Friday, September 19, 2008

The Simao Tea Region: A Page from the Yunnan Tea Encyclopedia


[[EDITOR'S NOTE: Many readers are curious about the peculiar nature of pu'er tea -- particularly the area where it is produced in Yunnan province. I have asked Danny Samarkand to translate a page or so from the Encyclopedia of Yunnan Tea about pu'er in the Simao region. The entry, found on page 61 of the Encyclopedia, is entitled 'Simao Tea Region: Pu'er Tea Area,' and offers western readers -- many for the first time -- some interesting technical data about the tea gardens in that area. Our hearty thanks to Danny for his help with this document.]]

云南茶典 (Yunnan Cha Dian -- An Encyclopedia of Yunnan Tea)
谭亚原, 杨泽军 主编 (Editors: Tan Yayuan, Yang Zejun, et al.)
中国轻工业出版社 (China Light Industry Publications, 2006)
ISBN 7-5019-5618-9/TS-3263

page 61, sub uoc. 'Simao Tea Region: Pu'er Tea Area'

The Pu'er tea region is now a part of the Hani Yi minority tribe's autonomous-rule county, in the Simao district; in the past it was under the govern of Pu'er county. Large fields of half-cultivated and cultivated tea gardens were discovered in this region, indicating a long history of tea cultivation here. These gardens were later abandoned due to disasters, famines, and wars: by 1949, there were only 260 mu (1 mu = approximately 0.0667 hectares) left of cultivated garden in Pu'er, mostly in the Fengyang (凤阳), Guantong (关通), and Mohei (磨 黑) areas.

In 1963, the local government began actively promoting tea cultivation in this region, and by 1985, there were a total of 15,640 mu of tea gardens, spread out in the eight county towns and 83 villages. Of these, the following areas consisted of 500 mu of tea garden each:

Dongmenshan 东门山
Dafenshan 大坟山
Qincaitang 芹菜塘
Banshan 板山
Cha'antang 茶庵塘
Baicaodi 白草地
Huangjiafen 黄家坟
Moduoshan 莫夺山
Malishu 麻栗树
Wenquan 温泉
Nande 南德
Huangshan 荒山
Dawazi 大洼子
Datianshan 大田山
Yongshun 永顺

Between 1986 and 1990, high-production gardens and maocha processing plants were added in Banshan, Baicaodi, and Longtangba. Today, a total area of 27,576 mu of tea gardens are established in the Pu'er tea region. Five tea gardens are of 1,000 mu and above; thirteen are of 500 mu and above; and eight are of 20 mu and above. These are now spread over eleven county towns, with an annual production of more than 209 tons of tea.

[[Danny adds: This is not to say that there are no "wild-grown" tea trees, but more likely it's a matter of half-cultivated, abandoned tea gardens. We have to bear in mind that "wild grown" to the Chinese is a very loose term: anything that is no longer tended to is "wild grown"; the call for stringent regulations is still a cry in the wilderness ...]]

