Chinese Food Fun,
Olive Oil Roundup
and Julia Child Revisited
by Kate Heyhoe
"Chop Suey" Book Reveals Myths and Truths:
Andrew Coe's Chinese Secrets and Surprises
Even in today's global environment, most Westerners have a hard time wrapping their heads around the nuances of Chinese culture, customs and mind-thought. Now, a newly published history of Chinese food reveals as much about Americans as it does about the inscrutable Chinese culture. Anyone who's ever eaten Chinese food in America, whether it's Panda chain-take out, Susanna Foo's upscale restaurant fare, or General Tso's chicken, will discover fascinating tidbits spanning economics, world history, sociology, geography and of course, cuisine.
In Chop Suey: A Cultural History of Chinese Food in the United States, Andrew Coe follows the thread of Chinese cuisine from China to the United States. China's first impact on American shores traces back to the Pre-Revolutionary War days of British tea imports and bone-China teacups. In 1784, The Empress of China became the first American ship to set sail for China, carrying thirty tons of dried ginseng root harvested in Pennsylvania and Virginia, and returning ten months later laden with silk, porcelain and tea. From this point on, Coe feeds us plenty of fascinating morsels from both sides of the Atlantic, all leading up to and revolving around the impact of a single dish: chop suey. From sea cucumbers, dumplings and birds nests, to the Treat of Nanking, opium dens, and Richard Nixon, this book enlightens the inquiring mind. Coe himself discovered plenty of surprising details when writing the book, which he shares below.
The Five Most Interesting Things I Learned About Chinese Food
By Andrew Coe
Chop suey�occupies the realm�halfway between a stir-fry and a stew and is generally�made of onions, bean sprouts, celery, water chestnuts, bamboo shoots, cabbage, stock, cornstarch and some sort of meat. American-style chow mein is generally the same as chop suey, only served over crispy noodles, not rice.
- 1. Chop Suey Is Real Chinese Food
- Chinese food "experts" have long told us that chop suey is an American invention. It was either first concocted from garbage scraps by a boardinghouse cook in Gold Rush era San Francisco or thrown together by the chef of Chinese statesman Li Hongzhang in 1896 New York. Neither of these stories stands up to scrutiny. There's no evidence of chop suey in San Francisco before 1900, and New Yorkers were eating chop suey for a decade before Li Hongzhang visited the city. Instead, the historical record shows that chop suey was originally an earthy stew, made from organ meats, bean sprouts, fungi, onions, dried seafood, and a variety of seasonings, was traditionally eaten around the town of Toishan in Guangdong province's Pearl River Delta. After the foodies of 1880s New York discovered the dish down in Chinatown, Toishanese chefs began to adapt it to American tastes for bland, overcooked, and innocuous food--the chop suey we know today.
- 2. The Chinese Always Had The Ingredients To Prepare Real Chinese Food
- Some writers believe that Chinese chefs in this country couldn't find the right ingredients, and that's why dishes like chop suey and chow mein were so unlike "real" Chinese food. Actually, from the very first Chinese immigrants built up trade routes to import all the necessities to prepare their accustomed cuisine. The miners debarking in San Francisco for the gold mines carried jars of soy sauce and bags of rice on their shoulders. Chinese workers building the transcontinental railroad were fed from a train car stocked to the roof with rice, seasonings, dried seafood, pickles, and every other foodstuff to prepare three Chinese meals a day. Their countrymen tilled market gardens filled with Asian vegetables to feed Chinese communities from rural Idaho to New York's Chinatown. Even during the 1950s, when relations were cut between the United States and the People's Republic, Chinatown stores were filled with Chinese products that had been imported via Hong Kong. No, the reason Chinese-American food was so uninspiring was that chefs adapted their dishes to American tastes. They were saving the good stuff for themselves.
