by Kate Heyhoe
Happy Chinese New Year to all our readers! As we launch a new lunar calendar year, we have the good fortune to reconnect with a true master of Chinese cooking and a scholar of Chinese culture, Martin Yan. Last year, for the 1995 New Year of the Pig, Martin shared with us his profound knowledge of all things Chinese, particularly about the New Year symbols in food. Many of you wrote to us about that interview. You already knew Martin from his long-running Yan Can Cook series (the James Beard Award-winner in 1994 for Best Television Show), but you were even more impressed by his incredible depth of knowledge that surfaced in the interview.
Here, Martin continues to educate us all on the nuances of Chinese regional cuisines and he expands on his "Culinary Journey Through China," his most recent book and fascinating companion series on PBS. He speaks of yin and yang, of the ways children can benefit from the act of cooking, of his friend Jacques Pepin, and of his newest and most exciting projects in the works for this, the New Year of the Rat.
Join us, then, as we explore the world of Chinese culture and cuisine through the eyes and words of Martin Yan.
Kate: Chinese culture includes many symbolic foods, especially at Chinese New Year. Gifts of pommelos, grapefruit and oranges, for instance, represent good fortune. Did you discover any new symbols while filming the TV series on Culinary Journey Through China?
Martin: Even in China, a lot of people don't realize that China is a multi-ethnic country. There are over 50 ethnic groups in China and many of them have very distinctive history, culture and food habits. Particularly someone from Tibet, and in the southwest, a lot of them are very similar to the people and food of Cambodia, Burma and Thailand. In fact, along the border of northern Thailand and southwestern China, they speak the same language, in fact, they are the same tribe. So it is very interesting. A lot of the people along the Vietnamese border are of the Vietnamese culture, similar to Chinese culture in the old days.
So you see a lot of these kind of things and because of that, when you look at Chinese foods, they are not really exactly Chinese foods. And because of different cultures you see different symbolic meanings. There are some cultures in the southwest which are a mother-dominated, female dominated society in terms of economy and the social structure, where it's the female that controls everything. It's in Yunnan province, north of Thailand. and because of that, there is some different symbology, but in general, most of the things I spoke of last year, the traditional symbols, are common for Chinese throughout the world.
Kate: In your latest book and TV series, Culinary Journey Through China, you lead us through the heartland and even most remote areas of this vast nation. Would you walk us through China now, in the form of word association, and give us a snapshot of what each area is all about? Let's start with Beijing...
Martin: Beijing—The main staple of Beijing is wheat flour and noodles, because there is a lot of wheat grown. Their most famous foods are Peking Duck and potstickers. Wheat fields in Northern China grow in a dry area, and they have a lot of winter wheat. And in Northern China, you cannot grow rice because the weather is too cold. So because of the weather, geography and soil, they can grow wheat, and the wheat ends up on the table, as the main staple. So that's why you have a lot of potstickers, noodles, dumplings, all kinds of buns and all kinds of baos, all wheat based.
Martin: Canton is known for seafood, the simplicity of cooking, the integrity of the ingredients. So there's a lot of steaming, stir-frying, seasonal ingredients. Canton is in the southern tip of China, exposed to a lot of rivers and lakes as well as the ocean. So you see a variety of seafood, and it's also an area of four seasons, which are not available in the north and the west of China.
Martin: Shanghai—Being also a port city and also a metropolitan, international city and a center of commerce. You know, you see a lot of food from different parts of China in Shanghai because it is metropolitan—I mean, the best of Beijing, the best of Canton, the best of Sichuan, you find them all in Shanghai. And also, Shanghai being a coastal city, you have a lot of seafood. They are very famous for red-cooked dishes, which means that meat, chicken, or seafood is cooked in a rich, brown, sweet sauce and they are cooked to a point that end up like stews, and braising. So they are very famous for that.
Kate: So Shanghai sounds a lot like Venice, which as a port town, had all of the different spices and flavors there because of the trading ships.
Martin: Yes, and also because of Hangzhou and Suzhou being the center of silk and embroidery. During the famous silk road, a lot of those spices and foods and cultures were introduced to this area.
Kate: So would you use star anise in Shanghai?
Martin: Yes, and you see a lot of richness, sugar, soy sauce... everything is cooked very richly.
