SAN FRANCISCO -- Now that Californians have re-invented American cuisine, they are working on Chinese.
Of course the Chinese influence has always been stronger on the West Coast than elsewhere in the country. Where else could fresh turmeric be found in common grocery stores? But now the influence has taken a new turn.
Two American chefs have written cookbooks using Chinese ingredients and Chinese techniques, but they are inventing with them rather than reproducing classic dishes. And now those author-chefs are translating these Chinese-inspired creations into San Francisco Bay area restaurants.
Barbara Tropp is probably the only Chinese scholar who shops by motorcycle. She loads her fresh lychees and garlic shoots and napa cabbage onto the back and roars home to her downtown San Francisco restaurant, China Moon Cafe, eager to show what she unearthed in the Chinatown markets. The restaurant is a small showcase of art deco imagination, pink and gray with a copper and bronze rendition of a kimono on the wall. Its open kitchen in the window compels the curious.
The menu changes daily, and weaves Orient and Occident in such orchestrations as Peking Antipasto, which is rare sliced filet of beef marinated with cassia, and accompaniments of wild rice salad and wild greens. The marinade and mustard-sesame dip have Chinese undertones, but this is Western food. And the classic Chinese "Strange-Flavor Eggplant" is served with French bread croutons. Much of the food is presented American style, with meat and two vegetables on the plate. Pot-browned noodle wedges with hoisin pork shreds are accompanied by squash blossoms and California's inevitable baby vegetables.
Author Bruce Cost's restaurant hasn't opened yet. In fact it may take another year for Pacific Rim, his Chinese and Southeast Asian restaurant, to be completed in Oakland, across the bridge from China Moon Cafe. The building is pre-Victorian, with handmade brick walls and 16-foot ceilings, which doesn't sound very Oriental, but it is one block from Oakland's Chinatown, which is the third largest in the country.
Cost's cooking is "traditional cooking and it's my cooking," said Cost. "There are some Southeast Asian dishes I cook that don't exist." A recently developed one is sea scallops with fresh water chestnuts -- both the same size and color -- cooked for only a few seconds in hot oil, topped with lemon grass, fresh chiles, cumin, coriander, coconut milk, fennel seeds and Asian fish sauce. He also makes a pesto with Thai basil, mint, fresh coriander, ginger, peanuts, chiles and the traditional garlic, plus virgin peanut oil instead of olive oil. Cost is inspired by all of Asia, uses Chinese techniques with Southeast Asian ingredients. "Lowbrow cooking," he calls it.
Many Asian chefs are afraid to test the adventurousness of American diners, said Cost; but he will serve the things those Asian chefs are afraid to serve: pork kidney salad, fresh bacon simmered with rock sugar, vegetables cooked with fresh rendered chicken fat.
Thus he may even influence Chinese restaurants -- to become more Chinese
Tabletalk DEFRR In their tireless search for new Asian culinary experiences, Californians are now crowding Cambodian restaurants. San Francisco has at least five by now, some with their signs hardly dry in their transformations from Vietnamese. The dishes are reminiscent of Thai and Vietnamese, with thin, clear sauces intermingling sweetness and tartness, ginger and garlic, coriander and mint. Peanuts are frequent garnishes, banana blossoms are used on occasion. And bright red chiles blaze in many dishes.
DEFRR Monterey Market in Berkeley does what even the flossiest super-supermarkets don't accomplish. Seven kinds of potatoes, more varieties of mushrooms, a whole aisle of different greens, lemon cucumbers, edible flowers sold by the blossom -- that's a start. What is most amazing, though, is that this is a folksy market with a neighborhood feel and bargain prices rather than a haughty shopping shrine.
RECIPE BRUCE COSTS'S SCALLOPS AND WATER CHESTNUTS IN THAI PORK SAUCE (4 servings)
6 to 8 fresh or canned water chestnuts
1 pound sea scallops
1 tablespoon cornstarch
Few drops sesame oil
3/4 cup unsweetened coconut milk
3 tablespoons fish sauce
1 1/2 teaspoons sugar
1 teaspoon cumin seeds
1 teaspoon fennel seeds
2 teaspoons coriander seeds
1 tablespoon minced ginger
1/2 teaspoon turmeric
1 teaspoon minced fresh galanga (optional)
3 to 4 cloves garlic, minced
4 small green chiles, minced
1 teaspoon dried lemon grass
1/2 pound ground pork
1/2 cup water
Juice of 1 large lime
Cilantro for garnish
Rinse and halve water chestnuts. Rinse and halve scallops, toss scallops with the cornstarch and sesame oil, and refrigerate until ready to use.
Mix the coconut milk, fish sauce, sugar and salt. Toast all the seeds until fragrant, then grind them.
Combine the ginger, turmeric, galanga, garlic, chiles and lemon grass.
Heat 3 tablespoons oil in a skillet and add the pork, stirring to separate the grains. When meat changes color, add the ground seeds and cook, stirring for 30 seconds. Add the ginger combination and stir for another 30 seconds. Add the seasoned coconut milk, stir to blend, then add the water and bring to a boil. Turn the heat to medium-low and cook the sauce for 8 to 10 minutes, stirring from time to time until it begins to thicken. Add more water if necessary. Turn off the heat, cover and set aside.
Heat a wok, add a cup of oil and add the scallops, stirring to separate. Cook for no more than 45 seconds, remove to drain. Repeat with the water chestnuts, cooking for just 15 seconds. Remove to the scallops. Reheat the sauce, add lime juice and stir in the scallops and water chestnuts, cooking until just heated through. Serve garnished with fresh cilantro.
1987, Washington Post Writers Group