BARBARA TROPP is no ordinary non-Chinese Chinese chef. A graduate of Barnard College at Columbia University, with honors in Oriental studies, she received a Woodrow Wilson Fellowship to continue graduate work in Chinese literature and art history at Princeton University. She lived in Taiwan for two years, and once back home she decided that instead of a thesis on Tang dynasty poetics, she would write about the food that captured her imagination and spirit while living in China. Her cookbook, "The Modern Art of Chinese Cooking" (William Morrow & Co., 1982) has become a highly praised, scholarly document on the food of modern China.
Tropp's life has changed considerably since she gave herself completely to her craft; she teaches Chinese cooking across the country, writes about it and cooks for customers at her San Francisco restaurant, China Moon, a Chinese cafe-coffee shop. And the cooks there are Occidental, not Oriental.
Tropp has created such dishes as peony-blossom spicy cold noodles and sand-pot casserole of spare-rib nuggets in what she calls "strange-flavor sauce." There is some charming food on the menu that is authentic in taste but Californian in its spirit of artistic expression.
When we first met Tropp, she was hidden--except for her enormous purple hat, which is her trademark--by billows of smoke from a grill in the Napa Valley, where she, along with 12 other women chefs from around the nation, contributed their efforts to a fund drive for the American Institute of Wine and Food. When the huge platter of sliced pork arrived, anyone who knew Tropp's style could identify its creator. Slices of pork were surrounded with a riot of herbs and other unusual things: fresh shiitake mushrooms, opal basil, Thai basil, sprigs of cilantro, fresh lemon grass and chives, all mixed with speckles of diced red pepper.
These cold Chinese-style noodles are flavored with oranges mixed in a hot chile dressing. Garnishes of sprouts, carrots, green onion rings, cilantro and peanuts make a beautiful and thoroughly individual presentation.
The noodles are wonderful with any good quality California Chardonnay. or even Sauternes. Take the noodles to the Hollywood Bowl for a splendidly glamorous picnic, serve them as a light lunch or supper or use as an accompaniment to a pork or other roast.
CHINA MOON CHILI-ORANGE COLD NOODLES 1 pound very thin fresh Chinese or Italian egg noodles, 1/16-inch thick 1 pound crisp, white bean sprouts Chili-Orange Dressing 2 large carrots, peeled and shredded finely 1/2 rounded cup thinly cut green onion rings, including white part 2 bunches cilantro, upper stems and leaves finely chopped Few sprigs cilantro Whole peanuts
Fluff noodles to separate strands. Cook in generous amount of unsalted boiling water until al dente , about 2 minutes, swishing gently with chopsticks to prevent sticking. Drain at once, then plunge briefly into ice water to chill. Drain thoroughly.
Separately blanch bean sprouts in unsalted boiling water 5 seconds. Plunge into ice water to prevent further cooking. Drain well before using.
Pour Chili-Orange Dressing over noodles and toss to coat noodles well. Scatter bean sprouts, carrots, green onion rings and chopped cilantro on top. Toss lightly to mix. Adjust seasoning. Garnish with remaining chopped and several whole sprigs cilantro and sprinkle generously with peanuts. Makes 6 to 8 servings or 12 appetizer servings.
Chili-Orange Dressing cup black soy sauce cup distilled white vinegar 2 teaspoons kosher salt 2 tablespoons sugar Chili-Orange Oil
Combine soy sauce, vinegar, kosher salt and sugar, whisking to blend well. Strain Chili-Orange Oil, reserving seasonings. Whisk in Chili-Orange Oil and strained seasonings from oil to taste, about 1 tablespoon oil and 1 to 2 tablespoons seasonings. Return any unused Orange-Chili Oil and seasonings to jar for other use. Makes about 3/4 cup dressing.
Note: The Chili-Orange Oil and seasonings will be very spicy-hot, so add them in small amounts until the desired degree of heat is reached.
Chili-Orange Oil 3 large oranges with unblemished peel 1/2 cup dried red chili flakes 3 tablespoons Chinese salted black beans, unwashed 1 to 2 large cloves garlic, lightly mashed and peeled 2 cups corn or peanut oil cup Japanese sesame oil
Wash oranges in warm water, using light soap and an abrasive to remove any wax. With very sharp, thin-bladed knife, peel outer orange portion of skin from orange, paring off any pith attached. Mince outer peel.
Combine minced peel with chili flakes, black beans, garlic and oils in heavy 1 1/2-quart saucepan. Bring to 250 degrees over medium-low heat, and let bubble for 10 minutes. Remove pan from stove and let oil stand until cool. Scrape oil and seasonings into glass jar and store at room temperature. Makes about 2 cups.
Photographed by Paul Conrath/Styled by Norman Stewart/Plate courtesty of Lynne Deutch Ltd.