Thursday, September 04, 2008

READER'S CORNER: Three Books on Chinese Cooking & Restaurants (ii)


[[EDITOR'S NOTE: This is part ii of a triple book review, the first and third parts of which can be read by clicking here and here.]]

Jennifer 8. Lee. The Fortune Cookie Chronicles: Adventures in the World of Chinese Food. New York: Grand Central Publishing, 2008. 320 pages. ISBN-13: 9780446580076. Clothbound $24.99.

Jen Lin-Liu. Serve the People: A Stir-Fried Journey through China. San Diego & New York: Harcourt 2008. 352 pages. ISBN-13: 9780151012916. Clothbound $24.00.

Nicole Mones. The Last Chinese Chef. Boston: Houghton Mifflin 2007. 278 pages. ISBN-13: 9780618619665. Clothbound $24.00.

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Serve the People: A Stir-Fried Journey through China cleverly derives its title by tweaking the meaning of the title of a 1944 speech by Mao Zedong, 为人民服务 (wei renmin fuwu), i.e. 'Serving the People.' That phrase became one of the most popular political slogans of the Chinese Communist Party, and has survived even the evaporation of Mao's own popularity in China.

Jen Lin-Liu may not originally have planned to expatriate to China when she arrived there on a Fulbright fellowship in 2000. She may not even have planned, at the start, to write Serve the People. But after a couple years of writing about food in China, she did decide to enroll in cooking school. 'I didn't start out with an ambitious goal,' she says; 'I figured I would be happy if I could become reasonably adept in Chinese cooking, good enough to hold a decent dinner party' [p. 8].

But who knew that she 'was signing up for classes in Beijing just as professional cooking was making a comeback in mainland China' [p. 10]? 'Being a chef wasn't a glamorous job in China. A chef got as much respect as a car mechanic -- they were replaceable cogs in the kitchens' [p. 9]. But over the course of the next few years, as Lin-Liu chronicles, this was going to change.
My family disapproved of my venture .... in no way did [my father] want to see me become a chef, in his eyes the lowliest of Chinese occupations. My maternal grandmother, who briefly owned a restaurant in southern China in the 1940s, admonished me. "You can never trust a chef!" she said, shaking her head. My grandparents had chosen a poor time to enter the restaurant business: Chairman Mao had been making headway into the south with his guerrilla army, and the family was eventually forced to flee to Taiwan. But my grandmother didn't blame the upheaval for the restaurant's demise; she claimed that it was because the chef stole tins of abalone from the pantry. [p. 10]
Nothing daunted, Lin-Liu, who was 'curious how the past half century of turmoil and present economic development had affected the food [scil. of mainland China]' [p. 11], decided to inquire further into the matter. A true child of the Internet age, she began her quest by Googling the phrase 'Beijing cooking school.' (Not surprisingly, she came up with 129,000 hits.) Eventually she settled on the Hualian Cooking School, mainly because it was in her neighborhood in Beijing.

But there were hurdles along the way, even for one with fluent spoken Mandarin. Lin-Liu had occasional trouble taking notes in hanzi, and sometimes had to ask the teacher for clarification. Eventually it occurred to Teacher Zhang: '"Miss Lin, Chinese is not your mother tongue, is it?"' [p. 13]

