My ma la 麻辣 baby

Earlier in the week, Chris had requested that I make dan dan mian. Well, when one asks, ye shall receive. I got all the different components for the noodles ready. Dan dan noodles have quiet a number of parts to it: a complex sauce (all ingredients I actually had on hand – I was so proud of my pantry / fridge in that moment of checking!) that needs to be mixed, a dry stir-fried minced meat mixture (I used ground turkey from Butcherbox for this), stir fried ya cai (Sichuanese pickled vegetable, which some argue *makes* dan dan mian), a leafy green (like spinach, bok choy, pea shoots, or yu choy), crushed toasted peanuts and scallions, and of course, wheat noodles. Once you have all the ingredients ready, you mix it all together, and voila! Your little meal is ready.

We were conservative giving Kaia the dan dan noodles since we’re always unsure if she will be in the mood for something spicy. So we gave her plain noodles and the minced meat mixture and let her pick at that for a bit. But when she saw the bowl of the sauce, she immediately indicated that she wanted to dunk her plain noodles in the sauce, so we let her. And she ate the noodles, slurped air in to indicate it was spicy, and then as I said, “Ma la? Ma la!”, she repeated “ma la (麻辣 hot and numbing in Chinese)” multiple times before demanding water. And after a big gulp, she went back to her spicy noodles. She took breaks with plain noodles, and then kept going back and forth between spicy and plain noodles.

Kaia is my ma la 麻辣 baby, always interested in big, bold flavors and spicy heat. She should really be the Solid Starts poster child.

Tang yuan – a sweet labor of love for Lantern Festival

Well, Lunar New Year has come and gone. Although my tang yuan were late, at least I had made them close to the end of Chinese New Year, which is tradition. Tang yuan 湯圓 are small glutinous rice balls usually filled with a sweet, crushed black sesame, peanut, peanut coconut, or red bean paste mixture. They are served steaming hot, usually in a sweet milky broth or brown-sugar ginger soup. They are typically eaten at the end of Lunar New Year during what is called Lantern Festival to symbolize the unity of family and loved ones. The round shape of tang yuan is associated with the full moon, which symbolizes the wholeness of family and a brighter future.

I grew up eating both the sweet and savory versions of tang yuan. Though with my sweet tooth growing up, the black sesame or crushed peanut dessert version was always what I got excited about; this is the version that most people eat and are aware of. You can even find them premade and frozen in most Asian supermarkets; they are easy to prepare, as all you have to do is plop the frozen balls in boiling water, and they’ll be done once they float up to the top. The downside of these, though, is there is often artificial flavors and ingredients in them, and who really wants that?

But what I have more vivid memories of is the savory version of tang yuan, either eaten during Lantern Festival or during the winter solstice. The Cantonese savory tang yuan version is plain glutinous rice balls dunked and cooked in a chicken, pork, and daikon fragrant broth, along with dried shrimp, sliced Chinese sausages, daikon, and sliced Napa cabbage. It was a comforting, soothing bowl of soup, and the umami-rich scent is unmistakable. It always reminded me of home every time my grandma or mom would make it; it’s a very home-style dish, one that you would never see on a restaurant menu. In my adult years, I’ve found out there’s an even more complex version of the savory tang yuan where the savory glutinous rice balls are stuffed with a meat filling – this sounds like even more intense work!

I think the sweet version of tang yuan is easier for those who don’t understand tang yuan or its meaning to get used to. And I love making them, even though they are a total pain given that manipulating glutinous rice flour dough is very challenging. It takes some practice to get the dough just right. Using cold water won’t do; you actually need a mix of boiling hot water and cold water to make the dough workable and pliable enough to form into a firm dough. I remember this from the days when I would make them with my grandma. She would always use boiling hot water to mix the glutinous rice flour dough, and somehow, her hands, which were very tough, could always handle the steaming heat. Once the dough cooled down enough, she’d let me help and cut small pieces of dough and roll them into nice, round balls. Once you have that part right, the next part is not allowing the dough to dry up too much to get crackly. And after THAT part has cleared, you need to make sure that the filling, whether it’s crushed peanut or black sesame, will be solid enough to not fly all over the place and actually properly get inserted into each dough ball, then seal them firmly shut. It’s a lot of finicky steps and finesse that’s required to get these things just right. But when you do get it right, it’s so satisfying: to take a bite into a sweet tang yuan is very luxurious. You know it’s right when you take your first bite into the ball, and the black sesame sugar filling oozes out like hot lava. It’s creamy, buttery, and nutty lusciousness. I made a second batch of tang yuan two days ago given my first dough batch from a couple weeks ago was a total mess, and I would say that the second time was a charm. I hadn’t made this in a few years, so I had gotten a bit rusty.

