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KITCHEN TABLE | FOOD TALK

My Name's Nina, What's Good?

March 19, 1997|LAURIE OCHOA | TIMES FOOD EDITOR

A failure to communicate? Not Nina Simonds. Not even in Mandarin.

Stepping into the Chinese beef jerky shop at San Gabriel Square, spraying Chinese endearments like machine-gun fire, Simonds befriends the two women behind the counter in about a second and a half, ascertaining where they're from and which of the several kinds of jerky on display they like best, telling them that she always stops in their store whenever she's in Southern California and explaining that she likes her beef jerky packed in several smaller bags rather than one large box because she likes to give it out to friends--and she wants a bag for herself on the plane ride home.

It amuses the women that this thin, dark-haired American with the sly, wide smile and husky voice is chatting them up in slangy Mandarin. By the end of the transaction, they've learned that she lives in Salem, Mass., cracked a couple of jokes with her and told her that she must visit their East Coast store in Flushing, N.Y.

As Simonds leaves the shop, the three wave goodbye like old college roommates who bumped into one another at Bloomingdale's.

"My new friends!" Simonds exclaims when she's out the door.

It's not difficult to imagine similar scenes repeating themselves ad infinitum in the shops and restaurants of Taiwan. Simonds, who lived in Taipei for several years, has friends all over Asia, friends who taught her the right way to make a bowl of cinnamon noodles and the proper way to tea-smoke a duck, friends whose recipes Simonds adapted for her many cookbooks. Her latest, "Asian Noodles" (Hearst Books, $21), is Simonds' first cookbook that isn't strictly Chinese.

She's at work on a book of Asian medicinal foods, finalizing plans for a research trip to Asia in May, traveling around the country to promote the new book and making sure she's got enough time to spend with her 8-year-old son, Jesse, and her husband, Don Rose, who owns the edgy CD label Rykodisc.

Recently, she paused to talk about the changes she's seen in Chinese cuisine both in China and in this country, and her own evolution as a cook.

Question: You went to live and study cooking in Taiwan when you were just 19 in the early '70s, a time when most food-obsessed people were going to France. Why Taipei and not Paris?

Answer: I had originally thought of going to France. I even wrote to Julia Child asking where I should study in Paris. She wrote back a wonderful letter. But she said that the best school in Paris was mostly for professionals and suggested Lausanne, Switzerland. I wasn't really interested in Switzerland, so I decided to study Chinese language, culture and cuisine. [Years later, Simonds did attend La Varenne Cooking School in Paris.]

Of course, China was in the middle of its cultural revolution, and they weren't welcoming people like me. Through incredible luck and coincidence, I ended up living in Taiwan with the family who ran a famous cooking school.

Q: What were your days like?

A: I started off at this cooking school not only as a student but helping them translate this cookbook that was a compilation of the chef's recipes.

Of course, I had to find other jobs to support myself. At first I taught English. Then I found a job as the coffee expert in a coffee house. I didn't even drink coffee, but they hired me as the American coffee expert.

Most days, I would go to school and study Mandarin, take a bus to the cooking school, spend most of the rest of the day at the cooking school, go home in the afternoon and cook at night. And the family would rate my food.

Q: Your first food reviews?

A: Exactly. My surrogate Chinese mother would rate my food. She was so supportive. Eventually, she sat me down and said, "I think it's time for you to specialize. You have this broad introduction; I think it's time for you to choose a cuisine that you really are very interested in." I chose Hunan cooking and worked for the chef who had the best Hunan restaurant in the city, as an apprentice for no pay. I started cleaning vegetables, I helped prep and I was very interested in the pastries and dim sum.

Q: What was it like for you as an American in a Taiwanese kitchen?

A: At first, just getting into the kitchen was really an impossible feat. One thing that helped was that I spoke Mandarin. And I had a track record because I was at the cooking school. Of course, the chefs didn't take me seriously in the beginning. But in fact, it was to my advantage to be a foreigner, and in a way even an advantage to be a woman. They thought I was very cute and charming at first, but they could see I was really interested in their cuisine. They'd say, "Well, if she is interested in learning our language and our food, then we respect her. A bit."

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