Chinese food and me: The story of a lifelong love affair
CHAPTER 1: THE PLANTING
The year was 1937. I was seven years old. I was with my father and mother, at a Chinese restaurant on 13th Avenue and 47th Street in Boro Park, Brooklyn. I think that this was the first Chinese restaurant I ever dined at, perhaps the first restaurant in my life. I don’t know if my father thought I wouldn’t be able to finish an adult portion, or maybe money was tight at the time, but I was always given portions from the adults’ order.
I’m not sure when it was, but the time did come when I was allowed to have my own order. That was when I had my first Won-Ton soup, egg roll and barbecued spare ribs. My father seemed to know the Chinese waiter, a young guy; his name was Jimmy. I remember being surprised that a Chinese man could have an American name.
Some months later, my father took me to a restaurant in Manhattan’s Chinatown called The Rathskeller in the basement on Mott Street. This was my first time in Chinatown and I was very impressed by how different it was from Boro Park. We went there a few times. The food was better than what we had in Brooklyn. I had my first Shrimp in Lobster Sauce= there.
I didn’t know it then, but some time later, it became apparent to me that Chinese food would follow me through the days of my life.
In 1951, I had graduated CCNY with a degree in Accounting; the Korean War was in its second year and I was in the army. Because of my financial training, I was sent to work in the Hospital Treasurer’s Office at Letterman Army Hospital on the Presidio in San Francisco. I was fortunate that I wasn’t sent to Korea. A half dozen people worked here. There was Bill Fugita, Rosaline Lee (wife of Olympic diving champion, Sammy Lee), and Liz Jo who had an uncle who was a waiter at The Far East Café on Grant Avenue in the heart of San Francisco’s Chinatown. Once a week, a group from the office would go there for lunch and Liz’s uncle would take good care of us. My favorite dish was Tomato Beef Chow Mein with Pan Fried Noodles.
It wasn’t until about 23 years later, in 1974, that I had my next serious relationship with the cuisines of China.
CHAPTER 2: THE BLOSSOMING
Until 1965, just about all Chinese restaurants in America served Cantonese-style dishes. Then, in 1965, the Shun Lee Dynasty restaurant opened in Manhattan. It was the first upscale Sichuan restaurant to appear in New York City and in the 15 years that followed, Sichuan restaurants opened up all over Manhattan. The competition for customers was intense and many restaurants offered incentives to gain patrons. One such restaurant was the Sichuan Royale, located on the ground floor of the Hotel Buxton in the upper 70’s on the East side. We had friends that lived in the area, and we dined there every time we visited them. I loved the spiciness of the food and I had many favorite dishes. Among them were Cold Noodles in Sesame Sauce, Sautéed Shrimp in Hot Pepper Sauce andChicken with Orange Flavor. On one of our visits there was a notice on all the tables announcing that the restaurant’s chef was going to provide free cooking lessons every Sunday morning.
I was very excited by the prospect of attending these lessons Every Sunday morning, for about two months, I would get up early and drive down to the restaurant. About seven to ten people would show up for the lessons, and for the food that would be served after the chef prepared each dish. By the time the lessons were over, I had about 16 of the restaurant’s best recipes.
I did most of the dinner cooking at home on my Garland stove, which provided enough intense heat to prepare Sichuan and Hunan dishes. The next step was obvious — I had to buy a wok.. So, one day I went to a restaurant supply house in Manhattan’s Chinatown and bought myself the best 14 inch carbon steel wok I could find. Now, I was off to the races.
CHAPTER 3: THE BIRD AND ME
During the 1970’s, I was a practicing CPA and my son was attending college in Chicago. A client by the name of Dr. George Pepper was dissatisfied with his accounting services at the time and approached me with an offer. George, who was also a gourmet, suggested that I fly to Chicago once every three months, provide for his accounting needs, stay at his apartment for a few days, visit with my son, and dine at some fine Chicago restaurants.
