Monday, February 19, 2007

Chinese New Year II

Two years in Japan, courtesy of our Uncle Samuel and his lovable (just ask us!) swabbies, imbued me with the culinary delights of East Asia. It also offered a few pointers on cooking.

Once, returning late from Shinjuku, I arrived on the last passenger train of the day at the town near my base. A noodle shop was still open, though I was its only customer. So I asked for a bowl of Yaki Soba (aka the Japanese hamburger due to its ubiquity). After providing it the owner returned to the cooking lesson she was giving to her apprentice just the other side of the counter from me. This was:
How to Chop an Onion
First you slice the stem and blossom ends off the whole onion.
Second you cut it in half from pole to pole.
Third you remove the dried skin from either half and discard it in the pig slop bucket. (I use the compost heap.)
Fourth you place one half on its cut face with the poles going across the line of your knife cut, or athwartship as us cool (only in our own eyes) nautical types say. Slice latitudinal cross sections of the half onion as thick as you wish the final result to be. If you want long julienne strips, omit this step. Fine dice requires many cuts with your blade.
When you have finished the latitudinal work , turn the onion half by ninety degrees and lay the slices over like a deck of cards so that the onion is as flat as possible. Hold this to the board with your non-knife wielding hand with the tips of your fingers curled under so that the first knuckle from your palm juts out. Now rest your chopper against the knuckle and on top of the onion where you want the first cut to go to give you the size dice you want and Bametty- bam- bam- bam. Its done.
Do likewise to the other half.
Use the cleaver to move the diced onion off the board into the prep container.
n.b.: beginner's should work a cut at a time and pick up only as much speed as you are comfortable with as you gain facility. Most important is the little crab walk of the non-chop hand which never, ever, ever, gets out from under the knuckle's protective overhang. Second most important is to never raise the knife edge to knuckle height. The side of the blade must always be riding on your knuckle so you know --tactilely -- where the edge is. Near the end of each half the slice will enlarge due to the curvature of spheres. Let the last bit fall on its beam end and continue chopping at 900.

Back in the states I acquired a proper wok, tool set and Chinese style cleavers. To the left is a picture of that first spatula where it hangs in honorable retirement above the stove. Over the years
I had to turn it a new handle, which I secured with one of the copper nails I used to make. The split in the shovel area is the result of use. Years of back and forth thinned and work hardened the steel until it parted.
During our sojourn in Connecticut, after college, we visited Chinese Markets in both New York City and Boston. In a department store I found the Thousand Recipe Chinese Cookbook by Gloria Bley Miller. (Link takes you to paperback description because it has more info. There is also a hard cover so do a search) Miller was my mentor and guide through many of the realms of Chinese culinary skills.

When we first moved to Washington State, I got a job with Expo '74's Folklife Festival as a programmer -- which meant something different to the Folklife Festival than it does nowadays. I was supposed to find and vet the craftspeople who would form our display for a week. Typically there were two or three cooks prepared appropriate food samples, artisans and craft people displayed their skills, and performers sang , danced, and/or acted material appropriate to the week's theme whether that was an ethnic group or a trade such as logging or boat building. My first assignment was for our Chinese Week. Somebody else found the initial contact months before. My task was to make sure that what our contact had put together would work. The contact was a lovely young woman who worked in an art gallery behind (South) of the odd triangular building that then housed the fabulous Tashiro's Hardware (which was included in the Whole Earth Catalog for its traditional Japanese pull saws). My contact introduced me to the Wing Luke Museum which was then a storefront just getting itself organized. She guided me through the International District of Seattle east of the King Street station. This included Uwajimaya's Grocery and all things Asian store, The Kau Kau which still offers the best barbecue pork in Seattle. And she took me to lunch at the King Cafe.
Alas the King cafe is no more. The buildings on that block were demolished to make way for the new Wing Luke. After some 35 years of daily operation the family that opened it decided to close it rather than move or sell it on to a stranger. That might have been problematic as the recipes were mostly in the head of the Brother who cooked. I hope that the Wing Luke museum has a project to record those recipes.

The King cafe was in a narrow building two stories tall in the middle of the block. The door opened into a small area which contained a stair case with a cash register counter tucked under it. The always cheerful Sister greeted and worked the til. There were two small tables along one wall where guests sometimes ate if the upstairs overflowed. Most times they were occupied with young nieces or nephews 'helping' Sister. The rest of that floor, behind a swing door, was the kitchen. At the top of the stairs the second Brother waited. There were many tables and a dumb waiter that communicated to the kitchen. At lunch time the room was full of people and noise. Chatter and laughter and joyous screams and jokey arguments and greetings hailed across the room in Chinese and English. Frequently newcomers had to wait in line all down the stairs until a seat became free.
Once seated a waiter (Brother or a 20 something nephew) arrived with tea and water. If you wanted anything besides dim sum you told him and he would scribble it down before crossing to the dumb waiter to shout the order down to brother in the kitchen. A second waiter would arrive bearing a three foot diameter tray covered in small plates. The plates were of different shapes: round or oval. Some with a stripe in the glaze; others plain. Occasionally plates would be stacked two deep. Each plate held two, maybe, cha sui bao - steamed bread hiding a pocket of barbecue pork; or three, maybe spring rolls; four fried won ton; or six delicate sui mai -- tasty ground pork flecked with bits of vegetables and ginger and water chestnuts steamed in a thin wheat dumpling wrap. How many of each item were on each plate depends more on how much the item costs than how big they are. The shape and coloring of each plate meant a different price. As a plain oval was $1.20, perhaps while the oval with the stripe was a $1.50. If there were two plates, the price doubled. A succession of waiters bore trays filled with dim sum from the dumb waiter around the tables and back to the dumbwaiter empty. Shouts down the shaft with distant responses up the shaft. Creak-- here comes the next couple of trays and this time they might contain ha gow (shrimp bonnets). Slam! Clatter! The dumbwaiter descends with trays of dirty crockery. Over sated at last we beckon and the waiter appears to tote up all our plates: so many at one price so many at another. Down the stairs we groan to compliment Sister and pay the modest bill. Maybe the door to the kitchen opens as someone goes through to permit us a peep at the Brother who cooked, sweat streaming, as he runs to pull more Shrimp toast out of the deep fryer or turnip cake out of the steamer.
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