MERINGUE LOVEBIRDS float in the soup. A tray of nut-filled dumplings, carved and tinted to look like peacocks, ducks and lotus plants is ready for its final steaming. In glass-fronted cabinets, bowls three centuries old wait to be filled with rice. Marble-paneled mahogany chairs, from Peking's Palace Museum in the Forbidden City, stand ready to receive honored guests. Outside, carpenters and masons, also from China, are renovating the terrace and bringing the tennis court up to snuff.
Fully furnished 11 years ago but never occupied, the ambassador's residence of the People's Republic of China, across the street from the Textile Museum on S Street, is being brought to diplomatic life.
The first two ambassadors of the People's Republic wanted to live in the embassy with "the people," explained Yao Renliu, the embassy's First Secretary. Former guerrilla fighters, they didn't feel at ease in a 10-room house away from the nearby Connecticut Avenue dormitory where the rest of the embassy staff lived. But Ambassador Zhang Wen-jin, though once a revolutionary, is a long-time cosmopolitan diplomat, who was posted for three years in Canada and in his youth studied in Berlin. Last March he moved to the residence, had marigolds planted at the front entrance even before the front door was painted, and brought in one of the eight resident embassy chefs, Yao Chenlin, who had prepared banquets in China for President Carter and Prince Sihanouk and was thus considered a particularly good choice for Washington diplomatic entertaining.
The frequency of parties at the residence has increased slowly since the repairs got underway last spring. One or two dinners a week have been served to perhaps a half-dozen guests at a time, and the largest party by midsummer had been for a women's group of 40. After all, the parlor had not yet been opened on to the terrace and, although the garden was filled with roses, mountains of debris from the renovation still were piled at the rear of the mansion.
Chinese Embassy parties traditionally have been large, more than 200 people, said Le Amei, the ambassador's appointments secretary. The embassy's staff, who number 150, all live on the premises and are fed from its kitchens. The "more cozy" residence gives the ambassador's wife a setting to decorate for her own parties. Decorate? Hardly the image of a People's Republic diplomat. "Oh, yes, she loves it," said Le Amei.
Probably no professional kitchen in Washington has simpler equipment than chef Yao's. An enormous pantry yawns emptily. Its cabinets reach to the high ceiling, but contain only a few bottles and boxes. The expansive kitchen has three refrigerator-freezers and a separate freezer, but they, too, are half empty. One refrigerator is stuffed with lush-looking fresh vegetables and a dozen eggs. Another holds only two partly filled bottles of wine. The repertoire of seasonings is simple: on the counter are open containers of sugar, msg, salt, cornstarch and oil. There is no ginger or garlic to be seen.
The expanses of white formica counter are bare except for an electric teakettle. A large marble-topped island must have once been relished for rolling out puff pastry and pie crusts, but now is used for platters pausing on their way to the dining room. The drawers hold only a few cleavers and knives--Yao brought his own from China, having grown used to them over 15 years--and whisks, spatulas and large spoons. The six-burner electric stove has little use in Chinese cooking. It will be replaced by high-intensity gas jets for woks, which now are heated on two three-legged black iron gas stoves made in Reading, Pa. A few bamboo steamers, a silver bowl of flowers and a large empty Hunt's Tomato Sauce can complete the visible kitchen equipment. No Cuisinart. No KitchenAid. Chef Yao beats egg whites with a whisk in a stainless bowl. Le Amei says that a good Chinese chef uses very few tools besides his hands.
Yao heats the woks and shows their versatility. They steam the egg whites for the chicken velvet's meringue snow and the meringue ducks for the soup. They stir-fry the vegetable garnish for chicken velvet and deep-fry the lantern shrimp. Differences in method are slight but crucial. For deep-frying he ladles in more oil; for stir-frying, less. For steaming or simmering, he ladles in water or broth instead of oil. Yao's large spoon dips into canisters of sugar, msg (these days it is made from sweet potatoes rather than chemicals, says Le Amei), salt and a Chinese equivalent of cornstarch, for just the right amounts to season or thicken a dish. It is all rapid-fire and seemingly effortless. Pour, stir, dip, sprinkle, swish, and a dish is done, each with its own particular color, flavor, texture and seasoning.
