Tuesday, July 10, 2007
Some of my favorite dishes from China are unavailable in the States. It is true that Chinese dining options in this country have dramatically improved from the days where all you could find were bland Cantonese-American brown sauce dishes. Within ten minutes of my house are restaurants from Taiwan, Shandong, and Nanjing (although the Nanjing restaurant is ironically called the Qingdao Garden). Still, some of China’s most ubiquitous dishes are absent from American menus.
The lack of some dishes is understandable. Take lamb kabobs (羊肉串儿), for example. While lamb kabobs are available at virtually every street corner in Beijing, they are a Muslim food that isn’t found in Han Chinese restaurants. Few Chinese Muslims make it to America, and those who do rarely open restaurants. However, other dishes, like tiger salad of cucumber and pepper (老虎菜), steamed bread (馒头), or candied fruit kabobs (糖葫芦) are shamefully neglected by restaurants in America, leaving the people who crave them only one option: cooking them at home, which is exactly what Rachel I did the other night.
Finding recipes for the kabobs and salad turned out to be a bit of a challenge. After extensive Internet searching, I was about to give up and just wing it, when on a whim I looked at the webpage for Betty’s Kitchen, a Chinese cooking magazine owned by the media group I worked for while in China. I was amazed to find complete recipes for both the lamb kabobs and cucumber salad, and happily copied down the ingredients. Rachel and I then rushed over to the Super 88, Boston’s Chinese grocery store, optimistic that we would be able to produce the dishes we were craving.
In retrospect, we were a bit naïve to think that we would be able to find the foreign spices listed in the recipes. The grocery store clerk gave me a blank stare when I asked for barbeque powder (烧烤粉) and spicy sedan chair powder (辣轿粉). After a lengthy discussion in Chinese, he directed us to the Western barbeque spice section, and then mocked us when we were unable to find what we wanted. We finally decided to muster up our dignity, forget the recipes, and just improvise the dishes.
The kabobs turned out to be delicious, tasting quite like the Beijing street food, except that we were using a tastier cut of lamb. The tiger salad was reminiscent of what we ate in China, except we were short on peppers. We decided to call it little cat salad (小猫菜), and it truly did this name proud. The night was a great success, and left me eager to cook more Chinese food.