Thursday, September 04, 2008

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


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

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:

~~~~~~~~~~ · ~~~~~~~~~~

So far in this review we have been looking at books that are classed as non-fiction. The Library of Congress catalogues Lee's book, in part, as 'Chinese Americans -- United States -- Social life and customs,' and Lin-Liu's book as 'China -- Social life and customs,' which neatly illustrates the close kinship of these works. Nicole Mones's The Last Chinese Chef, by contrast, is a work of fiction. Like her two previous novels, The Last Chinese Chef is about an American woman in China: Alice Mannegan, in Lost in Translation, works as an interpreter; Lia Frank, in A Cup of Light, is an art appraiser. In The Last Chinese Chef, we meet Maggie McElroy, a food writer who works for Table magazine (Gourmet? -- Mones herself has written about Chinese food for Gourmet since 1999). Maggie is in what the French would call 'a situation': in the year following the untimely death of her beloved husband, Matt Mason, she sells their California house, withdraws from her friends, travels the country writing about different communities, and tries to heal. Then comes the bombshell: a paternity suit in Beijing -- against her husband's estate. She asks her editor for time off from work, so that she can go to China to investigate this; instead, she is given an assignment in Beijing: to write a chef profile on Sam Liang, an American-Born Chinese who (like Jen Lin-Liu, author of Serve the People) has gone back to China to discover his roots, to cook, and to write.

This project will be a bit of a challenge for Maggie:
The truth was, she had never really liked Chinese food. Of course, she'd had Chinese food only in America, which was clearly part of the story. She'd always heard people say it was different in China .... The trouble with Chinese food in America, to her, was that it seemed all the same. Even when a restaurant had a hundred and fifty items on the menu, she could order them all and still get only the same few flavors over and over again. There was the tangy brown sauce, the salted black bean; the ginger-garlic-green onion, the syrupy lemon. Then there was the pale opal sauce that was usually called lobster whether or not lobster had ever been anywhere near it. [p. 27]
(Shades of Lin-Liu, once again.) But she accepts the assignment, and heads immediately to Beijing -- to pursue both Table's business and her own.

Interviewing Sam, Maggie begins right away to learn about Chinese cuisine across the globe. Some of her lessons will be familiar to readers of The Fortune Cookie Chronicles and Serve the People, but others actually go well beyond anything explored in either of those books:
"Chinese-American [cooking] evolved for a different reason -- to get Americans to accept a fundamentally different way of cooking and eating. They did this by aiming at familiarity, which was kind of weirdly brilliant. From the time the first chop suey houses opened, that's what they were selling, the thing that seems exotic but is actually familiar. Here it's different. It's the opposite. Every dish has to be unique, different from every other. Yet all follow rigid principles, and all aim to accomplish things Western cuisine doesn't even shoot for, much less attain .... For one thing, we have formal ideals of flavor and texture. Those are the rigid principles I mentioned. Each one is like a goal that every chef tries to reach -- either purely, by itself, or in combination with the others. Then there's artifice .... Illusion. Food should be more than food; it should tease and provoke the mind. We have a lot of dishes that come to the table looking like one thing and turn out to be something else .... We strive to fool the diner for a moment. It adds a layer of intellectual play to the meal. When it works, the gourmet is delighted .... Then there's healing. We use food to promote health. I'm not talking about balanced nutrition -- every cuisine does that, to some degree. I'm talking about each food having a specific medicinal purpose. We see every ingredient as having certain properties -- hot, cold, dry, wet, sour, spicy, bitter, sweet, and so on. And we think many imbalances are caused by these properties being out of whack. So a cook who is adept can create dishes that will heal the diner .... The right foods can ease the mind and heart. It's all one system .... One more. The most important of all. It's community. Every meal eaten in China, whether the grandest banquet or the poorest lunch eaten by workers in an alley -- all eating is shared by the group" [pp. 35-7]
In their long first conversation, Sam continues to educate Maggie (and the reader) in the principles of Chinese cuisine:
