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.