Martin: If you see yourself when you get out of a Sichuan restaurant, you have instant perm! Your hair will smoke! Just like being in a Thai restaurant. Sichuan— being a basin where it's very very harsh and cold in the winter, yet in the summer, it's very hot and humid. And because of that, the foods, whether it's winter or summer, use chile peppers, spices, and become important. Because in the summer, when it's hot and humid, you really don't have as much of an appetite. And the use of chile also serves to preserve the food, as well as to cool you down. Because when you eat, you perspire and it cools you down. And you also eat the chile in winter because it's so cold, it kinda warms you up! But I think Sichuan and Hunan, being in the west, share the same spicy chile as the tropical areas. You go to Singapore or Thailand, it is so hot, 95 degrees, 95% humidity—you don't really have an appetite. You are soaking wet...and unless your food is spiced, it is too hot to eat. Also, the food spoils practically instantly, unless you have something like chiles to cook with, then even the bugs won't hang around too much. So I think that's another reason why spices and chiles are not only used as a flavoring, but also as a preservative.
Kate: Do you have a favorite of those provinces?
Martin: Actually, a lot of people think of Chinese cuisine as those four regional cuisines. But in true Chinese cuisine, it is subdivided into eight regional cuisines, and then into subregional cuisines. For instance, in southern China, a lot of people don't realize that, aside from the typical Cantonese food that we know of, there is Chiu Chow food, which is very famous, and then there is Harkar, which is also famous. You go to Canton and there are actually Chiu Chow restaurants, and there are Harkar restaurants, which serve a specific menu. Even in San Francisco, there are Harkar restaurants, which are of a very distinctive menu.
Kate: and that's what I find fascinating, the deeper and deeper you go, there are going to be these variations.
Martin: Yes, just like in the West, you see regional cuisines: Northwest, Southwest, Tex Mex, New England, and each one of them a little bit different. The US of course is the land of emigrants and also the US is relatively new in terms of history, so it has not yet really developed a truly distinctive cuisine. The chefs like Mark Miller, Wolfgang Puck and so on, they create something exciting locally, but a country like Italy or India, they have a northern Italian cuisine, southern Italian...and India, the same. So you see a lot of these very specific regional and subregional cuisines. People don't travel as much as we do in the West, so what is local stays local. So if it's from a region, it stays regional because it doesn't move around as much.
Kate: Now that you've been through mainland China, do you see a lot of difference in the rural areas, where many of these people never leave, so the customs and traditions last? Whereas in the urban areas, as you are pointing out about the US, it gets more disenfranchised or diluted?
Martin: When you go and visit the heartland of China, you know that the cuisine is very one-dimensional. It's the same way they have been cooking for hundreds of years, thousands of years, and they pretty much stay like that, because they are not exposed to any Western influence, or big cities, or different parts of China. You go to Beijing, you go to Shanghai, you go to Qwanzhou, you see a Sichuan restaurant, Hunan restaurant, Beijing restaurant. But when you go to these areas, it's the local food, and these are the foods that the grandmother, the great grandmother made—
Kate: So it's like going back in time—
Martin: Exactly! and this has not changed. It's like time has stopped. And they have been doing the same thing forever. They eat everything locally, they gather the locally available ingredients, and they just create—no, they don't even create. They just do it, and they are not very creative, because they have been doing it so long, there's not enough new ideas, there's not enough new ingredients, for them to actually create. But they're flexible, whatever they have, whatever is in season, they just cook it.
Kate: Who do you think are the best Chinese chefs?
Martin: I would say the best known chefs—there are a lot of great chefs, but a lot of them are not well known. Just like American chefs and European chefs, there are a lot of people who are very talented, very creative, but they are not necessarily well known. In this country, the people who have influenced the public, are people like Ken Hom, who is very talented young man, and very flexible even thought he was born here, he has studied and has been very enthusiastic and dedicated to this field. And people like Eileen Yin-Fei Lo who teaches in the Chinese Institute in New York, and people like Susannah Foo from Philadelphia. She's very creative and comes up with many new things, and a lot of her restaurant's chefs are true Asian chefs from different parts of China. She practices her belief in terms of creativity. I'm more a traditionalist, and a teacher, so I have to teach very traditional techniques and skills.
Kate: That's so important, as Jacques Pepin talks about. Having the foundation, having the basics and then you can do anything.
Martin: You can create different things then. I still spend a lot of time working with Chinese chefs, traveling in China and Hong Kong and Asia, and learning from master chefs. Because Chinese cuisine—China is so immense. It's so huge. It's so vast, and yet China is not exactly a modern society. We go to Xian and we see something very, very traditional Xian. You go to Hunan, and you see something very traditional Hunan. By doing that, in order for you to really learn, you can't just go into a Hunan restaurant. Some of the restaurants—the Hunan restaurants, the Sichuan restaurants, other restaurants—they already have, not adultery, but they already have modified the dishes and the flavor profile and the choice of ingredients to make it acceptable to the North American palate. To travel is not just to get the tradition, but also to get inspired to see the history, the culture, the people. So when I talk, it's not just a dish—a recipe, a menu, signifies a long inference from history, culture, religion. So when I go over there, I get inspired, I learn about the roots and of the culture and I learn more about the different things. To me, traveling is not just simply to pick up a new recipe, but to work with people, to get to know the people, to really learn about the people and the life style and the culture. You have to understand the people, the geography, the soil the weather...
