Cooking my own 8-course Birthday Dinner

Most years I'd just book a fancy restaurant around town, but when I had to figure out what to do with my family for my birthday this year, I got a sudden case of homebody-itis. What I really wanted, I decided, was to cook a meal. A big meal. For the two family members here in Shanghai who just so happened to be responsible for my birth anyway.

So: I made 8 dishes. It would’ve been 9, except neither parent could drink wine that night, and the rest of the meal was filling enough that they didn't want to add wine-less cheese on top of it.  (Alas, this is frustrating as I now have a fridge full of great cheeses for an amazing cheese plate but no time in the rest of the week to invite people over to eat it - such are the conundrums that plague my life). 

So So: I figure I'd share that menu. And free associatively ramble alongside. Because It's my birthday and I'll ramble if I want to.

Look! It's Elaine's birthday menu:

Judging by the leftovers, the ingredients amounts I listed for each dish makes about 5 portions each.

Dish 1: burrata & pesto on tomato

Ingredients: half a ball of burrata, 6-7 vine tomatoes, and a jar of pesto.
Instructions: Cut the tomato into thick, easily pick-up-able slices. Add a dollop of the pesto on a tomato slice. Rip a piece of burrata and put it on top. Add a basil leaf for garnish. Repeat.


It's nice to know that I am at the point in my life where throwing something like this together is so second nature it makes me feel silly to even write about it. It's such an easy crowd pleaser too. But hey, it was the first dish of the night, and it set the mood for what I wanted out of the evening: A low stakes hang where my parents watched Ken Burns documentaries and I busied myself in the kitchen. It's always great to start with an easy win.

Dish 2: cucumber boat with salmon avocado mousse

Ingredients: two Chinese cucumbers, one avocado, 100g of smoked salmon (or any smoked fish would work)
Instructions: Slice cucumbers into thirds with tips cut off. Then make one cut about a quarter in on one side to make it into a long u-boat shape. Carve out the cucumber flesh. Repeat for all the cucumber thirds. Chop ripe avocado half into cubes. Combine in blender with 100g of smoked salmon to form the mousse. Scoop out and put into cucumber boats.


The Ken Burns documentary we started with was about the Shakers, a Utopian religious sect that got its start in colonial America and, surprisingly, still has one community lasting until today. Amongst some of their more progressive bonafides was having women in leadership roles and becoming the first conscientious objectors in American history during the Civil War. Ken Burns documentaries in general are pretty soothing, but there's something especially calming about one focused on peaceful eccentrics.

Dish 3: mango carrot curry gazpacho

Ingredients: Two kabocha, half an onion, two carrots, half a cup of diced cucumber
1 cup of veg stock mixed with 1 cup of water, 2 extra cups of cold water & 1/2 cup of mango juice
1 teaspoon of turmeric, 1 teaspoon of dried parsley, 1 tablespoon of olive oil, salt & pepper to taste.
Instructions: Slice the top off the kabocha and carve out the insides. Remove the seeds, you'll only be using the flesh. Rough chop the carrots and put it with the kabocha flesh. Slice the onion. In a pot, heat olive oil slightly and then put in the onions. When the onions begin to get translucent, dump in the carrots and kabocha flesh. Then pour in the veg stock and water. Simmer until carrots can be punctured easily with a fork, and then add in the turmeric and parsley. Blend in a blender, then cool in fridge (overnight). Right before serving: pour in cold water & 1/2 cup of mango juice, stir, salt & pepper to taste and then add in diced cucumber.


Continuing on about the Shakers documentary: The ongoing narrative of the United States often feels like the story of Capitalism pushed to its furthest limits - in which the most capitalist capitalists of Europe swarmed in to create a nation built on the worship of prosperity. And centuries later, everything that has made modern America has come from that tension of prosperity worshippers that got to a resource a minute ago trying to keep it from prosperity worshippers that have just arrived.

There are millions of essays on the economic considerations of everything from the Westward expansion to the Civil War to the reasoning behind the USA's attitudes towards guns, healthcare and higher education etc... so I won't go into it real deep on a food post. BUT maaaaan, that some weird cult was able to be super weird but ALSO super lovely for over 200 years, using their itchy fingers and Protestant work ethic to create beautiful things and better the lives of women, orphans, and the poor... I guess it's a reminder that not every capitalistic drive veers communities straight into myopic exploitation? Which is what I kind of need right now to push away the dread I feel whenever I turn on American news?

