This posting is about organs, specifically duck kidneys so if you're squeamish about internal organs, you are warned!

Culture inspires me, religion invigorates me (as in a healthy, respectful debate) and languages interest me (admittedly, I have yet to master my own heritage language and the state of my French will leave my professeur in despair).  And while religion and language are strong components of a culture, I would say nothing says culture more adepthly than food.  It is also perhaps the easiest way to get introduced to a new culture.  It's what I call a 3-D experience; you can smell it, taste it, feel it...And well, if it's alive before you gobble it, I suppose you can say you can hear it too?

Growing up in a Chinese family, I've had my fair share of what my non-Asian friends term as 'exotic' fare and I never fail to be amused by this.  I suppose if you've been exposed to certain things from a young age, it doesn't strike you as unusual.  And so, chicken feet, deep-fried sweet and sour intestines, braised kidneys, livers, stomach...I've had them and they're good!  But, I am surprised that a few of my originally-from-Hong Kong friends are repulsed by this type of food.  On the flip side, I do have a friend who eats pig brains and chicken testicles but I haven't worked up to that level yet. 

Here are a few of the yummy dishes I mentioned above...Pics curtesy of Google.
Mom says that about 30 years ago, wings ($0.25/lb), blue crabs ($0.25/lb), pork bones ($0.10/lb) and  oxtails ($0.39/lb) were cheap!  No one wanted chicken gizzards and were given away for free as with chicken feet from poultry farms.  How silly, my mom thought of the non-Asians...All this good food and no one knows what to do with them.  It's a different story now. 

I am actually impressed that when an animal is  slaughtered in an Asian market, generally, few parts are wasted...We're not going to get into sharks fin in this posting.  That's a contentious one right now as Toronto considers a new ban on it.  All I'm going to say is that while I'm a meat eater (I had a failed attempt at being a vegetarian), I don't believe in animal suffering and wastage.

And now for my mom's duck kidneys.  A family friend wanted to buy some dried duck kidneys for her watercress soup.  At $28/lb, my mom said 'STOP'!  She went to the supermarket at bought them fresh at $2.29/lb.  Once dried, the 10lbs of fresh kidneys weighed in at 2.5lbs...And she spent only about $23.00!  Moms are so economical!  I wonder if they somehow magically become know-it-alls the minute they turn into a mom!

News of her dried duck kidneys travelled fast and for weeks after, we had racks and racks of drying duck kidneys.  Below are two recipes, for dried duck kidneys and braised duck kideys in soy sauce.

Dried Duck Kidneys
-5lbs fresh duck kidneys yields approx. 1lb dried
-sea salt

1. Rinse, clean and snip of fatty bits from kidneys.  Put into bowl. 
2. Pour sea salt over kidneys, mix well, set aside in friedge overnight.
3. Layer kidneys on drying rack and leave in sunny location for drying.  At night, we put the trays near heat vents to speed up drying process. 
(This would never work in Hong Kong; it's way to moist and it'll just get mouldy.)
4.  Once dried, the kidneys take on a rich, deep burgundy hue.  Pack in jar or plastic bag for future use. 

**Pick out small ones for braising as once dried, these become too small.  See below for braising recipe.

Ever the economical mom, she dries the older veggie leaves for making veggie soup. I included them here as a nice contrast to the dark red of the dried kidneys.

Braised Duck Kidney in Soy Sauce:
-duck kidneys
-Seasoning: soy sauce, rice wine, star anise, sliced ginger, sugar, sesame oil, a little water.

1. Rinse, clean and snip of fatty bits from duck kidneys.  Drain and set aside.
2. Simmer in a pot, the seasoning ingredients.  When it starts to bubble gently, lower temperature and add the kidneys.
3. Simmer for 15mins.  Remove and garnish with scallions and/or coriander.

**If there's a lot of seasoning sauce leftover, once cooled, pour into container and freeze for next use.  You can use it to simmer pork tongue or hard-boiled eggs.
While not necessarily a CNY staple, we make them around this time of the year as a change from all the sweets we have been making and eating.

Filling: Carrots, water chestnut, shitake mushroom, preserved Chinese sausage, dried prawns, shallots, garlic, coriander, sesame oil, soy sauce

Wrapper: 1 pk (400g) tapioca pearls, water, wheat starch

1.   Soak tapioca pearls in water.  When soft, set aside to strain overnight.
2. Loosely chop up parsley and set aside.  Dice remainder filling ingredients.  Put in bowl and season with sesame oil and soy sauce.
3.  Heat a tablespoon of oil in wok.  Stir-fry the diced ingredients.  Spoon into bowl and mix in the chopped coriander.  
Do a taste test. Add a little more sesame oil, soy sauce or some chili flakes as desired.
Set aside to cool completely.
4. Heat the tapioca in the microwave for about 3mins.  It should look translucent.  Careful not to overcook.  To make it more manageble, we divided the tapioca iinto 3 bowls and heated them up separately. 

