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Year of the Rooster : Chinese Food at the Breaking Point

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TIMES FOOD MANAGING EDITOR

Is Yujean Kang a Chinese chef cooking California food or is he a California chef cooking Chinese food?

“What is California cooking?” he asks, then quickly answers: “I think it’s a brighter idea. It’s being free of the boundaries of tradition. You’ll always find the classical (Chinese) roots in my cooking. But if I call myself Chinese, I cannot use some of the things that make the most sense for the dish I want. If I call myself a California cook, it gives me much more room to use anything I want to use.”

It gives him the freedom, for instance, to use fresh artichoke hearts in a pork stir-fry in place of bamboo shoots. Most Chinese cooks substitute canned bamboo shoots when fresh ones aren’t available, but Kang has found that fresh artichoke hearts are closer in flavor and texture to the original ingredient.

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This edgy meshing of tradition and freedom is what has made the 30-year-old Kang and his eponymous Pasadena restaurant one of the Los Angeles food scene’s hottest topics of the last year. While critics rave about his tea-smoked duck, or lobster with fava beans, Kang quietly goes about trying to negotiate the gap between the grand San Gabriel Valley restaurants--where tradition rules the kitchen--and fancy Westside Chinese restaurants--where kung pao chicken reigns unchallenged.

“In China things are very traditional, and you are not allowed to go beyond what is written down in the book,” Kang says. “But after a while, when you can’t do certain things or you can’t find certain ingredients, it’s not really traditional anymore. It’s gone from classic into something that is not classic.

“This is the breaking point. Most Chinese restaurants in this country choose to stay with tradition, even if it means using inferior ingredients when they can’t find the fresh. You’re going by the book, but that’s not the right taste or texture, and it’s no longer the same dish.

“I may make changes in the ingredients, but I don’t change the spirit of the dish. Sometime you can keep the same ingredients but cook from a different point of view and end up with a different result. Sometimes you can change the ingredients but cook from the same point of view and end up closer to the original dish.”

That’s not all that separates Kang from traditional Chinese restaurants. While most typically offer budget-priced sweetish Chenin Blancs and Rieslings, Kang pairs his fried rice with some of California’s most praised (and pricey) wines, including Pinot Noirs from Williams Sellyem Winery, Cabernets from Grace Family Vineyards and Chardonnays from Stony Hill Vineyard and Forman Winery--wines so rare they are only sold to select, faithful customers, typically either through a mailing list or at the winery door.

At first, there was a lot of explaining to do--especially to his parents, who backed him in his first restaurant in Albany, Calif., just outside of Berkeley.

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“My parents thought of the wine supply like it was vegetables,” Kang says. “You didn’t order more until you had used up all you had.”

Specifically, there was the time when a delivery from winemaker Ric Forman himself came while Kang was in Taipei. Kang’s father was minding the store when Forman, who tends to regard his wines as only slightly less precious than gifts from a merciful god, brought in 10 cases of his highly allocated Chardonnay. Kang Sr. turned him right around and sent him out the door, wine and all.

“He didn’t understand why we needed more wine when we already had this room full of wine that we hadn’t sold yet.

“Ric still kids me about that. When I told him I was moving to Los Angeles, all he said was, ‘Is your father going with you?’ ”

In reality, this attention to wine isn’t as odd as it might seem. While Chinese traditionally view their Shiaoxing wine much as Americans do coffee--prized mainly for its active ingredient--they can natter on about tea with an attention to detail that will rival any American wine geek’s.

“You should hear them,” says Kang’s wife, Yvonne. “From the teapot to the tea leaves, the season they’re picked, the way they’re roasted, the way the tea is brewed, the kind of water and the temperature. There’s a lot to study.”

