2000s Archive

A Journey Of 1,000 Dishes

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The appearance of the liqueur signals that the official toasting portion of the meal has begun—a chance to show off a bit of Chinese etiquette we picked up only yesterday from Tropp. Just as we were taught, we cradle our glasses with a special two-handed grip, raise them slightly above eye level, lower our heads in a sign of deference, and take small, ladylike sips. Meanwhile, our Chinese hosts, perhaps hoping to put their American guests at ease, thrust their drinks into the air with a one-handed Yankee hoist. Born of a mutual desire to please, the confusion is almost moving.

A toast is made to the restaurant owner, then the manager, then the young head chef, handsome as a movie star, then his support crew ... and the delegates keep both hands on their glasses while the Po Yang Lake staff wave theirs with one. Suddenly, Tropp vanishes into the kitchen and returns with the three vegetable-prep girls. Just a second ago, the kitchen team was smiling proudly. Now their expressions go from befuddlement to incredulity to outright chagrin. Meanwhile, the vegetable washers giggle nervously into their fists, covering their eyes and probably praying that this unorthodox bit of attention won’t mean their jobs.

Tropp leads the trio into the center of the room. The delegates rise as one and give them a thunderous, morale-boosting round of applause.

Girl Power!

October 18, Beijing and Xi’an: Meet the Chrysanthemum Fish

This afternoon we visit a culinary class at the Beijing Vocational Senior Middle School. The cooking labs are tiny, so we take turns watching teenage students being instructed in the rudiments of vegetable carving, noodlemaking, and Western-style cooking. In this last tutorial, I am curious about a sheet pan containing domino-size pieces of white bread covered with what appears to be red frosting and green flakes of something. “Italian pizza,” the teacher tells me. Whoops. I should have known that.

A handful of us watch a master chef prepare the classic Northern Chinese dish called Chrysanthemum Fish. He carefully places a boneless, trimmed fillet of whitefish skin side down on a round cutting board. He slices into the fish at close intervals, almost perpendicular to the skin. Then he rotates the fillet 90 degrees, cuts the sheets into long petal-like strips, dips the whole thing in water-chestnut flour, and fries it twice in a fearsomely hot wok—once to cook it through and the second time to crisp the petals. Over it he ladles a shiny, crimson sauce whose sweet-and-sour flavor comes from vinegar and sugar and whose color comes from Heinz ketchup. “Amazing!” says the delegate standing next to me.

On the bus ride back to our hotel, the women in the row behind me are busily making plans for a reunion.

We are only three days into the trip.

October 19, Xi’an: Hitting the Great Wall

It’s become apparent that no matter how early I get up, there will be women in our group who will have had a colorful exploit, if not two, by the time I’ve gotten out of the shower. Still, each evening I optimistically set the alarm on my travel clock. Which is how I end up before dawn on a thin, muddy Xi’an Avenue, lined with leafy sycamores and food stalls not far from our hotel.

Through a thick haze of scorched wok oil and burned coal, I spot several WCR groups of three or four delegates each, kibitzing with the vendors. Apart from Tropp and a Shanghai-born, New Jersey–based cooking instructor named Jean Yueh, the group’s Chinese is confined to “Thank you,” “Cheers!” and variations on “For the love of God, where’s the toilet?”

Out here on the food street, though, language doesn’t seem to be much of a barrier. Using emphatic hand signals that look like those of someone guiding a Harrier jet to the deck of an aircraft carrier, my compatriots figure out what they are buying and how many fen (the paper equivalent of pennies) to pull out. Arms filled with bulging plastic sacks and Styrofoam take-out cartons, they head back to the hotel dining room and pass the snacks around a dining table. Fried egg in a large rectangular pocket of thin pastry is compared to a ball of greens in the same fried dough, the choices on a two-item menu offered by a huggable grandma-type in an embroidered Muslim skullcap. Then we all try sticky rice topped with a smear of mashed Chinese red dates. One of the cooks tells me it is a relative of a classic banquet dish, Eight-Jewel Rice, though this street-food version seems to be missing at least five precious jewels.

It’s still early morning when we pile into the bus for our first official event of the day. Tropp, who has a staggering amount of Chinese knowledge stored inside her nearly shaved head, often grabs a handheld microphone to give impromptu lectures from the front of the bus in her clipped, musical voice. Today is no different. A tiny woman, with a graduate degree from Princeton in Chinese poetry and art history, Tropp always provides interesting facts. But as we pull up to the Shaanxi Cuisine Training College in a Xi’an suburb, her voice is overwhelmed by a noise that I will never forget. It sounds like a sea of rhythmically clapping hands punctuated by an incessant incantation of “Wah wah wah! Wah wah wah!”

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