CLEVER, THESE CHINESE

by

Albert H. Morehead

Cuisine is a French word, but the Chinese invented the art. As early as 800 B.C. their chefs had a union, one of whose trade secrets was how to blend more than a thousand combinations of spices.

Americans who never go farther than chop suey or chow mein on the bill of fare don't realize that despite the undecipherable names of the other dishes, the Chinese have a way of cooking every food known to any country and many foods known to no other country. An 18th-century Chinese nobleman, upon succeeding to his title at the age of seventeen, resolved that he would never eat the same dish twice; he lived to be almost eighty and averaged four meals a day, yet his chefs had no trouble complying with his vow. A "complete" Chinese cookbook would require more pages than the five most popular American cookbooks put together. Also, it would include more than 3,000 kinds of hash.

Some legends about Chinese cookery are merely propaganda, invented to kill the trade of Chinese restaurants when their competition becomes too keen. It isn’t true that the Chinese eat rats — but the best French restaurants have served them. During the siege of Paris by the Germans in 1870, famous Ciro's featured the dish "cat with rat sauce."

Inflation is as typical of Chinese cooking as of Chinese currency. Just as the Chinese dollar isn’t worth two cents, the “hundred-year-old eggs" that are a delicacy on Chinese menus are about two years old. A Chinese chef is always very proud of owning one or more thousand-year-old knives — which means they are at least fifty years old.

When primitive Japanese tribes first began to raid the Asiatic mainland, a thousand years ago and more, their chief prize was trained chefs who taught the crude islanders to cook Chinese style (as they still do). It wasn't for two hundred years more that the Japanese got around to kidnapping scholars to teach them the alphabet.

Most of the dishes Americans eat in Chinese restaurants were invented for the local trade and are unknown in China. There are some strange coincidences in the nomenclature. For example, "chow" as in chow rnein means "chopped up," while "chop" as in chop suey means food — In other words, chow.

Connoisseurs like to go to the restaurants where the Chinese themselves eat, and take their food China style. This doesn't merely mean the manipulation of chopsticks. When a Chinese group eats, each has only one dish of his own — a bowl of rice. All the other food is in communal bowls in the center of the table, and everyone digs in.

Traditionally the Chinese drink no water. They drink tea. They learned many centuries ago that water kills you and tea doesn't; millions of them haven't learned yet that water wouldn't kill you either, if you boiled it first as you do tea. The very poor families, who can’t afford to drink tea, nevertheless buy enough so that they can drop at least one tea leaf into the boiling water they drink (so it won’t kill them).

Nevertheless, tea is so plentiful in some parts of China that it is used as a packing material for fragile articles, just as we use sawdust or excelsior or shredded paper. A New York family once entertained the Chinese scholar (then Ambassador to the United States) Dr. Hu Shih, pronounced Who She? They served him tea, and in the resulting conversation he offered to send them some of his favorite tea. Sure enough, a few weeks later they received a tremendous carton containing more than twenty pounds of loose tea. It took them six years to work very far down into the carton; then they saw the top of a small tin box sticking through. They dug out the box and discovered that it contained one pound of some rare blend. What they had drunk for six years was packing material intended to be thrown away.

Chinese etiquette demands that something be left on every dish and that each guest belch before leaving the table, to demonstrate the host's liberality with food. The proper way (and most effective way) to order in a Chinese restaurant is to tell the waiter the amount of money you want to spend and leave it to him to pick the dishes. As a matter of pride and etiquette he will bring you more than the same amount would have bought at a la carte prices. In a well-constituted Chinese restaurant, after you have finished your meal the waiter will bring you something free — probably a dessert like almond cakes or kumquats. Then when you leave a tip the waiter doesn't lose face by accepting it; he has exchanged gifts with you.