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学做中国菜

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Taking on the Local Cuisine

The food in China is remarkable and so much more varied than what you get in Chinese restaurants in the U.S. Though the Thai and Indian foods we get in the U.S. are pretty good versions of the real thing, the Chinese cuisine is most often an abomination.

There is a virtually endless variety, with each province boasting specialties that form completely separate cuisines. I have sampled as much of it as possible, from one end of China to the other and in many great Beijing restaurants. Embracing the local cuisine can be a good way of immersing in the culture and bonding with the locals.

When our band did our first tour, we traveled to Xiamen on the southern coast and one of my proudest moments came far from the stage.

The promotee took us out for a Taiwanese seafood hotpot dinner. Before the large plates containing a wide variety of shellfish and bowls of flopping shrimp arrived, our host looked warily at me and asked my bandmates, 'What is the foreigner going to eat?'

'Don't worry,' one replied. 'He eats anything.'

As proud as I was, that is categorically untrue. I am turned off by the tanks of live snakes I have seen in the south. I don't really like congee, China's national breakfast porridge. And I never did make it to the penis restaurant -- a Beijing establishment said to serve only the male sex organs from a wide array of animals. I was keeping that in my back pocket for one week when I was desperate for a column topic -- a time that thankfully never arrived.

For all the great restaurants in Beijing, some of the best Chinese food I have had has been right in my own house, thanks to the efforts of Hou Ayi, who comes over five days a week and cooks dinner for our family most days. She began working for us at the end of our first year here.

I always planned to learn how to cook some of my favorite dishes and I have spent a fair amount of time watching Ms. Hou operate. I was always impressed by her precision, confidence, economy of motion and orderliness. Everything was always exquisitely prep-cooked, chopped, placed in a little bowl and ready to go.

With my time in China running out all too fast -- I am already out of my house and living in a serviced apartment, with a barely functional kitchen -- last week I asked Ms. Hou to teach me to cook three of my favorite dishes: dumplings (jiaozi in Chinese), gung pao chicken (spicy chicken with peanuts, usually called Kung Pao in the U.S.), and mao pou spicy tofu

She ordered the meat to be delivered from our local expat-oriented grocery store -- which is pretty reliable though quite expensive -- but still needed to buy the other ingredients. We piled into my car and I asked where to go. I thought she bought our produce near her house but she sent me the other way, just out the back door of our compound to a little village just around the bend, but a world away. I wrote about a restaurant in this village in my second column, almost three years ago.

We were going to a little market where I have also shopped. So this was where she's been getting all that great cheap produce. I watched her carefully select several leeks and shitake mushrooms and ask the clerk, who knew her well, for peanuts and tofu. They had an easy, respectful banter. The total bill was just over a dollar.

Back home, we started in on the jiaozi, which I had naively thought would be the easiest dish to make. Every step of the long process was considerably more complex than I had anticipated. Several times I asked her how I was doing -- 'Hou, bu hao?' ('Good or bad?') and the answer was always a resounding if chuckling 'Bu hao.' (No good.)

She had already made the simple dough of water and flour, which was sitting in a bowl waiting to be kneaded. But first we had to make the filling.

She started with a nice pork loin and began chopping away. 'Never use ground meat,' she told me. 'They will always give you a bad cut.'

My chopping was not up to snuff, and she took the cleaver out of my hand to show me again how to do it -- not too rough and not too soft, rotating the meat. When that was done to her satisfaction, we placed the meat in a bowl and began adding things, in just the right order. She measured nothing, but was very specific about the amount of everything, which included two kinds of soy sauce, cooking wine, white pepper and, to my surprise, water to keep the meat moist. She added a little at a time and whipped it all together with simple chopsticks.

When everything was ready to go, we had to roll out the dough with Ms. Hou's handle-less rolling pin, break it into pieces, smash them into skins and fill and fold the dumplings. My earliest efforts were downright pathetic, looking more like sausages than dumplings.

She laughed and said that my five-year-old, Anna, was much better.

As I labored with each and every dumpling I became astounded thinking about our gatherings when Ms. Hou had made hundreds of these things. My kids came home from school and sampled my efforts. Eli was impressed; he likes dough and my poor ratio of filling to skin worked well for him. Anna took one look and burst out laughing.

With dumplings more or less conquered, I moved on to the chicken and tofu. These were relatively more straightforward and took a lot less time. But the precision of each step again took me by surprise and left me struggling to catch up. I was trying to write everything down and it was virtually impossible. Part of the reason Ms. Hou is so well prepared in advance is that she cooks at such a high heat under the wok that everything cooks almost instantly.

I did figure out how to properly use the wonderful Sichuan peppercorns -- which were until recently unavailable in the U.S. and which give Sichuan food in China a unique, totally different texture and flavor, numbing your mouth so you can really blast it with chili peppers.

I felt a little more confident about my ability to pull these dishes off. But what did Ms. Hou think? Could I ever cook Chinese food successfully alone in the U.S.?

'Yes,' she said. 'You can do it. But you better practice. You need a lot of work.'

No doubt.

