Jun 012017
 

World Milk Day is a day established by the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations to recognize the importance of milk in global nutrition as part of a balanced diet.  At the outset, I’ll express my reservations on two counts.  First, I’ve never been a milk drinker. When I was a schoolboy, free milk was delivered to my school every morning, ⅓ pint per student per day, but it was delivered early in the morning and sat in the warm South Australian outdoors all morning until we got it at recess around 10 am. So, it had often soured by that time and made me sick just to look at it, after I drank one when I was about 6. Put me off drinking milk for life.  Second, meat and dairy production worldwide is a major contributor to the greenhouse gas, methane. Therefore, milk production is not an unalloyed blessing. On the other hand, dairy products in the diet are very important for the development of healthy teeth and bones, among other things, because of their calcium content. But they are also high in vitamins B2 and B12, as well as phosphorus. On the down side – by some people’s lights – the fat content of milk is a complex of saturated fats.  Well, yes, but those fats give us clotted cream, cheese, and butter. I limit my fat intake, and use monounsaturated fats as much as possible when I use fats in cooking. But I always have cheese, cream, and butter on hand. Overindulgence is not a good idea, but nor is total abstinence. In my humble (inexpert) opinion, forced abstinence may lead to unhealthy cravings leading to periodic binges. Moderation works.

World Milk Day, whose acronym – WMD – is a bit ominous, has been observed on June 1 each year since 2001. World Milk Day was first designated by the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations in 2001 and June 1 was chosen as the date because many countries were already celebrating a milk day around that time of year. The Day provides an opportunity to focus attention on milk and to publicize activities connected with milk and the dairy industry. In 2016, World Milk Day was celebrated in over 40 countries. Activities included marathons and family runs, milking demonstrations and farm visits, school-based activities, concerts, conferences and seminars, competitions and a range of events focusing on promoting the value of milk and illustrating the important role played by the dairy industry in the national economy. Celebrations will happen again on June 1, 2017 with a special campaign carried out by the dairy sector “Raise a Glass” and a campaign hashtag: #WorldMilkDay.

I’m going to branch out a bit, because when people, especially Westerners, think of “milk” they think of cow’s milk. But all mammals (including humans), by definition, produce milk which, in turn, can be drunk straight or made into a host of dairy products, many of which I’ve touted on this blog already. In Italy you can get goat’s milk in most supermarkets, and goat cheese is ubiquitous. Let’s start with horse milk.

Kumis is a drink originating among the peoples of the Central Asian steppes, of Huno-Bulgar, Turkic, and Mongol origin: Kazakhs, Bashkirs, Kalmyks, Kyrgyz, Mongols, and Yakuts. Kumis is made by fermenting raw unpasteurized mare’s milk over the course of hours or days, often while stirring or churning. During the fermentation, lactobacilli bacteria acidify the milk, and yeasts turn it into a carbonated and mildly alcoholic drink. Traditionally, this fermentation took place in horse-hide containers, which might be left on the top of a yurt and turned over on occasion, or strapped to a saddle and joggled around over the course of a day’s riding. Today, a wooden vat or plastic barrel is usually used in place of the leather container.

In some cities in northern and western China folklore has it that at one time a skin, partially filled with mares’ milk, was hung at the door of each home during the season for making fermented milk beverages, and passersby, familiar with the practice, gave each such skin a good punch as they walk by, agitating the contents so they would turn into kumis rather than coagulate and spoil. In modern controlled production, the initial fermentation takes two to five hours at a temperature of around 27 °C (81 °F); this may be followed by a cooler aging period.

The finished product contains between 0.7 and 2.5% alcohol, which is comparable to the small beer of medieval Europe. Kumis can, however, be strengthened through freeze distillation, a technique Central Asian nomads are reported to have employed. It can also be distilled into the spirit known as araka or arkhi.

Then there’s mursik, a traditional fermented milk drink of the Kalenjin people of Kenya. It can be made from cow’s, sheep’s or goat’s milk and is fermented in a specially made calabash gourd. The milk gourds are pre-treated with the smoke and charcoal of certain species of trees prior to each use. Fresh/raw milk (or, more commonly in modern times, milk that has been first boiled then cooled to ambient temperature) is poured into the specially prepared gourd. The gourd is then capped and placed in a cool dry place to undergo spontaneous fermentation for at least three to five days, through the action of lactic acid bacteria, yeast and mould species. Traditionally in some communities, but very rarely in modern times, fresh blood tapped from a cow can be added to fresh milk before fermentation, or to already fermented milk.

