2000s Archive

A Journey Of 1,000 Dishes

Originally Published June 2000
Snakes, scorpions, and ducks, oh my. A spectacular eating tour of China, where the noodles are hand-pulled and the toasts last all night. Margy Rochlin goes along for the ride.

October 15: Think Pink

Halfway through a 17-hour flight from San Francisco to Beijing, I notice the Chinese man across the aisle staring at the tiny white plastic tub on his dinner tray. He peels back the label and delicately spoons Thousand Island dressing into his mouth. After every bite, he closes his eyes, gamely trying to find something appetizing about what I assume he thinks is a slightly oily Western-style pink dessert. I recognize a bit of myself in this man and I wince. I am about to embark on a five-city tour of China to observe what the brochure I’ve stuffed into my seat pocket describes as a “cultural and professional exchange” between American and Chinese women chefs. The flickering light of the in-flight movie—a bleached-out reel of, bewilderingly enough, Hercules Unchained, starring Steve Reeves—illuminates the cabin, and I wonder if I will be able to commit myself as fully as the man across the aisle to such culinary bungee jumping. I silently wish the man Godspeed.

October 16, Beijing: Our Friendship Circle

It is too early in the morning for a welcome meeting, but here at Beijing’s Friendship Hotel, I seem to be the only one in our group of 40 bright-eyed Americans who needs a full night’s sleep. I know this the moment we are told we’ll be expected in the hotel lobby every morning by 7:30 and no one groans. And the announcement isn’t over. Anyone interested in seeking out the best street food? The call time is 5:30 a.m.

Our delegation is being led by Barbara Tropp, who can be thought of as the professor emerita of Chinese cooking in the United States. She heads the six-year-old organization Women Chefs & Restaurateurs (WCR), and all of my fellow travelers, a few guests aside, belong to this group. There are actually few recognizable names or faces here. Besides Tropp, there are exactly two high-profile chefs along—cookbook author Joyce Goldstein of the now-defunct Square One in San Francisco and Mary Sue Milliken of Ciudad in Los Angeles and Border Grill in Santa Monica and Las Vegas. Introductions are made around the room, and I discover that the rest of the group comprises a handful of restaurant owners, a few executive chefs, some caterers, a couple of banquet-hall chefs, a personal chef, a bakery owner, several private cooking instructors, and two mother-daughter teams. Few can articulate exactly why they’ve come to China, except that to be led by Tropp sounded like an adventure.

Before the adventure begins, Tropp gives a brief speech. In China, she says, women are responsible for all the food preparation at home but are rarely found cooking on the hot line in restaurants. Here, she continues, kitchens are regarded as “dirty and dangerous.” Women aren’t supposed to be able to lift heavy woks or withstand the blistering temperatures of the cooking oil. There’s a lot of snorting and eye-rolling. Wasn’t this battle fought and decided in the 1980s? Yes, but the group seems ready to fight the battle again. Will this, along with our black, red, and white T-shirts announcing our WCRaffiliation in both English and Chinese, be enough to bind the group together?

Sure, why not? These women seem ready for anything. For the moment, I am ready for a long nap.

October 17, Beijing: Where the Girls Are

It’s not difficult to find women cooks in Beijing & it just depends on where you look. Last night, near the east gate of the Forbidden City, on a street of food stalls that stretches for blocks, I notice many stands operated by women, who sweat over portable grills and burners, tucking loose strands of hair behind their ears as they prepare everything from roasted larvae on a stick to barbecued skewered whole fish to what looks like the Chinese version of a Denny’s Grand Slam breakfast (french fries that stick out like crab claws from either side of a deep-fried egg).

But today, when we are given a tour of the kitchen at Beijing Po Yang Lake Restaurant, there is not a woman in sight. Then one of the delegates whispers excitedly and all heads swivel to the left, where we see three young women, heads bent, chatting quietly as they rinse baby bok choy at a sink in a small, white tiled room just off the main kitchen.

“They’re schleppers,” announces Joyce Goldstein, disappointed not in the vegetable washers but in the restaurant’s management.

Back in the dining room, accompanied by the theme to Titanic, a multicourse meal begins. First there’s gently poached chicken; then cured Chinese pork tossed with freshwater greens and chiles; next, duck liver slices fried in butter; even deep-fried giant bullfrog. After 16 courses, I stop counting. At one point, a man in a striped ban-lon shirt and shiny gray pants parades through the dining room holding two writhing snakes. He disappears. A short time later, out comes the snake portion of the meal: batter-fried snake skin, snake soup, and, ultimately, tiny glasses filled with liquid the color of green Jell-O. “Snake bile,” we’re told. The green fluid burns a bit on the way down but tastes neither of snake nor, blessedly, of bile. It seems like some sort of moonshine.

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