A Pinch of Yin, A Dash of Yang





Photo of Barbara Tropp

When a chef comes to town, especially one courted by a national culinary association and hyped for months by Central Market Cooking School, this cook takes notice. And takes notes. On February 10, renowned Chinese food scholar and restaurateur Barbara Tropp returned to Austin to lead a cooking class like one she led at the Blanco River Cooking School years ago -- an event my food friends still talk about. I offered to serve as her cook's assistant for the class. Here's my report of the day spent in her cleaver's shadow.

Tropp began her busy one-day stop in Austin with a morning reception hosted by the local chapter of Women Chefs and Restaurateurs. As the co-founder of this national association, as well as being a precise and impassioned cook and an articulate food scholar, Tropp is a mentor to many aspiring chefs, particularly women chefs. At the reception, she also proved herself an informal, generous moderator, forthcoming with intimate testimony about her career, which has included two cookbooks and ownership of San Francisco's celebrated China Moon Cafe, which she closed several years ago while fighting cancer. Now fully recovered, she teaches full time. Tropp thinks in terms of visions and dreams, some of which tempt her to open another restaurant. She encouraged the meeting's participants to think about their own career wish lists. I, and likely others, resisted the temptation to corner her at a two-top with a thermos of coffee and monopolize every mentoring moment. Instead, we shared our guest's attention as a rapt ensemble.

About 2pm that afternoon, I met with Tropp at the Central Market Cooking School and kitchen. I was part of a small staff of volunteers assembled to assist her that day. (To find out about volunteering opportunities at Central Market Cooking School, call Cathy Cochran-Lewis at 206-1000.) As Tropp moved about the store, trailed by Central Market staff, I unbuckled my knife case and donned an apron. I tested my chef's knife, praying I remembered to sharpen it after my previous shift at work. I guessed there would be much chopping to do, and I immediately regretted leaving my hot-shot cleaver at home. While I waited for Tropp to finish shopping, a veteran volunteer got busy on dish duty and the maintenance crew adjusted the angle of the demonstration mirror to the instructor's specifications. Everyone seemed keyed up for the day. This was not my first time working alongside an accomplished chef -- my current job allows me to do this nightly -- but it was a chance for me to work with a cook I'd long admired from afar. Another volunteer enlisted for similar reasons. Diana Welsch, chef/owner of Cambridge Cafe and a seasoned Central Market cooking teacher who includes Tropp's recipes in her own repertoire, also offered enthusiastic help. Welsch spent her formative years in Southeast Asia and makes use of those roots in her food career. I listened as she and Tropp shared memories of the place that inspired this evening's cuisine. Like the others, I was content to work silently in a prep corner, occasionally privy to casual comments about family life in China and disappointing Cantonese food. Our afternoon work was focused, yet relaxed. Tropp is a task-minded cook. I'd pass a scallion mince her way for inspection so I could peek at her own diligent prep work.

Tropp, a hip, petite, savvy American woman -- i.e., not your first idea of a Chinese chef -- is among a coterie of cook-authors whose total immersion in another culture's cuisine makes her a trustworthy translator for her homeland audience. She grew up without kitchen guidance, but with ambition and an open mind. Her affection for Chinese food began with Ivy League pursuits in the literature, art, and poetry of China. She lived in China for two years, enhancing her studies and feasting with people "who ate all day long." Returning from abroad with potent "taste memories" and the same doggedness that earned her academic success, she set out to demystify Chinese food for herself. Today, she recalls her first taste test of soy sauces, a sampling rite that is still the benchmark of her cooking. Such disciplined research and a reliance on the Chinese culinary canon makes Tropp's cooking classic.

Real Chinese food, according to Tropp, manifests elements of ancient Chinese thought, namely the idea of "lively contrast," represented by yin and yang. It was appropriate, then, that Tropp launched her cooking class with a brief introduction to these Eastern ideas. Grossly simplified, yin expresses femininity and softness, yang masculinity and hardness. Together, they guide the cook toward an active balance of flavors, textures, and technique. Even the modern Chinese cook works within this philosophical paradigm, harmonizing what is sweet with sour, crisp with stewed, and poached with deep fried. This system "is not a hard and fast law of exacting combinations," Tropp writes in The Modern Art of Chinese Cooking, "but rather a gentle intuition and a visual and sensory confirmation of what does and doesn't go together." Such ideas are intrinsic to Chinese culture, hence, Tropp admits, they're often unconscious guides to the Chinese cook. But they are a crucial study for the Westerner who hopes to harness some Chinese culinary instinct for herself.

Americans haven't always had good Chinese food. No wonder we'll settle for even a simple Asian condiment that tastes crude but is convenient. For instance, we're content to use sesame oil for frying, when it's traditionally employed as a sparse final seasoning, and we buy harsh, nearly rancid chili oil because it's well-marketed and readily accessible, or -- as Tropp assumes -- because we don't know any better.