- 3. The Nation's Best Chinese Food Was Served In 19th Century San Francisco
- We all like to believe we're living in a golden age. In many cities across the country you can enjoy a wide variety of delicious foods from many regions of China. But how skilled are the chefs compared to those of earlier eras? If I had a time machine, I'd visit 1860s San Francisco, when the city was home to three or four elaborate banquet restaurants. Inside multi-story eateries like Hang Far Low, everything from the furniture to the food was imported from China. The chefs were likely from the towns just outside the provincial capital Guangzhou which are known as hotbeds of gourmet Cantonese cuisine even today. The white customers who (rarely) ventured into these restaurants for banquets marveled at the vast selection of dishes, often over a hundred, served at the hours-long repasts, featuring expensive dishes like shark's fin and bird's nest, soups, pastries, liquors, cigars, opium, and live entertainment. If you know of any Chinese restaurant today that can compete, let me know.
- 4. President Nixon Changed The Way We Eat Chinese Food
- If we remember anything about President Nixon's eating habits, it was that he lunched on cottage cheese slathered with ketchup. Nevertheless, his 1972 trip to the People's Republic changed the way we think about Chinese food at a time when chop suey and chow mein still dominated restaurant menus. Preparing for the ground-breaking journey, Nixon decided to focus media attention on Chinese food in order to distract them from knotty issues like the status of Taiwan and the Vietnam War. At the time, Americans had been shut off from China for over 20 years, and they were fascinated by any glimpse beyond the Bamboo Curtain. When the television audience saw President Nixon seated next to Premier Zhou Enlai at a banquet table and artfully using his chopsticks to eat Peking duck, their mouths began to water. Nixon's visit started a craze for Chinese food like they serve in China, and suddenly the lines snaked around the block to eat at the new Sichuan and Hunan restaurants that were just opening up. Americans began to reject the old style of bland and overcooked Chinese-American food in favor of spicy and exciting new dishes. Thanks to Nixon, we entered a new era in American dining.
- 5. President Calvin Coolidge Loved Chop Suey
- President Calvin Coolidge was known for being conservative, taciturn, and private, preferring family dinners at home to eating out. His favorite foods were pickles, roast beef, chicken from his home state of Vermont (raised in the White House chicken yard), and...chop suey? One of his perks of office was use of the presidential yacht Mayflower, whose chef was one Lee Ping Quan, originally from Guangzhou. President and Mrs. Coolidge fell in love with Lee's chicken chop suey. Indeed, just before Coolidge left office, Mrs. Coolidge made a special trip out to the yacht to secure Lee's recipe, so she could make it back in Vermont. Back during its heyday, not even "Silent Cal" could resist the allure of chop suey.
Andrew Coe is a food historian and writer living in New York City.� He has written for Saveur, Gastronomica, the New York Times, and many other publications. He is the author of Chop Suey: A Cultural History of the United States (Oxford University Press, July 2009).
Round Up: "Green" Olive Oils
from Palestine, Greece and NoCA
Artists have paints. Cooks have olive oils. Both are the foundations of great creations.
I'm always eager to try new olive oils, which reflect not just the olives they're pressed from, but the soils, climate, and skills of their makers. I've added three new brands to my collection, each with its own global, green, and flavor profile.
