“Why don’t they remove the bones before they serve the fish?” is a common question I hear from friends whenever we go to Chinese restaurants. In fact on one occasion after finishing a steamed striped bass at a popular Cantonese seafood restaurant in Chinatown a fellow diner jested that the remains of our dish looked like Felix the Cat had swallowed the fish whole and pulled out a completely cleaned skeleton with just the head and tail left on. So why do the Chinese like to keep the bones in the dishes they cook?
On a misty dreary Sunday morning in September of 1971 soon after I arrived in Boston for my university study, a few college friends and I drove up to Kittery Point, Maine. It took us about an hour to drive there and it was barely noon when we climbed down a short set of steps from the parking lot to the Chauncey Creek Lobster Pier. The weather didn’t dampen my anticipation for my very first experience eating Maine lobster. We each ordered a one and a half pound lobster and feasted in our ponchos at the picnic table under a tent. The cost: seven dollars for each of our lobsters. That was an exorbitant price for a casual meal then.
Now that farmers’ market season is in full swing we are spoiled by an abundance of fresh produce. Lettuces, summer squashes and radishes cram the stalls of just about every green market. Sold in a variety of rainbow colors, radishes are especially plentiful, and they’re almost always sold with their greens attached. Most Americans, however, routinely ask the vendors to cut off the greens or they discard them at home. It’s unfortunate because these greens are delicious and nutritious. In northeastern China the slightly peppery leaves are used in many different ways, including in stir-fries, salads and steamed buns.
A month ago Sabino from Baltimore submitted a comment on the Red Cooked Pork Redux post. It was a comment like I have never seen before. Not only was it voluminous it was also very insightful. He asked detailed questions on cooking and serving red cooked pork. I’m gratified that my readers are actually making authentic Chinese food and are sharing their experiences along the way. I feel compelled to devote an entire post to address the issues brought up in his comments. So here I am writing my third post on the subject of red cooked pork.
When I lived there during much of the 1970’s, Boston was not known for its culinary prowess. It was way before Todd English or Barbara Lynch appeared on the scene. The plain, or rather bland, New England cooking tradition offered little stimulation for my Asian palate that’s used to a spicy array of flavors. I couldn’t quite adjust to the pure taste of the food. That is until I discovered the fiddlehead fern, a native delicacy. It completely changed my view of the New England cooking approach. It is not about creating flavors for the sake of flavors, but rather to maximize the flavor of what’s already in nature.
Song Jiang (宋江), who is an outlaw during the Song dynasty (宋朝) around eleventh century, is also a heroic character in the classic Chinese novel Water Margin (水滸傳) written around the fourteenth century. In the novel he is exiled to Jiang Zhou (江州) after being convicted for a murder. Along with two bailiffs they board a hired river ferry which, unbeknownst to them, is operated by a pirate. Once they reach the middle of the river the pirate demands that they turn over their possessions and choose “shaved noodles” (板刀麵) or “wonton” (餛飩) for their last meal. Upon further clarification the pirate explains they can either be killed under his machete like dough being shaved into noodles or they can kill themselves by jumping into the river like wonton in a soup. Such is the poetic macabre image of wonton in one of the most beloved literary works of ancient China.
For the first century after the introduction of Chinese food to America by the first immigrants to California in the 1850’s, Cantonese cuisine reigned supreme. It was the most commonly served food in Chinese restaurants. “Mandarin” cooking, which became the jargon for anything non-Cantonese, appeared in the late 1960’s. Still most menus were made up of familiar soy sauce-based non-spicy items. Then in the mid 1960s Shun Lee Dynasty opened in the east side of Manhattan and started serving Sichuan influenced dishes. In 1969, after receiving four stars from Craig Claiborne of The New York Times, the public thronged to the restaurant to sample this new spicy cooking of China.
Also known as the Spring Festival, Chinese New Year marks the beginning of the spring solar term in the Chinese calendar. In spite of the name for the festival we are still in the coldest period of the year. So it is appropriate that during this time of year we consume many of the foods preserved after the autumn harvest and hunting season during the twelfth month of the previous year.
Since the Zhou Dynasty (周朝 about 3,000 years ago) the twelfth month of the Chinese calendar has been designated as a time for ritual sacrifice to honor the gods and ancestors. This ritual is known as “laji” (臘祭). Animals were hunted for offerings, and the meat consumed during the ceremony. Over time preservation techniques were developed to conserve the leftovers for winter consumption. One curing technique known as “la” (臘) consists of salting and drying of the meat. This brings me to the February challenge to make cured pork belly or bacon for Charcutepalooza.
Photography by Kim Foster
I am very fortunate to be living in the most wonderful building in the greatest city. This year my schedule around Chinese New Year was absolutely crazy. What with cooking classes, cooking demos, panel discussions and a guest chef event I had neglected preparations for my own family New Year dinner. The day before New Year’s Eve only four members of my family had been invited and confirmed. I was not looking forward to spending a quiet New Year’s Eve celebration with so few people. Determined to change this I turned it into a festive gathering of friends and neighbors.