Our family has embarked on virtual travels to various countries and regions. To explore these countries and their cultures, we have followed along with the festivals, cooked and eaten traditional foods, learned of traditional handicrafts with hands on exploration, along with many activities to immerse ourselves. Chronicled here are some of these activities.

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Saturday, August 31, 2013

Recipe: Chicken Chow Mein


Chow Mein is a Cantonese dish with fried noodles, vegetables and small pieces of meat. In China, the noodles are soft (rather than crisp), and preparing them properly is important to get that authentic touch. The chicken requires two steps of marinating, but that gave us just enough time to prep the noodles and vegetables.

The girls devoured this dish. As did I. We enjoyed the chow mein with a side of stir fried broccoli, though it could be enjoyed as a stand alone dish. You could even throw some broccoli in the chow mein while preparing it.


Chicken Chow Mein

Adapted from RasaMalaysia
Serves 4
(or 6 as a heaping side dish)

Ingredients
1 pkg Chow mein noodles
vegetable oil
2 large chicken breasts, cut into small strips
4 cloves of garlic, minced
1 1/2 cup Chinese cabbage, finely sliced
2 carrots, peeled and cut into thin strips
1 generous cup of bean sprouts
3 green onions, cut into 1 inch pieces
Sauce:
2 heaping tbsp oyster sauce
3 tbsp soy sauce
2 tbsp sugar
1 1/2 tsp sesame oil
1/4 cup water
4 dashes white pepper
Chicken marinade:
1 tsp baking soda
2 tsp soya sauce
2 tsp corn starch

1. Marinate the strips of chicken with baking soda, for 10-15 min. Rinse the baking soda off the chicken and pat dry (I did not spend a lot of time on this - just get the soda off and don't leave water in your bowl of chicken)



2. While the chicken is sitting in baking soda, prepare your noodles. We just followed the package directions, but essentially for chow mein, you want the noodles to be slippery with oil, but not dripping with oil. Cook them in boiling water that has a couple of teaspoons of oil it. Once cooked (it only takes 5-6 minutes), drain and rinse thoroughly with cold water. Once drained and cooled, stir in a few tsp of oil to coat the noodles. 

3. After your chicken has been rinsed of baking soda, marinate in the soya sauce and cornstarch for 15-20 min.


4. While the chicken is marinating, slice and mince your vegetables and garlic. 

5. Prepare the sauce by combining, and whisking all the sauce ingredients.

5. Heat your pan over med-high heat and add 3 tbsp of vegetable oil. Cook the garlic until aromatic and then add the chicken. Stir fry the chicken until it is half cooked and the outside turns opaque. Add the carrots and a few tbsp of water, stir and cover your pan for 3 minutes. Stir it all together and add the cabbage, stirring continuously for a couple of minutes. Add the noodles and the sauce, tossing and stirring for a minute. Add the beansprouts, and once they are cooked, the green onions. Stir a few more times and serve.


Enjoy!

Would you like to try more Chinese recipes? Over the year we've tried various recipes, some we were familiar with, and others that challenged us. 

Check out our Chinese recipes here:

Thursday, August 29, 2013

Chengyu: The Old Frontiersman Loses his Horse

The Old Frontiersman Loses His Horse


There once was an old man who lived with his only son on the northern borders of China. One day his horse disappeared. His son was distraught, and his neighbors came to comfort him. The old man, however, was not upset, and told everyone that this loss may some day bring good fortune. 

A few months later, his horse found its way back, and brought with it a fine horse from a neighboring state. His son was overjoyed, and his neighbors came to congratulate him. Again, the old man took the turn of events in stride, and told everyone that this gain could as easily bring misfortune as good fortune.

Some days later, his son was riding the new horse when he fell and broke his leg. With broken leg, his son was bedridden. His neighbors once again came to comfort him, but yet again, the old man reminded them that this unfortunate even could some day bring them good fortune. 

The old man was right - a war broke out, and all young men were conscripted to join the war efforts. As a result of his accident, the son was unable to fight the war and remained with his family. 

This idiom refers to the idea of a blessing in disguise. 

Discuss: Can you think of a bad situation that gave rise to blessings in your life?