Chef Yao, is from Suzhou, where, as in most southern cities, the cooking is lighter, less salty and less greasy--as well as sweeter--than in the north. Suzhou also is famous for gardens--real ones, as well as pastry gardens: sweet rice dumplings carved into a water garden scene.
Although he looks hardly more than four decades old, Yao has been a chef for 40 years, since he was 14. In those early years he apprenticed in cooking British food--steak, cream of asparagus soup, oxtail soup, he recalls--then worked his way up to the Nanling Guest House in Suzhou, where as one chef among 60 he eventually specialized in pastries, and where now the youngest of his four grown children is an apprentice. He still makes some dishes he considers Western--wine-marinated fish, fish with cheese slices.
With the residence entertaining schedule so light, most of Yao's cooking so far has been for its staff: Le Amei and her husband, who is the ambassador's secretary; one waiter; one driver; one gardener, and the chef. Breakfast is at 8, though the ambassador usually has his at 8:30 after he has read the newspapers. It includes rice porridge; noodles and steamed stuffed dumplings such as bao-zi and shao-mai; pickled vegetables; fried peanuts and preserved bean curd. To drink: not merely the expected tea, but an American innovation, milk. Lunch might include steamed dumplings with a meat stuffing, noodles or pancakes, boiled rice, a meat dish, a vegetable dish and soup--the last dish to be served. Dinner is likely to be two meat dishes, vegetable dishes and again a finale of soup. While the menu is similar to that of the embassy, the staff agree that the food is better, particularly since it is cooked in smaller quantities.
Even so, Yao is sufficiently busy that he has little time off. On a weekend he might prepare food for the staff to reheat themselves and thus be free for a brief excursion. But since he knows little English--he quit studying the language after finding it frustratingly difficult the first few days of classes--he goes out seldom. Still, an interpreter is nearly superfluous as his hands tell the story of his preparation of a "live" fish at Prince Sihanouk's request--filling a fish with live eels, and pouring hot sauce over the fish at the table so the eels would squirm and make the fish jump as if it were alive.
What he has learned about Washington from inside the residence kitchen is that the seafood is not as fresh as China's. Yao doesn't like the taste of fish or shrimp that have been refrigerated; in China even if they are not being cooked live, they typically are plucked from the restaurant's own pond. Even so, his freezer at the residence is packed with whole fish--yellow fish imported from China and stored unwrapped--as well as with unwrapped chickens and pigs' feet he has frozen himself, nine commercially frozen ducks and three gallons of milk. He likes American ducks but finds the typical American wall ovens in his kitchen impractical for roasting ducks the Chinese way--suspended over the heat--though more reliable for baking than Chinese ones.
Yao has tried an American hamburger but found it only so-so, nothing to compare to the hamburgers he used to make in China (not with ground meat but with whole steaks, served on homemade bread with tomatoes). What really impresses him is the convenience of American biscuit mix.
Like many chefs in China, Yao is modernizing his Suzhou-style cooking, using less oil, and in pastries replacing lard with oil to cut the cholesterol.
The residence staff prefer modern-day light cooking, and fitness is important to them. The ambassador, who is quite slim, swims daily in the pool next to his house, and in winter expects to jog instead.
The art of a Chinese chef, like a Chinese painter, concentrates on copying perfectly the classic works of art, not on innovation. Rather than consciously inventing new dishes, a Chinese chef works at improving the standard dishes, either by lightening them or by decorating them in new ways. Thus, although chef Yao recently created a new dish, Crystal Cake, of almond gelatin topped with a meringue layer and cut into diamond shapes for serving, he did not think of it as his invention until that was pointed out to him. And certainly he would not consider putting his name to it and never dream of keeping it a secret. For a meal he made to be photographed, he designed a dish in honor of the photographer which played with the idea of light and named it Palace Lantern Shrimp. It is shrimp in a light veil of egg white batter, arranged inside a carrot and egg lantern.
