Thursday, February 28, 2013

Bean Sauce and Bitter Melons

My pantry is, almost always, stocked with wonderful and random ingredients from the usual trips to Hong Kong, Taiwan, China and Japan. In the last couple of years, Mum has fallen in love with one particular brand from Taiwan, that specialises in making a small but wonderful range of sauces.

Apparently, it's like Pepe Saya butter to a lot of chefs in Taiwan. The brand was established in 1972, and I've only seen their products available at a very select few stores in Taipei. All products are handmade, with no additives or preservatives. Their soy-based products are packed with umami, but don't have that harsh salty tartness that can sometimes be found in other commercial products.

While we haven't gone so far as to bring back bottles of soy sauce, this soy bean sauce has become a staple sauce at home. Last night I used it to whip up a gorgeous dish with bitter melon and five spice dried tofu. Super easy, super good with a massive bowl of rice. The ingredients? Bitter melon, five spice dried tofu, the soy bean sauce, some oil and water. How much simpler can you get?

1. Wash and seed the bitter melon. Cut lengthways into quarters, then slice diagonally to maximise the cut surface area. To take off some of the bitterness, salt the slices lightly, set aside, then squeeze thoroughly to get rid of some of the water.
2. Cut the dried tofu into bite sized pieces. I like to slice it diagonally to let the flavours penetrate.
3. Heat the oil in a wok or pan. Add the tofu, give it a quick saute until the edges are golden, then add the bitter melon.
4. When the bitter melon has browned slightly around the edge, add about 2 teaspoons of the soy bean sauce, toss, then add about half a cup of water and simmer for about 5 minutes.
Once the water has reduced to half of the original volume or the sauce has thickened slightly and the bitter melon cooked through, it's ready to be served.

Sunday, February 24, 2013

Musical evenings

This is a food blog. That said, it's my blog and I'll talk about music if I want to!

... How very dominant that sounds.

Apart from food, my other great interest is music. Good music transcends language barriers, and will touch the very inner canyons of the soul. Like food, if the music is good, you can tell. I'm no music connoisseur by any means - what follows are merely my thoughts.

One of the big "investments" for this year is my symphony subscription. Finally being able to afford the tickets is a big feat, and yes, I'm trying to make up for lost time. The brilliant program on offer was also too good to miss, featuring some of my favourite composers (past and living), a few featuring my musical heroes. Vladimir Ashkenazy, the current Principal Conductor of the Sydney Symphony Orchestra, is one of my musical heroes. He won second prize in the prestigious Chopin Piano Competition in 1955 (my other musical hero, Fu Tsong, came third and won the Mazurka Prize in the same year). Without his recording of Chopin's Nocturnes, I would not have gotten so far in piano, and continue to have so much interest in music. Starting 8th Grade piano was hard enough. With the terrible trauma of the 7th grade exam (examiner gave a bad mark), I was aiming to finish 8th in a year (most of my friends took 18 months) and determined to prove I could do it - and do it well. Steely determination worked for the first 3 months. Then the seeds of doubt from my earliest piano teachers came in - "you'll probably never get past 5th grade", etc etc etc. The turning point came when, by chance, a family friend gave me Ashkenazy's recordings of Chopin's Nocturnes as a gift. It was the guidance I needed. My practice regime changed: I imitated, faithfully, the nocturne for the exam to that recording. It impressed the examiner enough to give me a very high mark. To this day, that Nocturne is still one of my favourite pieces for the piano.

It's why I couldn't pass on the last chance of seeing Maestro, in action, live, at the Opera House. It started with Tchaikovsky last year, a wonderful performance of the Piano Concerto No. 2 (original version) with renowned pianist Garrick Ohlsson followed by Symphony No. 4. The no-nonsense approach he took with the symphony was just as I imagined, and exceeded expectations. Listening to a recording is vastly different to seeing it live. With a recording, there is only the audio - one listens for technique and expression, shown through the changes in volume, the clarity of notes and brilliancy of mordents and trills. With a live performance, the visual is just as expressive - it's an opportunity to see (and for me, to verify) the artist's attitude. (Clearly my ears are just not enough to gauge and understand an interpretation of a piece.) Some are technically excellent, almost flawless, but their showy performance style can sometimes distract and dominate. It's like a reading of Wilfred Owen's Dulce et Decorum Est in either a happy cheery voice, or an over the top melodramatic hysterical tone - might be their understanding and interpretation, not my cup of tea. Ashkenazy's interpretation felt passionate, but controlled - it was his understanding, and convinced through reason, rather than "because I say so". The music spoke for itself, under the maestro's baton. And it spoke well.