Well, now, after attending this class, some of us do. The first half of this three-hour course covered a survey of products that most cooks discount but that can wreck a lovingly prepared dish, from metallic-tasting salt to stale red chili to overly viscous, burnt, or underroasted oil. Tropp passed around a dozen tasting bowls of different soy sauces, salts, corn oils, sesame oils, and chili oils. It was obvious from some students' expressions that they never thought to taste salt straight up, but they were indeed intrigued. In this sold-out class, some students were veteran taste testers and longtime Tropp fans. Others (mostly men) were folks I recognized from previous Central Market classes. They occupied their favorite front seats and took meticulous notes about their taste impressions. The novices stared doe-eyed at Tropp while she announced her preference among the different products. We assistants refilled the water glasses.

Diamond brand kosher salt is one of her requisite ingredients that sent Central Market employees hunting for it about town in a pre-class scramble. (When the staff came up short, a student-fan came through, bringing the box he imported into Texas with him for Tropp to use. Another student, knowing her penchant for fine ingredients, presented her with a Mason jar of brown sugar, unearthed in his own research.)

My understanding, through Tropp, is that good cooking all comes down to respect for the ingredients you're using. It also has to do with the techniques you employ, the culture's cuisine you eat, and the people you serve. And, as in this case, for the person who teaches you. Like the best teachers, Tropp aims to make her students cooks, not merely consumers; she calls forth all our senses, not just our recipe-reading sight. Tropp is a gifted teacher precisely because she is unselfishly interested in others' development. Luckily for us student-cooks, her subject is food.

Tropp's largest concern was to teach us how to taste for ourselves. Just like wine, she explained, food is discernible by a first, a middle, and an end taste, and, also like wine, good food fills up the mouth, the nose, and, as its spice waters the eyes and revs the pulse, the whole head. We may know that a dish tastes "right" when it seems timeless, full, and in perfect balance, when it is commanding yet modest, when it's bold yet precious. But, Tropp showed us from the start, until we take time to taste it in parts as in whole, we can't know exactly why. So we first established the basics: We swirled salt around our mouths and noted its herbaceousness, and we crushed Sichuan peppercorns between our back teeth and felt our tongues numb. We paid close attention to the way food commingles, how adding good salt to chicken stock brings forth the chicken flavor, and how a touch of sugar can enhance a hot spice. We learned that proper salting has the effect of a light blue shirt under a dark blue jacket and red tie, where the shirt enhances the color of the brighter garments. We listened to aromatics (like ginger and garlic) as they came to a "merry simmer" and left us spellbound under a heady steam. Tropp insisted that if we taste food like wine, we open it up to a full and fair sensory evaluation. Something that "is full in the mouth," that pleases all the senses, gets her best review. So there we were, over an hour into the class, a mess of rubbing and prodding fingers, flinching and flaring nostrils, and shimmying tongues, teased by an array of spices and oils, without a morsel of food yet to eat. But we now knew what tastes to look for.

Next, Tropp worked through the class' Hunan and Sichuan recipes for seasoning mixes and oils, which she used to support other dishes. She prepared Roasted Sichuan Pepper-Salt, an all-purpose seasoning of lovingly picked-over peppercorns and salt toasted to intense fragrancy, and Chengdu Oil, a chili and citrus infusion that shames its packaged imitations. When it was time to cook, we used both the pepper-salt and the oil in the dumpling filling, with pork, cabbage, scallion, orange zest, rice wine, and soy sauce. We used the oil, again, in a "velvet marinade" for Chilean sea bass that made the raw tiles of fish feel like silken hosiery. With a generous crust of sesame seeds, these pieces of filet became Crispy Sesame Fish Slices that were fresh and greaseless, with subtle flavor from the wine marinade. They were served atop a soppable Firecracker Sauce that showed off Tropp's precise hand with cornstarch, a thickener that gives liquids succulent body or, if misused, turns them into mucus-like waste. We used the taste-tested corn and sesame oils in Ma-La Chicken, a fanned presentation of tender poached chicken breast, pepper-salt, lemon, and aromatics-infused oil. As a complement to this tender, lightly dressed meat, Tropp served Ma-La Cucumber Fans, Japanese cucumber slices, the width of a cigar, cut and cooked to be both pliable to the touch and crisp to the teeth, with a taste of sweet and sharp. Another dish, emboldened with chili and soy sauces, was Ants Climbing a Tree, sensuously slippery glass noodles and marinated pork that lightly danced on the tongue.

As Tropp worked, the class took note of precious techniques: to wipe extra gluten from our fingers when folding dumplings, to identify thoroughly cooked aromatics (ginger, garlic, etc.) by the way they separate in the wok, to pour oil into the wok in a spiral for even coating, to uniformly mix dumpling filling with the fingers of one hand moving in one direction, to soak garlic in water for peeling and slicing with least resistance, and a host of other things I might have missed as an assistant plating the class' food. Like the perfect Chinese dish, our class achieved a nice balance for the evening. It satisfied, yet tantalized, tempering our appetites but leaving our mouths salivating still. My own day left me both awed and enthused. And with tired limbs and an energized gait, I went home to fold dumplings in my sleep.

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