Chef Yao explains that in the new lighter mode of cooking he blanches vegetables in water and then adds a touch of oil for shine afterwards rather than stir-frying them, which would cause them to absorb more oil. Even so, he uses a five-gallon tin of corn oil every 15 to 20 days.
For vegetables, he demonstrates, the faintest distinctions in method make surprising differences in the finish. Zucchini slices and green pepper wedges (painstakingly sliced horizontally to make them thinner) are meant to retain their clear color, so they are simmered in water for a minute or less and then tossed with msg, salt and hot oil to make them shine. Button mushrooms are simmered briefly in water and then glazed by a quick heating with a starch such as cornstarch or water chestnut powder. Black mushrooms can be seasoned with soy since they are already dark, then glazed with sugar and starch and given a final shine with a dash of oil.
He arranges the vegetables either in groups around a carved turnip--in this case an elaborate bird on a pedestal--or if the occasion is really special, he places each vegetable carefully in concentric circles on a platter. He decorates the platter with roses carved of turnips, and with ducks made with carved vegetables for wings, tail and head inserted in hard-cooked eggs. Cooked egg yolks may be molded into baby chicks.
A typical dinner party menu would include a decorated hors d'oeuvre platter such as a flower basket made of carved vegetables, omelets or animal-shaped dumplings surrounded by four small dishes of cold marinated chicken or duck, and pickled cabbage, spiced shrimp or smoked and seasoned fish. Next would come four hot dishes, perhaps Chicken Slices with Snow, Squirrel Fish, Palace Lantern Shrimp, maybe a duck dish. Rice would follow, with a vegetable course, and finally soup, the waiter giving the tureen a small shove as he sets it on the table so the meringue ducks look as if they are swimming.
The main difference between a staff dinner and a company dinner, just as the difference between an everyday dinner and a banquet in China, is decoration--the vegetable carvings and the shaped dumplings. When Chef Yao returns to China after his three-year tour in Washington, he will carry some new ideas with him. Instead of centering his platter with a bird on a pedestal, perhaps for his next banquet at the Nanling Guest House his vegetables will surround a turnip carved to resemble the Washington Monument. CHICKEN SLICES WITH SNOW (4 to 6 servings) 9 egg whites Decorations of choice: blanched scallions, strips of red bell pepper, omelet, fresh herbs 2 julienned chicken breasts 3 tablespoons cornstarch 1/2 teaspoon salt Oil for deep frying plus 1 tablespoon for marinade 2 teaspoons sugar 4 tablespoons water 1/2 cup chicken broth 1/2 cup each ham, snow peas, red bell pepper cut in diamond shapes
Beat 3 egg whites until stiff. Smooth onto a 5-inch diameter china plate. Decorate top with flowers using strips of blanched scallion for leaves, julienned red bell pepper, fresh herbs and omelet cut into flower and leaf shapes. Put in bamboo steamer and steam 1 minute. Remove and with a small knife loosen the egg white from the plate. Set aside.
Marinate julienned chicken with 1 tablespoon cornstarch, 1 egg white, 1/2 teaspoon salt, 1 tablespoon oil. In a large bowl stir 5 egg whites with 1 teaspoon sugar and 1 tablespoon cornstarch mixed with 2 tablespoons water. Add chicken mixture and beat with chopsticks. Heat 2 inches oil in wok and add mixture. Deep-fry, stirring, for 1 minute until egg whites puff. Drain and set aside chicken. Drain oil and put in wok 1/2 cup chicken broth, 1/2 cup each ham, snow peas, red bell pepper cut in diamond shapes. Stir-fry 1 minute. Add 1 tablespoon cornstarch and 1 teaspoon sugar dissolved in 2 tablespoons water. Stir in chicken mixture and heat. Spread on platter.
