MY MOTHER was German-Austrian, my father was Japanese: I've been eating potato salad with chopsticks as long as I can remember. But if my sense of cultural identity is sometimes confused, one thing I've learned is that the different cuisines of the world have much to say to each other. What is needed is a translator in the kitchen.
Americans have unique access to an international array of tools, ingredients and cookbooks. At the very least, we can use the inventions of one cuisine to perform the tasks of another more quickly, neatly or easily. More adventurously, one country's inspirations can expand another's repertoire. Some say Shakespeare is better in German than in English.
Of course, nouvelle cuisine has adopted much of its style from the Japanese: foods cooked just long enough to brighten their colors and textures and arranged with delicate artistry. "Japanese Garnishes: The Ancient Art of Mukimono" was reviewed in food sections all over the country this past summer.
Sushi isn't the only way the Japanese eat fish. They cook fish as expertly as they slice it raw. So when you make an Italian insalata di mare, try blanching the seafood for only as long as it takes the cooking water to return to a boil, as the Japanese do. Squid remains especially tender and tasty this way.
And try another Japanese method -- adding the food while it's still hot to a marinade, and then tossing it to cool it as quickly as possible. This is how the rice for sushi is flavored; it absorbs the vinegar dressing without losing its texture. If you add a good vinaigrette to hot macaroni or sliced potatoes and then cool them before adding mayonnaise, your salads will be wonderfully flavorful and won't leak puddles of dressing. Bean salads should also be marinated while hot.
Chopsticks -- how do Italian cooks get by without chopsticks? There is nothing better for stirring pasta without breaking it, and chopsticks are irreplaceable for pulling a noodle out of boiling water to see if it's done. I don't go so far as to eat linguine alle vongole with chopsticks, but I'd miss the perfect al dente stage a lot more often if I didn't use them in the kitchen.
Chopsticks are also ideal for scattering finely shredded glazed orange peel over gateaux aux oranges, arranging decorations in aspic, and deepfrying all sorts of food. I'd recommend that every cook learn to use these most delicate of tongs.
After all, I use my garlic press all the time when I'm cooking Chinese food. (I hear the purists who don't use garlic presses for anything grumbling in the background.) I squeeze garlic directly into the wok; it takes just a second and hardly interrupts the stir-frying. I also use the press to squeeze chopped fresh ginger into the food when I don't want bits of the root to be there. You can extract the juice alone, for an even more subtle flavor, if you don't squeeze too hard.
The Chinese heat dried hot peppers in oil and then remove the peppers before frying the main ingredients of a dish. The sauce that results is anything but subtle. But if you change the proportions -- use one dried pepper instead of several -- this is a great way to make quite a civilized bucatina all'amatriciana, a Roman pasta dish with a spicy tomato sauce.
On the other hand, I know many recipes for ravioli and other stuffed Italian pasta that include spinach cooked briefly and pressed dry. So, to improve a recipe for jao-tze -- ravioli's Chinese cousin -- I tried adding Chinese cabbage, steamed and squeezed dry, to the meat filling. The greens make the filling lighter and moister.
Two other overseas relatives are Mexican tortillas and Indian chapatis. The procedures for making these breads are remarkably similar, and if you know how to make one, you've got a head start on the other. The most amusing part of the process is what Mexican cooks call "teasing" the tortilla: after you flip the circle of dough on the hot, dry griddle, you press down on it with the back of a spatula to encourage it to puff up like a little balloon. The same action works with chapatis, which are about the same size but are usually made with whole wheat flour.
The electric blender must be almost as common in this country as the mortar and pestle are in technologically, but not culinarily, less-developed countries. Indian sauces can be started effortlessly -- and tearlessly -- by tossing onions, garlic, fresh ginger, spices and a little liquid into the blender jar and turning them into a paste. Mexican sauces get fresh hot peppers and a little less blending.
