Cooking for the Chinese

Cooking is a favorite hobby of mine — one dinner per weekend is devoted to some serious time in the kitchen — Northern Italian, Indian, Chinese (Hunan), French, Cape Cod seafood … you name it, I’m game to try it.

Yesterday I went clamming on the low tide with my youngest sun under a gloriously blue sky and focused on “chowder” clams, quahogs bigger than my fist which make for excellent “stuffies,” a traditional way of preparing clams here on the Cape. With all intentions of making a version invented by Chris Schlesinger (owner of the East Coast Grill in Cambridge, Mass. and the Back Eddy in Westport), known as the “Ultimate Stuffie,” I made preparations to proceed in that direction when I received a phone call from my step-sister — the Beijing-based movie producer (Kill Bill) — that she was in town with some Chinese colleagues and they were homesick and craving some real Chinese food after a week of bland American restaurant fare. Knowing the caliber of Cape Cod’s Chinese restaurants, she asked me to polish up my wok.
So, change in plan. Fortunately, on my return from Tokyo on Friday, I swung by the Super 88 grocery store in South Boston to restock my Asian cooking supplies, the stuff that can’t be found anywhere.
The guest of honor was The Master. Yuen Wo Ping is the most famous martial arts choreographer on the planet. He’s the man who did the fight scenes in The Matrix; Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon; Iron Monkey, and pioneered the entire slo-mo, walk-on-walls, gravity-deying martial arts school of cinematic kung-fu. He was in town to see his daughter, who attends college in Boston, and she was accompanied by her Chinese friend. Also along for the dinner was The Master’s producer, who’s name now escapes me.

Yuen Wo Ping
So, here was a massive test of my Chinese cooking skills. It’s one thing to cook it for my family, it’s another to stack up against people accustomed to the real thing in Beijing.

I made (in two hours).

  • Ma Pa Tofu — bean curd in spicy meat sauce.
  • Chicken salad — shredded chicken and cucumbers on cold Chinese noodles with a spicy peanut sauce.
  • Dumplings (jiaozi) — pork, Napa cabbage and scallion in a soy-vinegar chili oil sauce.
  • Deep fried green beans in meat sauce
  • Hunan Garlic Chicken with fermented black beans

I trashed the kitchen in the process, used nearly every pan and wok, set off the smoke detectors, had a major respiratory event when I threw two handfuls of dried Szechuan red peppers into a wok full of superheated peanut oil, used forty cloves of garlic, about eight inches of ginger ….

Due to the language barrier there was very little dinner table conversation. Everyone went heads down with the chop sticks and started shovelling. First bite and my guests started commenting to each other in excited Chinese.

“The Master says you are the best Whitey cook of Chinese he’s ever seen,” said my step-sister. No cook takes a compliment seriously until his guests reach for refills. They reached. And they reached again. I knew I had achieved success when The Master had to wipe the sweat off his forehead with his napkin. Any devotee of Hunan cooking knows a good chili sweat is the mark of a good meal. Mission accomplished.

Author: David Churbuck

Cape Codder with an itch to write