Two weeks ago Warren and I left Shanghai’s Hongqiao International Airport bound for Xiamen (廈門), a major southern port city of Fujian (福建) province where my ancestors are from. The first thing I noticed onboard our Xiamen Airlines airplane was that the pre-flight announcement was in the Southern Min (閩南) dialect that I spoke with my grandparents. During my travels in China over the last decade I’ve never heard any local dialects used in such official announcements. So this was surprising to me since China’s central government pretty much dictates people’s life including the language used for official or business purposes. I knew then that I was about to witness a very different independent minded part of China. This spirit probably helps explain their unique culture and cooking customs as well.
Mention Beijing cuisine and Peking duck immediately comes to mind. It conjures the image of sumptuous palace fare and complex cooking techniques. This dish is considered the ultimate of Chinese cooking wisdom and knowhow. Perfectly roasted duck with a lacquer-like glaze covering the skin is the definitive Beijing delicacy prized by connoisseurs. But one would be hard pressed to find another dish from Beijing cuisine that stands out like the duck.
My family is originally from the coastal Chinese province of Fujian. Traditionally our noodles are cooked in soup, boiled unadorned except for seasonings, or stir-fried in a wok with a thin sauce. When I was about ten years old my family went to a Cantonese dim sum house in Singapore, which at that time was an exotic excursion for a family accustomed to mostly eating Fujianese food. We were served a pan-fried noodles dish of delicious seafood vegetable sauce dripping all over thin golden brown crispy noodles. That was the beginning of my life long love affair with Hong Kong pan-fried noodles.
For millenniums the Chinese prepared their meals with the express purpose of maintaining a healthy constitution. In fact the earliest texts of Chinese cookery read more like a pharmacologist’s guide than recipe book. It is not surprising that this practice has become a formalized discipline known as food therapy, and making herbal soup one of its best-developed aspects.
In 1953 Admiral Arthur W. Radford, chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, visited Taiwan for talks with President Chiang Kai-Shek. The presidential palace chef, Peng Chang-Kuei (彭長貴), was asked to create a banquet to entertain the illustrious guest. After planning some traditional Hunan dishes, he decided to create a few new dishes for the menu. One of them was General Tso’s Chicken. Thus the world’s most famous Chinese dish was born.
Writing a book is a fulltime job. This I discovered last fall once I started to earnestly concentrate on completing my cookbook. What with my commitments in restaurant consulting and teaching, I have no time at all to prepare lunch. To utilize my time efficiently I buy commercial cold cuts, sliced cheeses and wheat bread to make sandwiches. But I yearn for the occasional comfort Chinese lunch that invariably sooths my anxiety about writing the book. So I need a new lunch plan.
If you feel that this has been a very hot summer then you’re right. In fact this last twelve-month period is the warmest ever recorded in the U.S. according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. To escape the heat of July and August, residents of overcrowded cities throughout the Northern hemisphere abandon their homes and flock to the nearest beach resorts. Over the last several years something else has been gathering to welcome the tourists: the jellyfish.
Have you ever gotten into a situation where two friends you’ve invited for dinner have different dietary constraints? One doesn’t eat red meat, but another would eat just about everything except liver. And you’ve been planning to serve your signature beef Wellington to dazzle your guests. Being the good host that you are you put on your creative thinking cap and accommodate them by changing the menu.
It’s official! Lotus Blue is now open. Four months of researching and developing the menu, plus hiring and training of the kitchen staff finally culminated in our grand opening last Tuesday, February 21st. New York’s first restaurant serving a full menu of authentic and modern dishes from Yunnan province of China is now open… and I am having the thrill of a lifetime.
Go to a Japanese noodle shop or a casual Korean restaurant and you’ll find two noodle dishes with very similar names: Jajangmyeon and Jajamen. Not unlike spaghetti Bolognese they consist of a bed of noodles topped with a brown ground meat sauce often accompanied by julienned cucumbers. Few people though realize that this dish originated in China. Known as Zhajiang Mian (炸醬麵) in Mandarin it is a classic snack food from the Beijing region.