Kate: So much of Chinese cooking is based on a yin yang balance of flavors—how can you really teach that? In that it's not just a recipe.
Martin: Actually, yin and yang philosophy is one the Chinese follow not just in the preparation and cooking of food, but everyday life. For instance, if you love certain things, you learn always to watch out that you do not have too much of one thing—even exercise, even making money, even success. If somebody is too successful, making too much money, then they have lost sight of who they are, of the family values. They don't have time to spend with the parent or with the children. So the idea of yin and yang is a practiced philosophy where people learn to have a more well-balanced life. And food is the same. When you go to a Chinese restaurant, when you order and prepare Chinese food, you got to watch out. You don't want to have too many deep fried dishes. You don't want too many dishes all with meat. You want to balance the meat with the vegetable dish, and you want to balance the sweet and sour with some lighter fare. You want to balance deep fried dishes with steamed dishes. It's all about balance.
Kate: You teach so many students, but do you ever find that some students just don't get the concept?
Martin: Well for me, I do it in a layman's terms. For instance, forget about the words yin and yang. We're talking about balance. Balance is very simple. It's something that everybody understands, and also when you have a good balance and well being, it's just like health. You are what you eat. When you eat the right thing, you observe that basic principle. It's a principle, the Chinese just happen to call it yin and yang, but it's like when we say "Eat a balanced diet." Everybody in North America can understand when we say if you eat a balanced diet, and exercise, you'll be healthy. Balanced diet is the same thing as yin and yang, it's just the Chinese way of saying A Balanced Diet.
Kate: Well, Martin, you're a perfect example. You're running around all the time, you look the same as you did twenty years ago. You haven't changed. You're like Dick Clark.
Martin: I haven't changed? In fact I actually look better everyday [laughter]. No, I don't smoke, my life style is very simple and when I have a situation that is very tensed and stressed, I go out to the garden and look at the fish. I have a little koi pond, just like many Asians, I have a little bonsai, and in the summer I have my vegetable garden. So to me, everything that I do is to keep in touch, to be in contact with nature. That's the same reason why I cook. When you cook, it's like gardening, you are so in touch with what you do, you touch it, you feel it. And cooking is the same, you have to use your hands, you have to touch it, you have to look at it, you have to smell it. So everything I do is very simple, down to earth, I live a very simple life.
Kate: Jacques Pepin mentioned that a lot of chefs are artists and lots of artists like to cook, and both are doing something with their hands.
Martin: Yes, because both are creative processes, and we all love to create. And I always believe that if you love to create, you are an artist by nature. You are being a creative person, you can be a much better cook. Not only with the skill. There are cooks that are very good as a craftsman, there are cooks that are very creative, they can create dishes, but there are cooks that are very creative, but they don't have the craft. So that's why Jacques is such a marvelous master. I always consider Jacques as the teacher of teachers and the master of masters.
Kate: But I think you are too. And he says the same thing about you, so obviously you two get along. [laughter]
Martin: Just like anything else, you have to have respect. I would just mention this: the more I am in this business, the more I learn to appreciate what others have achieved, the accomplishments. Nobody can get this lucky and be Julia Child, nobody can be as good as Jacques by just sitting there and fooling around. And you have to practice your craft and do things. Even at home and at the office, I cook for everybody because I love to cook. I would not shine away from something because it's troublesome, as far as food is concerned. I like to cook on a daily basis. If I'm not home, I'll be working with my knife. If I'm home, I'll be the one cooking there. because I never get tired or sick of it. This is not just a career, a job, a means of making a living to survive. This is my passion, and when I talk about food, I can talk about food forever. It's the same with Julia, Jacques, and Jeff and Paul and all these people. Because we love what we do.
Kate: Do you ever teach kids to cook?
