Chai Kuei Ching Lu belongs to an exclusive club. As a woman chef in a Chinese restaurant's kitchen, traditionally an all-male bastion, she is "indeed a rare one," to quote English poet George Wither.
"Even though Chinese male chefs don't usually like women in the kitchen, she has been accepted by the male chefs," said Jack Sun, owner of the House of Chinese Gourmet in Rockville, where Lu broke the gender barrier more than a year ago.
"They accept her because she cooks only dim sum and works in her own section. She has proven that her food tastes good, and now the other chefs like it too," according to Sun.
A large, toothy woman given to wearing bright pink lipstick, Lu toils long hours preparing the dumplings, buns, noodles, bean soups, turnip cakes, desserts such as eight-treasure rice, thousand-layer cake and date-paste crispy cake and other dishes that appear on the dim sum "snack" menu of the restaurant.
On weekdays, all the dumplings served are freshly made. Some of those served on weekends have been made by Lu and frozen to keep up with the demand of the popular brunch and lunchtime repast.
The dim sum Lu cooks are Shanghai-style, like most of the other dishes on the menu of the House of Chinese Gourmet. One of her specialties is dumplings filled with soup. Another is made of dough with a sweet or salty filling and slapped onto the sides of a clay-walled charcoal oven something like an Indian tandoor oven.
As a young girl Lu learned to make these dishes from her father, who had learned them from his family cook. After he moved his family to Taipei from Shantung Province, where Lu was born 36 years ago, he opened a restaurant. When she was 10 years old, Lu began spending every day after school observing his techniques. From her mother, who also cooked in the restaurant, Lu learned other traditional dishes.
Before she left Taiwan only two years ago, Lu studied business in a professional school, but here she is determined to repeat her father's success story by opening a restaurant of her own along with her husband, Shi Shu Lu, also a chef. "When I was a young girl," Lu explained, speaking with the help of her boss, "I learned this kind of skill, and I like working in a restaurant. And since I don't speak English, it's the only way I can work."
In the kitchen, Lu has struggled to overcome the problems presented by American ingredients and equipment. The flour, she explained through her translator, is different here. "Some dishes need high gluten, some low gluten. it took a long time to get used to it. At first, when I cooked bao steamed bun , the surface was not smooth. I had trouble with jumbo fried noodles because the dough is very sensitive to temperature and humidity. I also had a problem making toasted sesame rolls. In China the oven heats on two sides, but here the heat is only on the bottom. I use a toaster oven now."
For special occasions Lu likes to prepare a dessert called "lucky birthday peach." Steamed bao filled with sweet red bean paste is fashioned into the shape of a peach and decorated with leaves. It symbolizes the mythical peach of eternal youth given to the empress of heaven. The peach grows only once every 30 million years and whoever eats it stays young forever.
Lu makes no promises that her pastry "peach" is a fountain of youth, but she would not be exaggerating if she described the taste as heavenly. Like most of the dumplings she prepares, however, peach bao are tricky to make.
For the home cook who wants to serve a dim sum meal, Lu suggests making pork dumplings using commercial won ton wrappers and serving other types of dishes to go with them. BOILED DUMPLINGS (50-60 dumplings) 1 pound ground pork 1/4 pound Chinese chives, chopped 2 tablespoons shao hsing wine or dry sherry 3 tablespoons dark soy sauce 1/2 teaspoon salt 1 tablespoon chopped fresh ginger 12-ounce package wonton skins
Combine pork, chives, wine, soy sauce, salt and ginger. Fill wonton skins with a small amount of the mixture. Moisten edges with water and seal tightly. Bring 4 quarts of water to a rolling boil. Add dumplings. Cover and return to a rolling boil. Add 1 cup cold water, cover and bring to a rolling boil and repeat procedure 2 more times, adding three cups cold water in all. After final addition, bring to a boil, reduce heat and cook 5-6 minutes. Serve immediately or freeze. To cook frozen dumplings, do not defrost. Follow the procedure of adding cold water but add it five times instead of three. HACKED CABBAGE (12 servings) 4 pounds napa or celery cabbage Salt 1/2 cup peanut oil 1 cup white vinegar 1 cup water 1 cup sugar or to taste Finely shredded fresh ginger to taste Thinly diced hot or sweet red pepper to taste
Discard top of cabbage leaves. Use only the white part. Finely shred cabbage lengthwise, keeping the shape (for the sake of appearance, although it makes no difference in taste). Layer with salt in a flat glass or ceramic pan, keeping the shape. Weigh cabbage down with a second pan and let stand overnight. Pour off water and rinse under cold running water. Squeeze out water, the dryer the better. Return to pan.
Heat oil until it just begins to smoke. Pour over cabbage. Bring vinegar, water and sugar to a boil and cook until sugar is melted. Pour over cabbage. Sprinkle ginger and pepper over top. Cover and refrigerate overnight. GOURMET JELLY FISH (8 servings) 1 pound dried jelly fish sheets (available in Chinese grocery stores) 6 scallions, minced 4 teaspoons soy sauce 3/4 cup vinegar 4 teaspoons hot sesame oil Slice jelly fish into fine slivers. Wash well. Cover with cold water and soak in refrigerator overnight. Drain well. Add scallions, soy sauce, vinegar and hot sesame oil. Mix well. SWEET BEAN SOUP (8 servings) 1 pound dry soy beans 1/4 cup sugar or more to taste
Soak soy beans overnight in cold water to cover. Rinse under cold running water. Place in a blender with about 2 cups cold water and process until mixture turns milky. Pour into a bowl and stir in enough water to total 6 cups. Pour mixture through a cheesecloth. Discard solids. Pour into a saucepan. Bring to a boil. Watch carefully to prevent mixture from boiling over. Add sugar. Serve hot or cold for breakfast. Option: An egg can be dropped and stirred with chopsticks into the mixture, provided the soup is very hot.