If you'd like to read this as a story book, check out Ed Young's "The Lost Horse".

We borrowed this book from the library, but it turns out if you buy it it comes with paper puppets. Fun!








An idiom is an expression that is not meant to be taken literally. For example, in English, we often use the expression "It's raining cats and dogs". Obviously, we don't take this expression literally, we come to learn that it means it's raining hard outside. 

Though the Chinese have many proverbs and idioms, Chengyu are formalized idioms, usually using only four characters and relating to folktales, classical literature, and historical accounts. The four characters typically state a moral, and in order to properly understand their meaning, it is important to know the story behind them. There are at least 5,000 Chengyu. 


To learn about Chinese idioms is to gain another insight into the Chinese culture, their mores, and their history. We will be learning Chengyu, and their related stories, regularly for the rest of our "year in China". I believe the insights we'll gain will highlight many universal facets of human nature within their cultural context.

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Ancient China: Making a "bamboo" scroll


Chinese Manuscript on bamboo slips dating from Warring States period (475-221 BC)
Photo Source: Wikimedia Commons
Have you ever wondered why Chinese writing is vertical, from top to bottom?

In ancient China, texts were written on slats of bamboo or wood. Often times, these slats were bound together with cord to create a scroll, which could be rolled up for storage. There is evidence that there was use of bamboo slips in 1250 BC, and continued as the main writing platform until around the 4th century AD, at which point the use of paper had become mainstream. 

Ancient bamboo book with a copy of "The Art of War" by Sun Tzu
Photo Credit: vlasta2
 Why not make your own ancient bamboo scroll?


We made our own bamboo slat books, using popsicle sticks, fine tipped permanent markers, and thread.

We decided to use nine slats, since 9 is an auspicious number for the Chinese. We also used this opportunity to record the Chengyus (Chinese four character idioms) we've been learning. Each slat has a different chengyu, with its four characters and an English translation. It was fun to hear the girls retell the stories behind the idioms while they were working.


First we lined up the sticks, and marked a line across them 1/4" from top and bottom. This is our mark for where our string will go to bind the slats together. Using an exacto knife, we cut notches on either side of each line. I helped Elle (11) with hers, and Pea (15) was fine on her own. Once the notches were done, we erased the lines prior to writing on the slats to ensure nothing gets smudged. These steps could be done ahead of time


The girls then wrote out their chengyus with a fine tip permanent marker. Elle wrote her four characters at the top of each stick with the translation underneath. Pea wrote her four characters on one side of each stick, with the translation on the other side.


Then came the time to bind. This part was frustrating for Elle, but they worked as a team, and that helped. I would say it definitely requires two sets of hands.


We used regular sewing thread, but I think thicker embroidery thread would have been better. I would recommend doubling up on the sewing thread, because as we learned the hard way, the thread might break. Assuming the thread is being doubled, the length of the thread should be ten times the width of your scroll. Cut two pieces that length. Fold your thread in half to double it and cut so that you now have 4 pieces of thread. Take two pieces of thread lined up together and fold in half. Put your stick so the fold of the thread fits into the notch of your stick (see photo, top left). Then tie a tight knot into the other notch (see photo, top right). Make sure it is nice and tight. Take your second stick and slide it next to the first. Make another tight knot into the notch of the second stick. This is where the second set of hands becomes helpful. One person can hold the sticks down flush against each other, and also put a finger to hold the first loop of the knot when its time to tie the second loop (making a nice, tight knot). Continue this way until all sticks are attached together. Do not cut the leftover string at the end of the scroll. Do the same thing for the bottom binding. 

And you are done!

Pea's scroll with Chinese characters on one side, and English translation on the other

You can roll your scroll, and use the leftover lengths of thread to tie the scroll closed. 


You can find more cultural and historical activities at the following linkups:

You can find more creative, educational and kid friendly activities at the following linkups:

Highhill Homeschool

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Our Week In A Nutshell


This past week we enjoyed the short time left before school resumes. Luckily, we had some nice hot weather for it. 

