Saturday, August 22, 2009

Cook the Books Club Feast for The Last Chinese Chef

Our current book selection for the Cook the Books foodie book club is Nicole Mones' novel "The Last Chinese Chef". I devoured this lyrically-written story in two sittings, and went back several times to savor the various passages I had festooned with bookmarks. It was a love story of many dimensions: between a man and a woman, between father and son, uncles and nephew, between old passions and new ones.

Mones introduced me to many things about Chinese culture. She weaves many concepts about cooking and history into her story of Maggie, a food journalist and recent widow, who comes to China to interview Sam, an American-born chef and son of classically-trained Chinese chef who escaped during the height of the Cultural Revolution. I learned that the imperial style of cooking, where chefs had to spend many years learning all manner of complicated dishes and regional specialties, was banned after the Communists took power. This was considered to be an elitist practice, though Sam points out that anyone (any male, at least) with talent could rise to become a famous and respected chef, a "weird democratic aspect of feudal China".

The novel's narrative is seasoned with snippets of a book on imperial Chinese cuisine, "The Last Chinese Chef", purportedly written by Sam's paternal grandfather, who was sold as a boy by his impoverished Beijing family to become a kitchen boy in the palace kitchen of Empress Dowager Ci Xi. These pieces give vivid glimpses of the vast Forbidden City kitchens and teams of chefs churning out tidbits for the royal court as well as nuggets of wisdom about the medicinal properties of different foods: "For someone grieving, cook with chives, ginger, coriander, and rosemary. Theirs is the pungent flavor, which draws grief up and out of the body and releases it into the air".

Deb of Kahakai Kitchen, the current Cook the Books host, enlisted the author herself, Nicole Mones to serve as the guest judge of this round of blog posts and our esteemed author also graciously provided a list of Chinese recipes and photos on her website to further educate and tempt us. The bean jellies look absolutely wonderful and I wanted to find the time to scout out the mung bean starch but unfortunately, August has proven to be a busier month than most and I couldn't carve out a food expedition to the south.

In my ruminations about what to prepare for my culinary homage to Mones' fantastic book, I kept thinking about Sam and his three loving taskmaster "uncles", Jiang, Tan and Xie. I envisioned Sam patiently teaching me how to prepare various Chinese dishes, and then having the uncle chefs and food scholars scrutinize them. I imagined they would throw many of them back at me or swish their ghost hands through the air to cuff me on the back of the head, so I was not anxious to try out anything too complicated or which involved ingredients which I didn't already have on hand or was comfortable preparing.

And then I thought of the late Barbara Tropp. Last year, I got a copy of her "China Moon Cookbook", which features "homestyle" recipes from her 1980s San Francisco restaurant. Tropp was a New Jersey native and Rhodes Scholar, who went to Taiwan to study Chinese literature. While living with various host families, she was swept into a world of shopping for the freshest ingredients at local markets, cooking them up in her hosts' kitchens and then eating them slowly, all together at the table. When she returned to the United States, her literary studies became a secondary passion to the culinary arts. As she states in the China Moon Cookbook preface "What other activity in the sphere of human pleasure makes our dwellings aromatic and brings friends and family to our table? If we value these aspects of our lives, then we cook. If we savor the food we prepare and the environment in which it is presented, then we dine."

Like the fictional Sam, Tropp was American born and also of Jewish heritage, so that sealed the deal. Chef Tropp would also be at my side with Sam while I prepared my feast for my family and the imagined trio of Uncle critics.

I didn't want to copy out recipes from Tropp's wonderful "The China Moon Cookbook" without permission, so I limited myself to cooking up recipes that have already been circulated on the Internet. Hopefully, they will give you a feel for her delightful cooking style and set you off in search of your own copy to explore further. It is a fun cookbook to read, with many sidebars and Tropp's entertaining introductions to each dish. If you enjoy the invigorating format of the Silver Palate cookbooks, you will enjoy reading this cookbook all the way through, almost like a piece of fiction.

Further preparations involved renting Ang Lee's fantastic foodie film, "Eat Drink Man Woman" about a retired Taiwanese master chef who cooks up magnificent Sunday feasts for his three adult daughters, and taking a virtual tour of Hangzhou, which is where Sam and Maggie travel to in "The Last Chinese Chef" when they visit ailing Third Uncle Xie. After seeing the beautiful lake, the sweeping foliage, and rather a lot of photos of what the students at this website ate, I was determined to make the accompanying recipe for Fried Shrimp in Longjing Tea, which I prefer by its more poetic name of Dragon Well Shrimp.

Alas, the cornstarch coating on my crustaceans blackened from my inexpert wokking techniques and they looked more like "Dragged Up from the Bottom of the Well Shrimp". Despite the disgusted clacking from Sam's Three Uncles, I did not throw them to the kitchen hound and start afresh, but rather, soldiered on with my Shrimp dish, which, while it tasted delicate enough, was bathed in an unappetizing grey sludge sauce.

Previously, I had also conjured up a batch of China Moon Chili-Orange Oil. This recipe is one of many that Tropp has for homemade condiments and seasonings that are used in many of her recipes. The combination of citrus and heat is very heady, even if you do not have "shockingly pungent" red chili flakes in your pantry (mine are "of a certain age" and made my imaginary Tropp exclaim that they were instead "shockingly dusty". The Uncles agreed). I have to also make her Roasted Szechwan Pepper-Salt someday, but that will involve a trip down to one of Albany's Asian markets once my busy summer season is over.

