Ming Tsai is on a mission to share Asian cooking tips

January 21, 2004|By ROB KASPER

WHEN MING Tsai roasts a duck, he saves the fat. A spoonful of duck fat adds terrific flavor to scrambled eggs or to stir-fry dishes, he said. Salvaging the duck fat is also illustrative of the attitude he grew up with, a waste-not want-not mind-set he described as "very Chinese."

"You get everything you can out of that duck," he said. "You get the maximum benefit for all the time it took to cook the duck, for the pot you dirtied, for the stove you heated."

After spending an afternoon with Ming - chef, cookbook author, owner of the widely acclaimed Blue Ginger restaurant outside Boston and host of a number of TV cooking shows - I came away with the impression that he, like his cooking, is a smart assimilation of East and West.

Ming, who turns 40 next month, has the coal-black hair and dark eyes of his parents, natives of Beijing who immigrated to the United States, settling first in California, then Ohio. Ming told me that when his father took the family out to eat, he would urge family members to polish off every morsel on the table, because, according to his father's credo of frugality, "You might as well eat it, you already paid for it."

Ming's striking good looks play well on his Simply Ming, a series currently airing on public television. It followed on the heels of Food Network's East Meets West and Ming's Quest shows. His picture also adorns the covers of two Clarkson Potter cookbooks, written with Arthur Boehm - Blue Ginger, published in 1999, and Simply Ming, published last year.

Ming grew up in Dayton, Ohio, and he has many of the genial personality traits of a Midwesterner. He was educated mainly on the East Coast, at Andover and Yale, then graduate school at Cornell University. He met his wife and now business partner, Polly Talbot Tsai, when her brother, Ming's squash coach at Yale, introduced them. She spoke Chinese, but Ming said she became interested in him only after he was able to get them in, after hours, at Postrio, Wolfgang Puck's original San Francisco restaurant.

While Ming's life may reflect a fusion of geographical influences, he is reluctant to apply that label to his cooking style. So many sins have been committed in the name of fusion cooking, he said, that he avoids the tag, preferring to call his approach East-West cuisine.

"You don't blend techniques until you have thoroughly learned them," he said, during a three-hour interview over lunch at Ceiba restaurant in Washington, a stop in a national book tour. "The same is true with ingredients. ... First, you undress each ingredient and learn about it."

He became interested in cooking as a teen-ager helping his mother, Iris, run the Mandarin Kitchen, a family restaurant in Dayton.

Ming's father, Stephen, was a scientist at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, and at Yale, Ming studied mechanical engineering. While an undergraduate, he scooted over to Paris for a summer at Le Cordon Bleu cooking school. After graduation, he returned to work under a series of French chefs.

He came back to the United States to get a master's degree in hotel administration and marketing from Cornell and worked at a variety of restaurants in Chicago, Atlanta, San Francisco and Santa Fe, N.M., before opening Blue Ginger in 1998.

The thrust of his new cookbook, he said, is to convince American cooks that they can make Asian-flavored dishes at home.

In addition to respecting ingredients - sesame oil, he reminds, is much stronger than olive oil - Ming said there are several key steps that can lead to a happy East-West union in the kitchen.

For example, one key to getting the right flavor in stir-fry dishes, he said, is cooking with a very hot wok. Because most home stove tops won't get the wok hot enough, Ming recommended preheating the wok in the oven at 450 degrees, then transferring it to a burner. Your wok has to have an ovenproof metal handle, he said, and you have to wear thick, insulated gloves when holding the wok. But the result - crisp flavors - is worth the effort, he said.

Another key, he said, is to make large batches of sauces from master recipes. In Ming's regimen, a sauce is stored in the refrigerator, then pulled out and sprinkled on a variety of quickly cooked entrees.

I did this using two of his recipes, a chutney made with apples and ginger that livened up some ordinary midweek pork chops and a spicy mango salsa that was a sprightly topping to broiled rockfish.

I talked to Ming again last week when he was in Chicago. He said he planned to mark the Chinese New Year tomorrow by cooking a few dishes during a morning appearance on NBC's Today show in New York, then flying to Boston and celebrating with his family.

When I reported that I had not only made his apple-ginger chutney, but had also saved it and used it repeatedly over the course of many meals, Ming offered a compliment.

Such efficient use of ingredients, he said, was "very Chinese."

Ginger-Fuji Apple Chutney

Makes 4 cups

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