Tang yuan is a treasured dish, one that I hope Kaia will be able to appreciate soon. I tried to give her one I made the other day, and she kind of pushed the ball around her dinner tray and just thought the texture was fun and squishy. Only time will tell!

“Mummy, poop!”

When you have a baby or toddler crawling/running around, there’s really no such thing as “boundaries.” Your space is their space, and their space is your space. Literally everything is shared, whether it’s your breasts (assuming you’re breastfeeding) or your time on the toilet.

In the last couple of months, Kaia has been expressing intrigue over the toilet, especially when she sees me go. To encourage her curiosity, I always let her come into the bathroom with me when I have to use the toilet, and I explain the steps of using the toilet. The other day, though, she suddenly insisted that I go poop. She dragged me over to the toilet, lifted the toilet lid, pointed into the toilet, and demanded, “Mummy, poop! Poop!”

I told her that that’s not how it works; I didn’t actually have to go. Kaia got really upset and kept insisting that I go poop. I told her “no” repeatedly. Finally, when she realized that I definitely wasn’t going to poop in the toilet, she once again splayed her body all over the bathroom floor and cried.

Welp, I wasn’t expecting that — a tantrum because mommy refused to go poop on demand. Interesting toddler moments, and another one to remind her of when she’s older.

Kaia’s new floor mattress

This weekend, Chris finally took Kaia’s new floor mattress/bed out of the box and let it poof up. On Saturday, she slept on it for the first time. And last night, I slept with her on the bed. I’ve been staying with her at night, at least partially, to encourage her to sleep in her own bed. Like last year, when we returned from Australia, she just wanted to sleep with us and hated being by herself. So at some point during the night, especially now that she can walk and open doors, she would creep back into our bedroom and plop herself onto her bed. Most of the time, she wouldn’t cry or whine; she’d just quietly make her way back, sliding back to our room in her sleep sack and all. Last year, she cried because she was trapped in her crib and had no way of getting out. She also couldn’t walk back then. It’s crazy how times have changed. Now, she is mobile and goes pretty much everywhere she wants. We’ve even had to bolt the front door to ensure she doesn’t escape the apartment.

We’re hoping that after a few more nights, I can sneak out of her bedroom and have her sleep alone. While I tried this a few times last week, she somehow managed, for a few nights, to sneak her way back in shortly after I left. Toddlers are more all knowing than we want to admit; even when they appear to be fast asleep, they always have at least half an eye on us. Sneaky, sneaky!

Toddler role play – when your toddler says exactly what you say, but to her stuffies

On Friday night, it was a bit brutal putting Kaia to sleep. After reading half a dozen books, she still refused to go to bed. One and a half hours later, she still refused to sleep and just wanted to sit up and read, read, read. After a while, I just took all her books away, turned off the light, and laid there. She proceeded to “take a break” while sitting with her stuffed animals on her toddler bed (where she NEVER sleeps), and she started talking to each of them, one by one. There’s Winnie the Pooh, Marilyn the pink birthday bear, Henry the rabbit, and a kangaroo (still nameless). This is how the conversation goes, with her playing both herself and each of the stuffies:

Kaia: Pooh! Pooh! Time to sleep!

Kaia (as Pooh): No! No, I don’t wanna!

Kaia: You have to sleep! Lie down! Lie down right now!

Kaia (as Pooh): No, no, no! I take a break!

Kaia: Marilyn, time to sleep!

Kaia (as Marilyn): No, I don’t like it!

Kaia: Lie down right now! (pushes Marilyn down into a lying position)

Kaia: Henry! You wanna read?

Kaia (as Henry): No, no, no! I don’t wanna!

It was extremely adorable to watch and listen to this role play. I found it hilarious that she was bossing each of them around, probably like how she hears Chris and me boss her around, and she still wanted them to “take a break.” It’s hard being a toddler: you rarely have choices, and someone’s always forcing you to do stuff on their schedule, not yours. But it’s all a part of growing up. One day, she will be able to make her own decisions… and that will be its own level of craziness to me.

“Wanna take a break”

This morning, I was enjoying a hot cup of Hong Kong milk tea that I’d made for Chris and me when Kaia came up to me and kept peering into my steaming cup. Usually, she knows when I am drinking tea and says, “mummy tea,” but this time, she said, “Want some? Want some tea?” I’m trying to keep her away from caffeine for as long as possible, so I told her that this was mummy’s tea and that Kaia couldn’t have any. She proceeded to have a bit of a tantrum and yelled that she still wanted some, but I told her that instead, she could have water or milk (this didn’t go over very well). She continued her tantrum but then suddenly quieted down and stopped. She then went to the corner of the room, laid down on the floor with her butt sticking up high in the sky, and said, “Wanna take a break. Take a break.” She laid there quietly for some time, and we just observed her and quietly chuckled.

