2000s Archive

A Journey Of 1,000 Dishes

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Peering out of the dusty bus window, I see young Chinese students, dressed in sparkling chef’s whites and toques, lined up in a double row that stretches around the corner, deep into the campus, and up several flights of stairs. As far as the eye can see, the teenagers applaud our arrival and chant in unison. A scratchy recording of “Pomp and Circumstance” blares in the background. Once my ear adjusts to the volume, I can separate the words: “Warm, warm welcome!” (Later I hear that one of the mother-daughter teams experienced the thrill of being cheered as they sought out the rest room.)

What is it like to venture up a human corridor of 2,000 people this excited about meeting professional chefs from another country? I make it about ten steps before I start crying. And if I actually were a chef? Five steps, maybe three.

In an outdoor courtyard, huddled around half a dozen covered tables, students carve vegetables, shape colored dough into figurines, and hand-throw noodles. Someone, I’m not sure who, invites us to join in, and suddenly my companions are chiseling turnips into rosebuds and pinching dough into tiny animals. Two students, both smiling teenage girls, gently coach a few of our group in the art of noodle-pulling. They twist thick hanks of dough and flip them through the air, occasionally banging them on a countertop. With each slap, the dough separates into finer and finer noodles until a cat’s cradle of virtual threads droops between the twirlers’ fingers. “Whoo!” the crowd hollers every time dough whips through the air.

We move into a tiled kitchen, clinical as an operating room, where a medallion-clad master chef demonstrates a stir-fry of shredded pork, peppers, and scallions. Next, he takes a boneless, trimmed fillet of whitefish, skin side down, and whizzes through a quick Chrysanthemum Fish.

Then lunch! Then toasts! Endless toasts to Comrade Liu Lizhen (as she calls herself on her business card), a charismatic, sturdily built woman who is co-owner and one of three presidents (or deans) at Shaanxi Cuisine Training College. She’s the kind of character who won’t be easy to forget—and not just because she has an oratorical style that borders on shouting. Most of the women I’m traveling with are on their second professional life, if not their third; Comrade Liu is one of their own. Four years ago, she turned 55 and, in accordance with Chinese retirement laws, was forced out of her post as headmistress at a government-run cooking school. Instead of giving up her career, she became the heart and soul of Shaanxi Cuisine. Only 50 of the college’s students are female, but with Comrade Liu as a teacher and role model, one suspects they will learn more than the secrets of her persimmon cake, a dessert the size and shape of a Hostess Ding-Dong with a gel center that tastes of spring flowers.

At three o’ clock, courses arrive at the table faster than we can eat them. After 15 courses, I stop counting—again. When the lazy Susan fills up, the student waiters balance full plates of crisply fried duck and sautéed prawn balls atop half-empty plates of sliced Chinese celery with soy sauce and salted chicken, and a sort of rotating Great Wall rises from the table, fashioned from crockery and edible mortar. This is one of the best meals we’ve had so far, and everyone has eaten so much their chopstick speed has downshifted into slow motion.

Abruptly, the meal comes to an end. It is time for our appointment at the government-run Tao Li Cun Culinary Institute. There, a master chef takes a piece of boneless, trimmed fillet of whitefish, skin side down, and expertly prepares, yes, Chrysanthemum Fish. At this point, I’m pretty sure I can make it. Then we are driven to the nearby Tao Li Cun Culinary Institute Restaurant. An entire hour has passed since lunch. Time to eat!

October 22, Xi’an: The Sting

Last night I answered a knock on my hotel-room door and found Ellen McCarty, the red-haired owner and general manager of the Walnut Creek Yacht Club in Walnut Creek, California, standing out in the hallway. “A bunch of us are getting together to eat live scorpions,” she told me. “Do you want to come along?” I declined. This morning, though, I’m wondering if I acted too hastily. What’s a few extra hours of sleep when I could have witnessed something that might have been stretched into months of party conversations, starting with the owner of Liu’s Three Brothers Scorpion Restaurant coming to the table, sticking his forefinger into the air, and endorsing his favorite American celebrity.

“He said, ‘Captain Kirk! Number One!’ Apparently, William Shatner had eaten there,” McCarty tells me. Then she explains how she and Dory Kwan, a food consultant from northern California, used their chopsticks to capture the pincer-clawed, curvy-tailed creatures skittering around a maraschino-cherry-topped pagoda carved from a daikon.

“It’s a two-bite process,” McCarty says. “First, you’re supposed to bite off the tail. Eat it. Then eat the body still squirming between your chopsticks. My whole fear was my chopstick skills. I thought I’d drop it and it would go down my shirt. Our scorpions got away from us and fell into the special Sichuan sauce. They started fighting. We ripped them apart. I shoved mine into my mouth and crunched him with my left molars. Then ... Tsingtao beer.” McCarty shudders. “He was moving on the way down.”

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