November 17, 2006

Chestnuts

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Chestnuts

As a child I didn't care much for chestnuts. When I was around 5 or 6 years old I was baffled by my mother's yearly love affair with castañas (Spanish for chestnuts) usually in December as Christmas approached. She used to sit quietly at the table nibbling on maybe a pound of them until they're all gone. She was the only person in my family at that time who loved roasted chestnuts. My father, my older sister and I never shared her enthusiasm for them, we all thought they tasted of boiled sweet potatoes, nothing special about them. Most probably all those years she was secretly ecstatic that she didn't have to share them with anyone. Once in a while over the years she would coax us to try them but we were not convinced, same with the 2 younger siblings that came after me. I only "discovered" how good they are when I was in my 20s, with a 3 year old child. The new neighbors who also had a small child once waved us over to her house to introduce themselves. They were on their front porch eating roasted chestnuts and offered some which I refused but the wife was insistent and even opened and skinned one for me and since then I was hooked. I was wondering why they didn't taste of sweet potato as I remembered from childhood!! Since then every December I looked for them at the grocery (Rustan's) and at the Greenhills Shopping Center to see if they're available, which was not often in the Philippines. The ones we used to get came from China which in my honest opinion is the best tasting and the sweetest chestnuts, maybe because they are small and the flavor perhaps is concentrated, I don't know. There were years when there weren't any chestnuts at all due to restrictions on imported goods. When I was working at the Asian Development Bank my boss used to give us a Christmas gift basket with chocolates, imported fruits and the most important and the ones I treasured the most were the Japanese chestnuts. They were a lot bigger than the Chinese variety but were not as sweet. But chestnuts are chestnuts, I'll take them wherever they came from. I had my first European chestnuts in Luzern (Lucerne), Switzerland in October 1987. My companions and I were walking for some sightseeing when we stepped on colossal chestnuts that have fallen from the trees along the sidewalk. One of the girls and I were shrieking with glee and started picking the nuts (I know, WE WERE NUTS!), not thinking how and where in the hotel we were going to cook them. I was wearing a sweater that did not have pockets and my handbag had no room for the nuts so my friend put them all in the huge pockets of her jacket. Then as we turned the corner there was a vendor selling freshly roasted chestnuts. The two us felt really stupid and bought a pound each that we nibbled on as we walked to meet the other people in our group. She did not throw the nuts in her pockets, I think she brought them back to Manila.

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My friend, her name is Tess, is on the right clutching the brown paper bag, that's me in the middle with my own bag warming my underarm. The other girl whose name is also Tess thought we were really crazy. That same year in December I was in chestnuts heaven. We were invited to the office Christmas party in Hong Kong and on our last night there, I saw a hawker right ouside the MTR train station beckoning me with the smell of roasting chestnuts, I felt giddy, all these wonderful chestnuts right in front of me. I asked the hawker for the price which was HK$12, and I asked for 10 pounds. He got mad and shooed me away, all the while mumbling in Cantonese and I was confused. Did he not want to sell me 10 pounds? Did he only sell half pound at a time? And then it came to me, since he did not understand English he thought I was asking for a discount, so I pointed to the weighing scale, my finger went round 10 times and he understood, grinned from ear to ear and gave them to me for HK$10 per pound. In my opinion the Chinese have the best method of roasting chestnuts. They cook them in a very very large wok filled with small stones or pebbles that are oiled, they bury the chestnuts in the very hot stones, then mix them once in a while with a gigantic spatula and fish out the chestnuts with an equally gigantic sieve. I can't figure out why the inner thin skin does not stick to the nuts at all even when they have gotten cold. It's a pity in my excitement I did not take a photo of the hawker. So, I carried the big bag of hot chestnuts to our hotel room and hand carried them back to Manila. Yes, I am nuts for chestnuts! And the chestnuts gods were kind to me, the very next year we moved to Hong Kong and I had my roasted chestnuts for the next 4 Christmas seasons. The first marrons glacés I had were a gift to my father-in-law from some Japanese businessmen also in the 80s. The Japanese marrons glacés were heavenly and once again I fell in love with another kind of chestnuts, this time it's candied. I know they are really, really expensive and only bought them once but haven't tried the French ones. My homemade ones are good enough for me. Nowadays, I buy dried Chinese chestnuts whenever they are available at the Korean groceries. I use them with bread stuffing and with Chinese recipes. I also buy the packaged roasted and peeled, ready to eat, also from China, very cheap at .90¢ for a 100gm package and they are available all year round.

Roasted Chestnuts

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