In a nutshell:

  • Paige got her haircut
  • Elle turned 11
  • We (finally) visited Sherbrooke Village
  • My amazing mother graduated with a certificate in social work & counseling

We visited Sherbrooke Village, a restored village set in 1860's that was built on an economy of ship building and gold mining. With costumed interpreters that live, from 8-5, the way one would live 100 years ago, this village creates iron and tin products, wood products (chairs, rolling pins), prints and pottery the way it was once done. 

Pea loves historical villages, and I've been wanting to visit this one for years. Located 3 hours away, and with overnight stays rarely in the budget, it kept being put off. Worried that with Pea getting older will deter her sooner than later from joining us on family outings :) we decided to make the trip, and accept the six hours of driving. And so glad we did, as we all enjoyed ourselves immensely. Highlights included the apothecary with a jar of live leeches, Elle helping make an iron hook, and dressing up and getting an authentic ambrotype photograph taken. 


Most importantly, my amazing mother graduated this week from a grueling course in counseling and social work.


We are so proud of Grandma! She is an incredibly inspiring, motivated woman. After 29 years in military service, (in the midst of which she got a university degree in commerce) as a high ranking officer, she retired, sold all her worldly belongings to travel North America in a mobile home. She then volunteered in Guatemala for six months, and volunteered for the UN in Togo for a year. She then settled down near her daughters these past two years to complete a degree in counseling. She has found another way to change the world, and we know she will, because there is nothing she cannot do once she sets her mind to it. 


Monday, August 26, 2013

Chinese Delicacy: Bird's Nest Soup

A sought after and very expensive delicacy in China is Bird's Nest Soup. And it is indeed made with bird's nests.


Tower of edible bird nests
Photo Credit: Nisa
These edible nests are composed of strands of hardened saliva. Male swiflets build their nests with strands of their gummy saliva, which harden when exposed to air. They are built during their breeding season over 35 days.

Edible nest swiftlet resting in nest
Photo credit (with permission): John Oates
Photo Credit: Marcel Holyoak
Edible nest
Photo Credit: Glenn Hurowitz
These edible nests are built very high on the walls of coastal caves. It is dangerous to harvest them, and sometimes deadly, since to harvest them means to climb incredible vertical heights in the dark to pry them off the wall.

Limestone cave where edible birds nests are harvested
Photo Credit: Percita Dittmar
Bird's nest soup is a delicacy that used to be eaten by members of the imperial court. It is supposed to be wonderful for the immune system and one's complexion. To make the soup, the bird's nest is soaked over night, and the gelatinous strands are added to a sweet soup with ginseng and Chinese dates. 

Bird's Nest Soup
Photo Credit: Alaina Browne
Bird's nest are mostly eaten in China, but are imported from countries in south east Asia like Indonesia and Malaysia.


Sorting swiftlet nests in Vietnam - the harvest occurs twice a year
Photo Credit: Deshal de Mel
This is one of the most expensive food products, sold at up to $4,500 a pound. In Hong Kong, a bowl of the soup costs between $30-$100. Fetching these kinds of prices, it is no surprise that over harvesting and poaching has decreased the population - over 90% less then in 1935. 

Boxes of edible birds nests for sale. Note the price of $888.99
Photo Credit: Maisnam
In the past fifteen years or so, they have begun nest farming in concrete nesting houses since the demand has increased. Hopefully this will restore the swiftlet population, and decrease the dangers of harvesting.


Nesting house in Thailand
Photo Credit: Alexander Heitkamp
Hubby and the girls are happy to hear we won't be tasting this delicacy of, essentially, swiftlet spittle. The cost is too prohibitive, though I will keep a look out for them at the Chinese grocery stores in our area. However, cost aside, I would not feel right about eating a nest taken during a bird's breeding season. 

Would you taste an edible nest? If not, what would be the deterrent? 

Friday, August 23, 2013

Chengyu: To Draw a Snake and Add Feet

To Draw a Snake and Add Feet


In the ancient state of Chu, an official gave a pot of wine to celebrate. With only one pot, however, the men did not think much of having to share it. One man decided that the person finished drawing a snake in the sand first will be the one to enjoy the pot of wine. 