For the next three years, I made quarterly trips to Chicago, did my accounting work, visited my son and dined very well. George knew many outstanding restaurants in the Chicago area. One was a Chinese restaurant called The Bird, which was owned and operated by Chef Benny Moy. George and Ben were longtime friends.
Benny Moy was a singular chef. The dishes he prepared were unique, and he had nothing written down; everything was in his mind. Just by changing, adding or subtracting an ingredient or two, he could come up with an entirely new dish. Sometimes, my wife, Llewellyn, would join me on my Chicago trips and a group of us would have dinner at The Bird. We would all show up at the restaurant around 6 pm, take our places at the table and for the next four hours, platters of Benny’s artistry would be brought out to our table, one by one, until about 10:00 when Benny would show up,glass of wine in hand, and join us for some final chatter. George always picked up the bill.
After a year or two went by, I finally muscled up the courage to ask Benny if I could spend a week with him in his restaurant kitchen to learn. By his standards, I was a neophyte in the world of Chinese cooking but he saw my desire to learn, and so he agreed.
I was very nervous the first day I showed up. This was not like a cooking school with a curriculum; maybe he would be so busy he wouldn’t even know I was there. Would I get in his way, be too close or too far away? What would he have me do?
I didn’t have to wait long to find out how I would start. “Put on this jacket, go over to the stove and clean the two woks there,” he said. I was thrilled. What a beginning; I was allowed to clean the masters’ woks.
Then things just seemed to fall in place. Benny was very concentrated when he was doing prep work or cooking. I would just follow him around, trying very hard not to get in his way and I would talk into my hand-held recorder, documenting everything he did; so in effect I had all his recipes. He had a teaching style all his own. I just followed him around, watched and noted everything he did and at the end of the week, when my time in the kitchen was over, I came away feeling that I had had the most exciting, unusual, unique cooking experiences I had ever had. Plus, now I knew how to cook Ben’s signature dish: Crispy Skin Chicken.
CHAPTER 4: EPICUREAN EDITIONS EAST
We were at about 20,000 feet on a Northwest Airlines jet somewhere above the middle of the Pacific Ocean on our way to Hong Kong. Six months earlier, I had been half of the partnership of Berk and Roseman, a New York CPA firm. I had been in the business for over 40 years, and had discovered that I had enough of the financial world. I had prepared my share of tax returns and financial statements. I wanted out. So, I sold my 50 percent share of the firm to my partner and I was free. I could do anything I wanted. It was like a huge burden had been lifted from my shoulders and I liked the feeling, a lot. It wasn’t that I didn’t want to work anymore. I had always regarded work as an important life activity, but I also thought it was important to work at something you loved.
A few years earlier, I was vacationing on a golf tour in Spain with seven other guys. One of them was Vic Ascrizzi, owner of Sea Gate Travel. We became friends. so one day I approached Vic and said “I think Sea Gate should sponsor a gourmet dining tour to Asia and I’m the guy that you should put in charge. “He said, “Okay, I’ll give you a desk, phone and computer in the office. Let’s see what you can do.” I knew nothing about how to run a dining tour, especially to Asia where I had never been. I had to take a few steps back, collect myself, and seriously examine what I had gotten myself into.
I did some research and decided that Hong Kong — known for its Dim Sum and Cantonese cooking — should be the first destination. Vic thought it was a good idea, and so it began.
We called our operation “Epicurean Expeditions East,” a division of Sea Gate Travel. Business cards were made, and I started to do extensive research of hotels and restaurants in Hong Kong. We tentatively decided that the tour would require about ten days, and would include a welcome cocktail party, six lunches, seven dinners and some excursions to markets, fishing villages and a jade factory. Perhaps there would even be a noodle-making demonstration. in January of 1991, I decided to visit Hong Kong for further research, and so I boarded a Northwest Airline 747 bound for Hong Kong.
Upon my arrival at Kai Tak Airport, I took a cab to the Merchants Hotel on Hong Kong Island and arrived there at about 11:00 pm. I was pretty tired from the trip but I was so excited about being in Hong Kong that I left the hotel and explored the neighborhood. When I got back to my hotel, I noticed a cocktail lounge off the lobby and decided to drop in for a cocktail to celebrate my first night here.