"One of the most important peaks of flavor is xian. Xian means the sweet, natural flavor -- like butter, fresh fish, luscious clear chicken broth. Then we have xiang, the fragrant flavor -- think frying onions, roasted meat. Nong is the concentrated flavor, the complex, deep taste you get from meat stews or dark sauces or fermented things. Then there is the rich flavor, the flavor of fat. This is called you er bu ni, which means to taste of fat without being oily. We love this one. Fat is very important to us. Fat is not something undesirable to be removed and thrown away, not in China. We have a lot of dishes that actually focus on fat and make it delectable. Bring pork belly to the table, when it's done right, and Chinese diners will groan with happiness .... That's just flavor. We have texture. There are ideals of texture, too -- three main ones. Cui is dry and crispy, nun is when you take something fibrous like shark's fin and make it smooth and yielding, and ruan is perfect softness -- velveted chicken, a soft-boiled egg. I think it's fair to say we control texture more than any other cuisine does. In fact some dishes we cook have nothing at all to do with flavor. Only texture; that is all they attempt .... Once you understand the ideal flavors and textures, the idea is to mix and match them. That's an art in itself, called tiaowei. Then we match the dishes in their cycles. Then there is the meal as a whole -- the menu -- which is a sort of narrative of rhythms and meanings and moods" [pp. 53-4].
Sam comes by his deep learning honestly. He is the scion of an intensely culinary family: his father, Liang Yeh, had been a chef in China before fleeing the Communist regime. His three 'uncles,' actually dear family friends, are all chefs and food scholars. But his grandfather, Liang Wei, is the most famous of all: born in the final years of the Qing dynasty, and sold into slavery as a boy, he and his friend Peng Changhai found rescue from a squalid fate as young apprentices of Tan Zuanqing, 'the greatest chef of his generation' [p. 43]. Liang Wei studied the food classics, but more importantly, he watched every dish that Lord Tan prepared, with an eye toward mastering his technique. When Tan died suddenly, Liang Wei himself rose to prominence as an imperial chef in the court of 慈禧太后 Ci Xi, the Dowager Empress who essentially ruled China until her death in 1908. In 1911, with the fall of the Qing dynasty, Liang and Peng left the palace and opened restaurants. More momentously, in 1925 Liang wrote an autobiographical memoir -- entitled, in fact, The Last Chinese Chef -- that became a food classic. One of Sam's major projects is to translate this into English.

Several things are going on here at once. First of all, of course, Mones is playing with the stratagem of the book-within-a-book: a book about a Chinese chef that involves a book about a Chinese chef. Each chapter is furnished with an epigraph from Liang Wei's book, and Maggie (and we) get to read quite a bit of it, in Sam's translation -- so much, in fact, that the reader might well be excused for not realizing that the 1925 book is as fictitious as Maggie and Sam are. Second, the legacy of this book, which is cherished and revered by Sam, helps to ground him in a complex family history, which lends realism to his story, even as it dishes up a banquet of food lore. Third, the realism of the family history is itself enhanced by being rooted firmly in the actual history of China in the early twentieth century.

Is there a politics of food? There is in China, according to The Last Chinese Chef. In a passage evidently meant to convey the passionate beliefs of Sam's father, we are told that 'the Communists had made it illegal to appreciate fine food or even remember that it had once existed. They had the masses eating slop and gristle and thinking it perfectly fine. In America and Europe, too, Chinese gourmets were all but nonexistent' [p. 39]. Moreover, 'When Sam had tried to suggest to his father that things had changed, that a world of art and discernment and taste was being reborn in China and that going back might be worthwhile, the old man erupted. "Never return to China! Never set foot there! It is a dangerous place, run by thugs!"' [ibid.]

The plot unfolds in some predictable (and some less predictable) ways. Maggie needs -- for her own peace of mind as well as for the financial implications -- to discover conclusively whether her husband had indeed fathered the child in question. Sam, meanwhile, is not only translating his grandfather's book, but planning to open a restaurant in Beijing -- one that will celebrate and resuscitate the legacy of traditional imperial cuisine. And, more urgent than either of these goals, when Maggie first meets him he is preparing to audition for the Chinese national cooking team at the 2008 Olympics. There are ten chefs competing for two spots in the northern-style category of cooking; nine days from his first conversation with Maggie, Sam must prepare an imperial-style banquet for the panel of judges. From then on, Maggie's own plot is interleaved with Sam's preparation for the banquet, which is planned, dish by dish, in loving detail. Not surprisingly, their lives become entwined as well. Will they become a couple? Will Sam win the competition? And will Liang Yeh, Sam's father, forgive him -- as Jen Lin-Liu's parents did eventually -- for leaving America and moving to China?

The answers to these questions, gentle reader, you must discover for yourself. But I will say that, for me, the two most important characters in the novel are neither Sam nor Maggie, nor even Liang Wei, but two characters that Mones did not create: China and Chinese cuisine. In The Last Chinese Chef -- in both books by that title -- China and her cuisine come as vibrantly and vividly alive as they do in the other books discussed in this review. For this if for nothing else, Mones's novel is well worth reading.

