Asian Thanksgiving

Each year the full moon that appears on the eighth month of the Chinese calendar calls for great celebrations, heralding the past year’s harvest or praying for the next year’s bounty, and celebrating the full moon in the sky. In the old days, royalty and peasants alike would take a break from their regular routines to celebrate with friends, family, and feasting. Called Mid-Autumn Festival (Zhong Qiu Jie) in China, Chuseok in Korea, Tsukimi in Japan, and Tet Trung Thu in Vietnam, this year the lunar holiday falls on this date, September 8.

Me, full on erudite in Chinese, circa 1983.

Me, fully erudite in Chinese, circa 1983.

Those who knew me growing up are familiar with my 12-year struggle in the once-a-week Friday night torture session that was more formally known as Silicon Valley Chinese School. (How better to traumatize a high school student than to rob her of her Friday night dances?) But of course, like all things your parents say you will eventually thank them for in the future, of course I now thank them for sending me to Chinese School; for instilling a good sense of Chinese language, both spoken and written, and for the various aspects of culture it cemented within me. It was at Chinese School, in addition to at home, where I learned the romantic folklore surrounding the Mid Autumn Festival, telling of a famous archer who shot down nine out of ten suns in the sky to save the earth from the scorching heat, who was subsequently rewarded with a magical elixir of immortality. The story continues to tell how the love of his life then drank this elixir and was transported to the moon for the rest of eternity–along with a rabbit, although how this rabbit came to be in the moon, my memory fails to recall.

Myself aside, many of the Chinese diaspora who have since emigrated to countries such as Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand, the Philippines, and elsewhere, brought this holiday and its lore to their overseas communities. Unbeknownst to me until this year, the Japanese, Korean, and Vietnamese cultures also celebrate this harvest moon, though with different folklores and slightly different rituals.

Hong Kong Holiday

Streets of Hong Kong during the holidays

Chinese culture is something I rarely recall in my life here in Dar, other than the fact that Tanzanians always scream out “China! China! Japan! Japan!” When I pass by them on the streets of City Centre. I actually tried speaking Chinese the other day, only to find myself stumbling over the most basic of words, and leading the Chinese man who asked me where the milk was in the grocery to ask/accuse, “You’re not Chinese….? What are you?” A bit offensive, but unsurprisingly Chinese of him.

I find myself yearning to celebrate holidays so heavily traditional and culturally rich as they have in China. Here in Tanzania, Muslim holidays aside, the year is chock full of non-celebratory bank holidays: Workers’ Day, Independence Day, Nyerere’s Birthday, Boxing Day…you get the point.

A typical Asian potluck--too much food.

A typical Asian potluck–too much food.

This year, myself, a Korean friend, and a Singaporean friend decided that we needed to round up the Asian population in Dar for a feast in celebration of this great festival to the moon. We called it Asian Thanksgiving– because how much more appropriate could you call this Pan-Asian merging of family and friends and supreme feasting?

We had what was likely to be Dar’s all-time best Asian cuisine: An Asiatic mix that included Japanese pork belly, Korean bulgogi and fried chicken, Vietnamese chicken salad, two different kinds of Philippino Adobo and fresh homemade buns, Thai Green Curry and coconut fish stew, and tons of homemade noodles, and rice. Best of all, we had sweet sticky rice and moon cake for dessert. Moon cake, here in Africa…what a treat!

Asian Thanksgiving 2

I was too busy running around the party to remember to take detail shots of the party, but here are a few overview shots of the group. Happy Mid Autumn Festival….or, more appropriately: 中秋節快樂!

My Asian family here in Dar.

My Asian family here in Dar.

ZANZIBAR DAY 3 >> Sugar and Spice…Everything Nice

cocoa beans

A visit to Zanzibar certainly wouldn’t be complete without a visit to a spice farm, now wouldn’t it?

On our bus ride to Abeid’s Spice Farm, I conjured up my own image of a spice farm in my head. What I saw was a Napa Valley-like setup, with trees and bushes planted in neat little rows throughout rolling hills. In my mind, this farm was perpetually fixed to one time: sundown.

bees, maybe?

Goodness knows what I was thinking. This is Africa, after all. So when we pulled up to a plot that could not have looked more uninteresting or unspectacular, and rather sparse, I was a little bit disappointed. There were trees, but they looked like….trees. There were bushes, but….they were just bushes. No neat little rows, and definitely nowhere near sundown, womp womp.

Our first stop out of the bus was to try a papaya. Great, I thought. This is going to be REAL exotic (cue eyes rolling to the back of my head).