It was late and there were few people in the lounge. The waitress brought me my drink and said a few words to me (either in Cantonese or Mandarin) that I didn’t understand so I returned her words with a smile and she walked off. Ten minutes later, she reappeared at my table and said something. I again smiled and she walked off. Returning for a third time, she pointed to the front of the lounge. I noticed a microphone and what appeared to be some kind of screen apparatus and soon realized I was in a karaoke lounge and she wanted me to go to the front and sing. Apparently, my performance was included in the price of the drink. I went to the front, made my selection, sang ”Besame Mucho,” paid my bill and went to my room and my bed.
Over the next two weeks, I made calls, met with hotel managers, food and beverage people, restaurant managers and occasionally chefs, while staying at many of the hotels and dining at many of the selected restaurants. Somewhere along the way I was told that my Chinese name was Li Lup Duc. It was a spectacular adventure, two weeks of my life that I’ll never forget.
When I returned home, I created an eight-day Hong Kong tour filled with the finest dining experiences imaginable accompanied by the unique sights and sounds of this great place. Our guests would stay at the Peninsula Hotel, which had a standard of personalized service that had largely disappeared.
I found Hong Kong to be one of the most unusual cities in the world. It provided a vibrant mix of East and West with high-tech architecture soaring in slick contrast to ancient temples and alleyway markets. The streets bristled and buzzed with life — the hubbub of junks, freighters and ferries in Victoria Harbor; sophisticated shopping centers and artisans in street stalls; Dai Pai Dongs (street restaurants) enveloped in the steamy haze rising from their sizzling woks; streams of people talking into cellular phones mixing with the brilliant yellows, greens and purples of fruit and vegetables in display stalls. The luster of neon and the pulse of entrepreneurial energy flourished alongside miles of farmland and sparkling sea.
This is the Hong Kong I knew and wanted to share. In 1997, Hong Kong would become part of the Peoples’ Republic of China. How would that change Hong Kong as we knew it?
My next challenge was making food lovers aware of our tour, so we contacted food writers of major newspapers and magazines and offered them the opportunity to take our first trip in the hope that they would return home and write glowing articles about their experiences. The press tour took place in February of 1992, and the articles that came out of it were so glowing that I thought the phones at Sea Gate would not stop ringing.
That, however, did not turn out to be the case. Although the travel agency community and the airlines were aware of our tour, the food-craze that exists today had not yet started. We received only a few calls and we were unable to put together large enough groups to provide a profit-making operation. It was quite disappointing. Perhaps my idea for a gourmet dining tour to Asia was just a bit before its time. I think of it as the most successful failure I have experienced in my lifetime, so far. I loved every minute of it.
CHAPTER 5: AN AMERICAN IN TAIPEI — DISPATCHES FROM THE 1993 TAIPEI FOOD FESTIVAL
It was the spring of 1993. I was sitting at my desk when my phone rang. A strange voice said, “I work for The Taipei Tourist Association. I’d like to speak to Leonard Berk.”
“This is Leonard Berk; how can I help you?”
“Your name was given to us by The Hong Kong Tourist Association. We are working with the tourist bureau in the planning of the 1993 Taipei Food Festival and we would like to know if you would be interested in being the American judge at the cooking competition.”
To say that I was overwhelmed by the call would be the understatement of the decade. I called her back the next day and told her I was available.
The next thing I knew, I was sitting in the first class lounge of China Airlines awaiting my flight to Taipei. With me in the lounge were three Chinese businessmen, dressed in suits, ties and sparkling polished shoes. No one spoke. Boarding time came and I found myself seated in first class. Shortly thereafter, we were airborne; the adventure had begun. The seats were great but somehow I got a backache even with lumbar support built into the seat. Sad to say the food was terrible. The only thing hot was the towel and the tastiest thing was the Diet Coke. The scallops tasted like sponges in white glue, the chicken was also in a gloppy sauce and it was all cold. This was first class?
