vegetable is a great sponge for the tangy sauce. And because it would be sacriledge to eat a sweet and sour dish without rice, everyone got a bowl of Special "Hutong Rice", topped with goji berries, pumpkin seeds, and black sesame seeds; no Hutong event would be complete without it.

The night did come with a couple of challenges, common when you're serving 13 people in a kitchen not your own. I wanted to keep dessert rather light and simple. While sprinkling sugar and cinnamon on pineapple for my Baked Cinnamon Pineapple Rings with Vanilla Ice Cream was easy, trying to scoop out helado with no ice cream scoopers or big spoons presented a problem. (I ended up doing so with two rice scoopers. Not recommended.) Jacob, who wanted to counteract my serving a cold dessert on a cold fall day, decided to make chai. We served it in little glass cups on the same plate as the pineapple and vanilla. When the little glass cups ran out, we had to use rice bowls for the chai.

And throughout the evening, Ronan, our French house-guest from Shanghai, helped me serve Hibiscus Mojitos. (Like my hibiscus mint granita, without the freezing part.) Hibiscus may be a popular tisane in China, sometimes drunken for medicinal benefits, but in Jamaica you'll also find it in punch and agua fresca. What better way to combine Chinese and Caribbean cultures than to pair hibiscus tea with Cuba's national cocktail?

And so, with stomachs full, mojito glasses emptied, we toasted Cheers! Salud! Gan Bei! to a fun evening of food, friends, and live blogging.

(A couple recipes below!)

More photos on Flickr.


Black Bean, Lime, and Onion Dip

Makes 2 cups

1/2 red onion, chopped 4 garlic cloves, minced 2 teaspoons olive oil Two 15-ounce cans of black beans, rinsed and drained well 3 tablespoons fresh lime juice 1 teaspoon ground cumin 1/2 teaspoon ground red chili pepper Salt and pepper to taste 2 tablespoons water

In a  pan over low heat, cook garlic and onions until onions are caramelized, about 5 to 6 minutes. Remove from heat and let cool.

In a food processor or blender, combine onions, garlic, olive oil, black beans, lime juice, cumin, red chili pepper, salt, and pepper. Blend until smooth. Serve with pita or tortilla chips. Dip can be chilled for up to 3 days.

Notes: Dip is good cold, but much better warmed up. Is also a good accompaniment for the chicharrones de pollo.


Chinese-Caribbean "Jerk" Chicken Wings Adapted from recipe for Jamaican Jerk Chicken by Paul Chung in Food and Wine

Serves 4

1 medium red onion, coarsely chopped 1 habanero pepper, chopped 2 garlic cloves, chopped 1 tablespoon soy sauce 1 tablespoon olive oil 1 tablespoon five-spice powder 1 teaspoon dried thyme 1 teaspoon freshly ground pepper 1 teaspoon nutmeg 1 teaspoon salt 20 chicken wings or drummettes.

In a food processor or blender, combine the onion, habaneros, garlic, soy sauce, olive oil five-spice powder, thyme, pepper, nutmeg, and salt. Process into a smooth paste. Coat chicken wings with paste, and marinate at least 6 hours or preferably overnight.

Preheat oven to 375 degrees Fahrenheit. When ready to roast, arrange wings in a single layer in a shallow baking dish. Roast for 20 to 25 minutes.