Reviewing the Central Market Cooking School
By Mick Vann, Fri., March 24, 2000
Thursday, January 21
Barbara Tropp is a diminutive fireball. She's tiny in stature but gargantuan when it comes to the whys and wherefores of Chinese cuisine. With close-cropped hair and sparkling eyes, she peered over the top of the reading glasses perched on her aquiline nose as she brought the study of the soul and character of Chinese cooking into sharp focus for the sold-out class. And she produced authentically spiced, delicious examples of the fiery regions of China while peppering her demonstration with a myriad of tidbits of information new to even the most devoted students of Chinese cookery.
Tropp describes herself as the child of doctors who ran an antiseptic home where food was thought of as a necessity. She pursued an academic career, which led her to study the language and culture of China. So it was only natural that she ended up using her nose as the ultimate guide to what was dicey or unsafe while doing research in Taiwan and China.
Tropp's vast academic knowledge of Chinese cuisine and culture might never have found a commercial outlet had she not lost a Princeton grant and found herself forced to teach cooking classes in San Francisco to survive. Through her work as a cooking teacher at such high-profile stores as Williams-Sonoma, Tropp met and became friends with many successful Bay Area chefs and eventually tried her hand at the restaurant business, operating the renowned China Moon Cafe for several years. Health concerns ultimately necessitated the sale of the restaurant.
These friends, and the success of her restaurant, influenced her in writing two award-winning cookbooks: The Modern Art of Chinese Cooking and The China Moon Cookbook. Tropp now teaches, writes for periodicals, consults, and leads culinary tours to China. She is the founder of Women Chefs and Restaurateurs, a collaborative that offers mentoring, education, and job support to women in the field. The dark cloud that caused her to lose her grant has had a definite silver lining.
Tropp began the class by describing Hunan and Sichuan as the twin provinces of fire and flavor in China. She favors the food of Hunan because it is subtler and uses less oil, making it the lighter of the two. The original fire of the regions came from Sichuan peppercorns, but both warmly embraced the arrival of the chile pepper when introduced by the spice traders. Comparative tastings of several grades of Sichuan peppercorns followed, and the highest grade produced a tingling spiciness that instantly numbed the tongue.
We opened with Strange Flavor Eggplant, a sweet, spicy, tangy dish that normally is chunky in texture. Barbara's version was pureed, making it the perfect dip -- a stroke of genius. A tasting of soy-based sauces followed, and we were surprised to find that "Lite" soy goes through dialysis, reducing the salt by 40%, a process which also intensifies the flavor.
Next followed a delightfully spicy cucumber salad, fortified with Sichuan peppercorns. Salt, used to make the cukes crispy, led to a tasting of different types of salt. "Diamond" brand kosher salt was the winner by far. She next made spicy Chengdu oil as a dressing for a chicken and sesame noodle salad, then prepared the incredible salad. The layers of flavor exploded on the palate. The most tender and tasty pork ribs imaginable followed, with the mildly spicy maltose glaze melting on the tongue.
Tropp taught us through her cooking that the key to Chinese cuisine is the balance of yin and yang, producing a harmonious result. The cuisine demands the interplay of sweet, tart, and spicy, and the Chinese palate craves contrasts of texture. It's all predicated on infusing oils with aromatic flavor at a low and slow cooking speed until the aromatics "explode into flavor," or bao xiang. Quite a contrast to what one sees in restaurants, where the demands of volume rush the process.
We are fortunate to have a scholar like Tropp visit Central Market to display her talents, and anyone interested in Chinese cookery should definitely have her two books on their cookbook shelf -- food-spotted, dog-eared, and well-worn.