My suite at The Ritz was more than I expected — king-size bed, two TV’s, coffee table, couch, desk, love seat, two tables, large bathroom with tub and shower, dressing room with wall mirror and huge closet, fully-stocked bar and more. I had been there for perhaps an hour when I was invited to lunch by Stacey Chu, the publicity director, who told me that I would be taking a tour of the city and The Taroko Gorge area the next day. I was invited to a dinner at the hotel’s Tien Hsiang Restaurant, which specialized in Hunanese and Hang Chow cuisine. The dishes started to appear, eight of them, properly spaced. They included:
A cold fish appetizer (almost couldn’t tell it was fish)
Grilled shrimp with special tea leaves and a splash of vinegar
Deep-fried thin bean curd.
Sautéed squash in a white sauce
A soup with fish balls and some other unidentifiable stuff
A chunk of pork, tied with string, poached in Master Sauce
The food was acceptable, but far from Hong Kong caliber.
After lunch, I was picked up by a pre-arranged tour guide in a mini-bus. I didn’t know why, but there was no one else on the tour — just the guide and me. We made friends rapidly, but the tour was not memorable, perhaps because of the intense heat. Taipei in August should be avoided at all costs; it’s too hot outside and too cold inside.
I napped in the late afternoon and when evening approached I hit the streets. I had my dinner at various street stalls where I purchased squired squid, chicken Arsis, fried fish, chicken wing and foot and potato sausage, all put into bags. Total cost: about $3.
Early the next morning, I flew to the Tarako Gorge in Haulien, with a Canadian M.D. from the University of Toronto, his wife and a Las Vegas computer engineer. The gorge was spectacular, but the traffic was awful and it was was unbearably hot. The time spent at the gorge was not worth the time spent getting there.
Dinner that evening was held at a large round table that comfortably seated twelve. Among the guests was a Canadian Dean named Brian Cooper. I mention him by name because he was the only other person who spoke English, and that was bonding.
Stanley Yen, president of the Ritz Taipei Hotel made some opening remarks explaining that he wanted to upgrade the culinary areas of Taipei.
All glasses were filled with a Chinese wine, which tasted like warm sake, but with a little more flavor. Then the ritual toasting began; one to one, eye to eye, nod to nod. Everyone at the table toasted everyone else during the course of the meal; sometimes more than once. Talk was mostly in Mandarin with apologies from Mr. Yen, for it being so. I got into the toasting (and drinking) but stopped in time. I ate my dinner, played the game for a while and went to bed.
I won’t go into the lackluster dinner for which Mr. Yen apologized with lackluster reasons; he assured us that great food would be coming. He had planned out almost every dinner.
Next morning, having eaten breakfast at the hotel buffet the previous two days, I decided to have breakfast on the streets where I found a variety of breakfast sandwiches and steamed buns. I found a stall staffed by some young girls and decided to get my breakfast there. I stepped up to the grill and tried to communicate that I wanted my eggs over easy, but I wasn’t able to get the idea across, so I picked up an egg and cracked it on the side of the grill. She smiled, knowing I was going to show her. When I grabbed her hand as she was about to stab my yolk, she understood. What resulted was a perfectly-made egg served in a walled Styrofoam container with a pair of chopsticks. I don’t recall how I dealt with chopsticks and the egg yolk. I asked for coffee and got delicious whitened iced coffee. Cost: $1.50.
After breakfast, I walked the streets, which was an ordeal because of the heat and humidity. I carried my camera and a small towel, wore a short-sleeve shirt, shorts and sneakers. After ten minutes, I was wet from the waist up. It was a challenge to be out there, but I wanted to see the sights. There were broken sidewalks, construction all over, unbelievable traffic; if the cars didn’t get you, the motor scooters would. There were pet shops, pachinko and Nintendo parlors, many 7-11’s, barbers, salad bars. Most things were beat up. Some young adults were well-dressed in spite of the heat and there were occasional wafts of cool air coming from open doors. There were cute babies, butcher shops with no refrigeration, dog groomers, meter maids with beautiful umbrellas, Baskin-Robbins, smog, smog and more smog.
