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A Chinese meal: sweet and sour, delicate and spicy

By Phyllis HanesPhyllis Hanes is the Monitor's food editor / February 15, 1984


Planning a Chinese meal can be very simple, but when done properly it is an art in itself. Dr. Joseph Ruggieri, who lives in Boston's Back Bay, insists that his cooking is very modest. But his knowledge of Chinese food is so extensive that when he invites friends to dinner, the meal is close to perfection.

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He suggests choosing dishes that can be made somewhat ahead, the evening before if necessary, so the host can spend time with guests rather than in the kitchen. But his knowledge of this cuisine comes from several years of interest in it.

Dr. Ruggieri started eating at Chinese restaurants for economy as a college student, and he liked the food so much he decided to continue the custom permanently. Today it's not unusual for him to dine on Chinese food two or three times a week. When in New York, Washington, and other major cities, he continues to explore and search out the best Chinese restaurants in those areas.

Dr. Ruggieri's knowledge of restaurants in Boston's Chinatown and those in the outskirts extends to being able to tell by the cooking if the chef has been replaced, and often he can deduce where the new chef has worked.

Despite his lack of interest in cooking, his library of several hundred Chinese cookbooks and a course he took at Harvard on Chinese history, culture, and language suggest a scholarly approach.

We first met at one of Joyce Chen's classes of Chinese cooking. Later, in 1979, when we were both on a food trip to mainland China, his translations of menus were a great help, and he was always a willing partner for seeking out non-touristy places to eat.

For several years, on the Chinese new year, Dr. Ruggieri organized a special banquet with the banquet chef of a favorite restaurant and invited friends to celebrate the holiday.

A banquet is more formal and more complicated than an everyday dinner, he explains. Planning the menu involves not just choosing individual dishes, but relating them to one another and then working out the harmonies and contrasts.

''Whatever the ingredients, whether inexpensive or not, each dish should stimulate the eye, the imagination, and the palate,'' he says.

''Each should be colorful, and if it has no color of its own, it can be garnished with green scallion tops, pink slivers of ham, or yellow egg threads.

''There should be contrasting and complementing flavors such as sweet vs. salty and delicate vs. spicy. Textures, colors, and cooking methods are also considered.

''Cooking methods are most important when you're having guests, because so many dishes can be prepared ahead of time,'' he adds.

The following menu for one of the few occasions when Dr. Ruggieri entertains at home starts with a cold platter. It continues with the basic formula for a simple Chinese meal, which means the cold platter is followed by fish, meat, or poultry, a steamed or stir-fried vegetable, a staple such as rice, possibly a soup, and fresh fruit.

A cold platter is a classic first course for Chinese dinners. Because it is easy to assemble, it is a pleasant change from the usual spring rolls, chicken wings, and barbecued pork.

This cold platter includes Thousand-Year-Old Eggs (also called preserved eggs , which are actually cured for only two to four months, not a thousand years), Smoked Fish Fillets, and Shredded Jellyfish.

There is nothing quite like Thousand-Year-Old Eggs in the Western culinary world, but they are considered a delicacy in China, and when served cut in wedges, they look quite unusual. The white is a transluscent amber color and the yolk is dark. They can be purchased in Oriental groceries.