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Rock Solid Knowledge

by Harley Spiller

Conferences, Meetings, Announcements, and Reports

Summer Volume: 2005 Issue: 12(2) page(s): 14 and 15

On Thursday, November 4th, 2004, The French Culinary Institute (FCI) held a Chinese cooking demonstration. It was in conjunction with the Museum of Chinese in the Americas and New York University's Asian/Pacific/American Studies Program and Institute.

The two-hour conference-type program was moderated by Grace Young, author of a new book, The Breath of a Wok featuring photographs by Alan Richardson. This book is a delightfully in-depth treatise on the many facets of China's deceptively simple cooking device. Ms. Young was joined in FCI's ‘kitchen theater’ by Chinese cooking teachers Julie Tay and Ken Lo; each demonstrated a different method for seasoning a new wok. The program concluded with a thorough discussion of wok lore and a demonstration of technique by Joseph Poon, a master chef and restaurateur now living in Philadelphia.

Ms. Young opened the program with tales of her childhood and how it inspired adult journeys throughout Northern and Southern China to explore intricacies of the wok. She defined the Chinese title of her book, Wok Hay, as the seared taste of foods cooked in a fully heated wok.

Young shared her personal collection of woks and pointed out differences between Northern and Southern Chinese woks. We learned that home-size woks and other Chinese basics were not easily available in the United States until the middle of the 20th century. American-Chinese families like the Youngs were forced to substitute skillets or pots and Western comestibles. Another juicy tidbit dished up by Ms.Young was the fact that many Chinese home chefs soak their used woks with water reserved after rinsing uncooked rice. The water's starchiness helps clean the surface of a wok.

Energetic and unflappable Julie Tay followed, noting that the Cantonese have several expressions that incorporate the word wok: dai wok, literally translated as ‘big wok’ has also come to mean ‘big trouble.’ Mai wok, literally translates as ‘carrying a wok’ but is understood to mean ‘big burden.’ Ms. Tay uses pork fat and gao ca which are Chinese chives to season her new woks. She said that the wok is a ‘super-charged’ object to Chinese people and as such it is both feared and revered.

The wok is a symbol of centrality, of round perfection like both sun and sesame seeds, and so the lengthy chives are ’sacrificed’ in the seasoning process to symbolically ensure the long life of this cooking utensil, its owner, and all who eat foods prepared therein.

Soft-spoken and immaculate Ken Lo was next up at this Institute's giant Vulcan range. He demonstrated techniques for seasoning a fourteen inch carbon-steel flat-bottomed wok. Both he and Grace Young recommend this for best results on home stoves. This hybridized Western-made wok has the flare of a Cantonese wok mixed with a long handle, and thus it somewhat mimics a Northern wok. Unlike Northern woks though, these thoroughly 20th-century vessels have one solid wooden handle and one helper-handle for heavy stews and such. Better woks, Lo pointed out, are made of heavy-gauge metal. He recommends flexing the woks in the store and selecting stiff ones with very little give.

Using plain paper towels followed by paper towels soaked in cooking oil, Lo heats and rubs the wok inside and out. Through repeated swipings, the machine-oil coating is absorbed into the hot cooking oil and removed. He continues baking the cooking oil in the wok until it hardens and forms a non-stick surface. Doing so, the vessel turns a glorious golden color when properly seasoned.

Lo says that if food sticks to your wok, do not scrub it with abrasive cleansers. Instead, heat salt in the wok, let it cool, then vigorously rub the salt into the surface with a paper towel. The problem area can then be re-seasoned, as well. Mr. Lo is an ABC-–an American Born Chinese--and he strongly urges his fellow ABC's to emulate him and reclaim their cultural heritage, whether through traditional cooking, or martial arts, feng shui, poetry, calligraphy, painting, and/or tea mastery.

The final presenter was Chef Joseph Poon, who anchored the discussions with an entertaining hour-long wok demonstration. Born in Hong Kong, Chef Poon is one of the rare professional Chinese chefs who is also a registered dietician. He has been in the United States for four decades and worked in dozens of jobs from shooting and preparing cows at a slaughterhouse (and thus learning firsthand the ins and outs of tenderizing meats) to cooking at Olive Garden, McDonalds, and you name it.

Poon's frenetic style is short on proper English grammar but long on verve, pep, and personality. Some of his constant joking is funny and some misses the mark. Never mind, Poon's giant smile and heartfelt enthusiasm carries the day. His talk was peppered with aphorisms like ‘Life is short--cooking is fun.' He decorated his dishes with fruit and vegetable carvings that looked like dragons or Elvis Presley, even like Jay Leno, on whose show Poon has appeared.

The bulk of the audience seemed to be culinary students and Poon was very generous with information and tips designed to enable these budding professionals. He understands the importance of marketing. When Poon cooks with ingredients unfamiliar to many in the United States, he renames them on his menus. When using a small red Chinese herb, his menu lists neither their technical name, wolfberry, nor the daunting Latin moniker of Lycium barbarum or L. chinensis. Instead, he gives the delicate-tasting gou qi a classy nickname designed to appeal to Americans. He calls them ‘red capers.'

Poon demonstrated how a few good ideas can turn inexpensive ingredients into a profitable dish. He quickly shaped rice, colored bright orange with saffron, into a triangular wedge and plated it with flair. Poon admitted he was using dirt-cheap Philippine saffron which imparts the color but none of the sophisticated taste of its famous Spanish cousin. The audience got the point.

