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A Chinese Perspective (about the editor)

by Wang Si

Personal Perspectives

Fall Volume: 2012 Issue: 19(3) page(s): 30 and 31


Last summer, I accompanied Flavor & Fortune's editor, Dr. Jacqueline M. Newman, to Kunming, Dali, and elsewhere in China. Her husband came, too. For her, it was her eleventh visit to China, and her first to the Yunnan Province in the more than forty years she academically has studied Chinese food.

Should you not know, this quarterly, Flavor & Fortune, is a magazine she and others conceived of in 1993. They published their first issue in 1994. It is the first and only magazine about the science and art of Chinese cuisine all in English. Its goal has been and still is, nineteen years later, to introduce and educate about China's fantastic food culture.

Newman is the second director of The Institute for the Advancement of the Science and Art of Chinese Cuisine; the sponsor of this magazine. Her entire career has concentrated on Chinese Cuisine; so are her retirement years. One could compare her to a missionary, but one concentrating on Chinese food culture.

I still remember the first time I met this couple. It was December 2007 at an international conference in China's Zhejiang city of Shaoxing. The theme of that professional meeting was sauce culture. I was asked and honored to accompany this couple before the conference to some restaurants in Shanghai, Shaoxing, and Hangzhou. Her enthusiasm for and about Chinese food and her serious academic attitude was impressive.

More recently, on this recent seven day trip to Yunnan, Dr. Newman prepared for half a year collecting information and references about Yunnan's food and culture. We discussed it often over the internet, as I helped make a final schedule.

Together, both Newmans, are one hundred sixty plus years. In spite their experience traveling to more than sixty-five countries, I worried about their being tired. That was a useless concern. We primarily selected Kunming and Dali and nearby places for this fieldwork, went to eat in many places, and tasted foods reflecting many aspects of Yunnan Cuisine. We visited its cities and the countryside.

In a restaurant serving Dai food in Kunming, we tasted specialties such as pounded wind-dried beef, deep-fried beef skin, omelets stuffed with pickled bamboo shoots, pineapple rice, grilled fish with lemon grass, and so forth. From these and other foods, and from those invited to eat with us, we learned something about the Dai daily diet and its restaurant and festival foods. We found out they are addicted to sour, cold, and spicy tastes and that they prepare cold foods along with others steamed, boiled and grilled.

In the Shuanglang Village along Erhai Lake in the Dali Bai Autonomous Prefecture, we stayed with a local Bai family. The wife was hospitable and cooked special dishes for Dr. Newman and all of us. One such was a boiled fish in a sour and spicy sauce. This dish, the lady advised, is a favorite on their table.

Dr. Newman attentively observed the meal's entire cooking process. She took notes of ingredients and seasonings and their amounts. What astonished her was the huge amount of assorted seasonings put into a fish soup, especially the amount of salt and chili peppers. I understood her surprise as Dr. Newman, for decades, taught in the foods and nutrition program at Queens College, and that she is a Registered Dietitian. She pointed to a salt jar in the kitchen noting it held about a pound or more of salt and said, "In our family, this amount of salt will last more than a year." The lady replied, "Here, it supplies my four-member-family for two months."

Dr. Newman told me later that the salt in the fish dish prepared for us was definitely beyond a normal and acceptable daily intake in the United States, her home country. She asked the hostess softly whether she could or would ever put less salt in it. The honest lady, with a shy smile answered, "The fish depends on salt and chili peppers and cannot be delicious without this amount of salt."

The last day in the new city of Dali, three local friends of mine invited us to dinner in a popular Xiaguan eatery named Duan's Family Restaurant. Our hosts, a Bai lawyer friend and two of his doctor friends, ordered many dishes such as a braised chicken, fried pork, stir-fried er kuai, deep-fried broad bean curd, fried mushrooms, deep-fried milk fan, omelets stuffed with broom flowers, and so on. All of these dishes are commonly served at Bai festivals and when inviting guests out to eat or having them to one's home. Dr. Newman tasted every dish, never forgot to take down its name, appearance, ingredients, and tastes. She did this with both pen and camera, and while so doing, my friends showed great hospitality and shared many things about their food culture.

