Chinese have enriched Isles' cultural 'soup'
Gung hay fat choy! Happy lunar new year, Chinese-style. (Other cultures, including the Vietnamese, also are celebrating the lunar new year.)
The Year of the Tiger on the Chinese astrological calendar officially will begin Sunday, but family banquets, festivals, lion dances and shopping for delicacies began weeks ago.
Based on the number of Chinese-themed cookbooks in my considerable collection of older recipe books, Chinese here have been among the most prolific writers about cooking in the Islands.
Through the years, many Chinese women (and a few men, most famously chef Titus Chan) have become well-known writers and teachers, sharing, in writing and in demonstrations, recipes and techniques ranging from the simple (lo mein, fried noodles) to the impossibly eclectic (how to clean a pig's stomach).
Among them: Daisy Wong ("Chinese Aromas from Aunty Daisy's Kitchen," 1978); June Kam Tong ("Popo's Kitchen," 1988; 45,000 copies and still in print); Gail K.T. Wong ("Gail Wong's Authentic Chinese Recipes," 1954); Clara Tom ("Clara Tom's Old Fashioned Method of Cantonese Cooking," 1965); Mary Sia ("Mary Sia's Chinese Cookbook," 1980 ). Not to mention the young women of the now-defunct Te Chih Sheh Chinese sorority at UH, who wrote "Practical Recipes in Chinese Cooking" (1932) and all the teachers who worked with the Hawaiian Electric Co. (such as my friend Elsie Ching of Niu Valley, who last year at this time gave us a tutorial in gau) and the Narcissus Festival (such as Linda Chang Wyrgatsch of 'Aiea, who a few years ago gave me a Szechuan-style wok-fried eggplant recipe that's still a favorite).
It remains a part of the Narcissus Queen tradition for contestants to be taught a few basic dishes as one way (and a very pleasant one) to get in touch with their roots.
Over the years, I've met some of these authors and teachers and learned a few dishes: traditional gau and a Shanghai-style microwave gau that's so easy it would make a great activity to do with children, fried noodles, basic stir-frying (if I only had a really hot stove), the making of the stuffed buns called bao, how to steam a whole fish and serve it in sizzling sauce, watercress soup.
I've learned about "secret" ingredients — not just hoisin sauce or dark sweet soy but shaoching, the sweetish Chinese cooking wine; the strange, oversize sugary "dates" that are one key to good Chinese-style soup, and chung choy (preserved salted turnip tops), a pungent ingredient that, in small quantities, gives dishes a characteristic "Chinese" flavor
I learned the technique for chopping pork (two very sharp cleavers, wielded very rapidly, then throw handfuls of the minced pork against the bowl to create a smooth, almost creamy texture for meatballs and stuffed won tons).
This is as far as I, who did not grow up in a Chinese kitchen, generally go. If I want great Chinese food, like most of us, I go out!
But these cookbooks and teachers have helped to give me, as a food editor, insight into how my favorite restaurant dishes are made and also how first- and second-generation Chinese home cooks replicated the dishes of their parents and grandparents.
One of my favorite books on Chinese cooking is not a local one. It's the late Barbara Tropp's classic "The Modern Art of Chinese Cooking" (William Morrow, 1982) in which she reveals such techniques as "velveting": poaching meats in oil before stir-frying them. (No wonder Chinese food tastes so good.) She also shared building-block sauces and ingredient mixtures to use in a variety of recipes. Tropp died an untimely death of ovarian cancer at age 53 in 2001.
So, as we enter the season of strings of firecrackers, lion dances, red-and-gold paper mottos and box upon box of manapua and dried fruit, I send my best New Year's wishes to all the Chinese of Hawai'i, past, present, future. You have added so much to our multicultural "soup."