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Born in Taipei to parents who had emigrated from Beijing during the revolution in China, Kang got his early training at his mother’s restaurant (his father, a former member of the Nationalist government, was the editor of the China Times). When Kang was 14, his father and mother retired to Berkeley, and it was clear Yujean was bound for the kitchen. He worked in several small Chinese restaurants in the Bay Area before his parents opened their own restaurant in Albany in 1986. Though his mother ran it, it was named Yujean’s Modern Cuisine of China. “I was the only son,” he says, with a sheepish smile.

Six months later, he took over the kitchen and Yujean’s became a minor hot spot in the crowded Bay Area dining scene. Then, contemplating a move back to Taipei, Kang sold the restaurant to his sister. When the Taiwan deal fell through, he moved to Southern California and, in January of 1991, set up shop on Raymond Avenue, smack in the middle of what has turned into a bustling Old Town dining scene.

While the restaurant was being finished, the front window was papered with Kang’s clippings--a review from Gourmet magazine, a review from the San Francisco Chronicle and, perhaps most important, a review from The Wine Advocate, the paper put out by wine guru Robert Parker.

Fittingly enough, the first night’s business included Pasadena dentist/food-and-wine-maven Baldwin Marchack and his family.

“I’d noticed the restaurant was under construction for quite some time,” says Marchack, who is himself of Chinese extraction. “Finally, one Saturday I decided to just go by and see if it was open. I stuck my head in and there were people. I asked how long they’d been open, and they said ‘about two hours.’ It turned out another friend was at the next table, and we enjoyed a nice vertical tasting of Stony Hill Chardonnays at about $20 a bottle.”

At those prices, Kang’s wine list was depleted in the first few weeks. Clearly, Kang knew how to attract the wine crowd. He figures roughly 30% of his clientele is Asian. Much of the remainder is the kind of diner who is tired of explaining to the waiter in Monterey Park or Alhambra that, yes, he really would like to try the tripe.

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“It’s sad but it’s true that most real Chinese restaurants in America have two menus, one for Chinese and one for everybody else,” Kang says. “If you walk into even a very good restaurant like the Hong Kong Flower Lounge in San Francisco and take a look at what people have on their plates--it’s like two different restaurants.

“Chinese people are just like those in European countries. They know what they like. And they think they know what Americans will like too. Twenty years ago they may have been right, but not any more. I’m cooking for people who have been around and who are interested in trying new things. What do you call them? Foodies?”

This recipe appears daunting, but taken one step at a time, there is nothing very difficult about it, especially if you spread production out over two days. Prepare the shrimp paste, fry the hazelnuts and taro root chips the first day. Prepare the crab, finish the egg rolls and toss the salad the second. Or, you can simply eat the delicious shrimp and crab rolls by themselves. If you’re frying everything on the same day, start with the taro chips, then fry the shrimp rolls and keep them warm in the oven while you fry the glazed hazelnuts. The sugar from the hazelnuts will overly brown anything that is cooked in the oil after it.

SHRIMP AND CRAB ROLLS WITH GLAZED HAZELNUT SALAD AND TARO ROOT CHIPS 1 pound mixed greens (baby arugula, romaine, green leaf, red leaf, frisee and radicchio) Hazelnut Salad Dressing Glazed Hazelnuts Shrimp and Crab Rolls Oil for deep-frying Taro Root Chips

Toss greens with Hazelnut Salad Dressing. Arrange on 6 individual plates. Sprinkle each serving with Glazed Hazelnuts to taste.

Heat oil to 375 degrees in wok. Deep-fry Shrimp and Crab Rolls until brown and crisp, about 2 to 3 minutes. Drain on paper towels. Place 2 rolls on top of each salad.

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Garnish with crisp Taro Root Chips to taste. Makes 6 servings.

Each serving contains about: 508 calories; 918 mg sodium; 254 mg cholesterol; 24 grams fat; 36 grams carbohydrates; 33 grams protein; 0.49 gram fiber.