~~~~~~~~~~ · ~~~~~~~~~~

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

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.

~~~~~~~~~~ · ~~~~~~~~~~

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.]]

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


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

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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In this review I continue, without apology, to look at books about Chinese cooking, because I firmly believe that the cuisine of any people, properly queried, can tell you an enormous amount about them; and also, of course, specifically because cha dao is the intersection of cuisine with a number of other important aspects of culture -- aesthetics, religion, philosophy, history, sociology, and of course such endeavors as agriculture and economics.

I have several reasons for grouping these books together for review. The third title, a novel, while illuminating to a reading of the other two, will have its own contours and (to a certain extent) its own unique concerns. But the first two, both of which are memoirs of a sort, are closely parallel in some interesting ways. Both are first single-authored books, both are upward of 300 pages, both have photographs of chopsticks and soy sauce on their covers, and both are by young women named Jen/nifer; but these are the relatively trivial resemblances. Each book is dedicated to its author's parents, which is significant in ways that will shortly emerge.

The really interesting similarities arise in the further comparison of their authors: both were born in the USA to parents of Chinese origin, both have fathers with PhDs, both speak fluent Mandarin, both were graduated from Ivy League schools, both found work after college as journalists; and, around the turn of the millennium, both traveled to Beijing, to learn more about the food and culinary traditions of China.

Here their paths diverge. One author (Lee) lives in New York, where she continues to write for the New York Times. The other (Lin-Liu) expatriated to China, where she co-authored Frommer's Beijing and writes for Time Out Beijing. And this divergence is part and parcel of the disparate goals and approaches of each book.

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The Fortune Cookie Chronicles takes the fortune cookie as a sort of shorthand for the Chinese restaurant in America. As well it might, since fortune cookies were popularized (though not invented) in the USA, and only a few years ago were imported to China for the first time. The fortune cookie is in some ways a convenient emblem for the whole experience of encountering Chinese culture, in America, via Chinese cuisine: it conforms more to perception and fantasy than to actuality. Some of the specific ways in which this is so, and precisely how those came to be, are the principal topics of this book.

Jennifer 8. Lee, whose middle name is indeed printed as the numeral 8 (an auspicious number in Chinese culture), writes in an engaging, reportorial style that sustains the excitement of her quest for the facts of the matter. Her book, while not losing sight of its larger theme, lends itself to episodic reading, since its eighteen chapters are for the most part each focused on a discrete topic. In the process she follows a number of trails, often in improbable directions, that conduce to a more elaborate picture of how Americans (especially) have come to the notion they have of Chinese cuisine -- and thus, in some fundamental ways, the notion they have of Chinese culture. Though they never cause her writing to become dry or technical, she has plenty of statistics to hand: for example, 'There are some forty thousand Chinese restaurants in the United States -- more than the number of McDonalds', Burger Kings, and KFCs combined' [p. 9]; or 'In New York City there were six Chinese restaurants in 1885. Less than twenty years later, in 1905, there were more than one hundred chop suey restaurants between Fourteenth and Forty-fifth Streets and Third and Eighth Avenues' [p. 57].

Chapter 2, 'The Menu Wars,' traces back to its putative origin the much-deplored habit (especially in New York City) of littering apartment and condominium buildings with menus for takeout and delivery food. By the 1990s this had become such a pesky problem that signs proclaiming NO MENUS! -- sometimes with angry expletives added -- were commonly to be seen on the front doors of such buildings. Lee not only identifies the first Manhattan restaurateur ever to offer door-to-door food delivery (Misa Chang), crediting her with the strategy of distributing menus in each apartment, but also makes the ingenious connection between this procedure and its internet-age avatar: spamming.

