China on our minds

20 Aug

By Chris Garbutt

China’s on our minds a lot these days. Something about a sporting event being held there. For those of us whose knowledge of China is limited to the occasional article or a foray into Chinatown for a meal, it’s nice to learn a little more now that the country is so much in the public eye.

I have to confess that my knowledge of Chinese food came from a take-out place in my hometown. (Not this one, but one kind of like it.) My family didn’t order it often (believe it or not, we thought it was too expensive!), but it was a special treat, several steps above pizza. The food came in those foil pans with cardboard tops, and the order was always the same – sweet & sour chicken balls for the kids (and Pine Tree takeout put it in the sauce for you, which I loved), mushroom fried rice for everyone, and moo goo gai pan for my parents. It wasn’t authentic, but for a little kid in small town Ontario, those fluffly chicken balls in the sticky sauce was plenty exotic.

My tastes have matured a little. A little – I still get cravings for the sweet & sour chicken once in a while. Nowadays, I look for Chinese food that’s more authentic, but of course the meaning of authenticity is a slippery one, as we discover in Serve the People: A Stir-Fried Journey Through China.

In 2005, after five years of living in Beijing, Chinese-American writer Jen Lin-Liu decided to learn to cook. It was a mystery to her classmates in the cooking school, since working in a kitchen was seen as a lowly profession, one that you might do if you couldn’t figure out anything better. Luckily for us, she stuck with it, and brought her readers along on a journey of discovery that took her from the Chinese capital to Shanghai and back, with some detours through the countryside.

Along the way, we learn about classic Chinese dishes, especially xiao long bao. Lin-Liu spends a large part of the book in search of the perfect, most authentic version of the dish, a juicy dumpling made with pork skin jelly and pork belly. The search is not a resounding success – though she finds some great renditions, the closer she gets to the source of “authentic” xiao long bao, the worse each version seems to taste. Still, she offers a recipe, one of nearly 30 in the book, that suggests it is possible to make it in your kitchen, as long as you are patient. For me, the idea of trying to wrap those dumplings without all the jelly squirting everywhere is a little too intimidating!

Lin-Liu also goes into some depth on a couple of classic ingredients. She spends time amongst rice farmers, helping with them with the harvest. She even mounts a defense of the much-maligned MSG.

In her quest to learn as much as possible, the author cultivates several mentors, including one of her cooking school teachers, Jereme Leung, a superstar Chinese fusion chef, and the cook at a noodle counter.

Food is culture, of course, and Lin-Liu opens up not only Chinese kitchens to her North American readers, but also Chinese attitudes, ways of living and values in the 21st century. Timely, and appreciated by those of us who are still learning what this waking giant, with its long history, will bring to us in the future.

2 Responses to “China on our minds”

  1. Mark Woodruff September 10, 2008 at 10:49 pm #

    I must admit that I have xiao long bao cravings. I sometimes dream of the perfect dumpling skin, the sweet pork and delicate soup.
    Luckily for me, we can find excellent xiao long bao in the GTA! The Canadian arm of a Taiwanese restaurant group, Ding Tai Fung, is located in a plaza near Highway 7 and Warden. We actually visited thier restaurant in Shanghai, and can certify that the Canadian xiao long bao are just as good. You can watch the cooks roll the dough, make the perfect little packages and then wait for the bamboo steamer to be delivered to your table. There is a technique to be mastered, to ensure that you don’t pierce the skin and spurt soup on your shirt. Add some vinegar, and enjoy.
    I know where I’m heading this weekend.


  1. The G20 Series: China « Pan Magazine - June 16, 2010

    […] wrote about China last year, when I reviewed an engaging book by a Chinese-American who sought to work with master Chinese […]

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