Charcoal “osek”, formed from the smouldering embers of branches from the Ite or Itet tree (peanut butter cassia, scientifically known as Senna didymobotrya), is used as a milk preservative. The embers are smeared the inside of the cleaned gourd. The charcoal has various effects. It lines the inside of the gourd, reducing its porosity rendering it airtight. The smoke from the embers also has a preservative effect which prevents undesired bacterial multiplication that causes spoilage, while allowing natural souring. The charcoal smoke imparts a special flavor to the milk, and a bluish color which is considered of high aesthetic value. Having prepared the gourd, the milk is pasteurized by boiling. The pasteurized milk is left to cool before pouring into the gourd. Finally the gourd is corked to render it airtight, making it possible for the milk to be preserved for up to a month

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There are various flavors of mursik, depending on how it is prepared and what quality of milk is used. Many tree species are considered suitable for the purpose of imparting the preservative and aromatic effect to milk.  Several trees are good for the purpose. One characteristic is common though: high tannin content in the bark of the tree concerned. The popular ones include sertwet (acacia) and Cheblayat (wattle tree). Cheblayat is by far the most commonly used, on account of nearly universal availability, although sertwet is preferred by the purists.

Mursik can be prepared from a full gourd of milk corked all at once. Another method of preparing it is by pouring in a pint every three days or so. The fermented milk provides the culture for the new milk, and seems to accelerate its ripening. After the gourd is full, it is corked for a while, to achieve a varied consistency of proper sour milk, and results in a clear, sharp (almost bitter in some cases) liquid in which white globules of butter float, shaken well. Another type is the fast fermenting, even type, which gives a white, porridge like consistency.

Finally there’s Leipäjuusto (bread cheese) or juustoleipä, a fresh cheese traditionally made by the Sámi of northern Finland from reindeer beestings, that is, rich milk from a female that has recently calved. Cow, and sometimes goat milk, is more commonly used nowadays. Commercially available versions are typically made from cow’s milk, and they lack some of the color and flavor because of the original which comes from Southern Ostrobothnia, Northern Finland and Kainuu.

The milk is curdled and set to form a round disk from two to three centimeters thick. After this, leipäjuusto is baked, grilled or flambéed to give it its distinctive brown or charred marks. In Ostrobothnia and Kainuu, leipäjuusto is called juustoleipä (lit. “cheese bread”). However, this varies as people have moved around, and both names are used while leipäjuusto is the more commonly known name for this cheese. Other dialects have various names (such as narskujuusto) that refer to the way that fresh leipäjuusto “squeaks” against the teeth when bitten.

Traditionally, leipäjuusto was dried and could then be stored for up to several years. For eating, the dry, almost rock hard cheese was heated on a fire which softened it and produced an especially appetizing aroma. Even today, the cheese may be dried by keeping it in a well ventilated place for a few days. It can be eaten warm or cold, plain, in slices, or covered with cloudberry jam or cream.

Nov 222016
 

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On this date in 1928 Maurice Ravel’s Boléro premiered in Paris.   Boléro  was originally composed as a ballet commissioned by Russian actress and dancer Ida Rubinstein and is, without doubt, Ravel’s most famous musical composition, to the extent that when most people think of Ravel, Boléro is the first (perhaps only) thing that comes to mind. Boléro epitomizes Ravel’s mature stage of composition that was preoccupied with restyling and reinventing dance movements. It was also one of the last pieces he composed before illness forced him into retirement. His two piano concertos and the Don Quichotte à Dulcinée song cycle were the only compositions that followed Boléro.

Before Boléro, Ravel had composed large scale ballets (such as Daphnis et Chloé, composed for the Ballets Russes 1909–1912), suites for the ballet (such as the second orchestral version of Ma mère l’oye, 1912), and one-movement dance pieces (such as La valse, 1906–1920). Apart from such compositions intended for a staged dance performance, Ravel had demonstrated an interest in composing re-styled dances, from his earliest successes – the 1895 Menuet and the 1899 Pavane – to his more mature works like Le tombeau de Couperin, which takes the format of a dance suite.

