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A Culinary Trip Into the Past

By Carolyn Jung

Carolyn Jung is an award-winning food and wine writer. She is the recipient of a James Beard award for feature writing about restaurants/chefs, a Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism award of excellence for diversity writing, an award from the American Association of Sunday and Features Editors, and numerous honors from the Association of Food Journalists, and the Peninsula Press Club. She has judged a bevy of food contests, including the biggie of them all, the Pillsbury Bake-Off.

For 11 years, she was the food writer/editor for the San Jose Mercury News. She has been a contributor to the "Good Living" section of Gourmet magazine, and to the book, "The Slow Food Guide to San Francisco and the Bay Area." She is also the creator of the food and wine blog, In her post for our Global Gourmet series. she talks about re-connecting with the past through homestyle Cantonese cooking.—Editors

When I consider Chinese food today, I think of speed-dial, take-out chow mein and broccoli beef; stacks of dim sum plates and steaming cups of oolong tea arrayed around a big, round restaurant table; and classic crispy Peking duck and not-so-environmentally-correct shark fin soup at elaborate banquet celebrations.

But there is another style of Chinese cooking that is often given short shrift. It's not thought of as special. And it's slowly, but surely, losing its prevalence.

It is home-style Cantonese cooking.

Tender chicken steamed with shiitake mushrooms and fatty Chinese sausage. A savory cake of cleaver-chopped pork strewn with salted fish and slivers of fresh ginger. A humble mix of eggs, dried shrimp and soy sauce, stirred together, then gently steamed into a rich, soft, delectable custard.

Those are the types of dishes my parents made at home, and my grand-parents as well. It's the food I grew up on in California, and took for granted until one day it was gone.

Like so many of my generation, I was guilty of thinking these dishes nothing extraordinary. And like others of that era, I grew up learning how to bake and cook so many other things, but never picked up the finer points of creating those everyday dishes. I never thought I would miss those flavors. Yet when my parents passed away last year, I realized how foolish I had been.

It hit me when a Chinese-American acquaintance took me to a hole-in-the-wall Chinese restaurant called Asia Village in a nearby strip shopping mall in Sunnyvale, just north of San Jose.

This no-frills place reminded me of the old-school San Francisco Chinatown cafés my parents took my brothers and me to when we were young. This restaurant too had no fancy décor, a waiter that was just as happy to ignore you as help you, and a wipe-board on the wall with a list of that day's specials that I couldn't decipher because it was written only in Chinese.

Of course, I loved the place immediately.

We ordered off the "$5.35" menu, where every dish listed was—you guessed it—a mere $5.35. Perhaps it was nostalgia, but among other things, we ordered the three dishes mentioned above, dishes you rarely see now on Chinese restaurant menus.

I scooped a little of the egg custard, the pork hash, and the steamed chicken-sausage casserole on my plate along with a mound of rice, and dug in. I sighed, realizing for the first time how much I had missed these flavors, textures and aromas now that my parents were gone. One taste was all it took to transport me back to my childhood home in San Francisco, to see my Mom at the stove, carefully lifting the dishes out of the steamer, and my Dad scooping the steaming, fluffy white grains out of the rice cooker.

In this age of molecular gastronomy and fancy, modern fusion dishes, it's surprising how what's plain and modest can sometimes satisfy so much. After that meal, I vowed to teach myself how to cook these iconic dishes. I can proudly say that so far, I've conquered two out of the three.

It's nice to know that if you hunt hard enough, it's still possible to stumble upon places like Asia Village that offer the unmistakable and undeniable taste of yesteryear. It might not prevent you from taking things for granted. But thankfully, it will offer a remedy if you unwittingly do.

Published Jun 11, 2008   Copyright 2008 Carolyn Jung

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