Friday, January 29, 2016

Cilantro Wonton Soup Inspired by Amy Tan's The Joy Luck Club

Have you ever looked at somebody, be it a complete stranger or close friend, and wonder exactly what it is they’re going through? I have. I’ll look at the person next to me, noticing and remembering everything I think I know about them, and wonder: Do I really see you? And the answer is almost always no.

How can it possibly be yes? Some days I don’t even know myself. And many people spend their entire lives showing people only the parts of them that they want seen, or the parts of them they aren’t skilled enough to keep hidden. And this has always struck me as both sad and fascinating. Here we are, living on the same planet, but walking completely different worlds.

My interest with this subject is one of the main reasons that The Joy Luck Club by Amy Tan had such an impact on me:

The story of four Chinese mothers and their four Americanized daughters, The Joy Luck Club follows the lives of eight women. The four mothers have similar histories: Chinese immigrants fleeing from the consequences of World War II and the difficulties of their pasts. They are brought together by the Joy Luck Club, a group that gets together to play maj jong, share food, memories, and joy. The four daughters also have similar stories: All raised by four very Chinese mothers who push them to become their idea of perfection. Both the mothers and daughters struggle with the same problems: How to live in America and still keep what it means to be Chinese, how to deal with broken marriages, scarred relationships, and hard lives.

And yet, with all of this in common, the mothers do not know their daughters. The daughters don’t understand their mothers. The mothers see young women who do not know what it is to be Chinese. The daughters see old women who cannot let go of their pasts.

An interweaving of eight narratives, The Joy Luck Club is a beautiful story about the lives of Chinese immigrants and their determination to hold onto joy while letting go of the pain they hope they have left behind.

I was beyond impressed by Amy Tan’s ability to create such real characters and write with so much truth. Sometimes, I would come across a sentence and stare at in shock. Written on so many pages were thoughts that have often bounced about in my head. Somehow Amy Tan had manage to capture them and explain them in a way that I would never have been able to.
This does not happen very often, but, when it does, I always start researching the author. “How?” I ask myself. “How did she know?”

Well, as it turns out, Amy Tan knows because she has Lyme disease. Like myself, she went undiagnosed for several years. No treatment has worked for her, but she keeps fighting. She has started an organization to help children with Lyme gain access to treatment. And she writes. She writes stories that she knows: Stories of pain and hope, tears and perseverance, real stories with real thoughts and real meanings.

That takes a lot of courage. Not many authors have that kind of courage, but Amy Tan is one of the beautiful few who still does.

One of the things that really stuck out to me was her handling of mother-daughter relationships. China’s culture is very different from America’s, so the relationship between the Chinese mothers and their Americanized daughters was difficult to read. There was a lot of friction, a lot of pain and misunderstandings, made all the worse because the mothers and daughters cared about each other but didn’t know how to show it.

An interesting part of the book was that the mothers were almost constantly cooking. That was how they showed their love. They could not speak it, but they could show it by spending hours preparing a meal for their family. 

Because of this, The Joy Luck Club will do two things to you: It will make you sad but hopeful and it will make you hungry.
Almost every chapter of this book made me want to go and try making some of the Chinese dishes described in it. The one that sounded the most interesting to me was the cilantro wonton soup. Since my Mom’s side of the family is Mexican, I’ve always viewed cilantro as something that belong exclusively to Mexican cooking. Stupid, I know, but I thought it highly entertaining to find cilantro in a Chinese meal.

I decided to give it a try and, as it turns out, cilantro goes along awesomely in Chinese cuisine. The following recipe is vegetarian, dairy free, sugar free, and almost gluten free. I wasn’t able to find gluten-free wonton wrappers, so that part has wheat in it. Oh well. Anyway, here it is: 
Ingredients - 
     For Broth:
  • 8 cups of vegetable broth. Or chicken stock, if you don't want to go vegetarian. 
  • 3 green onions, chopped.
  • 1/2 cup of tamari. Or soy sauce. I like tamari better. 
  • 2 tablespoons of sesame oil 
  • 2 tablespoons of rice vinegar 
  • 2 teaspoons of siracha. Or sambal oelek. I didn't know it's name, so I had to Google: "Asian chili sauce with green lid." It knew exactly what I was talking about. I love Google.
  • 1 teaspoon of minced ginger
     For wontons: 
  • Wonton wrappers. You'll need about 30. I found mine at Sprouts, but, as I said, they weren't gluten-free. Boo. 
  • 1/2 cup of cilantro leaves, finely chopped
  • 2 cups of steamed spinach
  • 2 cups of chopped napa cabbage. Boil in water for 2 minutes, then strain under cold water. 
  • 3 green onions, chopped
  • 1 tablespoon of rice vinegar 
  • 1 tablespoon of tamari
  • 1 clove of garlic, crushed
  • 1 to 2 teaspoons of siracha, depending on how spicy you like your foods. 
  • 1/4 teaspoon of ginger
  • 1 tablespoon of water mixed with 1 tablespoon of cornstarch 
  • Salt to taste
1. Throw all broth ingredients in a large pot. Bring to a simmer. Taste and then decide whether it needs tweaking. 