The soaping and scrubbing of the oranges beforehand makes it much easier to peel thinner segments of zest from the fruit. I decided to make a half portion of this flavored oil since it was my first go at it, but it was so delicious that now I wish I had gone ahead for the full Monty. The little bits of minced orange zest and garlic dance in the sizzling oil and get a mellow taste that is wonderful drizzled over string beans and noodles. Inspired by Tropp's recipes for Paris Noodles and Chili-Orange Cold Noodles (two more reasons to buy a copy of this cookbook)I made up a batch of cold rice noodles dressed with this luscious oil and mixed with slivered garden vegetables of various rainbow hues. The result was sublime on a steamy summer night: cold slippery noodles and crunchy veggies in an aromatic dressing.

Here's my recipe for a beautiful Asian-style summer noodle salad:

Rainbow Vegetable-Noodle Salad with Chili-Orange Oil

1 (10 oz.) pkg. rice vermicelli

2-1/2 tsp. Chili Orange Oil
1 Tbsp. "goop" from bottom of Chili Orange Oil jar
2 Tbsp. soy sauce
2 Tbsp. rice vinegar
1 tsp. kosher salt
1 Tbsp. brown sugar

2 carrots, peeled and shredded on box grater
3 Tbsp. snipped chives
1 large daikon radish, peeled and cut into matchsticks
1 large Japanese cucumber (we grow Suyo Longs), cut into matchsticks
1 cup red cabbage, sliced thin
2 plum tomatoes, seeded and chopped
2 Tbsp. black sesame seeds

Cook vermicelli until al dente. Drain and rinse with cold water. Set aside.

Make a dressing out of chili orange oil, goop, soy sauce, rice vinegar, salt and brown sugar. Mix well and set aside.

Toss remaining ingredients together. Add in noodles and mix well. Dress with reserved dressing and mix well. Cover and chill at least 1-2 hours before serving.

Serves 6.

Another of Tropp's wonderful recipes can also be found here, for her Strange Flavor Eggplant. It is a wonderful mix of salty, sweet, spicy and smoky flavors mingled together that was served as an appetizer at her restaurant on garlic toasts garnished with scallion rings. For our gluten-free version, I toasted slices of a GF baguette (purchased from Saratoga Gluten-Free Goods at the Gansevoort Farmers Market) and then slathered them with this eggplant goodness, topped with some snipped chives. I can happily tell you that leftover Strange Flavor Eggplant is glorious mixed with cold pasta.

When all the components of my Mones and Tropp inspired Chinese banquet came together, we dined on:

Strange Flavor Eggplant on Toasted Baguettes

Rainbow Vegetable-Noodle Salad with Chili-Orange Oil

Steamed Rice

Sliced, Chilled Suyo Long Cucumbers

Dragon Well Shrimp (liberated from its grey sludge gravy for photo op)

Steamed Red Noodle Beans (despite their yard-long length, they remain tender if picked before they get too bulgy)

I hope that this blog post has inspired you to seek out Nicole Mones' wonderful novel "The Last Chinese Chef". I certainly enjoyed reading it and learning more about Chinese food and culture. Please join us back at Cook the Books after August 28th for a roundup of all the posts which Deb will be organizing.

And please do join us for our next biblio-culinary adventure. Jo from Food Junkie, Not Junk Food will be the host and has selected Peter Mayles' book "French Lessons: Adventures with Knife, Fork and Corkscrew". There's no other requirement to join us other than to read the book (buy a copy or borrow one from a friend or library), cook up something inspired by your reading and then blog about it. If you don't have a blog, Jo would be happy to have you as a guest blogger.


Heather S-G said...

How cool is that connection (Tropp & Sam)! What a wonderful meal you've presented us...I'd love to eat it as a tribute to The Last Chinese Chef. That was one of the quotes I had "marked" from the book, too! :D

Amy Green (Simply Sugar and Gluten-Free) said...

Your submission is incredible. I so wanted to participate but my kitchen remodel took so long...I started getting it back together today and have another full day tomorrow. I don't think I'll have time to pull a recipe together.

I loved the book, though. What an incredible story. I learned so much, too.

Suzie said...

What a beautiful post - I love your review and also your gorgeous photo of the oil. I also have the China Moon cookbook and keep promising myself that i will cook all the pantry recipes at the beginning of the book to have on hand all of the wonderful oils and spices she references in the book. I so enjoyed both the novel and the planning of a dinner to celebrate it.

Arlene Delloro said...

Rachel, another wonderful review, or double review, since you introduced us to Tropp as well. You were too hard on yourself about the shrimp! The eggplant was especially interesting--a Chinese bruschetta???? Didn't you just fall in love with Sam...and those uncles?

Esme said...

looks great.

pam said...

What a fabulous tribute to the book!

Alicia Foodycat said...

The oil looks lovely! This is such a wonderful tribute to a book that I really loved.

Maria Verivaki said...

i've always felt a certain amount of trepidaton when cooking a foreign dish for the first time, because the techniques involved are often radically different to the ones i use regularly in my daily cooking - the last chinese chef clarified so many things for me about chinese cooking, that i have now made some of the flavours the book introduced us to staples in my cooking

FoodJunkie said...

Wow! This is a great post Rachel. For gluten intolerant people asian cuisines are such a treat with all the beautiful flavours and rice products. I am sure your family enjoyed this!I have just posted my entry for Cook the books.

Claudia said...

The noodle dish sounds delicious and now another cookbook I need to buy! Thanks also for the virtual tour of Hangzhou link.

Simona Carini said...

What a banquet! I wouldn't know where to start. Actually, I know: from the eggplant. A very enjoyable post.

Wholesale Food Suppliers said...

I am very crazy about cooking and knowing different cultures of the world specially about ancient Chinese and Arab cultures. I would love to add this book in my mini library to fulfill my instinct.