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When my husband, Michael McDonough, and I decided to get married, we knew we wanted a simple ceremony in our home. At about the same time, R. D. Chin, a friend we'd lost touch with, reappeared in our lives. Michael had known Chin in the mid-Seventies when they were both studying architecture at the University of Pennsylvania. Since then, Chin had studied feng shui in China and now practices it as a feng shui master in the United States and Europe. After rediscovering Chin through a mutual client, Michael invited him to our loft in Manhattan's SoHo. Chin turned up at our door wearing a lucky red scarf. When he learned of our wedding plans, he offered to feng shui our place as his gift to us.
Feng shui (fung-SHWAY) is the ancient Chinese art of creating a harmonious environment, arranging objects in space to achieve balance and a sense of well-being. The three of us stood in the center of our loft, where the dining room, living room and kitchen all flow together. We closed our eyes, and Chin clapped a pair of small cymbals--our session had begun. Around the loft the master went, commenting on the chi (energy) of our home, how it could be corrected when bad, and how it could be enhanced when good.
He approved of our round dining room table, which symbolizes that all who sit around it are equals--there is no head of the table. "But the energy has been interrupted here," the master noted, pointing to the ceiling beam directly above the table. "To increase the energy, attach a wind instrument, such as a bamboo flute, to the beam, so the energy flows continuously through the pipes rather than stopping short at the beam." Chin also noted that our living room was in the so-called wealth corner, one of the eight locations in every house that correspond to the eight directions of the ba-gua--an octagonal map representing life's fortunes. "Since you entertain here a lot, your greatest wealth is your friends," he observed. To enhance the energy, he suggested we fill a bowl with uncooked rice and nine--a prosperous number--lucky red envelopes stuffed with foreign coins from our travels, and set the bowl on our windowsill. Our modern white kitchen, he told us, lacked energy. "Put a mirror behind the stove, or place an object with a reflective surface, such as a stainless steel pot, on top of the stove to create positive energy at all times," he suggested.
While preparing lunch in the kitchen, I talked with Chin about my ingredients, which I had chosen for their color and texture, as well as their flavor. The balance within each finished dish--tangy and sweet, light and dark, cold and hot, and firm and tender--was just as important in my daily rituals as the feng shui of my apartment was to Chin. As he watched me smash, slice and mince yellow ginger, green scallions and red chiles to season my longevity noodles, he pointed to the ba-gua he'd brought with him and called my attention to the yin-yang principle of opposites in the very center of the map, symbolizing the center of life. "Just as in feng shui, balance in food can be powerful as an organizing principle," Chin said.
It's been three years since Michael and I got married, and I still incorporate feng shui principles into my cooking. Recently, I decided to invite some of my friends over for a dinner party. Before my guests arrived, I set a table designed to boost their enjoyment of life. I created a centerpiece of wooden chopsticks; wood represents growth and expansion. At each place setting, I set out flatware made of metal, a symbol of completeness and fulfillment. I filled glasses with water--a sign of abundance, purification, patience and peace--and lit a candle, which connotes energy and success. It wasn't hard to apply the principles of feng shui to my French-Vietnamese menu; I chose ingredients for their harmony and color as well as for their flavor. I started the meal by offering an exotic fruit cocktail with a sweet litchi in dry Champagne--balanced opposites. While my guests chatted in the living room, waiting for me to call them to the table, they enjoyed lemongrass-infused snails with a spicy soy-sauce dip on the side. The colors were beautiful and symbolic: brown bits of snail (representing stability and depth) mixed with ground pork and minced bright red chile (for good luck) stuffed between strands of yellow-green lemongrass (for prosperity). The fish course of striped bass was arranged on plates in a pyramid of color: red tomatoes (more luck) on the bottom, then crisp, golden fillets (more wealth) and a pile of vibrant green basil, cilantro and dill (for growth) on top. You'll find the same auspicious balance and colors in each dish.
To accompany the main course of marinated pork tenderloin, I had prepared a bowl of fragrant jasmine rice, which I set on the windowsill in the spirit of Chin's instructions. As my guests were enjoying second helpings of rice, I noticed that one friend wore an odd expression. When I asked if everything was all right, she slowly produced a Chinese coin from between her lips and gestured toward her plate. "I presume," she said, "this goes in the wealth corner of the dish."
Story and recipes by Corinne Trang, the author of Authentic Vietnamese Cooking--Food from a Family Table (Simon & Schuster), to be published this fall.