Chapter 4 describes chop suey as 'the biggest culinary prank that one culture has ever played on another.' 'Even its name is an inside joke of sorts. What Americans once believed to be the "national dish" of China translates to "odds and ends" in Cantonese' [p. 49]. For the origins of this phenomenon, Lee must travel back in time to the nineteenth century, where she finds examples of what Edward Said would have called Orientalism in its most lurid form: an article in the New York Times for 1 August 1883, for example, reopens the question of whether 'Chinamen love rats as Western people love poultry' [Lee, pp. vii, 50]. The defense attorney for the (white) leader of a race-riot in 1865 'defended his client's behavior by informing the judge, "Why, sir, these Chinamen live on rice, and, sir, they eat it with sticks!"' [p. 54]. Most Americans have probably not even heard of the Chinese Exclusion Act, 'passed in stages between 1882 and 1902, which restricted Chinese immigration and prevented Chinese arrivals from becoming naturalized citizens. It would be the only law in American history to exclude a group by race or ethnicity' [p. 56]. This racist program of exclusion had inevitable effects on the integration of Chinese immigrants into US society, relegating them to the operation of laundries -- and restaurants. Why did these jobs remain open to Chinese workers in the US? 'Cooking and cleaning were both women's work,' opines Lee. 'They were not threatening to white laborers' [p. 57].

It was in the restaurants above all that these first Chinese immigrants found a viable occupation on US soil: the purveyance of a dish called chop suey:
In a cooking tradition hostile to excessive spices, sharp flavors, and "foreign" ingredients, chop suey meant new textures. Thin, squiggly white bean sprouts. Crispy, round water chestnuts. Gravy! New York City had gone "chop suey mad." Chop suey parlors lined the streets of downtown Brooklyn, Washington, and Des Moines. Instead of the Yellow Peril, the Chinese-Americans had been transformed into benign restaurateurs selling a saucy vegetable-and-meat concoction. [p. 58]
But what is chop suey, exactly? The term 杂碎 (shap sui in Cantonese, za sui in Mandarin) is mentioned in Chinese literature as early as the classic 西遊記 Journey to the West (Ming dynasty, 1590s), where in chapter 75 it refers to a dish of cooked offal. But this description bears scant resemblance to 'chop suey' as popularized in US Chinese restaurants throughout the twentieth century. But where did the dish originate? and what does its name actually mean? These are the sorts of questions that get Lee going. She has done plenty of homework, including research in scholarly journals, and she offers a buffet of theories. She collects tales of California railroad workers (or miners?) inducing a Chinese cook to whip up a quick dish for them, which he inventively assembles from whatever leftovers he had on hand; of a banquet at the Waldorf-Astoria in 1896, at which a similar nonce dish is prepared for 李鴻章 Li Hongzhang, a high-ranking Chinese diplomat visiting the US; of a 'chop suey injunction' filed in New York City in 1904 by a cook named Lem Sen, who claimed to have invented the recipe himself in San Francisco. The readers is left to select h/er own favorite version, but Lee believes that 'the historical evidence seems to point to chop suey first becoming popularized in New York City' [p. 64].

Chapter 5, 'The Long March of General Tso,' grapples with a particularly interesting question: how did General Tso's Chicken, arguably 'the most popular Chinese chef's special in America' [p. 67], come into being? To delve into the origins of this dish, Lee embarks on a long march of her own, traveling to Hunan Province, the birthplace of 左宗棠 Zuo Zongtang, a 'great scholar-warrior ... a crusher of rebellions against the imperial Qing court, an elder statesman who held modern Chinese territory together' [p. 66]. Once in Hunan, however, Lee is in for a surprise: 'The refrain was consistent: "We don't have General Tso's chicken here" or 'We've never heard of it." Even after I showed them pictures of the dish on my digital camera, they would frown and look at me blankly, then helpfully suggest another chicken dish ...' [p. 68]. Would this turn out to be another fortune cookie, another chop suey -- another faux-Chinese dish fabricated to please the American palate?

Lee forges ahead, intrepid, to Zuo's ancestral village in rural Hunan. After a madcap automobile drive through the Hunan countryside, she finds Xiangyin county, which a billboard proclaims as '"a famous Qing Dynasty county and home to Zuo Zongtang"' [p. 70]. A helpful restaurant-owner, who like the others does not recognize the eponymous chicken dish, nonetheless offers Lee a hand-drawn map guiding her to the general's family home. It has been abandoned, but nearby she encounters two men from the Zuo family. She asks them about General Tso's Chicken: '"no one here eats this," said Zuo Kuanxun, a faded sixty-six-year-old farmer. Zuo Ziwei shrugged as well' [p. 71].

At length she turns up a clue: the general manager of Xinchangfu Restaurant, in Changsha, tells her that the dish was introduced in Changsha by a Chef Peng in the 1990s. Peng, who had fled from China to Taiwan in 1949, opened a restaurant in New York in around 1970; but, finding this work too stressful, he returned to Taiwan in the early 1980s. Traveling to Taipei, Lee hunts down Chef Peng's son, Chuck Peng, who by now is the manager of Peng Yuan. Peng serves Lee a dish of General Tso's -- but she is deeply disappointed to discover that this was not the meal she was expecting at all: salty, flavored with soy sauce and chilis, but not battered and fried, and not sweet/tangy as it is served in the US. Eventually Lee meets the legendary Chef Peng himself:
