Ages ago, back when we were still shacked up in an apartment downtown, The Boy bought me Pei Mei’s Chinese Cook Book Vol. I, probably at a church rummage sale. At the time, I thought it was a sweet gesture, but pretty much dismissed the book because Fu Pei-Mei? Was Taiwanese wasn’t she? So her food was going to be all Shanghainese or maybe the more northern Peking-style stuff? I have nothing against that (hey, tasty food is tasty food!) but… being freshly transplanted from my hometown — where it’s actually possible to find good southern Chinese food at any time of day or night — I was craving tastes from my home life: steamed eggs, soft marinated meats, broth noodles. Actually, I could have skipped most of it and just settled on the broth noodles.
Still, it was a thoughtful gift. I flipped through it, saw the recipes for green onion pancakes and dry-fried green beans and thought “Yup, northern food.” I made those two recipes (several times, actually), but the book was pretty much relegated to the shelf.
This turned out to be a big mistake.
After spending the earlier months of this summer playing around (with varying success) with salad dressings (all those bags of mesclun from the CSA needed eating!), I can now say with a fair amount of confidence that I can make a passable salad dressing, even under duress, in pretty much any kitchen. Why it took me this long to learn the
formula guideline (1 part acid, 3 parts oil, as much flavour as you dare) I’m never going to know. Especially since it’s not like we kept any store-bought dressing in the house (see: Not A Salad Girl). Still, better late than never. And having now conquered my (admittedly irrational) fear of salad dressings I feel… great, actually. I might even say that I hate salads just an eensy, teensy bit less than I used to!
So, it occurred to me that since dressings were now Old News, I should set for myself a new culinary challenge, nothing formal, just something to pay attention to over the next few months. I thought about it a little — did I want to hone my sourdough skills? maybe face down my family’s long-documented history of gravy failure? what about something with tomatoes? — but those all seemed kind of contrived. With the salad dressings, my need for education was born of an actual gap in my cooking know-how: after serving The Boy a salad dressed in white sugar and white vinegar sloshed together (no, I’m not kidding), I decided that enough was enough and something had to be done. So what next?
I thought of dishes that I tried and failed to recreate and I realized that there was another area of cooking failure much closer to home than salads: anything my mom made. I have only on one occasion recreated my mom’s cooking successfully (bbq pork and green beans in soft-fried egg), and realizing that made me suddenly incredibly homesick for all the same food I’d missed when I first moved here, only now it was homesickness tinged with a distinct sense of failure: how is it that I can’t cook all the stuff my mom fed me growing up? It’s not that the things I made tasted bad… they just didn’t taste quite right. My next challenge was clear: learn to cook basic, home-style Chinese food.
(Re-)enter Pei Mei. There are other resources I could have turned to for this — Alison’s done a quite a few Chinese cooking basics (including some lessons with her grandma!), and after all, I have the whole Internets at my disposal! — but I wanted something a little more… oldschool. I basically wanted my mom in the kitchen with me. Seeing as she’s a 4 hour drive away, however, I turned to the next best thing: Fu Pei Mei.
Pei Mei has often been described as the Chinese Julia Child. After a good deal of study (both culinary and non), she got married, moved to Taiwan and, while raising her three children, set to teaching the peoples of south-east Asia about China’s foodie diversity. She had an extremely long-running television cooking show (30 years!) that was very popular, especially among housewives and young brides. Although my mom and I didn’t watch it (it was in Mandarin), I do remember seeing it sometimes as a kid. She traveled fairly extensively (given the era) throughout Asia giving classes and lectures, and wrote a number of books — her most famous probably being the 3-volume set, of which I have the first book. (I’ve since noticed that she has books entitled Pei Mei’s Home Style Chinese Cooking and Pei Mei’s Lunchbox Cookbook, both of which I’d love to get my hands on. Wonder if they’re still in print?)
I read through Volume I a couple nights ago — actually read it — and am ashamed to note that Ms Fu is not as northern-biased as I’d initially assumed. Her book is divided into five sections: four for the geographic regions and their cooking (northern/Beijing, western/Szechuan, eastern/Shanghai, and southern/Cantonese) along with a last section for “snacks and sweets” which contains a number of dim sum dishes, as well as desserts. Each section has 20 recipes in it and although there are many dishes that I have zero desire to make (chicken in aspic being one of them — see? Chinese Julia Child), there are just as many that I recognize and sorely miss seeing on my dinner table.
So what now? Well, I don’t think I’m going to be as hardcore as Pei Mei a Day and do a Julie and Julia-type thing, but I do have a number of recipes flagged to try. I’m hoping that once I get the basic techniques down for the dishes I miss, I can either wing it and improvise the others that I remember, or expand my repertoire by finding other sources of instruction (maybe I can find Volume II somewhere?). I’m not going to start making Chinese food every night; I would miss curries and pasta, and The Boy would miss potatoes way too much for that. I usually make a dinner (I hope) my mom would recognize roughly once a week, so I’ll aim for an extra one every week or two to supplement it, for now anyway.
My very first project? Homemade BBQ pork, of course. Partly because I can then make steamed pork buns for lunches, partly because bbq pork goes with everything (in my world, anyway) and mostly because The Boy finally pulled his smoker out of the basement and bought himself a pork belly to cure (mmm… bacon!) — as long as he’s got the gear out, I might as well make use of it too!