The slow pleasures of Chinese cooking

April 14, 1993|By Karol V. Menzie | Karol V. Menzie,Staff Writer

What, Barbara Tropp would like to know, is wrong with doing a little cooking?

"Cooking is a pleasure, a commitment," says the chef, restaurateur and cookbook author, whose latest book is the "China Moon Cookbook," named after her restaurant in San Francisco. "And it's really a joy."

She understands, but has little patience for, the excuses that keep '90s folks out of the kitchen.

Cooking is just not that hard, she says. "It's easy, easy, easy. And yet we've developed in our country in the 1990s an appetite for doing everything, for solving all our problems in a second. And that's not the way it happens.

"We've gotten so scared in our modern lives of making the commitment to read a three- or four-page recipe. We want to hear it all in a sound bite.

"But the good thing about cooking," Ms. Tropp adds, "is that it takes very little time to learn how to cook, but it's so quick once you know. You can go home and throw together a meal in minutes, because you know what you're doing.

"Cooking is sexy stuff. We really need to have that layer of sensuality in our lives. It's such a fun, sexy, sensual, exciting thing to do. I think we would all be a lot saner if we cooked."

Ms. Tropp, in Baltimore recently on a tour promoting her cookbook, came to her passion from unlikely circumstances. She grew up in New Jersey, where her mother was a doctor and a health-food fanatic -- "so I ate things like wheat germ."

A freshman course in Chinese literature at the University of Pittsburgh changed her life. She became a Chinese scholar, and in the '70s she went to Taiwan to study. She stayed two years.

Ms. Tropp loved the culture, but she was enthralled by the food.

"When I went to Taiwan, I was this traumatized, 1960s-style vegetarian. And I fell into this Jolly Green Giant Land, where there was no food that was fearful. The Chinese were a joyful group of people who were totally unneurotic about food."

Ms. Tropp was amazed to discover that the Chinese ate what they wanted, when they wanted, and were virtually devoid of the diet-related diseases suffered by Westerners.

Real Chinese food is not all "glop and goo," as served in mediocre Chinese restaurants, she says. It is an almost exact representation of the new nutrition food pyramid promoted by the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Food and Nutrition Service.

"It's based on grain, topped with vegetables, amply seasoned, with an almost condiment-like use of meats," she says. The base of the USDA food pyramid is cereals and grains, the next largest tier is fruits and vegetables, and above that, the second-smallest layer, is meats and poultry and dairy products." (Oils, fats and sweets get the tiniest piece of the pyramid, at the top.)

"A real Chinese table is a mixture," she says. "To be healthy in China is to be in balance."

When she returned from China to New Jersey, she was "famished" for the food she had enjoyed and began to teach herself to cook it. She worked as a caterer and gave Chinese cooking classes, and one day, she piled her belongings in her 1968 Volvo and drove to San Francisco.

"I found myself right in the middle of what was becoming the California cooking movement," Ms. Tropp says. "And there weren't too many people doing what I was doing. All kinds of doors opened up."

Alice Waters was reinventing cuisine at Chez Panisse in Berkeley; chefs who later became famous, like Jeremiah Tower and Mark Miller, were just starting out, she recalls. "It was just the beginning of everything that later would take the culinary world by storm. And we were all friends -- and we are still. It was just a great time to be in that scene."

It seemed a logical step to move from catering and teaching cooking to writing a cookbook. Ms. Tropp's first was the scholarly "The Modern Art of Chinese Cooking." It was, like Julia Child's famous first work, "Mastering the Art of French Cooking," a "tell-all" work designed for people who were learning from scratch.

"Most of us don't know how to begin cooking Chinese-style at home," Ms. Tropp says. "I've written two cookbooks in the tell-all style."

Among other messages: Chinese cooking is not all "banquet" cooking with lots of dishes, ingredients and fancy equipment. You don't even need a wok to re-create it. "A wok doesn't work well on an American stove," Ms. Tropp says. "You'll get along a lot better and be a lot happier with a big, friendly skillet.

"We're at a point in this country with Chinese cooking that we were 20 years ago with French cooking," she says. "When you look at 'Mastering the Art of French Cooking' now, no one thinks that that's difficult. Now people do not think anything of making an omelet at home -- meaning it's so easy, we know how to do this with our eyes closed. Well, she spent seven pages writing about how to make an omelet, because if you really want to know how to do it, the first time you want to read every word on those seven pages."

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