Foods of China: from outdoor markets to elegant dining

By , Food Editor of The Christian Science Monitor

In the colorful outdoor markets of Taipei, I learned more about Chinese cooking than a dozen Chinese cookbooks could teach. Dark-green winter melon with its powdery snowy-white dust caught my eye, as well as abalone-shaped mushrooms, tiny corn, giant carrots and radishes, and dozens of kinds of bean curd.

Fresh wood ear that looks like our ruby lettuce and pea pods with tiny leaves were alongside the fresh fish of all kinds - clams, crabs, mussels, and fat sea cucumbers.

The produce at the Hsimenting Market is fresh and luxuriant. Aisles bustle with people. There were fruits and vegetables I'd never seen before.

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There is carambola, the yellow fruit with fluted sides that looks like a star when it's sliced. The cherimoya or custard apple is like a leathery, fat, green pine cone. The hollow-stem green called water convovulus I liked so much I grew it in my garden at home this summer.

I was fascinated with the extent of the display of preserved foods, dried and salted, an area of Chinese expertise for hundreds of years. Some seem expensive to American shoppers, but a little goes a long way.

A tablespoon of salted black beans, for example, can transform bland vegetables or bean curd or seafood into something really tremendous.

Some foods are preserved by salting and some by drying in the sun and wind, I was told, as we looked at the tightly wrapped small bundles of cured, pungent brownish-green cabbage used to flavor steamed pork or fish, a dried, salted pressed cabbage and a yellow-green mustard cabbage packed in a fermented brine.

After a market visit one day I stopped at a stand specializing in preserved duck where my friend was a familiar customer. We sampled Cantonese pressed duck and smoked meats, as well as delicious Nanking spiced duck.

In Hualien I enjoyed, with my guide, some wonderful, plump, tiny oysters cooked with fresh, shredded ginger in a light broth. The lady chef cooked in a huge wok in the same room with the four dining tables; her niece, Chiang Fang Chu, was the waitress.

We also had ''pepper-salt shrimp'' - tiny shrimp coated with a salty, peppery seasoning, fried in the shell until very crispy after it has thoroughly absorbed the delectable, salty flavors. Silky noodles with a mild sauce completed the dinner.

My most elegant dinner in Taipei was at the Ritz Hotel, where individual menus were printed on beautifully decorated scrolls, favors were at each place setting, and the food was exquisitely presented and served in correct banquet style.

This is a lovely, continental-style luxury hotel, decorated throughout in art nouveau style. It is expensive, but the modern services are superb and the restaurants include classical Chinese as well as continental and French cuisines.

The dinner party was in a private room with handsome gold wall panels, and Mr. Stanley Yee, the owner and host, had gathered an interesting group of people.

Served on stunning china and silver, we first were served a Hunan dish, Chiucken, Vicery Tso, then Mushrooms with Bamboo Shoots and Young Pea Plants, Minced Scallions in Fried Shrimp Cake, and Stewed Spareribs.

Abalone with Chicken Broth was followed by a most delectable ham called Nobel Ham, prepared by a chef whose job is only to cook these hams. These whole hams were a beautiful rose color - sweetened slightly with honey and served in small folds of bread like small sandwiches.

Each dish that followed was meticulously prepared and beautifully served : Eight Treasures in a Winter Melon, a delicate soup; Fried Prawns with Sesame Seed; Black Mushrooms with Vegetable Hearts; Sweet and Sour Yellow Fish Spheres; and Vegetable Dumplings.

Exquisite Baked Date Pastries were folllowed by small bowls of Red Date Soup and fresh fruit.

We were surprised and pleased with a performance by Chef W. H. Hsu, who showed a remarkable ability in food sculpture by carving a fish net from one huge carrot, using only a Chinese cleaver. All in one piece, the diamond-shaped net was supple as well as beautiful.

It was an amazing demonstration, far superior to the usual flower-vegetable garnishes seen in many culinary shows. Mr. Hsu is also an expert ice carver and his skillful demonstration in vegetable sculpture was as spectacular as the food was delicious.

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