For our second batch, we tried steaming the drained tapioca.  Works a bit better but a little more work.

5. Put all the tapioca into a large mixing bowl and stir in wheat starch a little at a time to achieve a sticky consistency.  If it gets too dry, add a little hot water.
Too hot to handle so clever Mom uses a saucer and gently kneads.
Add a little more wheat starch if it gets too sticky to handle.
6.  Now the tricky part.  Scoop out a little piece of the dough.  Pull, stretch, tug until you have a flat disc.  Add a spoonful of the filling.  Knead the dough shut.  You can choose a traditional dumpling shape or roll into a ball.  But it can be quite STICKY and requires patience.
7. Brush a little oil on a steaming basket.  Layer the dumplings on the basket and steam for 6-8mins.  It will take on a glossy, translucent look.  Serve warm.
Oops, the one in the middle wasn't closed tightly enough and popped open while steaming.
**This is a versatile filling and can be used in other dumplings, in glutinous rice or in taro/carrot pudding cakes.  
**A number of different ingredients can be used for the filling such as celery or corn.
Remember all that sweet filling leftover from making Guk-chai? Here's a recipe  that requires the same filling.  It also requires some dexterity and thus a  possible activity for little fingers to strengthen fine-motor skills.  Can get messy though...

Filling: Same as Guk-chai (shredded coconut, crushed peanuts, toasted sesame, sugar). 

Wrapper: 400g Glutinous flour, 3/4C sugar, 500g water

Coating: shredded coconut or powder sugar

1. Combine water and sugar and stir until well-mixed. Add little by little to glutinous flour and mix well.  It will stay in watery consistency.  Separate into two bowls and heat one at a time in microwave, about 4mins each.  It should now be sticky and thick in consistency.
2. While mixture is  still warm to touch, scoop a little up and roll into a 1-inch ball and with a combination of stretching, pressing, pulling, flatten into a small disc.

3. Add a small spoonful of filling, pinch the opening shut and gently roll into a ball (about 1.5-2inches).

4.  Roll the mochi ball into shredded coconut or powder sugar.

**Filling options: sweet black sesame paste or  sweet lutus paste.
Filling: -Mix together shredded coconut, crushed peanuts, toasted sesame, sugar

Wrapper: -Store-bought dumpling wrapper 

1 beaten egg - for sealing wrapper edges

1. Use your finger or a small egg brush and dab the edges of a wrapper with egg. 
2. Spoon some of the coconut-peanut filling into centre of wrapper and fold in half.  Crimp edges and seal firmly. (You are bascially making a sweet dumpling)
3. Continue making until you have as many as you like.
4.  Fill a pot 1/3 with oil and heat it up.  Carefully lower the sweet dumplings into the oil; turning over after a few minutes until they are golden on both side and crispy.
5. Cool and store in Tupperware.

**Store extra filling in Tupperware for making sweet crepes, as cookie topping or my favourite, on top of a buttered English crumpet...Great example of East-meets-West!
**Use the round wrappers; they're thicker and can be used for Japanese gyozas or potstickers.  The square wrappers are for wonton and are too thin for this dish.
According to Chinese traditions, luck and good fortune is bestowed upon all those that begin on an auspicious date.  Thus, what better way to start this writing project then a post about the sweets and savour foods mom prepared for CNY?

CNY celebration is steeped in tradition and folklore.  It is said that a monster lived atop a mountain and when it wakes up for its slumber, it will come down and eat up the villagers.  In a bid to scare the monster away, a cocophony of pots and pans would keep the monster at bay.  Today, instead of running around banging pots and pans, firecrackers are used.  Houses are artfully decorated with blessings written on red paper and spring is welcomed in with colourful displays of flowers. 

There are a lot of other dos and don'ts such as not washing one's hair or sweeping on the first day of CNY; the first day of the new year.  It is feared that if one does, one will wash or sweep away that year's luck or fortunes.  On the third day, it is recommended that no family or friend visits be made so as to avoid disagreements.  I never did quite get this one and wonder if has anything to do with all the feasting from the days before...Everyone's just bloated and grumbly. No gift-giving of shoes as the sound of 'shoe' in Cantonese sounds like a person sighing.  I say, give me a brand new Louboutine or Manolo Blahnik any day! 

In any case, my family does not subscribe to much of the superstitions surrounding CNY...Though we kids do get our lucky red envelopes stuffed with crisp money notes (laisee) and mom cooks up a storm which I am about to share.

**My youngest sister recently married and was reminded by mom to give her two older sisters laisee.  To which she said 'Aww, really?'  I am still waiting for it...