1990s: The Golden Decade : FOOD : Chefs Blend the Best of Oriental, American and French Cuisines
Ken Hom, a 39-year-old native-born American of Chinese ancestry, embodies the union of East and West.
At age 11, Hom began working in Chinese kitchens, where he learned many of the finer techniques of Chinese cuisine. In the mid-1970s he studied French and Italian cooking during a three-year stay in Europe.
In 1983, his Chinese cooking series on the BBC made him an instant celebrity in England. Now, in addition to being one of the few cookbook authors with almost a million books in print, Hom takes professional chefs and other food enthusiasts on weeklong restaurant tours of Hong Kong several times a year. “Ken Hom’s East Meets West Cuisine” (Simon & Schuster) is one of the first books to define the phenomenon of the merging of Asian and Western cuisines.
Hom attributes the changes to three major factors--the opening of trade with mainland China in the 1970s, meaning Americans could get previously unavailable ingredients; introduction of nouvelle cuisine in France, which paved the way for food experimentation, and improvement in travel.
The Berkeley-based Hom and others like him in Hong Kong and now California have become the leaders in this East-West trend of combining Oriental, French and American techniques and ingredients.
One of the Chinese restaurants taking the lead in Western-influenced menus is the Hong Kong-based Sun Tung Lok Shark’s Fin restaurant, which opened an American branch in Burlingame in September. Hom praises the restaurant for “taking the more traditional foods and bringing them into the ‘90s.”
Executive chef at this new branch is Cheung Chak Sum, 40, who was born in China, was trained in Hong Kong, and has worked for the restaurant in Hong Kong, Taipei and Bangkok, Thailand. “The new school of Chinese cuisine takes all kinds of ingredients, Chinese and Western,” Cheung said. What this translates into are menu items like “Baked Fresh Lobster With Cheese and Butter” and “Fresh Fruit Lobster Salad,” which includes Miracle Whip.
Cheung agrees with Hom that increased travel and exposure to different cultures and foods has had a profound effect on Chinese food. “It used to be that whatever the master chef said was final and recipes stayed the same,” Cheung says. “Now things are different. In Hong Kong we were exposed to a lot of things. We can borrow from other cultures.”
Even at Joss in West Hollywood, where owner Cecile Tang Shu-shuen designs the menu of “Classic Chinese Haute Cuisine,” some American influences have crept in. “We serve a lot of California wine,” Tang says. “It’s simply superior. For cooking, we use Chinese rose-kettle or rice wine. But for orange-tasting dishes, we turn to Western products--Cointreau and triple sec.”
Chinese chicken salad is another hybrid. “The Chinese have a traditional cold chicken dish with sprouts, diced cucumbers, spring onions and cilantro,” says Tang. “But now everybody adds lettuce.” She noted that, on a recent trip to Hong Kong, she saw stir-fried lettuce in all the restaurants.
Perhaps the most positive American influence, Tang believes, is the substitution of lighter cooking oils, like safflower oil, for peanut oil.
Like Tang, restaurateur Philip Chiang reveres “authentic” cooking. He recently took over The Mandarin, a tony Beverly Hills favorite of politicos and celebrities since 1975, when it was opened by his mother. Born in Shanghai and reared in Japan, Chiang is sensitive to cross-cultural sharing.
“The lower-end Chinese offshoot restaurants--like Chopsticks and Chin Chin--started out serving Cantonese tea-house-style dim sum. But their whole style was based on the grazing and snacking trend,” he observes.
Chiang sees Americans’ concept of vegetables changing as a result of the Chinese influence. “The way they’re cut and prepared--sauted quickly or steamed and under-cooked, rather than boiled to death. That’s come into American cuisine from Asia,” he says.
Madame Wu, the restaurant, and its proprietor, Sylvia Wu, have been Los Angeles institutions for three decades. Over most of those years, Wu boasts, she has kept the same chef, many of the same waiters, and even some busboys at her Westside establishment. She has also taught cooking classes and now provides instruction on her own cable television show.