I visited a Taoist temple where people prayed with incense sticks, and were blessed by uniformed old ladies. I had dinner that night with Daniel Pelligrenelle, an old friend from Hong Kong who I met on the street. He had given up his job at the Conrad Hotel and now worked as a chef. We reminisced about times past, and talked about Taipei and the food festival. He said that Taipei was a second-class city with second-class food and that the food festival was second-rate; no major international chef would be competing. This was disheartening .
At the dinner that marked the beginning of the festival, I walked into the banquet hall of The Ritz, said many hellos and took a place at a table alongside Dean Cooper. There were about 120 guests in all, 24 of whom were judges. Those of us who were judges received uniforms, and shortly thereafter the speeches began, most of them in Mandarin. Then, into the dining room. There were about ten tables, a large bright red napkin at each setting. The room looked like a sea of redness. The dinner that followed was almost a repeat of the welcome dinner that had been held a few days earlier. I had not had one great dinner since arriving in Taipei. What a disappointment.
CONTEST DAY 1:
The first day of the cooking competition of The Taipei Food Festival of 1993. At 8:30 am, we were driven to the Exposition Hall of the Taipei airport. The Taiwanese too, turned out for the event — 75,000 strong. The parking lot outside the main hall was huge. Car spaces were marked; each space had room for one car or four motor scooters. When the lot was full, it looked like a sea of huge bugs, awaiting orders to strike.
Upon entering the exposition hall, we were ushered to the VIP Judges’ lounges which were located behind four make-shift kitchens where teams of chefs were already cooking the dishes that we were to be judging. I was called upon to judge eight teams of chefs, each chef cooking four hot dishes. That’s 32 dishes, which meant I had 32 forms to fill out while everything was happening around me. This situation required a great deal of calm on my part. As the dishes were finished and displayed, many did not have the identifying names and numbers required so that we didn’t always know which dish we were judging; also the forms which did have identifying numbers and detailed descriptions of the dishes were written in Mandarin. In short order, it became an impossible situation.
For some reason, we were not allowed to taste certain dishes and then we were called upon to rate them. By the time many of the hot dishes were ready for tasting, they were cold. Arguments broke out between the Chinese officials, their interpreters and the English-speaking judges as to how we could rate a dish we never tasted. In the midst of all thism the air conditioning broke down. So much for the morning.
The afternoon session was a bit less hectic. I had only 12 dishes to judge. I was given more forms to fill out for morning dishes that were not ready until now. Everything about the day was chaotic and confusing; bedlam reigned. Some of “The “Yellow Shirts Brigade” group (more about them later) appeared and presented me with forms in Chinese that they said required my signature. By this time of the day, I was tired and not thinking clearly and I just signed whatever they gave me. Anything to stop the torture. It was a day to remember.
Many demonstrations apart from the cooking competition were featured, such as Singapore Tea Pouring, Spring Roll Skin Making, Noodle and Malt Candy Making and Chinese Medicine Dish Preparation, as well as over 70 display and presentation booths representing hotels and establishments all over Taiwan and the other participating countries. There were also over 30 traditional snack stands staffed by restaurant and hotel exhibitors, selling wonderful things to eat that one would expect at a Chinese food event; noodles, pork, scallion pancakes, soups, spring rolls and more. Four wine companies participated in wine-tasting events.
Unfortunately, one of Stanley Yen’s promised dinners was scheduled for that night. He had told us that before we went home we would have sampled everything that there was to be eaten in Taiwan. On this night, we dined at three restaurants, and were served a total of 21 courses. All we could do was taste each dish and move on. For the first time the food was outstanding. When the orgy ended, the diners’ faces showed signs of pain. I had never eaten so much in my life, but the company was pleasant; we were getting to know each other.
I went up to the Fitness Center to work out instead of having breakfast.
