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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.

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!”

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.”

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.