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Boléro had its genesis in a commission from Ida Rubinstein, who asked Ravel to make an orchestral transcription of six pieces from Isaac Albéniz’s set of piano pieces, Iberia. While working on the transcription, Ravel was informed that the movements had already been orchestrated by Spanish conductor Enrique Fernández Arbós, and that copyright law prevented any other arrangement from being made. When Arbós heard of this, he said he would happily waive his rights and allow Ravel to orchestrate the pieces. However, Ravel changed his mind and decided initially to orchestrate one of his own works. He then changed his mind again and decided to write a completely new piece based on the musical form and Spanish dance called bolero. While on vacation at St Jean-de-Luz, Ravel went to the piano and played a melody with one finger to his friend Gustave Samazeuilh, saying “Don’t you think this theme has an insistent quality? I’m going to try and repeat it a number of times without any development, gradually increasing the orchestra as best I can.” This piece was initially called Fandango, but its title was soon changed to “Boléro.” According to Idries Shah the main melody is adapted from a tune composed for and used in Sufi training.

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The composition was a sensational success when it was premiered at the Paris Opéra with choreography by Bronislava Nijinska and designs and scenario by Alexandre Benois. The orchestra of the Opéra was conducted by Walther Straram. Ernest Ansermet had originally been engaged to conduct during the entire ballet season, but the musicians refused to play under him. A scenario by Rubinstein and Nijinska was printed in the program for the premiere:

Inside a tavern in Spain, people dance beneath the brass lamp hung from the ceiling. [In response] to the cheers to join in, the female dancer has leapt onto the long table and her steps become more and more animated.

Ravel himself, however, had a different conception of the work: his preferred stage design was of an open-air setting with a factory in the background, reflecting the mechanical nature of the music.

Boléro became Ravel’s most famous composition, much to his surprise. He had predicted that most orchestras would refuse to play it. However, it is usually played as a purely orchestral work, only rarely being staged as a ballet. According to a possibly apocryphal story from the premiere performance, a woman was heard shouting that Ravel was mad. When told about this, Ravel is said to have remarked that she had understood the piece.

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Boléro was first published by the Parisian firm Durand in 1929. Arrangements of the piece were made for piano solo and piano duet (two people playing at one piano), and Ravel himself arranged a version for two pianos, published in 1930. The first recording was made by Piero Coppola in Paris for The Gramophone Company on 8 January 1930 and Ravel attended the recording session. The following day, Ravel conducted the Lamoureux Orchestra in his own recording for Polydor. That same year, further recordings were made by Serge Koussevitzky with the Boston Symphony Orchestra and Willem Mengelberg with the Concertgebouw Orchestra.

Conductor Arturo Toscanini gave the U.S. premiere of Boléro with the New York Philharmonic on 14 November 1929. The performance was a great success, bringing “shouts and cheers from the audience” according to a New York Times review leading one critic to declare that “it was Toscanini who launched the career of the Boléro,” and another to claim that Toscanini had made Ravel into “almost an American national hero.”

On 4 May 1930, Toscanini performed the work with the New York Philharmonic at the Paris Opéra as part of that orchestra’s European tour. Toscanini’s tempo was significantly faster than Ravel preferred, and Ravel signaled his disapproval by refusing to respond to Toscanini’s gesture during the audience ovation. An exchange took place between the two men backstage after the concert. According to one account Ravel said “It’s too fast”, to which Toscanini responded “You don’t know anything about your own music. It’s the only way to save the work.” According to another report Ravel said “That’s not my tempo”. Toscanini replied “When I play it at your tempo, it is not effective”, to which Ravel retorted “Then do not play it.” Four months later, Ravel attempted to smooth over relations with Toscanini by sending him a note explaining that “I have always felt that if a composer does not take part in the performance of a work, he must avoid the ovations” and, ten days later, inviting Toscanini to conduct the premiere of his Piano Concerto for the Left Hand, an invitation which he declined.