Annatto- cluster

But from there, we moved onto a tree with odd clusters of fuzzy fruit pods. Annatto. And then I knew things were going to get better.

You see, I happen to know a bit about the annatto tree. I once worked in a cheese shop, and at this cheese shop we sold Beemster Cheese. Beemster’s XO Gouda is a typical dutch-style hard cow’s milk cheese, made by a co-op of small farmers and exported all around the world from the Beemster Polder in The Netherlands. This Beemster XO is not only made from happy and healthy cows, but it’s famously aged for 26 months. As a result, it’s deliciously firm and full of flavor, reminding me of a salty butterscotch or a good salty toffee (don’t knock it ’til you try it!)

But I digress. Annatto. The deep, saturated orange-ish color in Beemster, the one that most cheeselovers assume is due to its 2 years of aging, is actually due to a natural dye…called Annatto. Beemster orange. I’ve been enamored by annatto for quite some time, especially after learning that it’s a natural dye used in foods like cheese (one that I love so much, to boot), and a dye so vibrant that many women once used it to color their lips and cheeks.

Annatto- split and seeds

After the annatto tree, my worries of a boring afternoon were very quickly put to rest. From there, I got to taste pepper, straight from a tree- so peppery. I sucked on the bark of a cinnamon tree. Like, straight from the tree- into my mouth! I watched someone wash their hands with the berry from a tree that, like magic, lathered and cleaned like soap. I gnawed on lemongrass, sniffed fresh cloves and allspice, mashed curry leaves between my fingers, learned that each pineapple plant only produces a single pineapple fruit (and after 9 long months, geez), and unrooted bright yellow tumeric roots from the ground.


curry leaves


Though I imagine this would be an interesting trip for almost anyone, I gained particular joy from seeing where many of the spices I use so frequently in all my cooking come from. Spices that I am so familiar in their dried form, suddenly given life and a completely foreign appearance as berries, trees, bushes, plants, fruit.


In between this spicefest, we cleansed our palates by eating the papaya, gorging on jackfruit- a fruit that I swear tastes like Juicyfruit gum (and is now my new favorite treat), feasted on the fresh meat and juice from coconuts. We freshened our stinky bodies by rubbing ourselves with the ylang ylang flower. A flower that, I kid you not, smelled so similar to the beloved Chanel No. 5 scent. The farm keepers made the women bracelets and ice-cream-cone-like-baskets out of sturdy leaves and fronds (I was one lucky recipient of a pair of leaf glasses) and the men received sultan-worthy headcaps. We trampled around the farm like young girls and boys on an exploratory adventure.



It was like the Willy Wonka of farms, where everywhere you turned there was a bite to be taken or a lick to be had. I was just waiting for a river of curry to come bursting through, is all. More often than not, I would look down and find myself juggling a piece of some fruit in one hand, focusing my camera with another, being ordered to smell something that had been stuck under my nose, and trying to keep a collection of berries and leaves and seeds from being spilled. Somehow I also managed to take notes and snap iPhone pics too, and looking back I’m almost positive I won’t ever be able to multitask quite as well as I did on that day. I don’t think my senses will, either- by the end of the tour my head was dizzy from smells and tastebuds tingling from spice.



A stroll through the night market

Night market culture in Taiwan is anything unlike I’ve ever seen. What are quiet strips of concrete and blacktop during the day turn into some of the busiest parts of town at night. Typically night markets start setting up around 3pm-4pm and will be open until the wee hours of the night. You can find the post-bar scene here, but often it is the bar scene.

Asking any teen what their favorite activity is, rarely will you find an answer as common as “walking around the night market”. With food and shopping being two of the Taiwanese’s greatest past times, it’s not hard to understand why.

Street food is a new concept that is all the rage in the States. Here in Taiwan, it’s been around for ages, and it certainly hasn’t lost any luster:

Mango Cucumber Salsa

We miss Mexican food a lot here. It’s like they say, you never know what you have until it’s gone- and growing up in California, where there are no shortage of tacos and burritos and hot dogs wrapped in bacon (those are Mexican, aren’t they?), we’re suffering a bit here. Not to mention, I would kill for an elote from Cafe Habana right now (plenty of fresh corn at the market- but no cojito cheese for miles!)