At 8:30 am, my car arrived and brought me to the Exposition Hall. This day went a little better than the previous one had if only because I was used to the chaos. However, I must also give credit to the staff of the Heineken’s Exhibit for making life more bearable in a poorly air-conditioned facility. If not for them, I don’t think I would have made it through the competition. When things got too hot, we would hop over to the Heineken’s Exhibit, where my judge’s coat and badge entitled me to a tall one in a glass instead of a small one in a plastic cup. I was a VIP. When the crab dish came out and it was a duck, when the score sheets were pulled away while I was filling them out, when I was given the fish score card to fill out instead of the chicken card, when the forms got lost and the squab turned into a scallop, when some official told me to taste a dish and another told me not to; these were all times for a Heineken.
And yet, these were serious situations. Chefs were very concerned about their scores. With the stroke of my pen, I could possibly change somebody’s life. A 75 instead of 95 could possibly make the difference in a chef’s future. After work, I took the opportunity to walk around and visit some of the exhibits. I noticed people at me, some bowing and nodding. I was the American judge, and I enjoyed the celebrity of it. The kid’s faces were warm, bright and friendly. My uniform allowed me entry to all exhibits without waiting on line. I watched many exhibits including Ice Carving, Noodle Pulling, Vegetable and Fruit Carving, and Napkin Folding.
Today was relatively easy. Judging was almost like second nature to me now, and I was able to mix it up with the people I had nicknamed “The Yellow Shirt Brigade.”
Every food festival needs its workers: runners, guards, data entry people, messengers. Enter Mr. Hui-Wen Hsia, principal of the Taipei Kaii-Ping Vocational School, and his students, ages 17 to 19. Mr. Hsai and the festival committee agreed that, in exchange for his students’ services, his school would receive all of the kitchen equipment used at the competition. So they came, hundreds of students, enthusiastic and bright eyed, there to help and learn. They all wore yellow shirts, and moved through the exhibition hall like little yellow butterflies. I developed a relationship with a group of them working in my area. The grins and smiles that passed between us were special; they seemed to think I was lots of fun because I kidded them a lot. One day, I took a sheet of 8 ½ X 11 paper and filled up the page with the following words: “THE YELLOW SHIRT BRIGADE.”
They were so eager to see what I was writing that they peered over my shoulder and milled about. I presented it to a group of them and they understood I was giving them a nickname, and the idea seemed to appeal to them. They summoned the best English speakers in the group hoping to understand the meaning of “brigade.” No luck until I found a competent interpreter and explained that brigade was like an army. They appreciated that, and the name stuck.
It was the last day of competition and that was okay with me. I needed a rest from judging. Along about 11:00, the morning competition concluded. I wandered to one of the judges’ meeting rooms where I met my counterparts and discussed some of the morning’s activities. “How did you enjoy the Kung Pao Chicken first thing in the morning?” I asked. Several people grimaced.
I had only 16 dishes to judge this day. Even so, by afternoon, things were getting a little hazy: I couldn’t tell mutton from mango, but I went on tasting and judging, writing and questioning, and then, suddenly, like out of an old J. Arthur Rank film, the gong sounded and vibrations tickled my eardrums” It’s over. I fought my way past all the exhibits, exchanging smiles with the masses on my way back to the VIP lounge. Some “Yellow Shirts” offered me smiles and tea while I waited for my limo back to The Ritz. Oh, for a Coke.
The farewell banquet would be our last sit-down dinner together. By this time, our group of hosts and judges had become quite friendly; a familial-type relationship had begun to grow.
