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1990s: The Golden Decade : FOOD : Chefs Blend the Best of Oriental, American and French Cuisines

January 15, 1990|SERENA CHEN and ROSANNE KEYNAN | Chen is a free-lance writer based in Oakland. Keynan is a Los Angeles free-lance writer

Ken Hom, a 39-year-old native-born American of Chinese ancestry, embodies the union of East and West.

At age 11, Hom began working in Chinese kitchens, where he learned many of the finer techniques of Chinese cuisine. In the mid-1970s he studied French and Italian cooking during a three-year stay in Europe.

In 1983, his Chinese cooking series on the BBC made him an instant celebrity in England. Now, in addition to being one of the few cookbook authors with almost a million books in print, Hom takes professional chefs and other food enthusiasts on weeklong restaurant tours of Hong Kong several times a year. "Ken Hom's East Meets West Cuisine" (Simon & Schuster) is one of the first books to define the phenomenon of the merging of Asian and Western cuisines.

Hom attributes the changes to three major factors--the opening of trade with mainland China in the 1970s, meaning Americans could get previously unavailable ingredients; introduction of nouvelle cuisine in France, which paved the way for food experimentation, and improvement in travel.

The Berkeley-based Hom and others like him in Hong Kong and now California have become the leaders in this East-West trend of combining Oriental, French and American techniques and ingredients.

One of the Chinese restaurants taking the lead in Western-influenced menus is the Hong Kong-based Sun Tung Lok Shark's Fin restaurant, which opened an American branch in Burlingame in September. Hom praises the restaurant for "taking the more traditional foods and bringing them into the '90s."

Executive chef at this new branch is Cheung Chak Sum, 40, who was born in China, was trained in Hong Kong, and has worked for the restaurant in Hong Kong, Taipei and Bangkok, Thailand. "The new school of Chinese cuisine takes all kinds of ingredients, Chinese and Western," Cheung said. What this translates into are menu items like "Baked Fresh Lobster With Cheese and Butter" and "Fresh Fruit Lobster Salad," which includes Miracle Whip.

Cheung agrees with Hom that increased travel and exposure to different cultures and foods has had a profound effect on Chinese food. "It used to be that whatever the master chef said was final and recipes stayed the same," Cheung says. "Now things are different. In Hong Kong we were exposed to a lot of things. We can borrow from other cultures."

Even at Joss in West Hollywood, where owner Cecile Tang Shu-shuen designs the menu of "Classic Chinese Haute Cuisine," some American influences have crept in. "We serve a lot of California wine," Tang says. "It's simply superior. For cooking, we use Chinese rose-kettle or rice wine. But for orange-tasting dishes, we turn to Western products--Cointreau and triple sec."

Chinese chicken salad is another hybrid. "The Chinese have a traditional cold chicken dish with sprouts, diced cucumbers, spring onions and cilantro," says Tang. "But now everybody adds lettuce." She noted that, on a recent trip to Hong Kong, she saw stir-fried lettuce in all the restaurants.

Perhaps the most positive American influence, Tang believes, is the substitution of lighter cooking oils, like safflower oil, for peanut oil.

Like Tang, restaurateur Philip Chiang reveres "authentic" cooking. He recently took over The Mandarin, a tony Beverly Hills favorite of politicos and celebrities since 1975, when it was opened by his mother. Born in Shanghai and reared in Japan, Chiang is sensitive to cross-cultural sharing.

"The lower-end Chinese offshoot restaurants--like Chopsticks and Chin Chin--started out serving Cantonese tea-house-style dim sum. But their whole style was based on the grazing and snacking trend," he observes.

Chiang sees Americans' concept of vegetables changing as a result of the Chinese influence. "The way they're cut and prepared--sauted quickly or steamed and under-cooked, rather than boiled to death. That's come into American cuisine from Asia," he says.

Madame Wu, the restaurant, and its proprietor, Sylvia Wu, have been Los Angeles institutions for three decades. Over most of those years, Wu boasts, she has kept the same chef, many of the same waiters, and even some busboys at her Westside establishment. She has also taught cooking classes and now provides instruction on her own cable television show.

Wu sees cross-fertilization of Chinese cuisine not only in American eating, but also in many other international cuisines. Just returned from London, she recounted dining at an exclusive food club owned by the former head chef of the Dorchester Hotel, Anton Mosimann. "The very first item on the menu was teriyaki beef," she said. "I asked the captain what the ingredients were, and he said, 'Soy sauce, sugar . . . ' Why, that's originally Chinese."

But the assimilation of Western foods into Chinese cuisine is not wholeheartedly embraced by all proponents of Chinese food. Longtime food columnist, author and new restaurateur Bruce Cost doesn't like all the hybrid dishes he's seen. "I can't stand Miracle Whip," he says.

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