Tag Archives: china

The G20 Series: China

16 Jun

By Chris Garbutt

I wrote about China last year, when I reviewed an engaging book by a Chinese-American who sought to work with master Chinese chefs, and learn about the roots of Chinese food (and learn a little about her own roots at the same time). Nothing opened my eyes more about food in China than this one book.

One of the central storylines is the author’s quest for the perfect xiao long bao. Her descriptions of this pork “soup dumpling” had me drooling, and it wasn’t long before I went on a little quest of my own, to at least try them for myself. So Mary and I went with some friends for lunch in Markham, to Ding Tai Fung, on Highway 7 near Woodbine We sat in the crowded bright room, watching the dumpling makers through the kitchen window. When the xiao long bao arrived, our friends showed us how to eat them, using both a spoon and chopsticks. What can I say, it was soup and pork belly in a dumpling and it was great. It wasn’t even the best thing on the menu – that prize would have to go either to the green onion pancakes or the stir-fried Chinese broccoli (I imagine in China they would just call it broccoli…)

It’s just another stop in my long journey with Chinese food. But I would embarrass myself in front of my Chinese friends if I were to claim to even begin to be an expert. Besides, China’s food heritage is so rich and diverse and ever-changing, I’m sure you could write whole books on just one dish.

I’ve done a little Chinese cooking, and the highlight for me was from a wedding present – a book called Beyond the Great Wall by Jeffrey Alford and Naomi Duguid. Though we in the West mostly think of Chinese food as what people eat in Beijing, Shanghai and Hong Kong, the authors of this book wanted to discover (and photograph) the foods of the people who live in primarily non-Han regions of the country. It’s a beautiful book, worth reading even if you don’t like to cook.

So to thank the couple that gave us this gift, and to try something new, we had them over for dinner and I made some dishes from the book. Here was the menu:

Quick-pickled radish threads (Tibetan)

Sprouts and Cabbage Salad (Kazakh)

Vegetable Hot Pot (Hui)

Steamed Momos (Tibetan dumplings)

I had also planned to make beef-sauced hot lettuce salad (Mongolian), but figured that these four dishes would fill us up, and I was right. Finding some of the ingredients was more challenging than I expected – the most unusual was black rice vinegar, which I actually never found and just substituted regular rice vinegar instead. Seemed to work out okay. And have you ever tried to find a daikon radish at Yonge and Lawrence? I guess I never thought of it as exotic, but in store after store, I was out of luck. Eventually I found a single one in a flower shop that had vegetables in the back. I said to the guy at the counter, “I think this is the only one in the entire neighbourhood.” He replied, “the only one for sale – I have two at home.”

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.