We tend to associate mustard with France for good reason. Dijon, according to Tom Stabart in his "Herbs, Spices and Flavorings," produces half the world's prepared mustard. It's also an all-American condiment, and gallons of it, colored bright "mustard yellow" by the addition of turmeric, are made and consumed in this country.
Thus, I had always assumed that in early Chinese-American restaurants the little bowl of mustard on the table (which children are warned away from lest it destroy their sinuses) was put out in deference to a non-Asian love of mustard. It is and it isn't.
Recently, colleague Don Harper, who teaches at the University of California-Berkeley and who has begun translating the world's oldest collection of recipes from 6th-century China for a book we're collaborating on, has run across two "mustard seed sauce" recipes, both of them taken from a much earlier work, "The Canon of Gastronomy," which no longer exists.
The interesting thing about these recipes is their refinement. While the Greeks and Romans are credited with being early mustard users, there is nothing to indicate they did other than grind the seeds and sprinkle them on food, which yields a nutty and only slightly pungent flavor. To bring out the flavor and heat in mustard, as the Chinese knew, it must be ground, then mixed with water and allowed to sit, giving an enzyme in the seeds, gloucoside, time to react.
In the ancient Chinese recipes, the first step after grinding the seeds was to sift the powder through fine cloth to remove the bits of husk. After it was ground again with a little water, the mustard was allowed to sit to "kill the bitter vapor." The Chinese then dried this into cakes, later to be cut with vinegar, creating a precursor of French mustard. According to mustard lore, this method of soaking and pressing mustard into cakes was invented in Burgundy about 1,600 years later, and mustard was sold this way in Dijon up until the 17th century.
Modern Chinese hot mustard is not some exotic brew, but is a fine ground mustard powder mixed in equal parts with water and allowed to sit for 10 minutes. The English Colman's brand is the best for this, equaled perhaps by mustard powders sold in Japanese grocery stores. The Japanese are big consumers of unadulterated mustard in sauces and dips.
In China, mustard mixed with other sauces is most likely to be found in the North and around Shanghai. One of the more unusual dishes I've encountered in San Francisco's Chinatown was a Beijing-style shredded pork stomach "salad" with a dressing of mustard, sesame seed paste and chile oil.
SQUID SALAD WITH MUSTARD DRESSING (6 to 8 servings)
1 1/2 pounds fresh squid
2 small ribs celery, cut on a bias
2 teaspoons powdered mustard
2 teaspoons water
1 teaspoon finely chopped garlic
1 teaspoon finely chopped ginger
1 1/2 tablespoons light soy sauce
2 tablespoons white rice vinegar
1 teaspoons shaoxing wine
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon sugar
1/2 teaspoon white pepper
2 tablespoons sesame oil
2 teaspoons seeded and chopped red chile pepper (fresh)
1 tablespoon chopped fresh coriander, leaves and stems
Clean the squid, cutting off the tentacles just below the eyes. Squeeze out and discard the beak, and put the tentacles -- cut in half if they're large -- into a bowl. Pull the purplish membrane off of the squid and discard. Split the white body of the squid with a knife and lay it inside-up on a cutting board. Holding the knife almost parallel to the squid, score the body with straight cuts about 1/4-inch apart. Turn the squid 90 degrees and repeat so you have a diamond pattern. (Be careful not to cut through.) Cut the body into 6 more or less equal pieces and add to the bowl with tentacles. Repeat with the remaining squid.
Bring a large pot of water to boil. Add the squid and celery, and stir just to separate the pieces. Cook for just 20 seconds. Immediately drain and run under cold water to stop the cooking.
Mix the mustard powder with the water and stir to make a thin paste. Allow to sit for 10 minutes. Meanwhile mix the garlic, ginger, soy sauce, vinegar, wine, salt, sugar and white pepper. When the mustard is ready, stir it in until the ingredients are well mixed. Add the sesame oil. About 15 minutes before serving, toss all the ingredients together. Stir once more just before serving