The Toscanini affair became a cause célèbre and further increased Boléro’s fame. Other factors in the work’s renown were the considerable number of early performances, gramophone records, including Ravel’s own, transcriptions and radio broadcasts, together with the 1934 motion picture Bolero starring Carole Lombard, in which the music plays an important role.

Boléro is written for a large orchestra consisting of:

woodwinds: piccolo, 2 flutes (one doubling on piccolo), 2 oboes (one doubling on oboe d’amore), cor anglais, 2 clarinets (one doubles on E♭clarinet), bass clarinet, 3 saxophones (one sopranino, one soprano and one tenor), 2 bassoons, contrabassoon

brass: 4 horns, 4 trumpets (3 in C, one in D), 3 trombones, bass tuba

3 timpani and percussion: 2 snare drums, a bass drum, one piece/pair of orchestral cymbals, tam-tam

celesta and harp

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The instrumentation calls for a sopranino saxophone in F, which has never existed (modern sopraninos are in E♭). At the first performance, both the sopranino and soprano saxophone parts were played on the B♭ soprano saxophone, a tradition which continues to this day.

Boléro is extremely straightforward.  The music is in C major, 3/4 time, beginning pianissimo and rising in a continuous crescendo to fortissimo possibile (as loud as possible). It is built over an unchanging ostinato rhythm played on one or more snare drums that remains constant throughout the piece.

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On top of this rhythm two melodies are heard, each of 18 bars’ duration, and each played twice alternately. The first melody is diatonic, the second melody introduces more jazz-influenced elements, with syncopation and flattened notes (technically it is in the Phrygian mode). The first melody descends through one octave, the second melody descends through two octaves. The bass line and accompaniment are initially played on pizzicato strings, mainly using rudimentary tonic and dominant notes. Tension is provided by the contrast between the steady percussive rhythm, and the “expressive vocal melody trying to break free.” Interest is maintained by constant reorchestration of the theme, leading to a variety of timbres, and by a steady crescendo. Both themes are repeated a total of eight times. At the climax, the first theme is repeated a ninth time, then the second theme takes over and breaks briefly into a new tune in E major before finally returning to the tonic key of C major.

The melody is passed among different instruments: 1) flute 2) clarinet 3) bassoon 4) E♭clarinet 5) oboe d’amore 6) trumpet (with flute not heard clearly and in higher octave than the first part) 7) tenor saxophone 8) soprano saxophone 9) horn, piccolos and celesta 10) oboe, English horn and clarinet 11) trombone 12) some of the wind instruments 13) first violins and some wind instruments 14) first and second violins together with some wind instruments 15) violins and some of the wind instruments 16) some instruments in the orchestra 17) and finally most but not all the instruments in the orchestra (with bass drum, cymbals and tam-tam). While the melody continues to be played in C throughout, from the middle onwards other instruments double it in different keys. The first such doubling involves a horn playing the melody in C, while a celeste doubles it 2 and 3 octaves above and two piccolos play the melody in the keys of G and E, respectively. This functions as a reinforcement of the 1st, 2nd, 3rd, and 4th overtones of each note of the melody. The other significant “key doubling” involves sounding the melody a 5th above or a 4th below, in G major. Other than these “key doublings”, Ravel simply harmonizes the melody using diatonic chords.

The tempo indication in the score is Tempo di Bolero, moderato assai (“tempo of a bolero, very moderate”). In Ravel’s own copy of the score, the printed metronome mark of 76 per quarter is crossed out and 66 is substituted. Later editions of the score suggest a tempo of 72. Ravel’s own recording from January 1930 starts at around 66 per quarter, slightly slowing down later on to 60–63. Its total duration is 15 minutes 50 seconds. Coppola’s first recording, at which Ravel was present, has a similar duration of 15 minutes 40 seconds. Ravel said in an interview with the Daily Telegraph that the piece lasts 17 minutes.

An average performance will last in the area of fifteen minutes, with the slowest recordings, such as that by Ravel’s associate Pedro de Freitas Branco, extending well over 18 minutes and the fastest, such as Leopold Stokowski’s 1940 recording with the All American Youth Orchestra, approaching 12 minutes.