Hazelnut Salad Dressing 2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar 1 tablespoon sesame oil 1/2 cup Chinese rice vinegar 1/2 cup oil, infused with shallots 2 tablespoons sugar 2 tablespoons fresh ginger juice 1/2 tablespoon salt 1/2 tablespoon light soy sauce 1/4 cup hazelnut liqueur 2 tablespoons black poppy seeds

Combine balsamic vinegar, sesame oil, rice vinegar, shallot oil, sugar, ginger juice, salt, soy sauce, hazelnut liqueur and poppy seeds in medium-sized mixing bowl and mix until emulsion is formed. Makes 1 1/3 cups.

Glazed Hazelnuts 1 pound hazelnuts, roasted and peeled 2 tablespoons sugar 1 teaspoon honey Oil for deep-frying

Combine hazelnuts, sugar, honey and cold water just to cover in saucepan. Bring to boil, stirring continuously until water evaporates, leaving clear sugar glaze on nuts. Do not let mixture darken or burn.

Transfer glazed nuts to deep fryer with cold oil. Heat oil slowly until nuts are browned. Drain, set aside to cool.

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Killing and cleaning the crab this way is not for the squeamish, but it does make for much moister, more flavorful meat.

Shrimp and Crab Rolls 1 live Dungeness crab 3 slices ginger root 3 whole green onions, cut in half 1 tablespoon Chinese rice wine Shrimp Paste 1 pound medium shrimp (16 to 20 per pound size), peeled and deveined but with tails attached 6 sheets filo dough 1 teaspoon lightly toasted white sesame seeds 1 egg, beaten

Kill crab by cutting through shell immediately behind head with cleaver. Clean, separate legs from body, cut body in quarters. Crack leg joints with cleaver.

Place crab in colander or steamer basket along with ginger, green onions and rice wine. Place steamer over boiling water, cover and cook 2 to 3 minutes until meat is cooked. Remove from steamer and set aside to cool. When cool, scoop all meat out of body and legs into small bowl and set aside.

Combine Shrimp Paste and crab meat.

Butterfly shrimp by slitting along underside but not completely through, then lightly score several times along body to prevent from curling during cooking.

Cut 1 filo sheet in half. Fold half sheet in half again and place butterflied shrimp along short side. Mound about 1 1/2 tablespoons crab-shrimp paste mixture on top. Sprinkle with sesame seeds.

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Fold long side over to cover, then roll up shrimp in filo dough. When finished, shrimp tail should be visible. Seal edge with egg wash. Repeat process for each roll. Set aside until ready for frying. Makes 12.

Shrimp Paste 1/2 pound shrimp, peeled and ground finely 1/4 pound solid shortening 1 teaspoon light sesame oil 1/4 teaspoon ginger juice 1 egg white 1/2 teaspoon salt 1/2 teaspoon black pepper

Beat shrimp, shortening, sesame oil, ginger juice, egg white and salt and pepper to taste until thoroughly mixed.

Taro Root Chips 1 piece fresh taro root, peeled Oil for deep-frying

Slice root paper-thin (sharp potato peeler works well). Wash starch out by rinsing under running cold water 2 to 3 minutes. Blot dry and deep fry in hot oil until lightly golden. Drain onto paper towels to cool.

Lay the tenderloin flat on a cutting board and then slice it diagonally into 1/4-inch - thick pieces. This makes a wide, flat piece of meat that will curl and “frazzle” attractively when it is deep-fried.

CRISPY BEEF WITH BABY BOK CHOY 1 teaspoon rice wine 1 teaspoon fresh ginger juice 1 teaspoon minced garlic 1 whole egg 1 tablespoon soy sauce 1 tablespoon cornstarch 2 tablespoons oil Dash salt 1 teaspoon oyster sauce 1/2 pound beef tenderloin, sliced 1/4-inch-thick diagonal to grain Oil for deep frying Cornstarch Crispy Beef Sauce Baby Bok Choy

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In large bowl, mix together rice wine, ginger juice, garlic, egg, soy sauce, cornstarch, oil, salt and oyster sauce. Add sliced beef and let marinate 10 minutes, or until ready to finish dish.

