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.
This January whisked by at a breakneck pace without my realizing that it is over. During the month I taught cooking classes, consulted restaurant entrepreneurs, advised market researchers on Chinese sauces, and cooked a guest chef dinner at a restaurant. I am quite baffled by how cooking has turned into such a central role in my life. Yet for many years this is what I aspired to do. Three years ago this month I wrote my first post on Red Cook coaxed by my neighbor, Kim of The Yummy Mommy and Charcutepalooza fame. It has become a way for me to share my passion for Chinese cooking with others as well as to discover opportunities to work as a culinary professional. Thanks to my many enthusiastic supporters I am starting to do what I truly love.
In spite of the hazy smog that has become the norm in China’s polluted cities, all but one day of my recent trip to Chengdu (成都), the capital of Sichuan province, was clear and bright. I took full advantage of the good weather and explored many of its vibrant neighborhoods on foot. Living up to the city’s reputation as the snacking capital of China, I found a myriad of street vendors selling noodles, dumplings, fried snacks and other local delights. Much of these have been glorified in guidebooks, travel articles and cookbooks. What is not commonly known, however, is the struggle these vendors face in dealing with the authority.
When it comes to serving Thanksgiving dinner in our household there is only one menu: Warren’s mom’s. I’ve made the same New England Thanksgiving dinner for more than twenty years. The celebration always starts with assorted homemade pickles and relishes, and basketful of piping hot Parker House rolls. Then follows roast turkey with oyster stuffing accompanied by mashed potato, creamed peas and onions, and mashed winter squash and turnip. Finally the dinner ends with apple and pumpkin pies served with vanilla ice cream or Vermont cheddar cheese. As always there will be plenty of leftovers. Since Warren forbids me to alter the Thanksgiving feast, I’ve become very creative with leftovers. This year I decided to make Chinese pumpkin pancakes with the leftover pumpkin pulp from making the pie.
Browse through the aquariums at the seafood markets in Lei Yu Mun in Hong Kong, or at seafood restaurants in Guangzhou and Qingdao, you will find a plethora of shellfish display. There are abalones from Dalian, geoduck from Canada, scallops from Japan and oysters from America. All to satisfy the growing appetite for fresh seafood in China as the population becomes more affluent. Fortunately shellfish farming is one industry that is sustainable. Some shellfish farming, like oyster farming can even restore the environment. For this reason I’ve decided to highlight oysters for my rather late post in support of Jacqueline Church’s 4th Annual Teach a Man to Fish Sustainable Seafood Event.
There is a mystical allure about the Chinese province of Sichuan (四川) that fascinates me. I’m in awe of its endangered pandas and abundant bamboo forests. The stunning scenery at Jiuzhaigou (九寨溝) dazzles me. And I worship the sophisticated, spicy Sichuan cooking. So you can imagine my excitement when I was offered the opportunity to visit Chengdu (成都), the capital of Sichuan, to observe a cooking lesson offered by the Cooking School in China program.