They all set about with their drawings when one man finished his snake. As he reached for the pot as a clear winner, he found himself amused that no one else was finished. He boasted that he could draw legs on his snake and still be finished first. He then began drawing legs on his snake, when another man put down his brush and grabbed the pot. When the first man contested this, saying he had finished his snake before, the second man called out the first man's drawing as that of a monster and not a snake, therefor claiming himself as the winner. 

This idiom warns that unnecessary work can ruin your results.

Discuss: Have you ever ruined a piece of artwork by continuing to add more and more to it? In what other ways can doing too much ruin something? 

An idiom is an expression that is not meant to be taken literally. For example, in English, we often use the expression "It's raining cats and dogs". Obviously, we don't take this expression literally, we come to learn that it means it's raining hard outside. 

Though the Chinese have many proverbs and idioms, Chengyu are formalized idioms, usually using only four characters and relating to folktales, classical literature, and historical accounts. The four characters typically state a moral, and in order to properly understand their meaning, it is important to know the story behind them. There are at least 5,000 Chengyu. 


To learn about Chinese idioms is to gain another insight into the Chinese culture, their mores, and their history. We will be learning Chengyu, and their related stories, regularly for the rest of our "year in China". I believe the insights we'll gain will highlight many universal facets of human nature within their cultural context.

Thursday, August 22, 2013

Hungry Ghost Festival

The 7th lunar month in the Chinese Calendar is the Ghost Month, and is considered most dangerous time of year. On its first day, the gates of hell are opened giving spirits access to the living.

This year, 2013, the 7th lunar month is from August 7 until September 4. Throughout the month, offerings, sacrifices and prayers are made to appease these spirits. 


Burning offerings for the Hungry Ghosts
Photo Credit: Abdul Aziz Agil
The spirits who died at sea, who committed suicide, who were greedy when living, and whose families have not been giving enough offerings throughout the year are considered Hungry Ghosts. These ghosts wander the earth, looking for food, entertainment, and occasionally revenge. Believers ensure their offerings are enough for their own relatives as well as for the hungry ghosts, to appease them as they are worried these spirits will cause them harm.


Ghost month offerings
Photo Credit: Celine Asril
Throughout the month, altars are found on sidewalks, with offerings of food, incense, and ghost money to be used in the afterlife. Roadside fires are kept alight, and it is taboo to go out at night for fear of encountering a malevolent spirit. Outdoor Chinese operas are performed to entertain and appease the ghosts, often with the front row of seats left empty for the wandering spirits. 

The 15th day of 7th lunar month (August 21, 2013), is Yu Lan, the Hungry Ghost Festival. This day is considered the peak day of the month, and sumptuous feasts are had. Taoists and Buddhists perform ceremonies to ease their suffering.


Food offerings
Photo Credit: User Ws227
On the last day of the month, the gates of hell close. Boat and lotus lanterns are set alight into waterways to guide the Hungry Ghosts back to the gates.

You can see a slideshow of photographs of the Hungry Ghost festival here.

UPDATE: There is a fantastic site that shares how to celebrate Chinese holidays with your family and this link will take you to their guide to celebrate the Hungry Ghost Festival with ideas, crafts and books!

Monday, August 19, 2013

Our Week in a Nutshell

This week, we celebrated the Chinese Qixi Festival and threw Elle's 11th birthday party. Elle and Pea were incredibly helpful in helping with the preparations for the party. We also celebrated a family friend's birthday by playing an outdoor version of battleship equipped with walkie talkies (it's great to have friends who are young at heart!), which causes me to question why sinking a friend's ship gave me such utter satisfaction...

Left: Making treats for Chinese festival; Right: our first attempt at making a jelly fish pinata (it turns out when they say petroleum jelly should cover a bowl, they don't mean vegetable oil will do)
Some highlights I don't want to forget: hearing Pea and Elle break into song while working on the paper mache ("Sunshine, Lollipops & Rainbows"); Pea insisting on teaching us Hula dance moves in the moonlight after setting out her Qixi wish lantern with a wish for a family trip to Hawaii (Come on, Weaver maid!) ; Elle's unabashed excitement at adding candy eyes to cookie clams and candy octopus.



Elle's party was at the beach - a gamble when living in Nova Scotia (the last two birthday parties planned for outdoors had to be moved indoors due to rain) but everything worked out beautifully, and the sun was shining bright. 