Heat oil to 375 degrees in wok. When ready to fry, drain marinade and lightly blot meat dry with paper towels. Toss lightly with cornstarch and shake vigorously to remove excess. Deep-fry until crisp and mahoganny brown, about 3 to 4 minutes, then drain and set aside.

Remove oil from wok and wipe wok clean.

Heat Crispy Beef Sauce in wok until thickened. Add beef and stir until evenly coated. Serve atop Baby Bok Choy.

Makes 2 main course servings, or 4 appetizer servings.

Each main-course serving contains about: 374 calories; 2,892 mg sodium; 52 mg cholesterol; 28 grams fat; 72 grams carbohydrates; 27 grams protein; 1.36 grams fiber.

Crispy Beef Sauce 1 tablespoon peanut oil 1 tablespoon minced fresh chile 1 tablespoon minced garlic 1 tablespoon minced ginger root 1 tablespoon Chinese rice wine 3 tablespoons soy sauce 1 tablespoon sugar 1 tablespoon white vinegar 2 tablespoons Shanghai sweet dark vinegar 1 tablespoon sesame oil 1 tablespoon chile oil 3/4 teaspoon cornstarch, blended well with 1/2 teaspoon water

Heat oil in wok over high heat. Add chile, garlic and ginger and saute until fragrant.

Mix rice wine, soy sauce, sugar, white vinegar, dark vinegar, sesame oil, chile oil and cornstarch together in medium bow. Add mixture to chile, garlic and ginger in wok and heat few minutes. Set aside until ready to use.

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Baby Bok Choy 1 tablespoon Chinese rice wine 1/2 tablespoon fresh ginger juice 1/2 tablespoon sesame oil Dash salt Dash sugar 1/4 cup chicken stock 6 baby bok choy, outside leaves discarded, then cut in half lengthwise to make 12 pieces

Mix together rice wine, ginger juice, sesame oil, salt and sugar to taste and chicken stock in hot wok or skillet. Add bok choy and saute until crisp-tender. Drain and set aside.

This method, called velveting, is like deep-frying, but because the chicken has been marinated with egg white and cornstarch and is then cooked at a relatively low temperature, the chicken will be seared without burning. This keeps the chicken moist and very tender. Beware of the deep-fried prosciutto. Our Test Kitchen voted it the most decadent snack food ever. Any leftovers will disappear quickly.

SAUTEED BREAST OF CHICKEN WITH MUSHROOMS, SILK SQUASH AND CRISPY PROSCIUTTO

1/2 pound skinless chicken breast, sliced 1/4-inch-thick (equal weight of chicken tenderloins may be substituted) Chicken Marinade Oil for deep-frying 1/3 cup dry black mushrooms, soaked in water and drained 1/3 cup silk squash (Chinese okra), cleaned, peeled, seeded and cut into 1/2-inch cubes, see Note 1/2 teaspoon minced ginger root 3 tablespoons plum wine 1 teaspoon cherry brandy 1 tablespoon light soy sauce 1 teaspoon oyster sauce 1 teaspoon sugar 1 teaspoon Shanghai black vinegar 1/2 teaspoon oil infused with shallots 1/2 teaspoon sesame oil 1/2 teaspoon oil infused with Sichuan peppercorns 3/4 teaspoon cornstarch blended well with 1/2 teaspoon water 6 thin slices prosciutto, sliced thin and deep-fried until crispy

Marinate chicken in Chicken Marinade 30 minutes.

Heat wok to medium temperature and add oil for deep frying. When oil is hot, place marinated chicken in wok and stir until chicken changes color. Add black mushrooms and silk squash and continue to fry few seconds. Drain into strainer placed over empty pot and discard remaining oil.

