Elastic supply and demand

17 years ago

To the editor:
Have you ever stretched a pig? How far will that steak go? Can you perform a near miracle with one scrawny chicken and a passel of relatives? Welcome to the world of Chinese Cooking. I am learning how to do all the above and even if I time it right I will try my hand at jellyfish in the next week or so.     Yes, I am learning to cook Chinese food. As a longtime bachelor, knowing how to cook is a useful skill. Nothing works better at hiding other housekeeping errors faster than the scent of fresh bread and chocolate chip cookies. I can thank Mom for her insistence that I learn to navigate the confines of a kitchen. A few of you lot might even remember the infamous egg separation moment on Pickers’ Special with the late John Logan. Crack an egg into your palm. Allow the white to flow through your fingers and toss the yolk into a different bowl. Works like a charm but scares the dickens out of the fluff and bluster hygiene people. Just remember to wash your hands before doing this!
If your only experience with Chinese food is La Choy meal in a can or the delightful Mai Tai or Jade Palace, then get ready to fasten the feed bag and loosen the belt. A typical dinner begins in the early morning hours. This is when you can get the fresh from the field produce that forms the base for any meal.
You walk out of your apartment building and everywhere you turn are the street vendors selling all sorts of vegetables. Most are grown locally. Peppers, green beans, corn, beet greens, onions, tomatoes, and cilantro. Celery, potatoes, lettuce, cabbage — about four different varieties- and many that I do not recognize. even the grocery stores have this same variety.
The rest of the day is spent in preparing all the ingredients. Leaves separated and washed, Tubers washed and dried. Garlic cloves peeled and ready for crushing. Chopping, slicing, dicing and designing. For many reasons, the typical Chinese dinner is short on meat and long on the vegetables.
Speed is important. Once you have all the ingredients assembled in a pallet of color and texture the art begins. A Chinese dinner is more than just food on the table. It is an art form. Vegetables are not just cooked and served. Thought goes into colors, textures, and consistency. One dish may be Eggplant and peppers, another is onions, celery, garlic and cilantro. Each one of these concoctions is cooked in the wok, heated and stirred together. The finished mix is put in a bowl and the next items are tossed in.
A table is loaded with all these different bowls and plates of vegetables. A small meal might have four or five different dishes with nine or ten different vegetables. And what about the meat.
Typically, a meal will have a variety of meats. Some pork, chicken, fish, and beef will be mixed in with three or four of the vegetable dishes. But do not expect to get a large steak. Instead that steak will be split up into small little bite size pieces. Thus a piece of meat ends up being part of a large feast. And therefore it is relatively easy to stretch a chicken or pull a pig.
I will stop writing for a bit. Give the editor a bit of a breather. Mostly because I am coming home for a visit. And at the risk of getting more on my plate than I can eat, I am waiting for one of those Trash Can Omelets at the Mapleton Diner. Like all good food, its made with love and laughs. See you then.

Orpheus Allison
Shanghai, China
orpheusallison@mac.com