12 September 2010

Roadblock: Perfection is unattainable

Hoi An Vn. P1010820

When you aim for perfection, you discover it's a moving target.
George Fisher


Seven years old and dressed in seersucker flares, sporting a London accent and the latest bowl cut hair fashion, I waited quietly as the adults chatted. I knew the mantra "children should be seen and not heard" so busied my mind by observing all around me. '

Planting my hands under my chin, I rested my elbows on the linen clad table in a restaurant nearby my little Chinese Grandfather's favourite Macau casino, The Lisboa. I observed the porcelain teapot and cups were trimmed in pink and the walls, a gaudy lemon. I smelt the heady combination of spices in the Portuguese influenced Chinese food.

Waiters in white jackets with brass buttons flew by us with plates of Meccanese food. The din of Cantonese chatter seemed to fade into the background as mesmerised, I watched their balletic movements as they burst in from the kitchen doorway into service, ricocheting haphazardly between the tables around me. It was human pinball without the benefit of levers.

The night ahead would see me witness Pelota (Jai Alai) for the first time in that casino – a fast, adrenaline filled sport where balls were hurled at a wall via a cane cage attached to the arms of the players. While I didn't see the point of the machismo and the danger, luckily I had the wherewithal to realize that this spectacle was part of the slowly eroding Portuguese heritage that infuses Macao. 

The players in their white garb and long sashes certainly captivated my mother as she hastily went to bet on the outcome of the game. After a relatively short time I tired of the testosterone fueled display and was returned to our hotel room.

Was it boredom or biliousness that drove me to ask to go to bed? I do not recall. What is etched into my mind was the fried rice that grandfather had ordered at the restaurant. It wasn't usual for him to order fried rice, but he made an exception for this one. And I had astounded everyone at the table by eating eight small rice bowls of it. So as a result, everything else paled into insignificance. 

I recall my parents' embarassment of my gluttony. My grandfather: proud. And I've yet to live it down. Even now, as a middle aged woman, my father likes to recount the story of his greedy little girl. 

My retort has become that it was the best I'd eaten. And from that point I pestered Mum to teach me how to cook it. But while our Chinese friends raved about her fried rice, I felt it never matched that particular one. 

Many years later, I watched my grandmother make it and discovered that she added fish sauce, which was the key secret to make it extra fragrant. Finally I had unlocked the unwritten code to recreating the dish.


Recently I was pondering on the subject of why Asian food often tastes better in restaurants and is especially delectable in Asia. In fact I wondered why there was no perfect Char Kwei Teow in Melbourne or why some of my Twitter friends were on a quest to find the best Peking Duck

When I thought about the dishes I had faithfully recreated from my old and worn Asian cookbooks or from watching my family cook, I was confounded. While they all tasted delicious, to my mind they lacked a certain something. What was the 'je ne sais quoi?' 

While I've found that using farmer direct sourced produce lifts many European dishes to restaurant quality, it didn't give my Asian cooking the same edge. As in the fish sauce in the fried rice, there had to be something more to unlock the unwritten code.

That same week, I happily discovered a 1980's edition of my Mum's Chinese cooking Bible – The Hong Kong & China Gas Chinese Cookbook. I glued myself to it one Saturday and through its pages, relived some childhood memories. 

In the following days, I began to introduce some of my old favourites back into my cooking repertoire. And then I began to began to unravel my dilemma, discovering there are a series of keys to Asian cooking, unwritten rules, that affect the flavour.

In Asia, before the days of refrigeration, ingredients were bought immediately prior to cooking the meal and were skillfully transformed in an uncomplicated manner. In households generally there was extended family in the kitchen, making the production of items such as dumplings swift. So timing is a key. Although not the case here in Australia, in some parts of Asia this tradition continues.

Every recipe in my old Asian Cookbooks and in my newer Vietnamese cookbooks includes monosodium glutamate. It certainly does enhance the flavor, but given the negative health connotations, I don't use it myself and increasingly restaurants are reducing or removing it from their dishes. There is a marked difference in taste as a consequence.