Reheat wok to very high heat. Add minced ginger, stir, then add plum wine, cherry brandy, soy sauce, oyster sauce, sugar, vinegar, shallot oil, sesame oil and peppercorn oil. Bring to boil and add cornstarch slurry until sauce thickens and is almost caramelized, but be careful not to burn.

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Add chicken, black mushrooms and silk squash to sauce and stir to coat evenly.

Arrange chicken mixture in center of serving plate and place crispy prosciutto on top. Makes 2 servings.

Note: Silk squash can be found in Asian groceries, where it may be called Chinese okra or sze gwa . It is a long, green, sharply ridged squash. To prepare it, peel ridges and any tough skin with a vegetable peeler. Cut in quarters, lengthwise, and remove seeds and spongy flesh.

Each serving contains about: 341 calories; 1,915 mg sodium; 64 mg cholesterol; 15 grams fat; 18 grams carbohydrates; 29 grams protein; 1.76 grams fiber.

Chicken Marinade 1 teaspoon rice wine 1 teaspoon ginger juice 1 egg white, lightly beaten 1 tablespoon cornstarch 2 tablespoons oil Dash salt White peppercorns, freshly ground

Combine rice wine, ginger juice, egg white, cornstarch, oil, salt and ground pepper to taste in large bowl.

The quality of the chicken stock is paramount in this recipe. An adequate stock will yield an adequate soup. But a deeply flavored homemade stock gives a rich background for these complex flavors to play against.

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HOT-AND-SOUR SOUP 2 ounces soft tofu, julienned 1/4 ounce dried lily flowers, soaked in water and drained 1/4 ounce black tree fungus, soaked in water and drained 2 ounces chicken breast, julienned, then blanched 3 cups chicken stock 3 tablespoons dark soy sauce 1 tablespoon sugar 1 tablespoon white peppercorns, freshly ground 2 tablespoons white vinegar Dash salt Sesame oil 1 tablespoon cornstarch blended with 1/2 tablespoon water 1 whole egg, beaten Several sprigs fresh cilantro for garnish

Mix tofu, soaked lily flowers, soaked tree fungus, blanched chicken breast, stock, soy sauce, sugar, white pepper, white vinegar, salt, sesame oil and cornstarch mixture and bring to boil in deep pot.

As soon as soup thickens, drizzle beaten egg into soup in circular motion (do not stir soup with spoon).

As soon as egg congeals, ladle soup into serving bowl and garnish with cilantro sprigs. Makes 2 servings.

Each serving contains about: 240 calories; 2,817 mg sodium; 121 mg cholesterol; 8 grams fat; 20 grams carbohydrates; 21 grams protein; 0.32 gram fiber.

BABY BOK CHOY WITH MUSHROOMS 1/2 pound baby bok choy 2 tablespoons Chinese rice wine 1 tablespoon light soy sauce 1/2 tablespoon oyster sauce 1/2 cup rich chicken stock Sugar 1/2 tablespoon plus 1 teaspoon sesame oil 1/8 pound fresh shiitake mushrooms 1/2 tablespoon fresh ginger juice Salt

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Blanch baby bok choy in boiling water. When tender, drain and refresh with ice water.

Braise mushrooms with 1 tablespoon rice wine, soy sauce, oyster sauce, 1/4 cup chicken stock, dash sugar to taste and 1 teaspoon sesame oil in medium-sized sautee pan. Add mushrooms and cook 5 minutes until tender.

Place remaining 1 tablespoon rice wine, ginger juice, remaining 1/2 tablespoon sesame oil, salt to taste, dash sugar to taste and remaining 1/4 cup chicken stock in heated wok. Add bok choy and saute 2 to 3 minutes.

Arrange bok choy on bottom of plate. Place mushrooms on top and in center of bok choy. Makes 4 side-dish or appetizer servings.

Each serving contains about: 226 calories; 1,052 mg sodium; 0 cholesterol; 19 grams fat; 14 grams carbohydrates; 4 grams protein; 2 grams fiber.

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