Wu sees cross-fertilization of Chinese cuisine not only in American eating, but also in many other international cuisines. Just returned from London, she recounted dining at an exclusive food club owned by the former head chef of the Dorchester Hotel, Anton Mosimann. “The very first item on the menu was teriyaki beef,” she said. “I asked the captain what the ingredients were, and he said, ‘Soy sauce, sugar . . . ' Why, that’s originally Chinese.”
But the assimilation of Western foods into Chinese cuisine is not wholeheartedly embraced by all proponents of Chinese food. Longtime food columnist, author and new restaurateur Bruce Cost doesn’t like all the hybrid dishes he’s seen. “I can’t stand Miracle Whip,” he says.
Cost, who has studied Chinese cooking and researched its techniques for 20 years, opened a new San Francisco restaurant in November that has Bay Area food critics singing the praises of his East-West cuisine. Called Monsoon, the Asian bistro features Chinese and Southeast Asian dishes prepared by what could be best described as a young, talented multiethnic cooking staff trained in California-style cuisine.
Cost’s general partner is successful restaurateur Doug Wong. Most of the investors are Bay Area Chinese restaurant owners with close Hong Kong ties like San Francisco Deputy Mayor James Ho, who owns Canton Tea House and Celadon, Henry Chan of Yank Sing and Lawrence Lui of Harbor Village.
A food purist who insists on using only the finest ingredients and condiments for his dishes, Cost believes that Chinese cooking techniques, perfected over the centuries, should be continued and maintained. His adherence to the traditional flavors has only been reinforced by his yet-to-be-released book of recipes dating from as far back as 6th Century China, “How to Steam a Bear.”
While Cost says Monsoon tries to “make everything the old way,” at first glance the appetizers and lunch offerings are definitely not your typical Chinese fare. He admitted that, since most Americans cannot take lengthy lunch breaks, he’s had to design “fast foods” but steadfastly maintains their authentic Chinese or Asian flavors.
“Monsoon burgers on sesame seed buns” are steamed beef balls with minced fresh ginger, and the baked-then-steamed buns have an ancestry that can be traced to Shaobing breads. Another lunchtime offering is a cold fresh noodle dish with an Asian pesto of Thai basil, mint, coriander, ginger, garlic and fried peanuts.
The blending of Western and Chinese cuisines has not been a one-way street. “Chinese food has heavily influenced American tastes and food preferences,” Cost says, pointing to the increasing use of fresh ginger in American foods. Hom noted that other Chinese ingredients--like fresh coriander, bok choy and five-spice powder--have made their way into French and American recipes.
An international chef who never shies away from experimentation with hybrids is Austrian-born Wolfgang Puck. Puck created Spago, an “Italian-California” restaurant, as he calls it, overlooking Los Angeles’ Sunset Strip. He unabashedly put duck, shrimp and other surprises on pizza.
Not content to rest on his pizzas, Puck opened Chinois, a Chinese-French eatery in Santa Monica. “Years ago, the people who cooked Chinese were only Chinese, the people who cooked French were only French,” declares Puck. All that has changed, he says.
“At Chinois, we do a lot of recipes with Chinese influences, but French techniques.” He cites Cantonese duck with fresh plum sauce. “It’s not a typical sauce. It’s Chinese-inspired, but French,” he says. Another highlight is a marinade for lamb chops with chile, honey and a little soy sauce, served with cold cilantro vinaigrette. “The flavor is Chinese, but you wouldn’t find lamb chops in a Chinese restaurant,” he says.
“East-West is the trend of the future,” Hom says. “As more and more Asians immigrate to the U.S., especially California, what we are seeing here is the ‘melting pot’ in the best sense. We must learn from each other without compromising our own cultures--not become ‘chop suey.’
“Food boundaries are the hardest and last to break down. But what I see happening today here and in Hong Kong is part of a continuous evolution, an unstoppable trend. And the food is getting better.”