2. In a medium bowl, mix together all ingredients for the wonton filling.
Fill a small bowl with water and set next to the bowl of wonton filling. 

3. Place a wonton wrapper in one hand. With your other hand, dip a finger into the small bowl of water and brush all four corners of the wonton wrapper. Place 1/2 a teaspoon of the vegetable filling into the wonton wrapper. 

4. Now go and wrap the wonton whatever way seems best to you. I'm no Auntie An-Mei (who makes this soup in the book), so I decided to keep it simple. I folded the wonton in half, forming a triangle. Then I folded two of the three corners inward. They'll look sort of like opened envelopes. Some of them didn't seal properly, so I folded all three corners inward. That's why some of them look like demented Howlers: 
5. Bring the broth to a boil. Drop the wontons into the pot and allow to boil for about 5 minutes (or whatever the instructions say on the wonton packaging). You don't want to boil for too long or the wontons will fall apart. 
6. Add some extra cilantro to the top of the soup and enjoy.

7. This is optional: If you want, you can add some rice noodles to the soup. It gives it more substances and extra texture. I chose to do this because I'm in love with rice noodles, but you have my permission to leave them out if you can't fully appreciate them. 

Now, while I'd like to say that the mothers from The Joy Luck Club would be proud of this dish, I honestly can't. They made it very clear in the story that Americans don't know how to make Chinese food. They're also each convinced that they are the best cooks around. So I'm just going to be satisfied with the fact that I liked this soup. 
I can now add two new items to my list of things that make me happy: Amy Tan's writing and wonton soup.

While parts of The Joy Luck Club can be difficult because of the hard topics (forced marriages, abandoned children, broken relationships), I'm glad I read it. Why? Because it was difficult. Because it didn't shy away from the heavy topics or give easy answers. But it also didn't obscure all of the beautiful parts of life or forget to tell stories about hope and strength. In short: It told the truth. And I can't ask for more than that.

What about you? Have you read The Joy Luck Club? What stood out to you the most? I'd love to hear your thoughts!

Related articles:
Orange Glazed Stir-Fry and Iced Citrus Green Tea Inspired by Randy Alcorn's Safely Home
Rosa Hubermann's Pea Soup Inspired by The Book Thief
Paleo Chocolate Pie Inspired by Kathryn Stockett's The Help

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  1. I liked the Joy Luck Club. Though the Chinese culture had foreign elements for me, I could relate with the theme since I'm Caribbean born but raised in Europe. Finding your identity in two cultures who both see you as an outsider (one because you look different and the other because your body language is off and you have acquired an accent in your first language) is a challenge. (I wrote a short story about it on my blog)

    Also managing the different communication styles. The Dutch will ask everything and talk about anything. My Caribbean heritage has less parent-child heart-to-hearts and they are certainly less direct in expressing their opinions. So some aspects I could understand while others were mystifying.

    I followed it up by reading 'Saving Fish from Drowning'. It was beautiful but the characters are so real that it becomes painful to read as Amy Tan doesn't pull her punches in this book either.

    I can recommend reading it with a box of tissues and some comfort food within reach ;)

    1. Thanks for the neat comment! I love your perspective. I've never read "Saving Fish from Drowning," but it's going on my tbr list. I'll remember to stock up on tissues and cookies. =)

  2. I have never tried making my own wontons, but I'm pretty sure if I did, they would alllll look like demented howlers.

    It's been several years since I read this book, but I remember being really hungry for Oriental food the whole time I read it!

    1. Haha! I guess if wontons are going to look like something, they might as well look like demented howlers. Because why not? =) Thanks for the comment!

  3. Wow, Hannah, you truly are an accomplished chef! Your soup looks wonderful!! I think I'll go ahead and ask Hubs for a Chinese takeout for dinner... Now, see what you did? :D Hugs <3

    1. *grins sheepishly* Well, since you're at it already, feel free to order some takeout for me, too! =)


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