Newman said that westerners know little about Yunnan food and those of the minorities living there and elsewhere in China. She advised that papers about foods from this province can rarely be found in the western literature yet westerners have growing interests in all Yunnan minority food cultures. Therefore, she plans to write about several of them and hopes local people will send her articles about Yunnan foods to introduce them to people in English-speaking countries. She told me that future issue of Flavor and Fortune will have several such articles.

We all enjoyed that dinner very much, but when we arrived in Kunming, Dr. Newman did have a small problem with her stomach. We had an arrangement to go to a fantastic meal the next day at Mr. Li Mengze's restaurant called 'The Fantastic House' or De Yi Ju in Chinese. When Mr. Li came to get us, he heard about her digestive symptoms and guessed she had lost energy on the trip perhaps because her stomach was impacted by the sour, cold, spicy, and quite oily food in Dali.

However, even with Dr. Newman's upset stomach, she did plan to and actually did taste every delicacy with both eyes and taste buds. Mr. Li had arranged serving the most popular dishes in his restaurant including the Fantastic Chicken served cold and in Yunnan sauce, Iced Gastrodia Tuber, Stewed Mushrooms in Purple Pot, Steamed Chicken-taste Mushrooms, Mashed Peas with ham and vegetables, Fried green-head mushrooms with potatoes, Baked Codfish with Truffles, Wind-dried Beef with Plums, Azalea flowers and Broad Bean Soup, Goat cheese with ham, Stir-fried Gumbo, Rose Pie, and Walnut Buns, among other dishes, all served with both truffle and plum wines, both fermented in house.

Mr. Li introduced every dish, told of their ingredients, where the idea for them came, and that all dishes originated with minority populations in the countryside. He told her and everyone that he travels frequently to see them and then innovates dishes using them as the basis for his restaurant offerings.

Dr. Newman took photographs and notes, and tasted and made comments about every dish. She thought the feast innovative and one that modern culinary folk would delight in seeing and tasting. More importantly, she commented on every innovation that kept the dish's distinctive characteristics. She appreciated the food for its looks, liked the tableware, pointed out the food's high quality and low calorie count and other outstanding features. She mentioned that the most popular types of ethnic restaurant food in the United States are Italian, Chinese, and Mexican; and that this food would stand up well to any and all of them. She added that Chinese restaurants in the United States have many problems about food safety, nutrition, and service, and that here the service was impeccable.

This Chinese food expert said De Yi Ju was a good as the best eateries in her country, even better than most Chinese restaurant in any country. As a foreign expert who has eaten Chinese food since childhood, and one doing Chinese food research for decades, she was impressed.

I asked her, "Since you are a critical gastronomist, why are you so generous about the food served at this restaurant?" She responded, "I have been to many great Chinese restaurants around the world and most of their owners do not think about what their customers really want. They only figure out what they can provide and at a profit. This restaurant not only displays Yunnan specialties, but also considers contemporary food demands, changes and innovations, too. This is rare and remarkable in a Chinese restaurant."

She went on to say that she has experienced many great restaurants around the world, but most only have two or three dishes that deeply impress. They can hardly compare with what I ate at this restaurant. As to my favorite dish, she told me it was the Iced Gastrodia presentation. She said should I or anyone wonder why, probably because it was simple, its plate and decor with much surprise. "This dish is almost second to none," she said.

That evening, Dr. Newman was invited for dinner at Fu Zhao Lou Steam-pot Chicken Restaurant. It emphasizes Kunming's traditional tastes and cookware. I was unable to join as I needed to catch a train to Hangzhou. A couple of days later, she did mention that, "Fu Zhao Lou's Steam-pot Chicken reflects old tastes of Kunming, while De Yi Ju points to the future of Yunnan cuisine." She said that when back in New York, she would introduce many Yunnan foods seen and tasted during this unforgettable trip. I hope this article helps her do so.
_____
Wang Si has a Masters Degree from Zhejiang Gongshan University in Hangzhou, and is now completing her Ph.D. at Yunnan University in Kunming. At both, her efforts are directed at studying Chinese food history with emphases on Chinese minority populations and their food habits.

                                                                                                                                                       
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