'The revelation rocked the class … "Miss Lin is a Chinese-American writer, and she wants to spread propaganda about Chinese food to the American people," an administrator had proudly announced to the class on my first day' [p. 13]. But how could this be, wondered her classmates? She was right there in Beijing. She looked Chinese. She spoke and understood Mandarin. 'Why was Miss Lin pretending to be something she was not?' [p. 15] Her identity as an American, it turns out, was as complicated for the Chinese who encountered her as for Lin-Liu herself.
I needed something to make it concrete to them. I happened to have my passport with me, but I hesitated to pull it out. An American passport meant status to the Chinese. It meant being a member of the most powerful country in the world. I was uncomfortable with the idea that some Americans thought their passports provided them with immunity when they traveled abroad .... In desperation I handed the booklet to Teacher Zhang. The students gathered round ... In a matter of minutes I had gone from class dunce to passport-wielding, bona fide American.
Lin-Liu was tired of being detained by Chinese security guards when other 'more obvious foreigners' breezed through. She was tired of being singled out for her accent. But she also did not fit in easily with the expat community, which held itself aloof from ordinary Chinese culture.
So it was in China, ironically, that for the first time I felt the urge to call myself a Chinese American. It was the first time I had to seriously grapple with issues of race, identity, and where I fit in. It was the alienation I felt that led to my rabid obsession with Chinese food. I imagine my subconscious thinking went something like this: if I can't connect with the people, at least I'm going to connect with the food. I hadn't been a foodie before I moved to China. But in my desire to identify with something Chinese, I took up the cuisine with a fervor that came second only to my passion for writing. [pp. 18-19]
It could not be spelt out more clearly for us: Lin-Liu is on an archetypal quest for self-knowledge. Small wonder that something so foundational should concentrate on the sustenance of life and health.