At Coppola’s first recording Ravel indicated strongly that he preferred a steady tempo, criticizing the conductor for getting faster at the end of the work. According to Coppola’s own report:

Maurice Ravel […] did not have confidence in me for the Boléro. He was afraid that my Mediterranean temperament would overtake me, and that I would rush the tempo. I assembled the orchestra at the Salle Pleyel, and Ravel took a seat beside me. Everything went well until the final part, where, in spite of myself, I increased the tempo by a fraction. Ravel jumped up, came over and pulled at my jacket: “not so fast”, he exclaimed, and we had to begin again.

Ravel’s preference for a slower tempo is confirmed by his unhappiness with Toscanini’s performance, of course. Toscanini’s 1939 recording with the NBC Symphony Orchestra has a duration of 13 minutes 25 seconds. In May 1994, with the Munich Philharmonic on tour in Cologne, conductor Sergiu Celibidache at the age of 82 gave a performance that lasted 17 minutes and 53 seconds, perhaps a record in the modern era. Perhaps in no other modern composition is tempo so critical. The insistent beat of the snare drum is the underpinning of the whole piece. Should we be slaves to the composer’s wishes? A difficult question. All composers, no matter how rigid in their directions, provide wiggle room for interpretation. Some directions are of necessity imprecise. How loud is fortissimo? How soft is pianissimo? With tempo it’s not as imprecise in modern times because of metronome markings, but there is still some wiggle room there, even with a metronome. Clearly Ravel was not thoroughly consistent. It also depends whether it is being played as an orchestral piece alone, or to accompany dancers. Also remember that it is called Boléro for a reason; it’s meant to evoke the bolero, which means the tempo should be consistent with the dance.

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Creating a menu to do in taste what Ravel did with sound is an interesting challenge. The way I think of it is that you need something that is consistent through all the course as the base, but then another ingredient or series of related ingredients that all match in some way, but which are in marked contrast to the base – increasing in complexity as the meal progresses. I’d need to actually plan a full dinner party to test out such an idea. I’m thinking, for example, that if milk were your base, you’d start with a glass of milk. Then perhaps you could have onions in milk, then leeks in milk, then shallots in milk – then onions and garlic, then onions, garlic, and chives . . . and so on. The trouble with those ingredients is that it would not be a very satisfying meal.  I’ll open this up to my readers and see who’s paying attention. You need to think first about what will be your “snare drum” – a consistent undertone, such as milk, bread, or wine. It has to be able to stand alone at the outset. Then as the meal progresses each course needs to have an ingredient that blends with the basic ingredient, but strives to break out, culminating in a richly complex set of ingredients. Course should follow course with the added ingredients becoming more varied and complex. What do you think?

May 212016
 

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Today is the May full moon for many parts of the world (including mine). In Asia and Australia it will be tomorrow because of the way time zones work.  Because I am now using the blog to focus on movable festivals (those that move about the Gregorian calendar), there will be lunar celebrations here every month, especially those fixed to the full moon. The moons all have names in cultures that use a lunar or lunisolar calendar pegged to the name of the month they begin. In cultures that use solar calendars the names of the moons are associated with annual activities such as Harvest Moon or Hunter’s Moon.

In Anglo-Saxon times the May moon/month was called Þrimilce-mōnaþ (Month of Three Milkings) in England. These days it has various titles —  Milk, Grass, Corn, Flower, Root, etc. depending on the Almanac you choose.

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In Buddhist cultures, today is a special day reserved to celebrate the birth, enlightenment, and death of Siddhartha Gautama (563-483 BCE), usually known as the Buddha.  In Japan the day is fixed on 8 April in the Gregorian calendar and I have already mentioned this tradition  http://www.bookofdaystales.com/buddhas-birthday/ . In most Asian cultures, however, it is pegged to the lunar calendar and has various names, although the underlying significance is generally the same. For convenience I’ll use the Sanskrit name, Vesākha.

Tradition ascribes to the Buddha himself instruction on how to pay him homage. Just before he died, he saw his faithful attendant Ananda, weeping. The Buddha advised him not to weep, but to understand the universal law that all compounded things (including even his own body) must disintegrate. He advised everyone not to cry over the disintegration of the physical body but to regard his teachings (The Dhamma) as their teacher from then on, because only the Dhamma truth is eternal and not subject to the law of change. He also stressed that the way to pay homage to him was not merely by offering flowers, incense, and lights, but by truly and sincerely striving to follow his teachings. This is how Buddhists are expected to celebrate Vesākha: to use the opportunity to reiterate their determination to lead noble lives, to develop their minds, to practice loving-kindness and to bring peace and harmony to humanity.

