I’m a big fan of the “Dr. Who” TV series, but if the Doctor showed up and offered to whisk me off in his TARDIS time machine, I’d probably murmur a polite “no thank you” and send him on his way. I don’t envy his constantly imperiled companions.
Besides, I really don’t want to know the future. What if it’s bad? I can wait. I’m not one of those people who skips to the last chapter to find out how the book turns out.
Though if I could convince the Doctor to stick around the neighborhood rather than dashing off to a distant and hostile galaxy, I could possibly be enticed to visit the past, because I want to check out Napa in the 1880s.
It was a bustling port town then, and its now-historic downtown Victorian houses were just being constructed. But that’s not why I want to drop in on that era.
I have a more important, food-related reason.
In the 1880s, Napa had a thriving Chinatown of its very own. Which means it likely had something else that this town has been sorely lacking the entire time I have lived here.
An authentic Chinese restaurant.
Now, I don’t mean to demean the fine establishments scattered around town that claim to serve Chinese food. I even frequent them on occasion. They produce reasonably good versions of the eggroll/chop suey/sweet and sour pork/General Tso’s chicken/fortune cookie dishes (all of which were invented in this country, by the way) that have offered vaguely exotic comfort to Americans for more than a century.
And yes, I know we are getting a new Chinese dining spot later this month, which promises to be more upscale and authentic. (But since it is also promising innovations like cheeseburger eggrolls and pumpkin dumplings, pardon me if I’m a bit skeptical.)
The offerings in our local restaurants are far removed from their purported Chinese origin. I was reminded of that again recently when I attended an educational and delicious program on dim sum guided by Carolyn Phillips, a distinguished cookbook author and noted expert on the cuisines of China.
Our group, members of the San Francisco Professional Food Society, gathered at Peony Seafood restaurant in the heart of Oakland’s real live, modern-day Chinatown. Its chefs specialize in creating those incredibly varied and delicious tidbits that make up dim sum (which basically means “snacks” in Cantonese).
We tried 10 or 12 scrumptious dishes, none of which remotely resembled anything available here in town (and nearly all of which made me wish fervently that they were).
As we nibbled our way through the menu, Carolyn tutored us in basic dim sum etiquette.
It turns out that flagging down every cart that goes by, grabbing food randomly and pigging out is not exactly right. (Who knew?)
Despite the speed and frequency with which carts whiz around the room, the meal should progress fairly slowly, and one bite-sized piece at a time. Don’t fill up on steamed buns, Carolyn advised. Start with lighter steamed dumplings before moving on to fried items and heavier meats. Feel free to order off the menu.
Once you take a dish, proper manners require one to serve others first, offering the best to an honored guest or the eldest person at the table. (I plan to visit dim sum establishments only with younger friends in the future. Finally, a use for my wrinkles.)
And don’t just reach in and grab a piece with your personal chopsticks. The restaurant should supply separate ones (possibly of a different color) that are used only to serve the food. If you are lacking those, you should turn your chopsticks around and use the fat end to serve me, wiping them discreetly on your napkin before turning them back around.
Carolyn also was a font of information about the ingredients and origins of the various dishes on the menu, which relate to geography, climate, religion and language spoken in the many varied regions that make up China.
It was a whirlwind tour of a very sophisticated and complex group of cuisines that left me hungry for more. Our meal barely scratched the surface — the restaurant offers many dozens more dishes than we were able to try in one sitting.
Being dedicated to scholarship (and my taste buds), I am gearing up to do a great deal more research on the subject.
I just fervently wish it didn’t require venturing down I-80 to do so. I am convinced there is no good time to drive that route. It was as much of a nightmare on a Saturday morning as it is during Friday rush hour.
We really, really need a great Chinese restaurant in Napa.
Or barring that, time travel.
Compared to the freeway down to Oakland, a trip on the TARDIS is looking like a pretty appealing option.
Stir-Fried Potato and Green Chili Threads
From “All Under Heaven” by Carolyn Phillips
In addition to writing a very handy dim sum field guide, which will accompany me on my next foray, Carolyn Phillips also has penned an excellent and definitive cookbook, “All Under Heaven: Recipes from the 35 Cuisines of China.”
Browsing through it for something that didn’t require a trip to an Asian market, I discovered this easy (and yummy) potato recipe from northern China. It makes for a nice change from French fries or mashed potatoes and I think it would work well as a side dish with nearly any cuisine.
1 pound Yukon Gold potatoes
3 Tbsp. peanut or canola oil
1 tsp. sea salt or kosher salt
2 Tbsp. finely chopped fresh ginger
1/2 cup finely chopped green onions (white and green parts)
2 to 3 green jalapenos
Using the julienne attachment on a mandoline, cut the potatoes into 1/8-inch matchsticks. (Really, there’s no other good way to do this, but with the right tool, it takes just minutes.) There’s no need to peel the potatoes first. Place the potato matchsticks in a bowl and cover them with cold water while you prepare the other ingredients.
Remove the seeds from the jalapenos and slice them lengthwise into 1/8-inch slivers.
Prepare the green onions and ginger* and have them ready.
When you are ready to cook, drain the potatoes, turn them out onto a tea towel and dry them as well as you can, so they will fry rather than steam and clump up.
Heat a wok over high heat until it starts to smoke, then add the oil and salt, swirling the oil around to dissolve the salt. Toss in the ginger and green onions. Quickly fry them for about 30 seconds, stirring, until they release their aromas, then add the potatoes. You can also add the chilies at this point if you want to tame their heat, or add them at the end if you like things spicier. Stir to coat the potatoes with the oil, then cook for about 5 minutes, tossing every 30 seconds, until they are cooked and lightly brown. When done, the potatoes will retain a slightly firm texture.
Taste and adjust the salt. Serve hot.
*When I buy a large piece of ginger, I remove the peel from all of it, roughly chop the root and then throw it into the food processor with a couple tablespoons of water to finely chop it. You can then freeze it and have fresh ginger handy whenever you need it. It seems to be fine with defrosting and refreezing if you don’t need to use it all.