Okay, I'm done. Let's talk more about food - the next three dishes comprise the main course.

Dish 4: pinwheel beef roast with meicai, mushrooms & mozzarella

Ingredients: 500g of beef rump (or skirt steak) pounded out flat. 100g of shredded mozzarella. 100g of mushrooms. 100g of pickled chinese vegetables (from a can, or your local Asian market). 

Instructions: Dice the mushrooms and put into a bowl. Then get them to release as much water as possible – either by panfrying them until most of the liquid has evaporated, or by microwaving them 2-3 times, one minute on high, and then draining the liquid.  Make sure the rump (or skirt steak, but we could only find rump) is pounded flat into something easy to roll. Salt it, then add the mozzarella on top. Then put on the mushrooms, and the Chinese pickled vegetables. Roll and tie at intervals with kitchen twine. Heat an oven to 180C. Slather the roast with sesame oil, salt and then put it in the oven for 25 minutes. Take it out and let it rest for 5-10 minutes before carving to serve.

The making of.

The making of.

That's right, it's FUSION cuisine, baby! I got the idea for a Chinese-Western pinwheel roast from a dish at this one Shanghai restaurant called Oriental House (not the best name, but hey, the food's actually pretty great). They had a potato gratin with copious amounts of meicai in there, and as a complete surprise to me, the saltiness of pickled Chinese greens worked incredibly well with mild cheeses like white cheddar and mozzarella. So I made my own take on it.

It was very, very good. Meicai mozzarella stuff might become the thing I bring to everyone's potlucks this year.

Dish 5: Bok Choy & Daikon Radish Quick Pickle

Ingredients: 150g of bok choy, 150g of daikon radish, 1/2 cup of apple cider vinegar, 1/2 cup of Chinese Kangle (black) vinegar, 1 cup of water, 1 tsp of salt, 1 tablespoon of sugar (or sugar substitute)
Instructions: Peel and separate the bok choy leaves and make sure you wash it thoroughly. For this dish, we use the stems only, so chop off the leaves (don’t throw them away though, unless you specifically want to be wasteful!). Then chop the stems to be roughly a finger-length thick. Chop the daikon radish into cubes also around a finger-length thick. Put both bok choy and radish cubes into a Tupperware. Sprinkle with salt and sugar. Then pour in the vinegars and the water. Add more water to cover to the tops of the vegetables. Close the cover, give it all a good shake and put it in the fridge. While the quick pickling should take in a couple of hours, it’s easier just to leave it overnight.


Speaking of pickling, I thought a nice counterpart to a heavy meaty dish would be a quick pickle. I wanted to do something a little different from the regular cucumber quick pickle (though I love that taste too), so bok choy and daikon radish it was. Both bok choy and daikon are super low in calories and high in Vitamin C. But more importantly, I think they taste great. I could add this to everything.

The Shaker documentary was over, so my parents moved on to the next one, on the building of the Brooklyn Bridge - a cross-generational effort by a family of engineers called the Roeblings. I don't have to much to say about this, except that 1) man, the documentary made it seem like Frank Sinatra worshipped the Brooklyn Bridge and 2) I really wonder what it's like to spend your entire life working on one major project. I wonder if anyone still does that now... or if it's possible to still do that now even.

Dish 6: cauliflower carrot rice.

Ingredients: one head of cauliflower, one carrot, half an onion, 1 tbsp of olive oil, salt & pepper to taste.
Instructions:  This will be much, much easier with a food processor. Prior to having one, grating a cauliflower to make it “rice” would take about an hour. Now you just chop it into the size of its florets and then press the pulse button. Voila – cauliflower rice. Process this first, then put into a separate bowl. Then, chop a carrot into chunks. Using the same food processor, put in the carrot chunks and half an onion. Pulse again. In a wok, heat up olive oil. Pour in the pulsed carrot & onion. Cook until the onion turns translucent. Pour in cauliflower and stir to mix. You don’t want to cook it for too long or the cauliflower turns to mush. When you see some of the cauliflower bits turn translucent, turn off the heat, salt & pepper to taste.