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On Vesākha day, devout Buddhists and followers alike are expected and requested to assemble in their various temples before dawn for the ceremonial, and honorable, hoisting of the Buddhist flag and the singing of hymns in praise of the holy triple gem: The Buddha, The Dharma (his teachings), and The Sangha (his disciples). Devotees may bring simple offerings of flowers, candles and incense to lay at the feet of their teacher. These symbolic offerings are to remind followers that just as the beautiful flowers will wither away after a short while and the candles and incense sticks will soon burn out, so too is life subject to decay and destruction. Devotees are enjoined to make a special effort to refrain from killing of any kind. They are encouraged to partake of vegetarian food for the day. In some countries, notably Sri Lanka, two days are set aside for the celebration of Vesākha and all liquor shops and slaughter houses are closed by government decree during the two days. Also birds, insects and animals are released by the thousands in what is known as a ‘symbolic act of liberation’; of giving freedom to those who are in captivity, imprisoned, or tortured against their will. Some Buddhists wear simple white clothes and spend the whole day in temples with renewed determination to observe the Eight Precepts of Buddhism.

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Some temples also display a small statue of the Buddha in front of the altar in a small basin filled with water and decorated with flowers, allowing devotees to pour water over the statue; it is symbolic of the cleansing of a practitioner’s bad karma, and to reenact the events following the Buddha’s birth, when devas and spirits made heavenly offerings to him.

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Devotees are expected to listen to talks given by monks. On this day monks will recite verses uttered by the Buddha to invoke peace and happiness for the government and the people. Buddhists are reminded to live in harmony with people of other faiths and to respect the beliefs of other people as the Buddha taught.

Celebrating Vesākha also means making special efforts to bring happiness to the unfortunate like the aged, the handicapped and the sick. To this day, Buddhists will distribute gifts in cash and kind to various charitable homes throughout the country. Vesākha is also a time for great joy and happiness, expressed not by pandering to one’s appetites but by concentrating on useful activities such as decorating and illuminating temples, painting and creating exquisite scenes from the life of the Buddha for public dissemination. Devout Buddhists also vie with one another to provide refreshments and vegetarian food to followers who visit the temple to pay homage to the Buddha.

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Buddha’s Delight (罗汉斋) would be suitable to celebrate the day. This is basically a Chinese stir-fried vegetarian dish that varies according to taste, the cook, region, and what’s available. Common Chinese ingredients include:

Arrowhead (慈菇; cí gū)
Bamboo shoots (笋; sǔn)
Bean curd sticks or bean threads (腐竹; fǔ zhú)
Black mushrooms (冬菇; dōnggū)
Cellophane or mung bean noodles (粉絲; fěn sī)
Day lily buds (金针; jīnzhēn)
Fat choy (Cantonese) or black moss (发菜;  fà cài)
Ginkgo nuts (白果; bái guǒ)
Lotus seeds (蓮子; liánzǐ)
Napa cabbage (大白菜; dà bái cài)
Peanuts (花生; huā shēng)
Fried tofu (炸豆腐; zhá dòu fǔ)
Water chestnuts (荸荠; bí qí)
Fried or braised wheat gluten (面筋; miàn jīn)
Wood ear or black fungus (木耳; mù ěr)
Red dates or jujubes (红枣; hóng zǎo)
Lotus root (藕; ǒu)

Collect the vegetables you want for the dish, making sure you have plenty of variety. Cut them all into bite-sized pieces. You’ll need cellophane noodles as well. Soak them in warm water until they are soft. For the sauce prepare a mix of vegetable stock, soy sauce, sesame oil, sugar, and cornstarch.

Stir fry your vegetables over the highest possible heat in a wok or skillet with a little vegetable oil. Add the noodles (with some water clinging) to heat through, then add your sauce, turn down to a simmer and mix all the ingredients and sauce together.