When the recent issue of Saveur magazine rolled around, with it’s tantalizing cover of crispy tacos and bold text boasting “Secrets of Mexican Cooking”, I was determined to find a recipe that I could recreate, or at least adapt, here in Southern China. After all, I find there to be many similarities in Asian and Latin cooking- there wasn’t that huge Asian Fusion spike in the 90’s for nothing, let me tell you…

But I soon realized that most authentic Mexican recipes call for very specific dried or fresh chiles, or the need for good tortillas- none of which I are available here. I toyed with the idea of substituting local chinese dried chilies in place of the New Mexico or Guajilo chiles. Though excellent and powerful in Chinese cuisine, I doubt they would garner the same savory Mexican flavor I am craving (would they? Does anyone know?). Perhaps my trip to Mexico City in the summer will be just as much a pantry expedition as it will a reunion with friends…

In the meantime, I’m still seeking out some good recipes and some good tricks to recreate the flavors of Mexican cuisine in my own kitchen. This weekend I made this shredded chicken taco dish again, an easy adaptation for a Guangzhou kitchen. Looking through a huge list of recently bookmarked Cinco de Mayo themed recipes, I re-discovered the website Muy Bueno Cookbook along with this recipe for a mango salad, reminiscent of the chile sprinkled mango and jicama sold from carts on the street corners in downtown LA.  Rather than a chunky salad, I preferred to scale it down to a salsa, and with magoes and cucumbers both sold prolifically at the wet market, it was a no-brainer. The recipe called for plenty of chile powder in the salad, but I wanted a more nuanced spice in this salsa, and so also grabbed from the piles of mild peppers at the market.

Cucumbers and peppers (along with taro root displayed) at the wet market


Growing up, I would frequently sit on a stool in the kitchen as I watched my mother cook in the kitchen.  She would educate me as she went along on the importance of cleaning up as she cooked, setting things out before she started stir frying, and making sure to wash the dishes as she went along. At the time, I thought she was just being nitpicky, and franky hated these “lectures” I got when all I wanted was to watch the garlic and ginger sizzle at the bottom of the skillet. But I now realize that she was simply teaching me the basics of what all good chefs know- setting your mise en place, making sure your workstation is sanitary and organized. Funny how everything your mom tells you when you are little suddenly makes sense when you’re older…

She also showed me other important skills, one being how to wield a knife. My mother could (and still can) pulverize garlic into the tiniest minced flecks, slice ginger into the thinnest slivers, and artfully cut carrots and firm tofu into perfectly-square little cubes. The Chinese believe that the proportion of shapes and sizes of a dishes’ components play a big part in the flavor and taste of a dish. Hence, the Chinese have an extensive vocabulary for the prep work of different cuts of meat and vegetables- significantly more than their Western friends.

Whenever I’m prepping a dish like this salsa, spending much longer than anyone typically would to make sure the shallots are appropriately, I compare them to how my mom used to do it. When people make salsa and their tomatoes are cut into huge, uneven chunks, the onions are in unappetizingly large pieces, and the cilantro is not even chopped, I am a little uneasy. Maybe you’d say I was spoiled- I’d say I was taught well. In any case, I’d consider this a secret to a good salsa, or a salad, or any freshly chopped mixed vegetable dish.

Mango Cucumber Salsa

inspired by this recipe from Muy Bueno Cookbook


  • 4 small, ripe yellow mangoes
  • 3 kirby cucumbers
  • 3 shallots, minced
  • 1 small bunch chinese celery (or, one rib of regular celery), leaves discarded
  • 2 mild green peppers, minced
  • 1 mild red pepper, minced
  • 1/4 cup cilantro, stemmed and packed, finely chopped
  • juice of one lime
  • salt, to taste


  1. Peel and cut mangoes into a small dice. The easiest way to do this, I’ve found, is to: cut the stem-end of the mango off so you can easily and securely set the mango on its end on a cutting board. Using a sharp knife, slice the peel off, downwards, along the length of the mango. Keep turning and trimming the peel off until your mango is “naked”. Then carefully cut the meat off the pit in the largest slices possible, and dice from there.
  2. Seed the cucumbers, cut into spears and then a small dice
  3. Combine shallots, celery, red and green peppers with lime and salt to taste. Mix well, allowing the shallots to macerate in the lime juice to lessen its sharpness. Combine mango and cucumbers, and toss to mix thoroughly.
  4. Cover and let sit in the refrigerator for at least 20-30 minutes. Can be prepared a day ahead, if necessary, but shouldn’t be kept more than a couple of days- which probably won’t be a problem!

Yield: approx. 3 1/2 cups of salsa, or enough to feed 10-12 people for a taco dinner!