Tall blondes wearing Size 10 running shoes are not a common sight in China. So when Rosemary Burkholder went there to teach American cuisine, she was quizzed about her looks and shoes as much as her cooking.
"Why are your shoes so big? Are they hot? Why are all the American tourists so good-looking?" These matters had to be settled before Burkholder, 30, could explain such exotic foods as steak, apple pie, chicken and dumplings, pan-fried trout, gumbo and potato salad.
Burkholder spent eight weeks in China under the auspices of the Chinese Ministry of Commerce. She taught in three cities: Tianjin, where she worked in a shed-like kitchen at the Tianjin University of Commerce; Shenyang, where lessons took place in the kitchen of the Hotel Dong-Bei, and in Chengdu, where she taught at the Tibet Inn and toured the Sichuan Culinary Institute, which is sponsored by the Ministry of Commerce. Her students were food-service personnel anxious to learn American dishes to prepare for foreign visitors.
It was "an incredible adventure," Burkholder said, notable on one hand for the generosity and kindness of her Chinese contacts and, on the other, for the primitive conditions in which she worked.
Normally, Burkholder is surrounded by luxury at the Hyatt Grand Champions Resort in Indian Wells. There she is sous-chef and runs Jasmine, the resort's fine dining room. In China, she had to operate without proper equipment, baking apple pie first in a metal ring, then in a porcelain rice bowl.
Sanitation was "horrendous," she said. One kitchen was coated with fish scales, another boasted broken windows, dangling light bulbs, flies and grease. Vegetables were cooked without washing. The pot in which she planned to prepare a dessert, poached peaches with orange crepes and vanilla sauce, was smeared with remnants of the previous day's veal stock. Bowls used for eating were washed in cold water without detergent and were allowed to stand, improperly drained, until the water became stagnant.
Obtaining ingredients was difficult too. The butter, cream, olive oil and lemon juice that Burkholder required were unavailable at one site. That taught her to check supplies in markets and shops before designing menus. Noting that local oil was too dark and strongly flavored for mayonnaise, Burkholder requested lighter oil. What she received was still unsatisfactory and, to her dismay, was heated almost to a boil.
Good Fish but Poor Meats
Fish was always available and good, but meats were poor in quality. When Burkholder asked for pork loin to make a fruit-stuffed roast, she got beef instead, thanks to an interpreter's mistake. One plentiful ingredient that she did not employ was MSG, monosodium glutamate. The Chinese were accustomed to using this additive liberally and were surprised that her food tasted so good without it, she said.
Cinnamon was available in bark form only, and Burkholder watched amazed as students reduced it to powder with cleavers. They sniffed appreciatively as a cinnamon-scented apple pie emerged from the oven and devoured it in minutes--"with chopsticks, I might add." The apples were so small that it took an hour and a half to peel them.
Burkholder usually gave an hour's lecture, using a blackboard to clarify the lesson. Then she demonstrated the day's recipes with students assisting. During the lecture, they took notes assiduously because there were no texts for reference. The English books that Burkholder saw in libraries were primarily useless castoffs.
How to eat with knife and fork was a popular topic, Burkholder said. She used chopsticks but attracted attention by holding them with her left hand. When she had trouble picking up slippery noodles, an onlooker suggested that she switch the sticks to the correct (right) hand.
Lost 15 Pounds During Stay
Eating was not Burkholder's favorite pursuit. "The majority of the time, the food was not good," she said. One exception was the culinary institute in Chengdu, where Burkholder banqueted at lunch and dinner for five days and never saw a dish repeated. "This was excellent, probably some of the finest Chinese food that I will ever eat in my life," she said. Despite these feasts, she lost 15 pounds during her stay in China.
Burkholder brought home a wok pounded into shape by a street vendor in Tianjin. In The Times test kitchen, she used the wok to deep fry a whole fish, which she presented with sweet-sour sauce and a colorful garnish of vegetable strips. Burkholder learned this dish from a chef at the Dong-Bei Hotel. In exchange, she taught the Chinese to make pan-fried fish fillets garnished with tomato-chile salsa. The idea of combining a cold sauce with a hot dish was novel to them, she said.