Saturday, 29 December 2012

Choco and Niouk Yen

My uncles like to plant unusual vegetables, for the pure fun of seeing something sprout out of the earth. They are willing to try planting anything, even if they aren't interested in eating it. The other day when I visited them, I found a choco sitting on the kitchen table. They told me that they grew a choco vine round the chicken coop. Apparently there were quite a few chocos, but when the summer garden was removed to make way for the winter garden, they simply mulched the whole vine down and kept one choco as a souvenir. I took it away with me to see if I could use it.

A bit of reading on the internet tells us that the choco is not the most exciting vegetable around. It's rather common, and there are more preferable vegetables to take its place. You can eat it cooked or raw, peeled or unpeeled, fried or baked, or even grated into a salad. It tastes like a cross between a savoury melon and woody cucumber. Not particularly highly sought after, but I'm a sucker for free fresh food. I felt sorry for the choco, as I worried that it might suffer the same plight as some kumquat a friend of mine recently gave me. Same goes for the arbute berries I found in the village. They're all interesting edibles but not particularly delectable.

In my choco search, I chanced on an excellent blog that showcases the island of Mauritius, where the choco is used in the cuisine of the Chinese people of Mauritius:
Niouk yen” is definitely a candidate for the national dish of Mauritius. More popularly known as “boulette” on the island, this rounded steamed dumpling is primarily made of choko vegetable(chayote) and mince pork. “Niouk yen” is a traditional Hakka food and the recipe has been passed on by Chinese Mauritians for generations. There are many variations of this dish – instead of choko some people use green papaya and the pork can also be substituted with beef.

Making Chinese dumplings is not an easy task; I imagine that it is something a Chinese cook uses the whole day to do, or a few people get together and make them as a group. So much preparation is involved in making them - finely chopping vegetables, cooking meats and finely chopping them too, making the pastry and rolling it out thinly into rounds, filling the dumplings and finaly cooking them - only to see them devoured in seconds!!!

The work I put into this meal was worth every second. Despite the recipe taking a long time to execute, it is not a complicated one. It does not contain many ingredients, or too many strange ones, or new techniques. Substitutions can be made. Since I didn't have much choco at my dispoal, I decided to add some finely grated cabbage for extra colour; I used boiled minced turkey instead of pork; we can't get dried shrimp in Hania, so I used fresh frozen shrimp. The flavour of my dumplings would therefore not be very intense, but this is only a matter of availability.

With the bamboo steamer a friend sent me, I made some delicious dumplings which needed very little to complement them, save a sweet 'n' sour 'n' hot 'n' sticky sauce. I also turned some dumplings into pot stickers by squashing them flat, which I pan-fried in olive oil. The sauce was made with whatever ingredients I had at hand: some hoi sin sauce, my own home-made garden-grown pepper sauce, a little bit of saembal oelek and a sachet of pickled ginger that a freind gave me. This is what that one single choco did - I And some ideas are born out of such simple things, like a choko.

I can't describe how good it feels to be able to eat good Chinese food in my house. If I don't make everything from scratch, I can't enjoy this luxury.

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