Low carbers might have noticed: just about everything up until now has been "keto-approved." 


Back in 2015-ish I spent almost an entire year keeping my carbs under 50g a day. Besides losing a bit of girth, it was actually a great way to introduce myself to nutritional science in a “not just reading really confusing health headlines” way. Learning how the body processed energy, the various mechanisms for storing fat, and the weird ways your body holds onto or releases water helped me appreciate my own physicality more and helped me divorce the concept of weight from health.

Suddenly, the body was something that made sense – and something that I had control over. Things were no longer mysteriously “healthy” despite me feeling the same amount of blegh after eating them, they were carbs or fats or protein and I knew how much of each I needed to based on my activity level that day. It’s actually kind of amazing how much stress I held onto when I didn’t know what was going on. These days, I only eat low carb when I cook for myself (and my parents) for fun, but it's because I got what I needed out of it: sanity.

Dish 7: almond flour crust savory cheesecake 

Ingredients: For the crust – 1 cup of almond flour, ½ cup of melted butter, 1 tsp of salt, 1 tbsp of sugar or sugar substitute (I used truvia), 2 eggs, 1 egg white. 
For the filling - bok choy leaves (that’s where they went!), Two Taiwanese sausages, 1 block of cream cheese, 1 cup of sour cream, 4 eggs lightly beaten, 1 tbsp of Italian herbs.
Instructions: Make the crust first. Combine the melted butter with the eggs, give it all a good stir and then add in the dry ingredients (almond flour, salt, sugar etc). Form into a ball. Rip parts off and pat with a spoon into the individual spots in a muffin tin until it all looks crust-like. Heat oven to 190C and then pop in the muffin tin in for about 10 min. Finely dice the Taiwanese sausages and fry them up with the bok choy leaves until the leaves are wilted. In a bowl,  thoroughly mix everything else – the sour cream, the eggs, the herbs and cream cheese etc. Then add in the sausage and bok choy. Take your muffin tin with its keto almond flour crusts waiting to be filled… and fill them! Then bake for another 15-20 min. Take them out and let them cool.


It wasn't my best attempt at this cheesecake thing, and it didn't turn out to be the prettiest dish I took a photo of, but hey - look at my parents blurred out in the background!


One nice thing that's happened since I've entered my thirties is that I've developed a much healthier relationship with my parents. Since I'm keeping this post somewhat upbeat, I won't go into the details of why my relationship might have been strained in the first place, but... well... it's not terribly different from many Chinese-American stories.

When my brother was here, he took over most of the hanging out with mom & dad duties. Since he's been gone, all that's left here in Shanghai is me, and out of necessity I developed tips to help me cope with the responsibilities a lot better.

I hope they're of use to you in your semi-difficult relationships too:

1) Be proactive! Don't always let them be the one to invite you out, even if they will do it. Just realise that the relationship imbalance being there means they'll be even more thrilled that you took the first step.

2) Find something to connect with them on! As different as they seem from you, there must be ONE thing you can either already enjoy together, or that you can introduce them to. With my mom, it's been exercise - in fact, I now go with her regularly to 30-min personal training classes and she is over the moon about it. With my dad, it's been finances and cooking. #Asiandad.

3) When they are being needlessly cruel, just remember that they didn't grow up with copious amounts of psychological literature and conversations around abuse. Chances are you AREN'T an abject failure that obviously can't build a future by yourself so you ought to get married ASAP, they're just saying that to you because they're emotionally stunted. And tired, maybe? So don't take it personally, comfort them in this time of crisis (or jet lag) and wait until they've calmed down to address why that is not a thing you should say to people you care for.

There you go! A better relationship guaranteed.

Dish 8: strawberry mango sorbet

Ingredients: a box of strawberries, 1 cup of mango juice
Instructions: Freeze the strawberries. When you're ready to make sorbet, take as many frozen strawberries as won't break your blender, and mix in about enough juice to cover about half of them. Blend. Oh wow, you've got sorbet!


Addendum to the first dish: always begin AND end with an easy win.

Happy Birthday!

To me.