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With Modernization of China Comes Revival of Its Traditional Cooking : Revival: "Free markets," private gardens and cookery schools replenish mainland restaurants once lacking in not only fruits and vegetables but chefs.

May 03, 1990|KEN HOM | Ken Hom, one of the world's leading authorities on Chinese cooking, is the author of "Fragrant Harbor Taste" and "Ken Hom's East Meets West Cuisine" (Simon & Schuster)

For the last few decades, if you wanted to find the best Chinese cuisine, mainland China was the last place for you to look. During many visits to Hong Kong, the culinary news from the mainland was invariably gloomy. The grand traditions of Chinese cookery were only preserved in Hong Kong and Taiwan and, to a lesser extent, in Chinese restaurants in London, New York and San Francisco.

Of course, that farmers in the People's Republic were managing to provide food for a billion Chinese was remarkable enough--given China's history of recurrent famines and the fact the population had almost doubled between 1950 and 1975.

But beyond that, the news was quite depressing. Tourists and visitors returning from mainland China unanimously reported that restaurants served wretched meals: badly cooked, sloppily served and made from poor ingredients. The venerable traditions of Chinese cookery were blighted, having been castigated as "bourgeois" and "imperialist" reflections of class domination and, thus, worthy of being eliminated by the Cultural Revolution during the late 1960s and 1970s. The grand regional cuisines were discouraged as well, part of a deliberate policy to nationalize the spirit of the people--to make uniform what had been different and separate.

Accelerating a process begun in the 1950s, the culinary institutes were abolished, cookery schools were closed down and master chefs fled or were forced into other, more politically appropriate professions. The infrastructure that supported the grand tradition was destroyed or fell into disuse. The specialized farms and gardens, the bakeries and kitchens, the innumerable private restaurants and food stalls--all were abolished or seriously damaged by the program of centralized planning in which the maintenance of a glorious cuisine played no part.

In the state-owned restaurants of that time, what might charitably be called "functional" food prevailed. The staff was considered the equivalent of factory workers. No grades of talent or expertise were recognized--a practice hardly conducive to the preparation of excellent cuisine. Moreover, the rule of the time was "early to bed, early to rise." Restaurants, for the most part, closed at 7 p.m., consequently, no night life and, certainly, no fabulous banquets lasting to the wee hours.

Zhao Qi Ren, the principal of Shanghai's leading cooking school, said that before 1949, good stocks, made from chicken and ham, were used. In the "difficult decades," however, shortages of essential ingredients led to the use of substitutes. For example, MSG was not widely used in prewar China but with the decline in the quality and freshness of ingredients, it began to be added to everything. My constant refrain during my stay in China was, "No MSG, please."

Ren mentioned one other factor that played a role in the decline of the mainland cuisine--the government's need for hard currency, which it gained through the export of Chinese commodities. In the 1970s, traditional high quality Chinese foodstuffs quite unavailable on the mainland were plentiful in Hong Kong.

Because of this, I refrained from visiting the mainland for many years, although it was but a hop away from Hong Kong. It would have been too depressing. With the death of Mao, however, and the movement toward modernization that began at the end of the '70s, new attitudes toward many aspects of life (and especially toward economic matters) began to appear on the mainland. Included in these changes was a reconsideration of the virtues and commercial potential of traditional Chinese cuisine. By the early 1980s, it was clear that a major renaissance was under way. Gastronomy and even epicurism were no longer counter-revolutionary. The People's Republic had initiated a planned, officially sanctioned resuscitation of the venerable Chinese culinary traditions and their infrastructures.

Thus it is that today specialty "free markets" have reappeared; private gardens are now supplying in abundance fruits and vegetables that for decades were rarities or even non-existent; private restaurants and food stalls are becoming commonplace once again, and culinary institutes and cookery schools are flourishing. There is a long pent-up demand for quality foods and ingredients that is slowly being met.

In the past two years, I have spent a total of 10 weeks in China, traveling thousands of miles tasting, exploring, observing, discussing and learning. I sampled dishes from practically every regional cuisine. I visited the coastal areas of Shanghai and Guangzhou (Canton), the interior Sichuan and Kunming (Yunnan) regions, and the capital, Beijing. I ate in private homes, state-owned restaurants, dining halls of collectives and communes, private restaurants, and street stalls.

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