But this quest will not be easy. For one thing, her notion of 'Chinese food' -- formulated in southern California -- maps rather poorly, at first, onto the actuality of food as she finds it in China:
Even with all my experiences eating Chinese food, I was not prepared to eat in China. It had taken me close to two decades to feel comfortable with Chinese food in America; now, in China, I faced a whole new set of challenges. In the beginning, I had felt as disconnected from the food as I had from the people -- my taste buds were at first overwhelmed that felt too chaotic, too intense. Ordering at restaurants was a minefield; menus were full of items with beautiful, ornate names but arrived in the form of innards, claws, and tongues. [p. 21]
So there is a learning curve, to begin with, as regards the taste-palette of the food itself. Then there is the actuality of the cooking school, which holds no end of surprises for her:
In cooking class, I learned a startling array of things: Eating fish heads will repair your brain cells. Spicy food is good for your complexion. Monosodium glutamate is best thrown in a dish just before it comes off the wok. Americans are fat because they eat bread, while Chinese are slim because they eat rice. If you work as a cook in America for three years, you can come back to China and buy a house. [p. 3]
She also learns that her gender is going to be made an issue.
"You want to be a chef?" Teacher Zhang had asked me once.
     Did he think that was possible? I asked.
     "You could make pastries," he'd replied dryly. Given the poor quality of northern Chinese pastries, that was like saying I could be a burger flipper at McDonald's.
     "You could work in a Western restaurant," a classmate had suggested. "Women aren't cut out to be stir-fry masters." [p. 24]
Most frustrating perhaps is the lack of hands-on experience. Her classmates are there, for the most part, in order to prepare for the written portion of the chef's certification test (which will eventually qualify them for a job at which they will earn one/tenth the amount of her salary as a free-lance journalist); they do not seem to share her frustration at having to wait for exposure to actual cooking technique. Like all good Monomyth heroes, Lin-Liu soon discovers that she is going to need a Wise Counselor to help her undertake this enormous task of learning Chinese cuisine:
After being rebuffed by various teachers at the school, who clearly considered it a waste of time to hang out with a frivolous foreigner who wanted to learn how to make kung pao chicken, I decided to seek the advice of Chairman Wang one afternoon when class was dismissed. "Chairman" was a bit misleading; it was more of an honorary title for a low-paying, all-purpose job that encompassed serving as a registrar, assistant to the school's president, assistant teacher, food purveyor, and de facto janitor -- in short, all the tasks that no one else wanted to do .... "You want cooking lessons?" Chairman Wang asked, as if this were a preposterous request at a cooking school. She continued to mop the grimy kitchen floor, which seemed to retain the same amount of dirt no matter how many times it was cleaned. I couldn't tell if she was taking my request seriously. For that matter, I wasn't sure she -- or anyone at the school -- took me seriously, being not only a foreigner but a woman to boot. [p. 24]
But Chairman Wang does take her seriously, consenting finally to give her private cooking lessons. Like every gongfu apprentice under the tutelage of h/er master, Lin-Liu is put through a rigorous program of training. In her case, this involves learning how to stand at the prep table, how to hold a knife, how to lift the wok, how to shop for ingredients -- just those practicalities that had been missing from her cooking-school education. She had learnt some knife 'theory' in her classes, but now came the practice:
Of all the skills on which Chinese chefs were judged, the most important was their daogong, or cutting technique. I knew that chefs from different parts of China used knives tailored to their specific regional cuisines. In Shanghai, a chef's knife had a pointy tip that resembled the profile of a shark's head. In Sichuan, the most common knife had a blade with the contour of a bell, and a Cantonese knife had a narrower blade with a sharp tip that resembled Western knives. In Beijing, chefs cut with rectangular blades that were so wide and clunky they reminded me of props in a horror movie .... Knives were especially important in prep areas, since they did not appear on the dining table. Everything in a Chinese meal was already cut into manageable pieces and picked up with chopsticks. "We don't eat with knives in our hands," my Taiwanese father had once said. "Because that is for barbarians." (Apparently he didn't find eating with sticks primitive.)
     Yet for all I had learned about knives, there were still a couple of basic things I didn't know. First, I didn't know how to use one properly. Watching the jagged shreds of ginger, leek, and pork that fell from a blade borrowed from the school during a private lesson, Chairman Wang commented that I would be lucky if I could make sixty dollars a month cooking in a cafeteria. After watching a little longer through her thick glasses, she was more generous: "Maybe a hundred dollars, if you don't want room and board" [pp. 32-33].
The blade issue, in other words, is fundamental, as it is for any Jedi or other sacred apprentice. Lin-Liu buys a butcher knife for four dollars, but it has never been sharpened; Chairman Wang advises her that she must find a professional knife-sharpener and tell him that 'the mouth of the knife needs to be opened ' [p. 27]. But how to find such a man? Lin-Liu asks for help from the proprietor of her local Sichuanese restaurant:
She explained that I hadn't been able to find a sharpener because they didn't have shops or stands; they biked around the city, weaving through the neighborhoods, retracing the same path every few days. There were fewer of them now because most households had started buying ready-to-use knives. She told me I had to listen for the clanging sound made by the knives that the sharpener had strung together and rattled at his side while he biked along. [pp. 34-35]
As we follow Lin-Liu's progress through the course of the narrative, her spoken and written skills in Mandarin improve. So does her cooking technique, which of course serves as an abiding metaphor for her growing self-knowledge. The vividness of her expanding expertise in Chinese cuisine is maintained by the judicious peppering of the text with some of the specific recipes she learns: we are given 29 of them in all, clearly spelt out in terms readily comprehensible to Western cooks, and together they form a mouth-watering array of dishes. Some will sound more familiar than others, but all of them look delectable. Such recipes as Pan-Fried Pork Tenderloin, Beijing-Style Noodles, Tea-Infused Eggs, Rice Vermicelli with Tomatoes, Shanghai Soup Dumplings, Yangzhou Fried Rice, and 'The Best' Mapo Tofu, give the reader a fairly broad introduction to the vast array of traditional Chinese cooking -- including some of the important regional cuisines -- without venturing too far into the arcana of 'the banquet dishes that had made me cringe in the beginning -- dishes like jellyfish heads with vinegar, braised sea cucumbers, steamed chicken feet, and fermented bean curd (aptly called stinky tofu in Chinese)' [p. 22].