Alter Eco: Wonderfully intense, deep green and sassy, Alter Eco Robust Extra Virgin Olive Oil originates in Palestine. It's USDA Certified Organic, Fair Trade Certified, and carbon neutral. Planted, picked and processed by fair trade cooperatives, the Rumi olives yield oil so flavorful, just a splash adds a concentrated blast of rich flavor and aroma to a dish. It's a great finishing oil, and proceeds support farming communities by financing scholarship funds, micro loans for women, and tree planting. Alter Eco Mild Extra Virgin Olive Oil is equally delicious, with a buttery, rounded olive-y taste and gentle enough to be sprinkled on salad greens. (Global Gourmet is a big fan of Alter Eco Chocolate Bars, which are also organic and Fair Trade Certified.) (www.altereco.com)
GAEA: Another earth-friendly brand we love is kissed by sun and spray from Greece's Aegean Sea. GAEA makes the first extra virgin olive oils to be certified carbon neutral (it offsets carbon emissions by funding the "my climate" organization's projects). GAEA's Organic Extra Virgin Olive Oil from handpicked organic olives is luscious, velvety, and great as an all purpose oil, for greens to dipping. Other oils aren't certified organic, though the brand's mission emphasizes environmentally sound policies, like integrated crop management and carbon offsets. Connoisseurs will appreciate two gold medal winners, cold-pressed from Koroneiki olives: Kalamata DOP Extra Virgin Olive Oil, with a peppery aftertaste and clean, low acidity; and the Sitia-Crete DOP Extra Virgin Olive Oil, which yields a leaf-green oil with a distinctly fruity flavor and perfume. We also like GAEA's Organic Kalamata Olives, plump and meaty, packed in brine; keep them on hand for spontaneous entertaining or snack attacks. (www.gaea.gr)
Olinda Ridge: Closer to home, Olinda Ridge's award-winning small-batch oils and vinegars are handcrafted in Northern California. They make both a USDA Certified Organic oil and products that aren't "certified organic" but follow organic and sustainable farming practices. According to the company, their extra virgin oils have an acidity rate of .3% or less (lower than the .8% requirement), and a high polyphenol count, which maximizes anti-oxidants. Top of the line is Olinda Ridge Estate Organic Extra Virgin, very fruity with peppery spunk. Other extra virgin oils include the smooth and mild Late Harvest Gold and the moderately bold Master Blend. I'm very fond of the Lemon Olive Oil, which needs only the Golden Balsamic Vinegar to dress a delicate salad. Their Pomegranate Vinegar is another special treat, good for greens or splashed on as a fruity finish. (www.olindaridge.com)
Julia's Appearance Revisited
with Tips and Recipes
Suddenly, everyone wants to cook like Julia Child again. Or at least like Meryl Streep, who plays the grand dame in Nora Ephron's film Julie & Julia.
Julia Child did her first online chat in 1996, and it happened to be with our company, when we were partners with AOL. We were only a couple years old as an online site (we were the Internet's first food e-zine), and getting Julia as a guest in her first live chat was serious chops. Like flipping through an old family album, I searched our site and ran across an article I wrote about Julia just after her appearance with us. It's got photos of her and other colleagues, including Jacques Pepin, Graham Kerr, and me. You'll also find Julia Child's Tips for everything from garlic to green beans and anchovies to coulis, and a profile of her by Alex Prud'homme from the wonderful book, Food Jobs: 150 Great Jobs for Culinary Students, Career Changers and Food Lovers, by Irena Chalmers.
Trivia: Did you know Julia had a passion for goldfish crackers? Guests and visitors to her home were offered a bowl of the little snacks, usually with wine or cocktails. I discovered this when and a bunch of foodwriters and I were reminiscing about Julia. One of us mentioned the goldfish in passing, and suddenly all of us chimed in that indeed, Julia served the little snacks to us all.
Julia Child's Cooking Tips
from "In Julia's Kitchen with Master Chefs"
- Garlic Lore And Handling Tips From Julia
- Julia's Strawberry or Raspberry Sauce or Coulis
- Julia's Notes On Cooking Green Beans
- Julia's Notes On Anchovies
- Julia's Notes On Peeling, Seeding, and Juicing Tomatoes
More Julia Child
Julia Child: America's Favorite TV Cook, by Alex Prud'homme
What to Eat This Month
- Fontina and Roasted Yellow Pepper Salad
- Clams in Cartoccio
- Thai Baby Back Ribs
- Dulce de Leche Ice Cream
Chicken of the Month:
Copyright © 2009, Kate Heyhoe. All rights reserved.
This page modified September 2009