BOSTON -- What started with Ping Pong has escalated to lobsters. The United States and China have launched a new kind of cultural exchange -- of culinary experts -- and for a superstar first round, two of China's top chefs arrived mid-February for eight weeks in Boston.

It took four years to launch this program, arranged through the American Institute of Wine and Food in partnership with Legal Sea Foods restaurants of Boston. Finally, chefs Ji Yonghe and Li Yongchen, of Beijing's Xi Yuan Hotel, survived being rerouted by a snowstorm and getting caught in a Chinatown New Year's parade during their premier Boston shopping trip. They came to introduce Americans to Shandong cuisine, one of the oldest, least known and most elegant of China's cuisines.

Their first appearance, hailed as an historic event, was a three-day series of 13-course tastings. Even three Chinese journalists detoured on their way back to their Washington bureau from the New Hampshire primary to cover it for the folks at home.

Heroes don't always fit one's expectations. These two chefs, performing in a glass-walled demonstration kitchen, wore baseball caps instead of toques, and looked shy rather than commanding. They handled a wok with such casual speed that they might have been short-order cooks. Yet they turned out a dozen glorious concoctions for well over a hundred people, under a barrage of photographers and reporters.

Besides the obvious reasons a chef might find it difficult to cook in public, in an an unfamiliar kitchen halfway around the world, these chefs had to get used to wearing plastic gloves -- a Boston sanitation requirement -- and were cooking with new ingredients. They had never seen salmon before; enchanted by its texture, they turned it into meltingly soft poached Scallion-Oil Salmon Fillets laced with smoking-hot peanut oil. Lobster is a rare delicacy in China, and only spiny lobster is available, so chefs Ji and Li were stunned to see Legal Sea Foods' pools stocked with hundreds of lobsters. They had no difficulty naturalizing them into Shandong-Style lobster, which tasted like a variation of the traditional velvet chicken or velvet shrimp. They were less satisfied with American shrimp, not as red as Chinese and unavailable with their heads on. As for adjusting to American tastes, they were asked only to moderate the sweetness of their Chicken with Sweet Bean Sauce and Walnuts.

While Ji and Li had brought no ingredients with them except tea for their own drinking, like most chefs they carried their own knives, and they brought molds for their deep-fried tart shells, which they make from egg-roll wrappers and fill with diced scallops. These Golden Cup Scallops have won them a culinary gold medal.

Legal Sea Foods was footing the bill, so far, for this two-month visit, and by the end of the first week it had already cost more than $60,000. Admittedly, the company hoped to add a half dozen dishes to its menus from this endeavor, but these are expensive additions. Why did owner Roger Berkowitz go to all this expense and four years' negotiations to get this exchange going? He answered without hesitation: "Pure and simple? We love Chinese food."

Tabletalk Maybe we'll see more and more Chinese chefs visiting the U.S. to show their elaborate banquet skills since the Chinese government has clipped the wings of the full-blown banquet in China. Recent regulations require that banquets run no longer than 90 minutes. That's hardly long enough to get past the chain of toasts.

While the Shandong chefs at Legal Seafood were introducing their food to Boston, at nearby Quincy Market New England Monthly magazine was squaring off against The New Yorker in a city challenge for culinary supremacy. New England clam chowder was pitted against the Manhattan version, and Boston Cream Pie was locked in battle with New York cheesecake. Nevertheless, the New York restaurant that made the Manhattan chowder, Grand Central Oyster Bar, admitted that New England style outsells Manhattan on its menu by 50 percent. And the Boston restaurant that made the cream pie, The Black Forest, specializes in Viennese pastries and had never made a Boston Cream Pie before. What's more, it routinely serves cheesecake.

Lydia Shire, Boston's famed chef who left her home ground for Los Angeles, has returned to Boston and is planning to open her own restaurant there in the near future.

SCALLION-OIL SALMON SLICES

(6 servings)

1 1/2 pounds salmon fillets with skin on

FOR THE MARINADE:

2 slices ginger root, smashed with flat side of a cleaver

1 tablespoon rice wine

1/2 teaspoon salt

FOR THE POACHING LIQUID:

6 cups water

6 scallions, smashed lightly with flat side of a cleaver

6 slices ginger root, smashed lightly with flat side of a cleaver

2 tablespoons rice wine

FOR THE GARNISH:

1 tablespoon Chinese black vinegar

2 tablespoons finely shredded ginger root

1/4 cup finely shredded scallions

1/4 cup coarsely chopped fresh coriander

1/2 teaspoon freshly ground white pepper

3 tablespoons peanut oil

Cut the salmon fillets crosswise into pieces about 1-inch wide. Combine marinade ingredients in a bowl, add fish, toss lightly, and let sit 20 minutes.

In a wok or deep skillet, combine poaching ingredients, and heat to boiling. Reduce heat and simmer 15 minutes. Add fillets, bring to a boil, and reduce heat to low. Poach 5 minutes, or until the fish is barely cooked. Remove fish with a slotted spoon and arrange on a heat-proof serving dish. Reserve 1/4 cup of poaching liquid and add 1 tablespoon black vinegar or more to taste. Spoon over the fish, sprinkle with remaining garnish ingredients except oil.

Heat oil until smoking. Pour over the fish and serve immediately.

From Legal Sea Foods, Boston

Washington Post Writers Group