2000s Archive

A Journey Of 1,000 Dishes

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October 23, Chengdu: Mystery Date

Early on, Tropp told us that, in cuisine, China is “not a culture of innovation but a culture of imitation.” A Chinese chef’s skill, she said, is measured by how deftly he or she prepares the same 200 or so recipes in the national canon. And so far, give or take a few regional specialties, every place we eat has a similar menu. Today, though, we go to Ba-Guo-Bu-Yi Cuisine Restaurant in a ritzy section of Chengdu, the Sichuan capital, and, unexpectedly, the menu changes. The food, served on motorized lazy Susans in a jam-packed dining room with colored-concrete log-shaped pillars and red lanterns everywhere, is rough-cut, varied in texture, and has flavors more distinct than those of the Chinese dishes we have been eating. There are panfried sesame buns; goose with fresh bamboo shoots, carrots, and scallions; sautéed bok choy with ginkgo nuts; bamboo fungus that looks and tastes like egg yolks; and a soup of chicken and mountain vegetables. It’s the best meal we’ve had since Comrade Liu’s.

All of this is elevated peasant food, or at least that’s what it’s called by the mystery gentleman at our table. It’s become commonplace for a Chinese dignitary to sit with the delegates, eat, and leave without anyone figuring out who he might be. Even Tropp isn’t sure of the job title of tonight’s guest, but he tells her how a consortium of academics came up with the idea for this restaurant—rootsy, simple food based on the cuisine of the Ba, an indigenous minority group in China—four years ago. After months of travel to the countryside and collecting recipes, they opened Ba-Guo-Bu-Yi Cuisine. It was an instant hit and has since spawned a branch in Xi’an as well as dozens of Ba-style wanna-bes. “He says that people are looking for novelty in restaurants now,” Tropp says.

“Tell them to resist!” Joyce Goldstein interjects. “It’s the beginning of the end.”

On the other hand, one of the chefs here, introduced by the mystery gentleman, is a woman, the stylishly dressed Yang Qiang-Sha. And her daughter is the restaurant’s chef de cuisine.

Mrs. Yang tells Tropp that until her divorce (so frowned upon in China, she whispers the fact in Tropp’s ear), she owned and operated a cooking school. She was then sought out by Ba-Guo-Bu-Yi’s owners to be in charge of “pastry” —which is how the Chinese refer to the dumpling, bun, and noodle section of the restaurant kitchen.

Mrs. Yang whispers something else in Tropp’s ear. “She’s saying she’s much happier since the divorce,” Tropp reports. “Now she can concentrate on her food.”

October 25, Yangzhou: Same as It Ever Was

At the culinary school at Yangzhou University, a master chef carefully places a boneless, trimmed fillet of whitefish skin side down on a cutting board and announces he will prepare ... Peony Flower Fish! 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—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.

Next the bus takes us back to the Yangzhou Xi Yuan Hotel. There, the restaurant’s head chef gives a cooking demonstration. He carefully places a boneless, trimmed fillet of whitefish skin side down on a cutting board and announces he will prepare ... Squirrel Fish! The name fools no one.

October 28, Shanghai: The Long Good-Bye

After some sight-seeing in Shanghai’s Old Town and Yu Garden, a tearful multicourse farewell luncheon is held at Shanghai Lu Bo Lang (Green Wave Hall) Restaurant. At this point, a reunion seems no longer like giddy bus chitchat but a sure thing.

October 29, Shanghai: Pleased to Meet You

Today we leave. And not a moment too soon. At breakfast in the hotel dining room, a culinary-arts educator from New York named Jeri DeLoach Jackson smiles at me and asks, “Where did you eat last night?”

I search her face for a trace of sarcasm. There is none. Clearly too many multicourse meals have taken their toll on all of us.

“Sitting across from you,” I say.

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