Martin: Every year, on Yan Can Cook, we always do at least one show for kids. In fact, we're talking about the possibility of doing a kids cooking show, because, of all the cooking shows, Yan Can Cook has one of the youngest followings. Even in the Yan Can Cook series in China, we have a show for kids. Basically what we do is to teach kids how to take care of themselves, how not to fool around, and for anything dangerous, they should consult their parents. And we show them a few things they can cook at home. In fact, I was joking about Mr. Roger's Neighborhood and saying that it's funny: everywhere you go you see a Chinese restaurant in the neighborhood, but I've never seen a Chinese restaurant in Mr. Roger's neighborhood! (laughter)
In North America, the parents don't encourage the kids to do things on their own as much as in Asia. In Asia, a lot of them are two-income families where the people all work. Even when I was young, I was involved in the kitchen, in cooking. I cooked. My Mom would say 'Why don't you go to the market?' and even when I was a little kid, I learned how to shop and cook when I was very young. And I think that in North America, the kids are not encouraged to do more in the kitchen. For the kids to learn to do more in the kitchen, it's great for the future, it's great for the family. People use the expression "People who cook together stay together," and I think they also learn the value and not to waste, not to be wasteful. And the kids learn to be more disciplined.
They learn not to waste anything. When you buy a chicken, when you buy a bunch of celery, you don't have to throw anything away. Everything can be used. So when kids learn to cook, they also learn not to waste anything, they learn to appreciate things in life, in nature, rather than packaged foods. It's a learning process, an educational process.
Kate: and when they make the food, they eat it!
Martin: Yes, there's a sense of accomplishment. They feel they have made it, but they also feel they have done something that other people can appreciate, so it expands their social spectrum. The have created something that benefits other people. So it's discipline too. They learn from a head of lettuce that they can end up with a nice beautiful salad. From a piece of chicken, they end up with a roast chicken, they can see the change. I think that's very important.
Kate: What's next on your agenda?
Martin: This next six months, I have to do 125 television shows and I have three book projects going on. And these are shows I'm doing all around the world, it's not just here. Some are in China, some in Hong Kong, some here and some in Singapore. This is another Yan Can Cook series, and this is Yan Can Cook in Chinese and Yan Can Cook in Mandarin. These are for different audiences—the Yan Can Cook show is for the English audience, the Cantonese cooking show is for the Cantonese audience, the Mandarin show is for the Mandarin audience.
Kate: You are going to do these in those languages?
Martin: Yes, I do the Mandarin show in Singapore, the Cantonese in China... I speak four different dialects.
Kate: and you learned those when you lived in China?
Martin: No I have been a gypsy since I was young, so I always lived with somebody. If I lived with somebody who speaks Mandarin, then I learn how to speak Mandarin. If I live with someone who speaks Toisan, then I speak Toisan. I left home when I was thirteen, so I've been traveling around and working in restaurants all over.
Kate: You left your mother when you were thirteen, your wonderful mother who you always talk about? How is your mom?
Martin: Oh my mom is terrific. Every year she stays with me for about six months. She still tells me I'm not a very good cook! (laughter).
Kate: She must be really great!
Martin: Yeah, she's good! But I said, Mom, I can cut faster than you. But she cooks by instinct and intuition. When she adds ingredients, she doesn't measure. Jacques' mom never measures. She just does it for fun, she does it by instinct. If she believed this is what she liked, she'd just put in it.
Kate: That's from the heart. As you said, when you are balanced, that's where it comes from. And you said you have new books you are working on?
Martin: I'm working on a brand new Yan Can Cook show called Yan Can Cook: The Best of Chinatown. So we want to feature Chinatown, where we show people how to eat, how to order from the menu, what kind of food. And if they have health problems, how to recommend that they can have less salt or ask them not to put MSG on this or that. It's going to have a lot of tips, like Culinary Journey through China, it's going to have a lot of tips.
Kate: That's great—last time we spoke you told me you had this idea but not to tell anyone. So I didn't, but now that you are already working on it, we can share it, right?
Martin: Yes—because we are already working on it and I don't think anyone can do a show as fast as we put one together. And just like any project, anybody has the opportunity to do it and to do a great job. Fortunately the Yan Can Cook show has been on the air for 18 years now and we have built up a strong following. So we have been fortunate in that sense. People will watch us, unless we are doing a lousy job. That's why I don't want to do a lousy job. That's why I want to plan it well. We have already done a lot of work on Yan Can Cook: The Best of Chinatown, and we're going to do Chinatown around the world, not just in America. In Canada, we picked Vancouver, Toronto and Montreal, all with large Chinatown areas. And then we picked Boston, New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, San Francisco and perhaps Houston. And this way we can also talk about the food in different places. And we're also going to do London, Sydney, and Tokyo. They all have big Chinatowns.
Kate: It all sounds fascinating, and we wish you luck. Once last question: It's the Year of the Rat coming up. Any New Year comments?
Martin: The people born in the year of the Rat are born with great charm and they strive to produce the best things in life. They are very hard working and thrifty people. Also, they are very honest and ambitious. I wish you and your audience the best in the New Year, and Gung Hay Fat Choy! which means good health, happiness and good fortune.
This page originally published as part of the electronic Gourmet Guide between 1994 and 1998.
Modified October 2007
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