The Chinese enjoyed their liquor. Many bottles of Shou Shing wine were consumed, followed by toasts of “Ganbei” (cheers). Halfway through the dinner, most could feel no pain but the toasting continued. We never ran out of things to toast I made a toast to the recent marriage of my stepdaughter and her new Chinese husband. When legitimate toasts ran out, we toasted cities and countries. “To our friends from North America, to Shanghai, to good food.” You name it; we drank to it. I tried to be careful — I didn’t want to get drunk. Towards the end, I faked drinking. And don’t you think I wasn’t caught. Oh yes, the dinner:
Prawns with four sauces! Frogs Legs Szechuan Style! Bamboo Shoots and Spinach! Shark’s Fin! Roast Chicken! Chicken Soup with Bean Curd and Watercress! Beef Sandwich! Steamed Fish with Ginger and Scallions! Fruit Soup and Fruit Platter!
THE FINAL DAY:
The awards presentation banquet was actually a buffet at the Ambassador Hotel. Everyone who had anything to do with the festival was there, even the “Yellow Shirts,” who wore their best suits and dresses. It was a happy gathering. Introductory speeches (in Mandarin, of course) were short and sweet. There was a band comprising music students from a local school. Awards were given out with dispatch. Cameras flashed throughout the proceedings and finally all the proud winners, in their sparkling whites with their trophies and medals, lit up the place with proud smiles.
Then the eating began. Nowhere else have I ever seen such incontrovertible evidence that the Chinese are happiest when they are eating. And eat they did. In a short time, mountains of beautifully-displayed food disappeared. Platters of shrimp,lobster, fruit, roast pig and pork, beef, salads, dumplings, soups and noodles; GONE!
My appetite was not ready for this orgy. I was “fooded out.” I found myself in a room where I had the opportunity to eat my way through a magnificent Chinese buffet banquet while my body messengers told me I didn’t want any. It was truly over for me; this trip anyway. But I knew I’d make a comeback.
EPILOGUE: MY CHINESE CHINESE BANQUETS
My love for the cuisines of China expresses itself in how often I eat them, how often I cook them, and with whom I share them. Mostly, I have shared them with my wife Llewellyn and our children, although many close friends are part of the select group that partakes of my Chinese dinners.
An annual Chinese banquet has been traditional in my family since 1979; usually during the first three months of the year. For weeks before the event, my kids call to find out what’s on the menu besides “Shrimp in Lobster Sauce,” a family favorite. Of course I tell them I don’t know because it depends on what looks good in the market. The dinners usually start with hors d’oeuvres followed by a seven-course dinner. A menu is displayed on the dining room table for all to see. Dishes are brought to the table one by one.
These banquets are usually held on Saturday evening, and I begin preparing early in the week. I check out the pork, chicken, fish and beef to see what appeals to me. Each dinner usually contains one seafood dish, one pork dish, one chicken dish and usually soup and dessert. The other two courses depend on my mood and attitude.
In order to turn out a worthy dinner, you need to have the following equipment; an adequate stove, hooded fan above, two 14-inch woks, a bamboo, four-tiered steamer, large and medium stainless steel spiders, deep-fry thermometer, stirrers and turners, chopsticks and probably more that I can’t think of right now .
A well-stocked American kitchen has all the spices and condiments an American chef needs. A Chinese chef needs the equivalent in Chinese spices and condiments.
There are many different cooking methods in the Chinese repertoire. Most of the dishes, but certainly not all, that I prepare, are done in the following manner. The star of the dish (the pork, the lobster, etc.) is usually cut up into bite-size pieces, marinated (sometimes over night) in corn flour, egg or egg white, salt, sugar and a bit of oil. The other ingredients are cut to size when necessary and assembled. A sauce is prepared. When this has been accomplished, all the ingredients await placement and the cooking can begin. All the ingredients are placed on the counter next to the wok in the order that they are to be used. The main ingredient is deep-fried to about 85% of doneness and reserved. It is then stir-fried, usually in certain spices, the sauce is added, more stir frying and “Voila!” the dish is done, ready for plating and serving. And so it goes, dish after dish until it’s over.
Along about 2017, I discovered that these banquets required more time and effort than I was willing to provide. I was 87 years old. It was time to stop; the banquets, that is.
Still, I’m cooking away, every day: well, almost every day.
Len Berk is The Forward’s lox columnist. He worked behind the counter at Zabar’s for 26 years.