I’m guessing, based on how I’ve seen her teacher at school interact with the kids, that this is how her teacher helps the kids regulate their emotions. She manages their tantrums and “big feelings” with suggesting to “take a break” from the world and just be one with one’s feelings, quietly moving away from everyone and being by oneself. Kaia’s already done this a number of times just this Saturday, and it actually seems to be self-calming. After she gets up from her face-down position on the floor, wherever she is, she seems to go back to her usual happy self.

Well, I can get behind this. Regulating emotions is a huge part of toddlerhood, so if this helps her navigate her big feelings, then I am all for it (and also, all for less tantrums, especially screaming high pitched ones!).

Mandarin Chinese private immersion school right in our neighborhood

This morning, we attended a private school program orientation for 2s through 8th grade in our neighborhood. The biggest selling point of this school is that it’s a full immersion program for either Mandarin Chinese or Spanish. I had passed it multiple times during weekend walks in the neighborhood, attempting to get Kaia to fall asleep in her stroller, and so today they hosted an open house. It really was a real school “open house” in the sense that not only did the principal and multiple staff members present and participate, but they even had guest parents (who participate in the parent association) and guest students speak about why their program was so special. And yes, they even had refreshments. The orientation in the gym was about an hour long, and after it concluded, we were whisked onto a 30-minute school tour, one for Spanish immersion, and one for Mandarin immersion. 

It was hard not to be impressed with the school after all the other daycare/school tours we have done, but it felt unfair to compare given the others I had attended were fully just daycares or public schools. The presentations were very comprehensive and well put together. The biggest differentiator with this immersion program is that up to age 3, the kids are 100 percent immersed in Mandarin/Spanish; from ages 3-5, they have instruction in Mandarin/Spanish 90 percent of the time, and it starts going down to 80 percent and then 70 percent in subsequent years as they get into higher elementary/middle school years. No pinyin is taught until second grade for Mandarin, since pinyin is obviously not used for native speakers – I was pretty (pleasantly) surprised to learn this during the tour. It’s mainly introduced to allow the students to use Chromebooks to type Chinese (using pinyin to indicate which characters you want to use). Both Chinese/English are on the walls, so it’s not just spoken that’s constantly reinforced like in the immersion school we saw in Chinatown, but it’s also the written that is emphasized everywhere. From a language enrichment/immersion standpoint, I’d never heard of any program that quite “immersed” children into the “target language” like this. And well, as they said during their presentation, theirs was the only program in the city (if not the country) that approaches language learning in this way. 

And, as you would imagine, the tuition is NOT cheap. The annual tuition is only for the school year, so from September through June. For summer programs, this, of course, would be extra (and would only go until 3pm; if you want “after care,” you will also need to pay for that… because you have to pay… for everything). Well, if you want nice things… 

Chinese public immersion preschools in Manhattan

This morning, we did a couple tours of 3-4K schools in the Manhattan Chinatown area, one of which is a Mandarin Chinese immersion program that is also part of the Universal Pre-K program in New York City. The class is taught in English and in Mandarin, with emphasis on verbal Chinese communication (listening and speaking). In the afterschool component of the program if you opt in, the teachers support and teach children how to write in beginner-level Mandarin Chinese. I loved looking at the walls and seeing all the activities and art projects these young kids did in Chinese. Given the season, they made Valentines for their mothers and fathers in Chinese, did some painting and paper craft projects to depict spring (春 chun) in Chinese, and also decorated dragons for the Lunar New Year / Year of the Dragon. From the book shelf, it also looks like they get story time in both English and Chinese, as well, and sing Chinese nursery rhymes and songs. I will say that I was a little surprised there was far more English than Chinese on the walls, but it sounds like given this is all public/DOE run, they had to comply by those standards.

In an ideal world, Kaia would be fully bilingual; hell, I would be fully bilingual, too. Looking back, I always wish that I was put in an immersion program like this one where I was exposed to both culture and language from a young age. I got plenty of exposure to culture given I grew up with my grandma and followed all her traditions, plus our schools were very progressive and proactively taught us about Lunar New Year, along with other cultural traditions of other countries. I was exposed to Toisan and Cantonese through my grandma and my relatives, but I didn’t learn Mandarin until I was in college, and that learning was fully my choice. In some ways, it does make me a bit sad that Kaia will be very unlikely to know or understand any Cantonese or Toisan at all; those are actually my father tongue languages, not Mandarin. Though language does evolve, understanding a language is not just simply understanding a language: knowing a second language also exposes you to cultural nuances that you cannot simply know just by exposure to cultural traditions. Chinese is notorious (and famous) for its endless idioms and word plays, and understanding them brings you closer to understanding the culture itself better.

