In the heart of the Chinatown area of Singapore was an old faded hotel and restaurant known as the Majestic. I remember the building being one of those relics from the 1930’s unkempt but with lots of potential. Our family used to go to the restaurant for good inexpensive Chinese food but certainly not a gourmet experience by any measure. In 2006 the hotel underwent a complete transformation into an incredibly stylish establishment with an equally modern restaurant. Decorated with custom designed furniture, chandeliers from the Mooi Weer Collection and sculpture by Cai Zhi Song, the restaurant is a modern Chinese art collector’s dream. The food at the restaurant reflects this environment and was created by the modern Chinese master chef Yong Bing Ngen whom I had the opportunity to chat with last week. The restaurant has received numerous accolades since its opening in January 2006. In conjunction with the Foodbuzz 24, 24, 24 event I’ve arranged a dinner at the Majestic Restaurant.
Unhappy and failing in high school Yong Bing Ngen (楊彬源) decided he was ready to set out and explore his future on his own. He announced his intention to his schoolmates one day and left school the next to work at his brother-in-law’s restaurant as a dishwasher. Without a definite plan his mother was concerned for his prospects, and advised him to learn a trade. He pondered her counsel while doing dishes and took a peek at the cooks in the kitchen. It was a “kopi tiam” or a family-run restaurant serving local Chinese food. He was intrigued by the activities in the kitchen and decided cooking was going to be his trade. From this humble beginning Chef Yong went on to become one of Singapore’s most innovative Chinese chefs, and chef owner of the Majestic Restaurant and Jing.
We left our comfortable air-conditioned car and entered a large corrugated shed that houses the Orchard View Yong Tau Foo Restaurant in Kuala Lumpur on a recent hot sunny afternoon. Although the shed is open-sided it sits between two similar restaurants so there is no cross breeze to speak of. By the time we were seated I was already drenched with sweat. I couldn’t wait to order one of the ice cold drinks that always start a meal in restaurants throughout Malaysia and Singapore.
As an open-minded omnivore, I enjoy vegetarian dishes as much as meat dishes. On many occasions I’ve successfully made vegetarian dishes for my vegetarian friends. Many were surprised at the diversity of Chinese vegetarian dishes and commented how flavorful and hearty they were. The key to a rich tasty vegetarian dish is to make use of what is known as umami, which is a Japanese word used to express the fifth taste in addition to the generally accepted four tastes of sweet, salty, sour and bitter. In Chinese umami is known as xian (鮮) and making stock full of umami is the basis for a successful vegetarian dish.
A few days ago I talked with Andrew Coe about his recently published book Chop Suey: A Cultural History of Chinese Food in the United States. Coe has created a scholarly work with extensive research and fascinating findings, enlivened by entertaining narratives and anecdotes. Yesterday I posted my impressions and reactions to some of the findings in the book, today I’d like to share with you highlights of my conversation with him.
Like many immigrants to America I constantly search for food of my homeland. This search continues even now after more than thirty years. When I first arrived in the U.S. during the 1970’s the most common Chinese food was still chop suey. I remember being horrified when I was served chop suey as Chinese food at my college dormitory. Not only was it unrecognizable, but also tasted positively vile. I wondered how Chinese food had turned into this mess. Chop Suey: a Cultural History of Chinese Food in the United States, a new book by Andrew Coe, helps answer this question.
Summer in Shanghai heralds the arrival of bountiful local fruits like lychees (荔枝), longans (龍眼), peaches, and yangmei (waxberries 楊梅). Street vendors hawk them from overflowing bamboo baskets, which they carry on poles balanced on their shoulders. They are a welcome, yet increasingly rare, sight in modern Shanghai as urban life whizzes by. Although I’m not adept at the art of bargaining I would always try to get the best deal from the vendors. It simply is part of commerce in China. After successfully negotiating a purchase I would bring my fruits home, chill them and serve them at the end of dinner. But this is not the only way to enjoy these summer fruits. Cooking with fruits is a long-standing tradition in Chinese cuisine.
Last summer during one of my Red Cook Private Chinese Kitchen dinners, I accidentally let a metal steamer run out of water and burnt a hole in its bottom. Dalia Jurgensen, who was then assisting me in the kitchen, told me that she’d done the same thing while cooking at Nobu. We giggled quietly to ourselves knowing that we’d probably never admit such an error to anyone outside the kitchen. I quickly took the steamer off the stove, cooled it under running water and tossed it in the trash. These private moments are the kind of things Dalia shares in her new book Spiced.
Dalia left a desk job in publishing to become a pastry chef. How she started out as a novice cook at Nobu, worked her way through Layla and La Cote Basque to become the pastry chef of Veritas is told with vivid details in her book. She illuminates not only the mundane incidents in the kitchen but also the professional and personal exploits of the staff, as well as the politics in the restaurant world. As you can imagine it’s much more racy than just burning a hole in a pot.
A starving beggar in China during the Qing dynasty is said to have stolen a chicken and was hotly pursued by its owner. In his haste he buried the chicken in mud near a riverbank to hide it. Later that night he returned and retrieved the chicken, its feathers covered in mud. He started a fire of twigs and branches to cook the chicken. But not having any utensils he placed the entire chicken directly into the fire. A tight clay crust formed as the fowl cooked, and when the crust was cracked open the feathers came right off the chicken exposing juicy tender meat and emitting an incredible aroma. The roasted chicken was so delicious he decided to start selling his creation to the villagers. Unbeknownst to him he had just invented one of the greatest culinary traditions of China.
Chinese takeout lunches as a rule are fast, convenient, filling and economical. We in America know them as a Styrofoam container loaded with heaps of white rice, and topped with a gooey sticky stir-fry. Sometimes accompanied by a grease soaked fried spring roll. Although the quality of these lunches is not always consistent they are mostly tasty and satisfying. I’m not ashamed to say that I occasionally enjoy them as well. But are there homemade alternatives that can be more fulfilling than these quintessential takeout lunches? One answer is red cooked pork over rice.