Over the past weekend we hosted our first film festival at the Kenworthy Performing Arts Center in honor of the 12th annual Confucius Institute Day. We decided to focus our film series on Chinese food and tea culture, specifically as it has informed American’s perceptions of Chinese cuisine. One of the reasons we chose food as focus area is because food, like music, is a universal language that can transcend places, people, and politics.
I’ve always enjoyed Chinese food, although like most American, my perception of what was “authentic” Chinese food was colored by the small Chinese restaurants in my home town. As I was growing up, I remember how special it was for our family to go out to eat at the Peking Garden restaurant in Fairbanks, Alaska. I remember the sweet and sour pork, the sizzling rice, the cashew chicken, the toasty Chinese tea in the porcelain pot, and the best fried rice I had ever had. I remember that my parents especially loved the Mushu Pork, and the delicate pancakes that came with the dish, which were used to create little Chinese burritos. Little did I know that this was not authentic Chinese food!
When I lived in Taiwan in the early 90’s I was overwhelmed with the wealth and variety of food items that I had never seen before! Pig noses, chicken tails, duck tongues, chicken feet, oxtail soup, mutton, bitter melons, winter melons, aubergine that melted in your mouth, frogs, taro, insects of all kinds, tropical fruits that had no English names, and the best fried rice in the world cooked in a wok, set into an old oil drum, heated by a natural gas burner that sounded like a jet engine. It was delicious, cheap, and finding new and unique food became a daily pursuit.
I became a student of the street vendors and would watch how they cooked their various dishes…each hole in the wall vendor specializing in one specific food item…no more, no less. Perhaps my favorite food became the many varieties of Taiwanese noodle soups. Of particular note was a ridiculously delicious soup made with shark fin noodles, cuttlefish, and cilantro in a peppery broth that was perfect for the chilly, rainy winters in northern Taiwan. But perhaps the soup that most enamored me was the famous Taiwanese beef noodle soup.
Unlike beef noodle soup from northern China which tends to be served with a clear, mild broth, Taiwanese beef noodle soup is cooked in a deep dark broth that is flavored with soy sauce, black bean paste, star anise, ginger, garlic, and scallions. This broth also serves as the braising liquid for the beef short ribs, beef shank, and occasional oxtail, that each add tremendous depth to the final product. If there is one food that, in my opinion, would be considered to be the perfect food, it would be Taiwanese beef noodle soup!
After I left Taiwan in the mid-1990’s I was on a perpetual quest to figure out how to replicate the comforting and complex concoction of ingredients that made up Taiwan beef noodle soup. The recipes for beef noodle soup in Taiwan are closely guarded family secrets and every year there is a national competition to see which chef can create the best beef noodle soup. Winning chefs become national celebrities and can make a hole in the wall restaurant a national landmark. One restaurant in Taipei has recently been in the news because they have developed what they believe is the best recipe and sell a bowl of beef noodle soup for $260!
Over time I have developed my own version of the recipe, and have figured out ways to adapt it to the food items available in American markets. For example, I will frequently substitute kale for the milder bok choy, which is difficult to acquire during some seasons of the year here in Idaho. I’ve also had to compromise on the noodle quality since fresh noodles are also difficult to come by (yes, I realize I could learn to make them…but ain’t nobody got time for that!). Despite these compromises, my beef noodle soup has become a family favorite and is often requested by my kids; unfortunately it takes about 24 hours to make it correctly and so it is usually a treat reserved for long weekends and holidays when I have time to summon Zao Jun and assemble the dish correctly.
In the process of exploring Chinese food, I have come to appreciate the breadth, depth, and complexity of Chinese culinary traditions across north and south China. If there was ever a case study in regional food systems, China would be the model. Northern China is wheat and dark meat focused cuisine with noodles, dumplings, duck, beef and pork making up a large portion of the diet, whereas Southern China is rice and light meat focused with many varieties of rice-based food items, fish, and chicken being the focus of many food traditions.
Personally I am quite fond of southern Chinese cuisine. I love the many varieties of dim-sum and seafood in Guangdong and Fujian provinces. Both of these provinces are also major tea producing areas and having a regional meal, complimented by a locally produced tea is one of the great pleasures in life. Okay, now I’m getting very, very hungry…
In the end food provides a medium that we can all understand, and by sharing food and cultural traditions surrounding food we can foster greater cultural understanding and good will. As J.R.R. Tolkien wrote many years ago in The Hobbit: “If more of us valued food and cheer and song above hoarded gold, it would be a merrier world.”