Wednesday, November 30, 2005

Orville Schell this week on China’s contradictions:

Went to a cooking class last night with a Chinese-American friend who is writing a book about food.

Some 15 other students, all local Chinese, jotted notes from bleacher-style seats in a middle school classroom as a chef showed them how to make four Sichuan dishes: spicy diced chicken thigh and chicken breast, carp simmered in soy sauce and chili bean paste and carp with a pepper sauce. He used only a wok, collander, cleaver and cutting board and a dinner plate to flip the fish.

When the students graduate, they hope to get jobs as cooks that pay about $250 a month. All but one were men. Some already work in kitchens, most don’t. One is a housewife with a four-year-old.

You need a sharp knife to debone chicken. The teacher showed how to sliver green onions or leeks, shave winter bamboo shoots, mince ginger and garlic and slice the skin of the fish every 2 inches or so, so the flavors penetrate. Make shallow cuts, he said, because the fish was alive two minutes ago and will be deep-fried. Deep cuts will make it blow up or look bloated. He put oil, soy, salt, cornstarch, salt and pepper directly onto a plate of diced chicken and mixed it with his fingers. He deep-fried then crushed and diced the peanuts, filling the room with a terrific aroma. He used the peppercorns just to flavor the oil, then dumped them. Added chili peppers to smoking hot oil, then the chicken, then chili powder, green onions, ginger, garlic and finally peanuts. He sauteed it all for a minute or two, and was done.