Spread chicken velvet on serving platter. Slip decorated egg white--the snow--on top. Salt to taste and serve. SPRING EVERYWHERE IN THE GARDEN (2 servings) 1/2 cup thinly sliced zucchini Salt Sugar, about 2 teaspoons 8 teaspoons oil 1 carrot, thinly sliced 5 strips green pepper, cut in the shape of leaves 1 white radish, fluted and thinly sliced 1 cup black Chinese mushrooms, soaked in water until soft 1/2 cup boiling water 2 tablespoons soy sauce 1 tablespoon cornstarch, approximately 2 tablespoons water 14 1/2-ounce can button mushrooms 1 tomato, halved and thinly sliced
Blanch zucchini 1 minute. Toss with salt, pinch of sugar and 1 teaspoon oil. Set aside. Repeat process with carrots, green pepper and radishes. Heat Chinese mushrooms in boiling water, until water evaporates, then toss with soy sauce, 1 teaspoon sugar, 1 tablespoon cornstarch mixed with 2 tablespoons water and 1 tablespoon oil. Cook a minute or two until glazed and set aside.
Blanch button mushrooms and toss in hot wok with 1 teaspoon oil and a pinch of each: sugar, salt, cornstarch. Stir and set aside.
Arrange cooked vegetables in circles or segments on a platter, surrounded by tomato slices, and serve. WINE SHRIMP (4 servings) 1 1/2 pounds small shrimp, peeled 6 tablespooons cornstarch 1/2 teaspoon salt 1 egg white 3 tablespoons Chinese shao hsing wine or sherry Oil for deep-frying Shredded carrots and steamed egg for garnish
Combine shrimp with cornstarch, salt, egg white and 1 tablespoon of wine. Let marinate for an hour. Heat 2 inches oil in wok and fry shrimp, tossing constantly, until cooked but still pale, about 1 minute. Drain oil from wok. Return drained wok to heat. Add shrimp with 2 tablespoons wine and stir vigorously for a few seconds to heat. Serve, on a platter decorated like a lantern with shredded carrots forming the outline, and steamed egg cut to shape of top and bottom of lantern. SQUIRREL FISH (3 to 6 servings) 1 whole fish, 1 to 2 pounds preferably, boned with head and tail left on Flour combined with equal amount of cornstarch, for coating fish 4 tablespoons oil, plus oil for deep-frying 1 onion, diced 2 tablespoons string beans, cut into 1-inch lengths 2 tablespoons carrots, diced 2 tablespoons canned mushrooms 2 tablespoons omelet, shredded 1/4 cup ketchup 2 tablespoons vinegar 3/4 cup water 1/4 to 1/2 cup sugar 1 tablespoon cornstarch
Butterfly and score fish. Coat with mixture of flour and cornstarch in equal parts. Deep fry until it browns and curls, which will depend on thickness of the fish. Set aside. May be done ahead to this point.
Heat 2 tablespoons oil in a wok. Add onion and stir-fry for 10 seconds. Add rest of vegetables, omelet and stir-fry 2 minutes. Add ketchup, vinegar, 1/2 cup water and 1/4-to- 1/2 cup sugar. Cook 2 minutes, stirring. Add 1 tablespoon cornstarch mixed with 1/4 cup water and stir until mixture thickens. Stir in 2 tablespoons oil.
Heat oil for deep-frying and reheat fish for 3 to 4 minutes or until surface has crisped and fish has heated through. Drain fish, pour sauce over it and serve. CRYSTAL LAKE DESSERT (8 servings) 4 egg whites 5 tablespoons sugar 1 1/2 envelopes unflavored gelatin, softened in 1/4 cup water 4 cups milk, heated 1/2 teaspoon almond flavoring Minced cherries for garnish
Beat egg whites with 1 tablespoon sugar until stiff. Set aside. In a large bowl soften gelatin and stir in sugar, hot milk and almond flavoring. Stir until gelatin dissolves. Pour hot gelatin mixture into egg whites, then pour into shallow pan. Refrigerate until gelatin is firm, decorate top with minced cherries. Cut into diamond shapes and serve cold.