This was reinforced in the 2013 season opening performance of Legends by the Sea. It was a first for me - having never listened to any Sibelius or Faure, nor anything Debussy had written for the symphony. It may have been the influence of the pre-concert talk: the performance was wonderfully evocative, almost sensuous. This was particularly the case with Debussy's La Mer, where the three symphonic sketches were, really, musical sketches of the sea in different light, and different conditions. From pristine stillness, shimmering light, roaring waves and howling winds, everything was captured in musical form. It was like Monet or Turner for the ears.

Last night was also a wonderful treat, with Tan Dun's Martial Arts Trilogy. His Oscar winning musical scores completed and elevated so many films, most notably The Last Emperor, Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon, and Hero - films I enjoy watching every now and then. The Martial Arts Trilogy draws music from three films - Hero (2002, directed by Zhang Yimou and Oscar nominated for Best Foreign Film), Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon (2000, directed by Ang Lee, won 4 Oscars), and The Banquet (2006, directed by Feng Xiaogang). It's the first time the Trilogy has been performed in this structure, and an extra treat with the composer as the conductor. With a giant screen set up behind the orchestra in the choir gallery, the visual-audio experience was sensational. Unlike the movies, where the music accentuates the actions or cinematography, the visuals emphasised the music in the trilogy performance. It was very much about the music - Tan Dun's music - in the same way that the performance was about the man himself, and not just his film scores.

The standout was certainly the Crouching Tiger concerto for Erhu, a Chinese two-stringed bowed fiddle, featuring soloist Tan Wei. The original score featured the brilliant Yo-yo Ma, yielding magic on his cello. Tan Wei brought a different touch - a very feminine touch - to the concerto, which felt fitting and appropriate, given the prominence of female characters that drove the story itself. It was as though the longing, the pain, the bitterness, joys, sorrows, yearnings, were all being spoken through the erhu.
In complete honesty, the other soloists (Ryu Goto on violin and Xiaoxiao Zhao on Guqin/Chinese zither for the Hero concerto, Yingdi Sun on piano for The Banquet concerto), while technically fantastic, just fell short of making Tan's music complete. It may be that they're all very young still - Goto and Sun were very showy, and wanting to prove their worth and make their mark. Sun's performance reminded me too much of Lang Lang - exaggerated facial expressions, whole body movements, and distracting arm waves during performances. Zhao just could not match that wonderful solo on the guqin that was originally featured in the soundtrack - the notes didn't have the same brilliancy, decisiveness, determination and ferocity.
What was surprising - and stunning - was the prominence of the percussion in all three concerti. It ranged from timpanis to Japanese Kodo drums, Bodhran (might be wrong here, it could have been a tambourine without jingles) and pebbles (yes, PEBBLES!), all used to great effect. Towards the end of the Silk Road: Encounters during the Crouching Tiger Concerto, the percussion soloist moved from the back of the orchestra, to take pride of place next to Tan Wei at the front of the stage, while Tan walked over to the back of the viola and cello section to watch the two brilliant artists do their thing. To have that trust in the orchestra, the soloists, and his own music to do that was sensational.
There is no doubt that Tan is a brilliant composer, and a wonderfully passionate and spirited conductor. His compositions play with traditionally Oriental and European sounds to give wonderfully visual, and in some cases, almost spiritual effect, exploring themes of love, pride, cause and purpose.
What surprised me was how much the film scores, in this arrangement, transcends the films, even though they were originally written to accentuate the film experience. In some ways this is just a cinematic equivalent of operas, and the symphonic experience featuring selections from operas - one is more focussed on the acting and singing, the other more about the pieces itself and the harmony between the singer and the score.
Equally, there is certainly that harmony between the films and the scores, just as the same harmony could be felt between the traditions of Chinese and European music. There were almost no tensions between the two traditions, with the wonderful interplay of solos akin to a constructive dialogue and friendly discussion. Neither dominated, and neither were forced into the background - it was not an attempt to prove one was superior to the other, nor did it relent one being inferior to the other either. If only the same attitude could be brought into everyday life!

Three down, eight more performances to go - and so far this investment has not disappointed. I'm looking forward to hearing what Reinhard Goebel, founder of the Musica Antiqua Kohn and Baroque "specialist" has to offer with Handel's Water Music, the Maestro conducting Beethoven and his Favourites, Chopin's Second Piano Concerto with Richard Gill, a piano recital by the virtuoso Murray Perahia and then one of the final SSO performances with Ashkenazy playing Mahler. And maybe, just maybe, one of the evenings I will splurge some more and start the evening with some fine food for the tastebuds before plunging into the brilliancy of exceptional music for my ears...