And of course, there's the food processor. I don't use mine to cut vegetables for Japanese or Chinese food; the pieces come out too unevenly sized, and the shapes are unrelated to the natural patterns of the food. Broccoli should be cut that its flowers and stems are understandable. But I do use the processor for kamaboko (Japanese fish cake) as well as quenelles, Chinese chicken velvet as well as mousse de volaille, chopped meat for eggplant with garlic sauce as well as for hamburger.
Sometimes poetry is lost in translation. I have an Engligh-language cookbook that was published in Japan shortly after World War II. It describes sukiyaki: "People sit around the saucepan while boiling." But a well-chosen turn of phrase from one culinary language can expand the range of expression of another. JAO-TZE Wrapper Dough: 1 cup unbleached white flour 6 tablespoons cold water
Place flour in the container of a food processor fitted with its metal chopping blade. Turn on the processor; add water slowly through the feed tube until a ball of dough forms on the blades. Spin the dough for 15 seconds; then stop the processor, separate the dough into several smaller portions, and spin again. Repeat this process 4 or 5 times. The dough should be quite stiff and only slightly stickly. Remove the dough from the processor; form it into a neat ball, and let it rest, covered with an inverted bowl, for 1/2 hour to 1 hour. Filling: 4 meduim Chinese cabbage leaves 1/2 pound pork 1/3 cup water chestnuts 2 scallions 1/2 beaten egg 2 teaspoons cornstarch 1 tablespoon soy sauce 1 tablespoon dry sherry 3/4 teaspoon salt 1/2 teaspoon sugar
Place cabbage leves in a vegetable steamer over 1/2 inch or so of water. Steam until just wilted. Let them cool; chop them coarsely; and squeeze the cabbage between your hands to drain it of all excess water.
Cut pork into rough cubes; place in bowl of food processor fitted with steel chopping blades. Process for a couple of seconds only. Add quartered water chestnuts, scallions cut into 1-inch pieces, and cabbage. Process until the pork is finely chopped and the vegetables are in small even pieces. Add the remaining ingredients and spin the processor a few times to mix them in.
Ater the dough has rested, knead it by hand for about 3 minutes, and let it rest another 5 or 10 minutes. Divide it into about 20 equal pieces and roll each piece into a ball. Flatten each ball and open it out with a rolling pin to a circle about 3 1/2 inches in diameter. If you are not working quickly and your kitchen is very dry, keep the dough covered with a cloth as you proceed.
Divide he filling among the wrappers. There should be a heaping tablespoon for each one, roughly crescent-shaped. Moisten 1/2 of the wrapper's edge with water. Bring the other side over the filling and press the edges together at the center of the half circumference. Then gather the top edge in from each end, making pleats on the upper side and leaving a flat surface underneath.
The dumplings can be steamed in a Chinese steamer or on a plate propped above an inch or so of boiling water in a large covered pan. The dumplings should steam for about 1/2 hour.
The dumplings may also be fried and then steamed. To do this, heat about 1/4 cup of vegetable oil over medium-high heat in a 10- or 11-inch heavy, lidded skillet. When the oil is quite hot, arrange the dumplings in one layer on the pan. Fry them until the bottoms are golden brown. Pour in 3/4 cup of water and cover tightly. Cook the dumplings over medium heat until the water boils away -- about 10 mnutes. Then remove the lid, turn up the heat briefly to crisp the bottoms of the dumplings, and serve. Sauce: 1/4 cup dark soy sauce 1/4 cup white vinegar 1 tablespoon sesame oil 1/2 teaspoon honey 1 teaspoon hot oil or a big pinch of cayenne pepper (or to taste) 2 large garlic cloves 1-inch piece fresh ginger root
Mix soy sauce, vinegar, sesame oil, honey and hot oil or pepper. Mash garlic in a garlic press and add to mixture. Peel ginger root and chop it fine. Place about half of it in the garlic press, and squeeze it hard to extract the juice; repeat with the other half. If the ginger is very fresh, you may be able to press it right through. Add juice and any mashed pulp to sauce.
Stir to blend well and let sit for at least an hour. It can be kept in the refrigerator. Pass the sauce with jao-tze so people can spoon a little on their plates and dip the jao-tze as they are eaten.