The 3K applications are due on March 1. Who knows if Kaia will place anywhere at all, much less a Mandarin immersion program. But I do know that the ideal situation would be if she had consistent Chinese language exposure outside of my barely-basic Mandarin skills.

Kaia eats through a banana peel

This evening, Kaia had a decent dinner, and oddly, she rejected any fruit we offered her at the end. She didn’t want blueberries or mandarins that we suggested. So we cleaned her up and let her play a bit before bedtime. As I was washing some dishes at the sink, Kaia kept pointing at the fruit bowl on the counter, specifically calling out the bananas on it. “Banana! Banana!” she yelled a few times.

I wasn’t sure I wanted to give it to her. The last several times she asked to eat a banana and I opened them for her, she refused to take even a single bite. But this time, I decided to just hand her the banana whole and see what she would do. Well, one minute later, she had bitten through the banana peel into the flesh and was chewing away at the entire fruit. A fat bite of the peel was sitting on my kitchen floor, and she happily chomped away at the whole banana, completely unaware of how strange this behavior actually was.

Well, I guess that was a sign that she really did want to eat the banana. So I went ahead and peeled it and let her eat it, holding the banana from the base peel. In the end, it was quite miraculous: she’d actually eaten about 90 percent of the entire banana, which was a decent size. She left me about one bite that she didn’t want anymore and handed it back.

This reminded me of the time about one year ago when she was a young toddler/big baby, and she asked for a mandarin, but I was multitasking and trying to get something else cleaned. So I had handed her the mandarin whole and asked her to wait until I finished cleaning something on the counter. Two minutes later, she had chewed through the mandarin skin and gotten to the segments. I took a picture of the fruit looking totally mauled, like it was attacked by an animal. It would serve as a way to remember how cute my baby was when she didn’t want to wait for me to peel her fruit.

Leftover ingredients never go to waste in our house

After our Lunar New Year lunch, while we certainly had far more leftover food than I initially imagined, we also had some leftover raw ingredients that I needed to use up soon. Some of these things included an extra king oyster mushroom, chives, sweetened condensed milk, and six egg yolks. In the past when I used egg whites in different desserts or soups, I usually used the remaining egg yolks to make a chocolate mousse or something related. But I didn’t have any chocolate or cocoa powder this time, which led me to look at what else I had on hand: brown sugar that was hardening, plus several lemons. I decided to make something I’d always wanted to try out, but never did: lemon curd! Lemon curd is one of those indulgent spreads that is used on scones and muffins, but people rarely think to make at home, though it’s actually quite simple. Lemon curd only requires four ingredients (sugar, fresh lemon juice, egg yolks, and butter), some stirring on the stove, and then straining. The straining will take the longest if you want to be very careful about straining out any egg bits that may have curdled, but once that is done, you will have a decadent spread for toast, muffins, scones, or just to eat straight from a spoon. When I was done making this yesterday afternoon, I couldn’t stop marveling over how delicious and fancy it tasted, yet it took very little time or effort (other than the straining).

I used the remaining king oyster mushroom in a quick and easy sugar snap pea stir fry that Kaia enjoyed as part of her dinner yesterday. And for the sweetened condensed milk, since it has a long refrigerated life, I decided to gradually use it up in some homemade Hong Kong style milk tea. Before yesterday, I actually had no idea how Hong Kong style milk tea was made. You boil water, add your tea leaves, boil again, then simmer/steep for 15-20 minutes, then strain. To finish and serve, you add whole/evaporated milk and a little sweetened condensed milk per cup. If you don’t like strong tea, you will NOT enjoy Hong Kong style milk tea! It uses an insane amount of tea, which is why you get such a caffeine jolt after having a cup, and the tea most typically used is Ceylon tea (that’s right: I used my DILMAH!). While the typical cup of black tea will use one teaspoon of tea to one cup (240ml) of liquid, Hong Kong style milk tea requires FIVE teaspoons per cup of hot water, with about 1/3 cup of milk added. I didn’t have evaporated milk (which is usually used, and far richer than whole milk since it’s literally evaporated down), so I used regular whole cow milk with a teaspoon per cup of sweetened condensed milk. I had just over a cup-size serving, and it’s evening time now, and I am still feeling the effects of this caffeine!

No waste in our house. 🙂