He recounted that he had created the original dish in perhaps 1955 or 1956, on the island of Taiwan, after the Nationalists had been ousted by the Communists. He had named it after the general because he had wanted to use a symbol of Hunan: the other great Hunan figure, Mao Zedong, was obviously persona non grata. [p. 82]
But under close questioning, the disgusted Chef Peng confirms that his original recipe is radically different from the 'Chinese' dish so famous in America. The hunt continues -- now back to New York City, where Lee uncovers an old rivalry between Chef Peng and one Chef Wang. Wang's partner, Michael Tong, recalls how he and Wang had visited Peng Yuan in Taipei, and had been inspired by Peng's chicken dish. 'In response, Chef Wang had created his own general's chicken dish, but with an American twist' [p. 81]: coating the meat with a crispy fried batter. Wang named his version 'General Ching's chicken' (after 曾國藩 Zeng Guofan, another Qing-era general and statesman, and in fact Zuo's mentor; perhaps some confusion between 'Zeng' and 'Qing' accounts for the 'Ching' here.) Somehow, Lee posits, the name of General Tso's Chicken became associated with this recipe instead.

Other chapters proffer equally interesting material, such as the inside story of the Great Kosher Duck Scandal of 1989 (chapter 7), or the origin of the white cardboard takeout carton, so ubiquitous in Chinese restaurants in America (chapter 9). Occasionally Lee will shift registers to tell a more somber tale, as in 'Waizhou, U.S.A.' (chapter 13), the story of a Chinese family that immigrates, piecemeal, to America, where they purchase an existing Chinese restaurant in Hiawassee, Georgia. Lee chronicles the ups and (especially) downs of this family as they try to get accustomed to living in a strange land and to figure out how to run a Chinese restaurant in a way that will attract an American clientele. But while it never loses sight of the serious foci that gave it birth, for the most part the book is upbeat and even humorous. Lee is master of the entertaining anecdote. She tells the story, for example, of her friend, Lulu Zhou, who when young had 'glimpsed her parents' green cards with their photos and RESIDENT ALIEN stripped along the top. At the time, Star Trek: The Next Generation was popular, so the idea of extraterrestrials was in her head. "Are my parents aliens?" she thought in shock' [p. 23]. It is with Lulu that she samples the chow mein sandwiches (!) at Chan's Egg Roll and Jazz in Woonsocket, Rhode Island.

One of the most revealing portions of the book investigates the culinary and commercial ingenuity of chef Ming Tsai, the founder/owner of the famous Blue Ginger restaurant outside of Boston, who is now also a television personality ('Simply Ming') and creator of a line of food items featured at Target stores (chapter 15, 'American Stir-fry'). Tsai's story mirrors Lee's in some interesting ways: he was born in the USA to Chinese immigrants, and himself attended an Ivy-League university. 'I related in Ming in part,' Lee says, 'because I saw parallels between my own modest cooking efforts and Ming's sophisticated recipes -- cooking grounded in Chinese tradition but heavily influenced by the cuisines of other parts of Asia, with another layer from the Euro-American tradition' [p. 253].
But there were other similarities, ones that ran deeper than what we did in our kitchens. In one of our conversations, Ming told me, "If I can give my kids at least what my parents gave me, then that is the definition of a true success."
         I reflected on his words. What his parents gave him set him apart from most of the other Chinese in the restaurant industry I had met. Many of them had told me, "We cook so our children won't have to." Ming began to cook because he wanted to, not because he had to.
         Once my father brought dinner to a family friend who was too ill to leave her apartment on the Upper West Side. When he entered the building with a plastic bag of Chinese takeout, the doorman said to him, "No flyers on the floor."
         My father is just a Ph.D. away from being a deliveryman. I'm just an education away from jotting down take-out orders.
         In coming to the United States, what my parents gave me and my siblings is the freedom of choice. I write for a living because I want to. Sometimes I stop and think how odd it is that I earn my income wrestling with a language that my own parents struggled so much with. When I was young, my dad's company paid for him to have private lessons to remove the harsh angles of his Chinese accent. I still remember falling asleep to the sound of his practicing his short a -- "cat," "can," "cab" -- into a tape recorder, his tongue struggling to stretch out to let the vowel out. [pp. 254-5]
This moving testimony, I think, illuminates Lee's ultimate reason for exploring this topic: it clears a path to the self. By exploring the curious, convoluted, sometimes mysterious history of another Chinese transplant to America -- Chinese food -- she is able to discover some of the profound truths of her own family's transplantation to the US, and what that says about her present life -- and portends for her future.

The Fortune Cookie Chronicles saves one of its best revelations almost for last. I mentioned above that fortune cookies were not invented in America. So where did they come from? I will not spoil the mystery for you, but the answer is a fascinating one, rooted in some dire historical events.

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