One of the most important aspects of Lin-Liu's book is the portraits she paints of the individual people she comes to know in China. Over time, for example, her friendship with Chairman Wang and her family grows; eventually she is able to ask Chairman Wang about her life as a young woman during the Cultural Revolution.
Few Chinese talked about the past; often it seemed as though they didn't dare think about it. I did not want to upset her, and the formality of the teacher-student relationship made it harder to ask questions. But the more dumplings we wrapped together, the more comfortable we became with each other. It was as if this traditional family activity had a power of its own that freed us from our constrained roles. [p. 69]
Food and cooking, then, are the road not only to self-knowledge, but to family and intimacy with others as well. This deepening relationship with the Wangs furnishes the basis of what will eventually make Beijing feel like 'home' to Lin-Liu.

Eventually the time comes for her certification examination, which is administered in two parts: a written test and a practicum. Cheating is rampant among her classmates, but Lin-Liu decides to remain true to the spirit of her gongfu training and to take the test for real. While other students smuggle in textbooks for the written exam, and even fully pre-prepped food for the cooking test, Lin-Liu bravely does her own prep work on the spot. Chairman Wang looks on with the full realization of what this has all meant to her young pupil:
Chairman Wang watched as I sliced my pork, pressing the tenderloin firmly against the board and sliding my knife horizontally through the meat, keeping the blade as close as I could to the board. She finally understood.
     Ziger kao," she said, nodding with approval at my audacity. "You're testing yourself. That's good. Whether you pass or fail, you'll be doing it on your own." [p. 93]
In point of fact, Lin-Liu comes out at the top of her class -- her cutting skills are pronounced better than those of any other student [p. 95]. She is able to take special joy in having passed the test without cheating.

But what will her new certificate afford her in the People's Republic? Not much, it seems; nobody believes that a laowai (foreigner -- an interesting word to apply to someone like Lin-Liu, who is convincingly Asian in appearance and speaks Mandarin) will work in a kitchen. 'So it was by the process of elimination that I ended up at Chef Zhang's noodle stall, in a humble canteen in southeastern Beijing .... I told Chef Zhang that I wanted to become a noodle chef; he didn't have the time or energy to say no' [pp. 118-119]. And so begins the next of Lin-Liu's adventures.
If Chairman Wang had been my window into the lives of China's urban middle class, Chef Zhang was my introduction to an entirely different class of people, the struggling migrant workers with little time to complain about social ills or the graft of government officials. Most of them worked seven days a week for a meager salary, most of which they saved and sent back to their rural families, in hopes of giving their children a better life than theirs. [p. 119]
Working in this noodle stall gives Lin-Liu a whole new perspective on Chinese cuisine and culture. 'An unofficial noodle-rice line runs across China' [p. 121], dividing north and south. Coming from the southern Chinese traditions, Lin-Liu's family is a rice-eating one, whereas Beijing is in noodle territory. An apprentice all over again, she learns what it means to run a frantic food-service business where the main dish is constantly made fresh, by hand, at a very small profit margin. She also comes to know and admire the hard-working Chef Zhang, and a bright young waitress from Sichuan named Qin.

Lin-Liu eventually masters the subtle art of handmade noodles, even learning several different styles of noodle, then moves briefly to work in a 'dumpling house' called Xian'r Lao Man, which offers dumplings with sixty kinds of filling. We get a glimpse into this hectic environment, and meet Lin-Liu's friend Hu, whose tragic story eventually emerges. The whole scene is so depressing, in fact, that Lin-Liu soon moves on. Her next internship, this time in Shanghai, is quite at the other end of the socioeconomic spectrum, at a tony new place on the Bund called the Whampoa Club. The Whampoa is the brainchild of Jereme Leung, one of the new breed of celebrity chefs that is changing the face of Chinese cuisine and restaurant culture. It is perhaps not coincidental that Shanghai is China's largest and most cosmopolitan city -- it has province-level status all by itself -- nor that Leung is huaqiao (overseas Chinese). Leung is the very definition of high-profile cuisine: 'Patricia Wells called him a "genius" in the International Herald Tribune. Saveur ran a full-page picture of him. Matt Lauer visited the restaurant and ate Jereme's dumplings on Today' [p. 224]. In short, his ascendancy not only brought the fresh air of nouvelle chinoiserie from Singapore to the People's Republic; it also thrust China, and this new style of Shanghainese fusion cuisine, into the international gastronomic arena.