在中国吃到的菜肴十分美味,而且比在美国中餐馆的品种多得多。虽然在美国的泰国菜和印度菜已经差不多达到原汁原味的水准,但中国菜的口味大多还是似是而非。

中国菜的花样可谓无穷无尽,每一个省都有特色菜,形成迥然不同的菜系和风格。我走遍中国的大江南北,尽可能多地品尝这些菜肴,并在北京的很多好馆子里大快朵颐。一头扎进美食当中,是体验本地文化和当地人生活的极佳方式。

我们的乐队第一次巡演时,到过中国南部沿海城市厦门,而在那里,最让我感到自豪的一个时刻并非出现在舞台上。

演出举办方带我们去吃台湾海鲜火锅。在大盘的各式贝壳和活蹦乱跳的鲜虾上桌前,请客的人担忧地看了我一眼,问乐队的其他成员:“那这个老外吃什么呢?”

“别担心,”有个人回答,“他什么都吃。”

虽然我感到很自豪,但这一评价并不完全真实。当我在中国南方看到整桶的蛇不断蠕动时,就对蛇做成的菜彻底失去了兴趣。我也不喜欢喝粥─中国人的大众早餐之一。我一直都没能鼓起勇气去“鞭店”,那是一家北京餐馆,上的菜全都是各种动物的雄性生殖器官。曾经有一个星期,我把这家餐馆偷偷作为备选方案,因为当时实在想不出该写什么专栏文章─幸好最终没有成行。

虽然北京有很多好餐馆,但最棒的一些中国菜是在我自己家里吃到的,这多亏了保姆侯阿姨,她一周过来五天,我家的晚饭绝大多数都是她做的。从我们到中国的第一年年末起,她就开始为我家提供服务。

我一直想跟她学学怎么做我最爱吃的那几道菜,而且花了不少时间看侯阿姨做饭。她做饭时的那种精准和自信,以及麻利而有条不紊的动作总是让我惊叹不已。每样食材都事先处理好,切好,放在小碗里备用。

我很快就要离开中国,所以已经搬出原来的房子,住在一个酒店式公寓里─那里的厨房几乎派不上什么用场。上星期,我让侯阿姨教我做三道我最爱吃的菜:饺子、宫保鸡丁和麻婆豆腐。

侯阿姨从附近专门为外派人员提供服务的超市订购了猪肉和鸡肉─价格虽然贵,但品质可靠─但其他辅料还是要去外头买。我们钻进车子里头,我问她去哪儿,以为要去她家附近的菜场,结果却是另一个方向。我们从小区后门出去,来到附近的一个小村庄。虽然距离很近,但环境就像是两个世界一样。差不多三年前,我在第二篇专栏文章中就写过这个村子里的一家小餐馆。

我们走进一个小菜场,我以前也来过,这里就是她采购又新鲜又便宜的食材的地方。我看着她精挑细选了几棵韭葱和一些蘑菇,在跟她很熟的菜贩子那里买了花生和豆腐,两人还聊了几句家常。这些菜总共才花了1美元多一点。

回家后,我们开始包饺子。我天真地以为饺子是最容易做的菜,其实每一道漫长的工序都比我想象的复杂得多。我几次三番用中文问她,自己做得“好不好”,得到的总是一个响亮而带点笑意的回答─“不好”。

侯阿姨已经和好面,放在碗里醒一醒,现在该做馅儿了。

她选了一块猪腰肉,开始剁馅儿。“千万别用牛肉,”她告诉我,“那种馅儿不好弄。”

我剁肉剁得不好,她把刀从我手里拿过来,又教了我一遍─用力要均匀适中,要转着方向剁。等肉馅儿符合要求后,我们把它放在碗里,开始依次加入各类调料,每样东西都没有称重,但份量都很准确,包括两种酱油、料酒、白胡椒,还有让我惊奇的东西─水,目的是让肉馅儿保持湿润。她一次加入一点水,然后用筷子搅拌均匀。

一切准备就绪,该把面团拿出来了。侯阿姨用手把面团揪成小块, 成薄面皮,然后把馅儿放进去。我刚开始包的几只饺子简直惨不忍睹,看上去就像香肠一样,几乎没有饺子的样子。

侯阿姨笑了,说我五岁的女儿安娜(Anna)都比我包得好多了。

我费劲地跟每一只饺子做斗争,不由得回想起以前我们开派对时,侯阿姨总是要包好几百只饺子。孩子们放学回来了,过来验收一下我的成果。艾里(Eli)觉得挺好,他喜欢我在饺子里放很少的馅儿。安娜看了一眼我包的饺子,哈哈大笑起来。

饺子这关好歹算是过了,我开始转攻鸡肉和豆腐。这两道菜相对简单一些,花的时间也少;但侯阿姨每一步的精准动作再次让我惊讶不已,很难跟得上她的节奏。我想把每一个要点都记录下来,但几乎是不可能的,原因是侯阿姨事先准备好了食材和辅料,然后高温入锅烹炒,一眨眼的功夫,菜就做好了。

但我总算学会了如何正确使用美妙的四川花椒─这种调料最近才可以在美国市场里买到。花椒给川菜带来独特的风味,一种完全不同的口感,把你的嘴弄得麻麻的,从而可以大口大口地吃辣椒。

我对自己做这三种中国菜的自信心有所增长,但不知道侯阿姨感觉如何。我自己一个人能不能在美国做出好吃的中国菜呢?

“没问题,”侯阿姨说,“你能办到,但一定要多做才行。”

这一点,毫无疑问。
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