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.'