Traditionally everything in Asia was cooked over charcoal burners. The flavor imparted to dishes either through ferocious heat or infused with smokiness is impossible to recreate on your standard contemporary European style stove. In Asia, many hawkers and some restaurants continue to use charcoal. Here, most Asian restaurants use gas. The volume of gas at my place is weak. It's just not acceptable for Asian cooking. So rather than put up with the mediocre, I find better results cooking on a butane camp stove turned up to full ferociousness than on my gas range.

What a delectable substance. It's the hidden fat in many Asian dishes, the fat that must not be named; an ingredient unwritten in most recipes although frequently used. Sometimes you'll find a recipe stipulates peanut oil, another essential flavor in Asian cooking. Both fats withstand the ferocious heat required for most dishes and also impart lashings of flavor. Again, for health reasons I have cut both from most of my cooking, using canola instead. 

Any professional practitioner of Asian cooking will have a pot of masterstock on the go constantly. Deep in richness and flavor, this will generally have a base stock that was started years ago. Chefs will also have other broths made from scratch to use in soups. The older a masterstock, the more it brings to a dish, so if you're using stock cubes or commercial tetra packs of stock in your dishes, they will never achieve the same result. The only exception I have observed has been Malaysian Hawkers, who not only use powdered commercial chicken stock but also flavor enhancers and even commercial Ketchup.

Let's face it, modern equipment is not necessary in Asian cooking. Non-stick woks in particular are pointless as they can't deal with the heat required. Big heavy cast Iron woks heat up too slowly and hold the heat too long. A series of different sized lightweight woks, claypots and a steamer will do the trick.

Modern ovens don't do any favours to Asian recipes either, as we are forced to lie meat or bread down. Traditional Asian ovens are vertical so that bread can cling to the walls and the meat hangs vertically over a flame allowing for self basting as the fat renders downwards off the meat. It's one of the reasons Heston Blumenthal could not recreate the super crisp skin on his Peking Duck, without removing it and sewing it to a rack.


There was a time where Chinese restaurant food in Hong Kong didn't hold a candle to the food served in my Paternal household. With a few exceptions, Grandmother's Vietnamese influenced Cantonese fare was always far superior. The exceptions being yum cha and specialty roasted meats that were customarily left to 'the experts' or were ordered in. 

In my father's childhood, my family enjoyed a large household with a generous retinue of staff. Restaurants were less popular and the best Chefs were quite possibly located heading up the kitchens of families like mine. In some instances, those Chefs had been raised in the household and had been taught recipes passed down within the family. 

But those days have long since gone. I have resigned myself to the fact that my home cooking will not match that of the dishes of my Grandmother and that occasionally I will indulge the MSG, the lard and the peanut oil when I dine out.

I now have the keys. I can't unlock their magic without certain compromises. And instead, as in a successful marriage, will accept the best outcome that I can manage .... within reason.



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Anonymous said...

Lovely! Will be sharing with MrG, how interesting how things change. Great post. Thanks.

Unknown said...

I like your George Fisher quote, it reminds me that it is often the journey not the destination that should take our focus.

Thank you for another insightful post that is a pleasure to read.

stickyfingers said...

Thank you both for reading another long-winded post of gas-baggery. You're very kind :)

penny aka jeroxie said...

Another insightful post. I never really thought about it this way and I can relate to this post.
"I now have the keys. I can't unlock their magic without certain compromises. And instead, as in a successful marriage, will accept the best outcome that I can manage .... within reason." -- Makes me feel a whole lot adequent. I have been trying so hard to mimic my grandma cooking but never seem to taste the same or work the same way. She left while I still very young and all I have is memories. And none in the family has learnt anything from her!

AK @ Attends said...

My grandmother died while i was quite young... but i can still taste some of the desserts she used to cook and serve to me especially... Not even my mother's cooking compares...

Wish i could figure out what she added :o(