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One Cook’s Battles with Her Oven

After many attempts at baking, broiling and roasting in her oven, writer Jennifer 8. Lee discovers that, for her, there’s only one suitable purpose for this iconic American appliance.

A few years ago, when I was about to turn 30, I realized that if I didn’t learn to bake now, I never would. But I wasn’t sure how to go about this. Certainly no one in my family could teach me. When I was growing up in New York City in the 1980s, we rarely used our oven, an ancient gas-powered model from the late 1950s with no internal lights, no window, no timer, no beeping alarms to let you know something was ready or going wrong. The oven was so old, it had to be lit with a match (which once resulted in a kaboom! and singed bangs when my babysitter only remembered that step several minutes after she turned on the gas).

Chinese people do not, in general, use ovens. We do not bake. And though my parents came to this country more than three decades ago and I was born here, we have not budged from this practice. So our dark, creaky oven served as an extra dish rack and a convenient dumping ground for unsightly, awkward appliances, as my mother could not let valuable storage space go to waste in our cramped kitchen. We could go for months without opening the oven door. If something wanted to set up a nest in our oven, I’m sure it could have bred many generations before my family would have noticed.

Others clearly pay more heed to ovens. My cosmopolitan American friends, sent to Beijing or Shanghai by their employers, arrive in the luxury apartments provided by their expatriate packages and are shocked to discover that their kitchens have no ovens. “What will I do for Thanksgiving?” they lament.

In deference to American traditions, my family put our oven to rare use at Thanksgiving during my childhood, with odd roast-turkey experiments involving sticky-rice stuffing or newfangled basting techniques that we read about in magazines. By the time I was in college, even that minimal effort had expired; my family had reached a consensus that we do not like roast turkey. It is too dry and bland. We now head to Palisadium, an upscale Korean restaurant on the banks of the Hudson River, which has mirrored ceilings from its earlier incarnation as a bar and lounge. We barbecue beef there instead.

Without much oven experience, my mom and I were perplexed at what to make for my elementary school’s bake sales. My family didn’t make desserts, and Chinese restaurants usually served fruit at the end of a meal. Watching my peers, I became fascinated by the myriad ways that flour, butter, sugar and chocolate could be configured—brownies, angel food cakes, chocolate chip cookies. I noticed that Rice Krispies Treats were an easy choice for those parents and children who did not want to bake.

Most of these desserts are some combination of sugar and fat. In contrast, most Chinese desserts center on red bean and lotus seed, peanut and sesame, soy and almond. And honestly, most of them don’t taste very good. Even Chinese moon cakes, essential to the Mid-Autumn Festival, have the density of the hockey pucks they resemble. Chinese restaurants around the world, realizing that their Western customers expect something sweet at the end of the meal, have adopted a dessert from whatever country they happen to be in: fried gelato in Italy, cheesecake in Jamaica, fortune cookies in America (fortune cookies are all but unknown in China).

For the first few bake sales, we tried bringing egg custards and the dried-fruit bits known as Haw flakes from Chinatown, which had a mixed reception. After that, my mom and I gave up on trying to introduce Chinese desserts to my classmates. Instead, we settled on making what we knew best: fried dumplings (using ground turkey, since that’s what was available in our neighborhood supermarket, instead of the more traditional ground pork). They were one of the first items to sell out.

As a result, by the time I was an adult, desserts were a blank space in my culinary repertoire. My cooking skills became good enough to throw elaborate multicourse dinners for a dozen people. I’d make 800 dumplings by hand over the course of weeks, freeze them, and fry them for 50 guests at a cocktail party. But when it came to dessert, I adopted a “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy. As long as no one wanted the recipe, I never mentioned that the gooey chocolate chip cookies fresh from the oven were scooped out of a massive tub of dough from Costco, or that the warm pie was store-bought and merely reheated.

Only after I made an apple pie from scratch, I decided, would I no longer be a dessert fraud. I printed a recipe from the Internet and noticed that the crust called for a suspicious amount of butter. (Chinese are often leery of butter—it seems unnatural that a substance can be so treacherously perched at the edge between liquid and solid. In China, people had told me that Westerners smelled like butter, and they wondered if I, having been born in America, would smell like butter, too.) For me, reading the pie recipe was like stumbling across an unfamiliar language with an odd vocabulary. The crust seemed needlessly complicated, with steps involving ice water and refrigeration. Still, I did my best rolling out the dough and making the filling. After I joyously cut slits in the top crust (just as I had seen on television), I put my creation in the oven and then… Nothing.

I suddenly realized how quiet the kitchen had become. I had nothing to do while the pie baked. Chinese cooking is noisy—a multitasking activity that requires constant vigilance. There is no downtime. A cacophony of sounds comes out of Chinese kitchens: the chop-chop of the butcher knife against the cutting board, the clanging of metal woks, the angry sizzle as wet, raw food meets hot oil. Perhaps the Chinese don’t really bake because China used to be—and still is—a relatively poor country. The Chinese use every spare bit of an animal: cow lungs, pig ears, chicken feet, duck blood. With wok cooking, you chop things up into little pieces for maximum surface area, so they can cook in minutes, if not seconds. Sautéing is energy efficient; baking is not.

With nothing to do, I obsessively peeked into the oven to watch the crust brown (it’s slower than waiting for water to boil). When it was done, I marveled at my pie. It looked convincing, but the crust had a thick, crumbly texture. Baking, I realized, was never going to be my thing.

And I now realize that I’m not alone—at least when it comes to baking in a home oven. Japanese kitchens often have a pull-out fish grill under the cooktop where the oven would be. Around the Mediterranean, communal ovens have been part of village life for thousands of years, even in places where people also use propane stoves at home.

After making my disappointing apple pie, I discovered a more satisfying solution to my dessert dilemma: chocolate-covered strawberries, one of the biggest bangs for the buck in terms of effort and time. Hand-dipping fresh strawberries while keeping the chocolate from burning fits well with my hands-on sense of vigilant Chinese cooking. And finishing the meal with fruit—albeit candy-covered fruit—feels more appropriately Chinese.

The strawberries are simple to prepare but always elicit oohs and aahs when I bring them out. I understand why my guests are impressed. Baked goods, which have longer shelf lives, can be mass-produced in factories and shipped to various corner bakeries. Strawberries, however, are perishable, so chocolate-covered ones are expensive. Therefore, they are perfect to make at home.

I have found a use for my oven, though: It keeps my hundreds of fried dumplings warm and crisp (something microwaves cannot do) before I serve them to guests.

Jennifer 8. Lee, a reporter at The New York Times, is the author of The Fortune Cookie Chronicles: Adventures in the World of Chinese Food, to be published this month..

Published March 2008
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