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An Old Master's New Tricks : Rising to the Challenge of a Former Student, Madame Wong Cuts Fat, but Not Tradition

July 11, 1996|MARGARET SHERIDAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

When you lunch at Madame Wong's, there are rules.

Don't be late. Don't attempt to help. And for heaven's sake, keep opinions to yourself.

Obedience has its rewards.

The visitor to S.T. Ting Wong's modest apartment in Santa Monica is greeted with "Sit down," delivered in a tone that makes you sit up.

The 92-year-old doyenne of Chinese cooking in Los Angeles nods toward the kitchen table. The soup is ready. Pleasantries must wait.

The 5-foot-2-inch legend with the bulldog spirit and basset eyes has been philosophizing over hissing woks for decades, but this lunch is all business. She and a former student are working on her yet-to-be named third book, a collection of low-fat Chinese recipes. This detour into the world of minimal oil in a cuisine that is legendary for using it is a testament to a facile mind.

Today's recipe test begins with soup, a tangle of translucent vermicelli and greens swirling in a clear, pale chicken stock. The dish earned the ultimate hosanna--slurps and silence.

"Look at this," she says, shaking her spoon. "Do you see any grease? No, no, nothing." The ladle, tipped just so, allowed a splashdown of stock into her bowl and onto the table.

After then-President Nixon opened China's gate in the '70s, Wong, newly arrived in California from China via Hong Kong, paved the way for Chinese cooking classes in Los Angeles and New York. Movie stars, diplomats and celebrated food writers dropped names to land seats in her classes at UCLA. Always over-subscribed, the sessions had yearlong waiting lists, much to the frustration of her regular students. The aphorisms dispersed then--"Turn stress into happiness," "The impossible will always be possible"--are repeated today over the menu of braised bok choy with mushrooms and bean curd with asparagus.

Over the last few years, Wong has tapered her activities. She gave up driving at 85 and misses it. But she accepts offers from former students for chauffeur services. She doesn't teach anymore, but she did lead a group tour to Hong Kong and China three years ago. Although she would like to witness the handing over of Hong Kong to China in June 1997, she has no concrete plans at present to visit Asia.

If a favorite client pleads hard enough, she will on occasion cater a Chinese banquet. But she insists on preparing the food in her kitchen, and the menu is according to her whim.

Students and friends gladly go to her now. And lunch is a sought-after invitation.

But one lunch takes precedence over the others. It is a standing date every Wednesday with Bob Mah, a former student of Wong and retired UCLA professor of environmental microbiology. It has been going on for months. They work on the recipes and text for her new book, then they sit down to a meal. Despite a relationship that began in the mid-'70s, she still calls him "doctor"; he calls her "madame."

That courtesy dates from her years in Hong Kong in the mid-'50s, when the Shanghai-born caterer-teacher dazzled matrons with her personality and culinary skill. Wives of taipans and consuls left their verandas and mah-jongg tables to learn pa^te a choux and genoise in her French pastry classes, and the secrets of Peking duck and Sichuan chile pastes in her Chinese cooking classes. That once-rambunctious sweet tooth is now content with an occasional handful of homemade candied nuts from the freezer.

When Mah encouraged Wong to think low-fat and create recipes for a book, she agreed. Within six weeks, she produced more than 200 handwritten recipes for him to polish and edit.

On the subject of cooking for the health-minded '90s, Mah in a way became Wong's teacher. But it didn't take too much arm-twisting.

Communicating the wisdom of reducing oil to a minimum took a gentle hand and a gentler sales pitch. Wong's former student reworked many of her classic recipes, ones he learned in her classes, and suggested that she try them.

"I didn't believe Dr. Mah when he said I needed only a teaspoon of oil instead of three tablespoons. Then I tried them. They were good."

The link between good health and good fresh food is no stranger. Wong grew up in a family of 22 doctors in Shanghai. Chinese nutritional thinking at that time linked specific foods to health. Mushrooms were said to fight cancer, bok choy to be good for digestion, bean curd--Wong's secret for a clear complexion--to be an important protein source for growing boys.

The dish she relished today--a platter of bean curd cubes tossed with fresh asparagus in a silken brown-colored sauce, one of her new recipes--made her apologetic.

"This food, my new dishes, are not pretty. With oil, the bean curd would be shiny and beautiful."

It is not that Wong is boycotting oil. "I only suggest people to cut down," she says. "Everyone needs some oil for strength and pretty skin."

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