We got to the beach early to commandeer a section, and had a lot of fun setting it all up. When the girls arrived, Elle ran off with her friends and they had a blast, many their first time seeing each other since school ended, playing at the beach. 


They also made sand and sea shell plaster casts, had a relay race (which I participated in to even out the teams -and had a blast -since Pea insisted her job was to take pictures) and enjoyed the jelly fish pinata. It was a really great time.


Elle also experienced some personal difficulties this past year, but she learned to manage them with a growing inner strength. She has such a joyful, exuberant personality, and it is such a pleasure to be a part of her life and watch her grow up into the wonderful young lady she is becoming. Happy Birthday Elle! xo



Sunday, August 18, 2013

Celebrating the Qixi Festival with traditional and modern customs


 After learning about the Qixi festival, and its various folk customs, (also known as Chinese Valentine's Day) we celebrated the festival by making the common treat, Qiao Guo (Thin Fried Pastes), and finding the stars for the mythical characters of the weaver maid and the cowheard. We also tried two of the customs: the traditional, folk custom of threading a needle to honor the weaver maid, and the modern custom of setting out a lantern into the water with a wish hoping to be granted by the weaver maid. 

Though the tradition to thread needles is by moonlight, and with special seven hole needles, we used our regular needle, and with the girls' fear of spearing themselves, we did it by regular light. I clearly gave them a needle with too large a hole because they threaded their needles nearly instantly. For some reason I thought it would be a challenge - it turned out to be a quick honoring :)



For our lanterns, we followed the tutorial at Filth Wizardry for the origami paper boats, using a regular sheet of paper. We wrote our wishes on the bottom of the boats, took a tea light and set them out on our pond. Though the wishes in China during the Qixi festival are for love, marriage, and children - the girls made wishes that pertained more to their hopes.



It was rather lovely, watching the glow of our lanterns at night. And maybe the weaver maid will pull some strings (pun intended), and our wishes will come true. 



To celebrate the Qixi Festival, we'll be reading the myth of the weaver maid and cowherd, finding their stars in the sky, making the treat Qiao Guo, trying the folk custom of threading a needle to plead for skills, and the modern custom of a wish lantern on the water. 


You can find more cultural and historical activities at the following linkups:

Thursday, August 15, 2013

Qixi Festival: Recipe for Qiao Guo (Thin Fried Pastes)

Qiao Guo, or Thin Fried Pastes, is the common treat eaten during the Qixi festival, deftly formed into various shapes, such as flowers. We tried making our own, though there is little deft about our shapes!



These are sweet, fried pastries, with a nice added flavor of black sesame seeds. Though important to roll your dough thinly, I found this rather difficult, and resorted to stretching it out. We did enjoy these, and ate the lot in one sitting.

Qiao Guo

1/4 cup sugar
1/4 cup milk
2 eggs
2 cups all-purpose flour
black sesame seeds
vegetable oil for frying

In mixing bowl, beat sugar, milk, and eggs until thoroughly blended. Add flour and sesame 
seeds to the mixture, using chopsticks (or a spoon) to combine ingredients into a large dough ball.


Using chopsticks for the first time to prepare food - turns out it worked out quite nicely
Knead the dough, and using a rolling pin, roll out dough on floured 
surface. Roll out dough as thinly and evenly as possible - I ended up stretching it out to get a thin dough.



Cut the dough into one inch strips, and see how many shapes you can make.




Heat 2 inches of oil on med - high in a wok or a deep pan. Do not cover. Test the heat of the oil by putting in one piece of the dough; if it floats immediately up to the surface, the oil is the correct temperature for frying. 

Deep fry the qian guo, using tongs to flip and evenly cook the dough pieces. Note that qian guo cooks quickly and requires constant attention. Place finished qian guo on baking sheet covered with paper towels to drain oil. 

These are best eaten at room temperature. 

To celebrate the Qixi Festival, we'll be reading the myth of the weaver maid and cowherd, finding their stars in the sky, making Qiao Guo, trying the folk custom of threading a needle to plead for skills, and the modern custom of a wish lantern on the water. 
 
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