Chinese Rice for the New Year:
Modern Art of Chinese Cooking
by Kate Heyhoe
I ate the whole bowl
Not knowing I was hungry...
You are grains of rice.
Whenever I see Barbara Tropp, I feel like I've been missing something—in a good way. Listening to her is like feasting on an exotic meal full of flavors and ingredients I never knew existed. It's how she sees things, I think. Barbara reflects the same yin-yang balance in her self that she does in her cooking—and in the way she approaches her lessons on cooking. She's like a culinary Zen master.
Sometimes it takes an outsider looking in to clearly capture the essentials, the rhythms, and the details of a culture and its food. Barbara is not Chinese, but her passion for the culture runs deep. She studied Chinese language and culture before spending several intense years living in China, returning there today from time to time. If you were ever lucky enough to grab a bite at her charming restaurant in San Francisco (sadly now gone), or to make a meal from her China Moon Cafe Cookbook, you'll appreciate the expertise Barbara has mastered.
The Chinese or Lunar New Year begins on February 16th and continues for 15 days, culminating this year on March 3rd, when it's marked by the magnificent Dragon Parade of the Lantern Festival. I thought it fitting to hop into the future—the Year of the Rabbit—by revisiting Barbara Tropp's timeless classic, The Modern Art of Chinese Cooking —over 600 pages of thorough explanations, recipes and illustrations that immerse the reader body and soul into the subject—an indispensable reference for aficionados of true Chinese cuisine.
With Barbara's help, I begin the new year with a topic that is elemental to Chinese cuisine, yet such a conundrum to Westerners: the proper cooking of rice.
I was appalled to recently see a noted cookbook author recommend on TV that one should boil rice like pasta—gurgling deeply submerged in boiling water, then drained off in a colander as you would ziti or spaghetti. I suppose this is a Western custom in some families, but to Asian households, such a practice is considered heresy. Like boiling an apple pie instead of baking it.
While the average American eats only seven pounds of rice per year, notes Barbara, the average Chinese consumes one pound of rice per day. But while Westerners think of rice as essential to all Chinese meals, this is not so in North China, where wheat grows abundantly. In these mountain provinces, buns, noodles and breads grace the table as the daily starch. However, in the rainier regions of South and Southwestern China, home of Cantonese and Sichuan cuisines, rice really is as mandatory and ubiquitous as the air we breathe. As Barbara explains:
"Rice has traditionally been used in the making of paper and wine, but its most important place is at the heart of a meal. It is eaten pure, white and simply parboiled and/or steamed, with a mouthful taken plain before the meal as a palate cleanser and a symbol of the grain's importance. Thereafter, the dishes traditionally accompany the rice and not the other way around, for in everyday Chinese eating the rice is the bulk of the meal and the dishes are seen as companion fare to help one eat more rice."
Or, as Confucius said:
"A man should not eat so much that his breath smells more of meat than of rice."
Like most Asian-Americans, I grew up on long grain white rice and it will remain a comfort food to me the rest of my life (though Chinese in Asia prefer short and medium grain white rice). My mother would place the rice in the pot, add water and swirl with long, delicate fingers to loosen the starch from the grain. Then she would carefully pour out the water and rinse again, repeating the process as long as it took until the water ran clear, usually five or six times. As with her mother before her, she cooked the rice in just enough water to come up one knuckle joint above the level of the rice, as precise and reliable a measuring method as I've ever seen. She used a simple pot with thick walls, a heavy base and a tight fitting lid (the kind of pot you might find at a garage sale today, certainly not a designer pot), cooking the rice as the Chinese do, in a two-step process that goes from boiling to steaming. As soon as the rice was done and all the water absorbed, she stirred it with a chopstick (far better than a fork, she would say) to loosen and aerate the mixture, then she would turn off the flame and cover the pot again to let the rice steam into perfectly light, fluffy, separate grains.
Which brings me back to Barbara. Whenever I want to learn something new about Chinese cooking, I go to Barbara Tropp. In the book excerpt that follows, Barbara elegantly explains the true Chinese method of cooking rice—not just the long grain rice of my childhood, but the short and medium grains preferred by many Asians in Asia. She has introduced me to the proper ways to cook, and appreciate, these other types of rice.
If you're planning a Lunar New Year celebration, start the Year of the Rabbit off right by mastering the art of cooking rice, and accompany it with some of the other authentic recipes found in the Modern Art of Chinese Cooking. Barbara's step-by-step instructions and abundant details for such festival dishes as New Year's Bread Wheel, Smoked Tea Duck, and Lettuce-Wrapped Spicy Chicken, among others, turn this inscrutable cuisine into a serious romance for any dedicated cook.
Gung Hay Fat Choy!
Everyday Chinese Rice
by Barbara Tropp
Recipe: Everyday Chinese Rice
Barbara Tropp is also the founder of Women Chefs and Restaurateurs (WCR), an association dedicated to promoting, enhancing and developing the positions of women in the culinary profession. As a member of the WCR, I encourage chefs and culinary students to join us in our networking and professional activities. For more info, visit the Women Chefs & Restaurateurs website.
Join me for a new look at old friends every weekend in February.
02/06/99—Nick Malgieri, author of Chocolate
02/13/99—Marcel Desaulniers, author of Death by Chocolate
02/20/99—Barbara Tropp, author of the Modern Art of Chinese Cooking and the founder of Women Chefs and Restaurateurs
02/27/99—Martin Yan, Yan Can Cook TV host and author.
Copyright © 1999, Kate Heyhoe. All rights reserved.
This page created February 1999