Poon spoke about the time in cooking school when he used metal snips to cut into aluminum pans and iron woks so that he could inspect the interior of the metal. The best woks for industrial use are hand-hammered, so that there is very little air in the metal. This enables the wok to conduct heat faster and more evenly than would an aluminum pan which does have many air bubbles. He said that woks absorb heat in a spiraling motion--round and round and round, he gesticulated. He insisted that the prized seared taste of Chinese food is unattainable in an aluminum pan.

Poon opts to stir-fry with a large wok spoon and never touches the Chinese spatula-like device that is designed to match the curve of a wok. Maybe he opts out for simplicity's sake, or for less clutter on the range. A home trial showed that Poon's method encourages searing, as the round lip of a spoon cannot thoroughly lift foods from the wok's surface as can the Chinese spatula.

Next Poon demonstrated how the Northern wok is easier to use than a Cantonese wok. Northern woks have a single, large handle and are manipulated with the entire arm, as opposed to Cantonese woks with their two small handles maneuvered with more wrist action than arm strength. He also noted that Cantonese woks are deeper than their Northern counterparts. Then like something out of a sports lesson, Poon showed how to properly hold the wok, demonstrating two different grips used in Guangzhou, as well as the traditional Northern grip.

His insistence on proper finger placement was reminiscent of golf and tennis pro’s who use a specific grip to achieve a specific purpose. His preferred Cantonese grip loops the thumb and forefinger through the handle. Despite well-calloused hands, he still uses a towel to prevent his skin from touching a blazing hot wok. He showed his technique for rolling the towel and ensured his hand would be protected by firmly smacking it into position in his hand. The sound was exactly like that of a baseball pitcher smacking his mitt.

The similarities between Chinese wok cookery and athleticism continued. Poon fairly dances when cooking, and demonstrated how both hands and legs get involved in the wok 'dance.' Ms. Young helped him explain that Chinese restaurants often have special levers on the stove burners and busy chefs literally adjust the height of the fire with their knees.

Poon talked about ‘food as entertainment’ and defined pao as the Chinese method of sautéing in order to ‘make food jump.' “When the wok is heated properly." Poon continued, “you get sound, get smell, get wok hay." Poon drove the concept home when he added French red wine to a beef stir fry; when it hit the hot wok it sizzled, spattered and steamed like crazy. “That's wok hay,” he exclaimed.

Comparing French and Chinese cuisines, Poon turned the tables on Western stereotypes. For many Chinese, dinner in a French restaurant means going home hungry. A typical Chinese person's meal consists of two-thirds grain (like rice or noodles) so they do not suffer the Western ‘hungry half an hour later’ reaction to their native cuisine. He said that French restaurants may be expensive and serve small portions, but he feels they deserve the big bucks because French chefs spend a lot of time and effort in the kitchen, making reductions and sauces like demi-glacé which takes two full days to prepare.

Poon likes to prepare fusion cuisine because he wants to combine the different techniques learned in five decades of professional cooking, East to West. He demonstrated his points by making a fusion dish of shrimp-paste and lobster. As he stuffed the ground shrimp into pieces of lobster, Poon drew a clever parallel to the French technique for quenelles. Using a little water to perfectly smooth out the paste, Poon said, alternately with each stroke of the back of his spoon, "French - Chinese - French - Chinese - French - Chinese." "When you bite it you can smell the wok hay, he explicates.

Poon clearly explained, for the non-Chinese layperson, the importance of Ms. Young's book. Wok hay is central to Chinese wok cooking just as molten lava forms the essential core of Earth. He spoke at length and with great reverence for the high BTU burners found in top-rated Chinese restaurants, all the while bemoaning the fact that home ranges just do not get hot enough for proper Chinese food. He does not deny that speed is of the essence in a restaurant's profits, even if, to Grace Young's dismay, it gets in the way of healthfulness.

Many Chinese restaurants, we learned, rely on oil blanching as a method to ensure that foods are thoroughly and rapidly cooked for 21st century diners accustomed to instant gratification. Poon concluded the afternoon with a clever yet unnervingly simple trick for shaping a grape like a heart. Such marketing savvy does not end in the kitchen; he is now offering a unique culinary adventure for ten thousand bucks with three days each in Beijing, Shanghai, Chengdu, and Hong Kong, a day in Macao, and seven days in Singapore, Malaysia and Thailand. All that plus a month-and-a-half of cooking school at his restaurant located at 1002 Arch Street in Philadelphia, PA. His telephone number there is 215-928-9333.

There is a lot to learn from, about, and with Joseph Poon, so stay tuned for the report on Flavor and Fortune's upcoming Philadelphia junket in early 2005.

Below are web sites for organizations and individuals mentioned in this article:
http://www.frenchculinary.com-----for the French Culinary Institute
http://www.moca-nyc.org-----for the Museum of Chinese in the Americas
-----for NYU’s Asia/Pacific/America Studies Program and Institute

The following are web sites for Grace Young, Julie Tay, Ken Lo, and Joseph Poon, respectively:
The author extends thanks to the staff of the Museum of Chinese in the Americas, Grace Young, Joseph Poon, John Kuo Wei Tchen, Fannie Chan, Laura Chen-Schultz, Jow and Alice. He hopes that you did get a chance to visit the 'Have You Eaten Yet?' exhibit at MOCA, the Museum of the Chinese in the Americas. The New York Times acclaimed this showing of his extensive Chinese restaurant memorabilia collection, which was at MOCA, 70 Mulberry Street, Manhattan, through June 2005.

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