Every afternoon of my childhood, I followed my mother on her ritualistic shopping trips in San Francisco's Chinatown. At the vegetable vendors on Stockton Street, I learned how to judge the firmness of a bok choy stalk and how to test the snap of a snow pea. At Dupont Market, I learned how to hold a bird's wings back with one hand and feel its chest to measure the amount of fat and muscle. After we had made our selection, the Bird Man would take it out back and kill it. Whether it was squab or quail, pheasant or chicken, he'd present the bird to us whole, feet and head intact, gizzard and liver wrapped in a neat packet, and I'd carry it home in my arms, almost like a pet.
Freshness was supreme, and food balance was just as important. I grew up with a Chinese view of eating, believing that all foods have warming and cooling properties and that maintaining an equilibrium is essential for well-being. Just as an acupuncturist manipulates pressure points to liberate and strengthen the breath through all the body, a true cook keeps in mind not only flavor and presentation but also the balance of qualities; extremes of hot and cold are unhealthy. Cooking techniques are equally critical. Roasting, stir-frying and deep-frying are warming methods, steaming and blanching are cooling ones. My mother knew this intuitively; I learned it by rote, like swimming or bike riding. But I never thought or talked much about it until I met Eileen Yin-Fei Lo one afternoon and walked with her through Manhattan's Chinatown.
Chef, instructor and author of seven cookbooks, Lo has taught Americans how to fold, stuff and steam the perfect dumplings, and also how to throw extravagant three-day banquets that recall those of the late Ming dynasty. In her forthcoming book from Morrow, a sourcebook on Chinese cuisine, she'll share her knowledge of food history and philosophy as well as her trove of yin-yang balanced recipes, including such secrets as Buddha Jumps Over the Wall. The dish, with its layering of meat and vegetables, has such an exquisite perfume that it was said to entice even Buddha, the Grand Vegetarian.
Did he break his vow and taste meat? I asked. I couldn't contain my urge for gossip, food gossip being the ultimate. Lo only smiled, as if knowledge were the secret ingredient.
Lo had just returned from Singapore, where she'd received a lifetime achievement award at a food festival. I was just back from a year in Rome, where I'd taken to pouring olive oil on my tofu. So our winter afternoon together in Chinatown was filled with mutual homecoming joys.
Along East Broadway, we stopped at several outdoor vegetable and fruit stands. The light was strong, unfiltered on this clear day. The hairy melons wore fuzzy mohair coats, the thick stalks of bok choy were firm, tight and white, the winter melons were as huge as ancient ceremonial cauldrons and ripe for carving. The turnips were godly. And the fruits, bright as gongs! There were brilliant globes of tangerines, winter oranges, yellow pears soft as a song.
Lo picked up a knobby cucumber and said, Cool. She pointed at some bean sprouts, fluffy and amoebalike, with their curly tails and pale heads tangled on a woven bamboo tray. Cool again. At the specialty soybean shop, she gestured toward the brimming wooden vats filled with floating pillows of bean curd. Cool as well.
Tofu is my favorite food, I offered.
You eat too much of it, said Lo. Your system is too cool, I see it in your color. Cook the tofu with ginger to transform it into a warming dish.
At a fish market, Lo selected a sea bass (cooling) and praised its freshness. Fish promotes digestion, which prevents fatty deposits. The gills of the silvery fish were still gasping with aerobic vigor, and I imagined it chewing away fiercely at my fat. The thin Fish Man recognized Lo and threw in a stalk of scallion, some coriander and a bulb of garlic.
Even herbs and spices have cooling or warming properties. Lo gave me a glance, testing. Three warms? I ventured.
Warm, warm, warm.
As we stood at the busy intersection at Confucius Plaza waiting for the light to go green, I pointed at the statue of Confucius, the Great Teacher himself. I asked, Cool or warm?
Lo shrugged. Brass.
We stepped into the crowded lobby of a dim sum house. Each mouth looked hungry, but the maître d' (standing on a crate) had eyes only for the Diva of Dim Sum. We were seated immediately by a waiter who, with Hong Kong flair, asked what we desired. Lo barely breathed the names of the dishes we wanted and he slipped away, but he was right back without breath or blink. The crystal skins of our shrimp dumplings were sparkly, the seafood morsel inside bursting with succulence. Our taro dumplings were toasty on the outside, creamy-comforting on the inside.
I ordered a plate of lo mein even though it was neither of our birthdays, when the longer-the-better noodles representing long life are a must. When I raised an oyster-saucy strand and toasted to a long friendship full of great eating, Lo did the same and then invited me to her home for the Lunar New Year's meal.
And how will we celebrate? I hinted, With Buddha Jumps Over the Wall?
Lo smiled. With Champagne.
Story by Fae Myenne Ng, the author of the award-winning novel Bone (HarperCollins).
Recipes by Eileen Yin-Fei Lo, who is now at work on a cookbook for William Morrow about the history of Chinese cooking and cooking with her grandmother.