It is at Whampoa that Lin-Liu learns to make xiao long bao, her mother's favorite dumpling, and one of the xiao chi (snacks) known as 'Shanghai dian xin' or 'Northern dim sum.'

In Lin-Liu's Shanghai pages, we meet Jiang Liyang, a fellow food critic, and his friend Zhuang Jian; Little Han, a nineteen-year-old chef at Whampoa, who keeps a pair of chopsticks and a spoon in her pants pocket; Dr Chen, the hapless health inspector; and Chef Dan, the presiding genius of Yin, another of Shanghai's forward-looking restaurants. Chef Dan invites Lin-Liu to come work on her skills in his kitchen, and she takes him up on it from time to time, once even cooking lunch (home-style tofu with rice) for the restaurant's proprietor, Takashi Miyanaka. Chef Dan is another mentor who puts Lin-Liu at ease, and over time she learns more about his remarkable life and his view of the world. And Yin, the restaurant that is anything but traditional, plays another pivotal role in Lin-Liu's search for self:
At Yin, I realized that the idea of food being "authentic" was relative. Here I was in Shanghai, eating Shanghainese food made by a Shanghainese chef, and some people still didn't consider it the real thing .... I stopped being embarrassed about liking Yin as I knew more about "real" Chinese food. Learning how to eat a foreign cuisine [or, she might have added, how to drink their tea] was like learning a foreign language. It took years to do it, and even after becoming fluent, it didn't mean that I always preferred the Chinese way of eating or speaking .... I realized that my taste buds -- just like my personality, my outlook on life, and my political views -- had been shaped by my childhood in America .... I was happy being who I was, whoever that was. [pp. 286-7]
The book is served up with three entertaining 'side dishes': one on the manufacture and (still controversial) use of MSG; one on the rice harvest in Ping'an; and one on Huaiyang cuisine, one of the so-called '四大菜系 four great (culinary) traditions' of China (along with Sichuan, Shandong, and Yue or Cantonese), and the basis of modern Shanghainese cooking.

When we leave Lin-Liu, she is engaged to be married -- to Craig, a fellow journalist (and fellow American, but of blue-eyed Western stock) -- and living happily in Beijing.
My parents had forgiven me for moving to China and approved of my passion for cooking after I visited them in California and made them a seven-course meal that filed their house with the scent of oil, chilies, and peppercorns. In Beijing, I had found a home with Craig, and Chairman Wang was just around the corner.
She has found her home, and -- not coincidentally -- herself.

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And so, despite the widely divergent trajectories these two books follow, they share in the end another profound similarity: they are both, essentially, works of ethnography and even of autobiography. The so-called 'ABC' (American-Born Chinese) shares the vagaries of all children of immigrants in the US -- akin to, of course, but somewhat different from the situation of those immigrants itself. 'Am I a man, or two strange halves of one?' writes Joseph Tusiani, an American of Italian origin who has published extensively and eloquently on the experience of leaving the country of one's birth to live in another. The immigrant never loses h/er original identity entirely; rather, by moving to the new culture, s/he adds a new layer of existence, of life-experience, and thus, eventually, of self. The children of immigrants have their own set of experiences leading to the establishment of self: they have the stability that comes, precisely, from having been born in the new land; and they will also hopefully reap the benefits of their parents' efforts in rooting the family in that new soil. Certainly both Lee and Lin-Liu have done all this. Like Oedipus, both authors have discovered the deep truth that the most momentous riddle of all is that of one's own identity.

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[[This is part ii of a triple book review, the first and third parts of which can be read by clicking here and here.]]

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