American cuisine goes to China

In culinary matters as in electronics and trade, China is trying to catch up with the West. It's attempting a marriage of the food processor and the wok. Nina Simonds, an American food expert, is among the latest modern Marco Polos of Westernization. For years, Ms. Simonds had been going to China as a student of Chinese cooking. Back in 1971, when she was 19, she went to Taipei to live for four years, to learn cooking from the city's top chefs.

But last year she switched - she was the teacher.

As part of a culinary and cultural exchange, Simonds was asked to teach American cooking to Chinese chefs in the People's Republic of China.

Along with Jacqueline Newman, a nutritionist from Brooklyn's Queens College, Simonds was given a special invitation from the director of Shandong's Anti-Epidemic Station, an all-encompassing agency involved with chefs, food manufacturers, and food sanitation workers.

Drawing on her culinary acumen with French, Chinese, and American foods, Simonds demonstrated the Western way of making barbecued chicken, old-fashioned potato salad, new warm salads, cold soups, pastry, sweet rolls, and other typical American dishes.

She also took along the favorite cooking appliance of many American home cooks, a food processor.

``The food processor was a great hit. It `blew their minds,''' she says. ``They admired it's efficiency, but mostly, they were fascinated, as we all are, by the way it can thinly slice a cucumber or carrot or daikon radish.

``I also brought slides showing restaurants and American chefs at work, to give them an idea of the excitement of our food scene.''

The Chinese were most interested in ``sweets and salads,'' says Simonds. The warm salads amazed them, as did some of the dressings. Cold cucumber soup with fresh fennel was another surprise to her students.

``I have to admit it wasn't easy doing food demos in China,'' she says.

``You see, I was looking for ingredients to make American foods and although I had planned simple, basic dishes, some things we take for granted are almost impossible to find in China - like refined oil, the kind we use for salads that doesn't need cooking. It was scarce, and the Chinese dried mustard, for example, was quite different from ours.

``It took about eight hours getting ready for each demo,'' she says. ``And I usually ended up cooking in a wok - which was easy enough, but it isn't your typical US cookware.

But the countryside in Shandong was heavenly, with wonderful fresh fruits and vegetables. There was an abundance of strawberries and tomatoes, and a variety of lettuces - all hard to find in China a few years ago.''

In her many trips to China over the years, Simonds has seen the country go thorugh various political phases, all of which had their impact on the culinary scene.

Currently, she sees ``signs of recovery'' everywhere, ``but in 1979 the mainland China food, overall, was very disappointing, especially after Taiwan and Hong Kong.''

During the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s and '70s there were no luxuries. Everything was very simple, very basic.

``Food was sustenance,'' says Simonds. ``People were ashamed to be cooks. They were not considered to be helping the country progress in those days. But in the past few years they have begun to reinstate food as one of the national treasures.

``Chefs have been brought out of retirement. All the big hotels have apprentice programs. There are over 120 vocational schools and culinary academies, with enrollments of thousands.

``Westernization has come to China, and although they are socially very family-oriented, this Westernization has crept into family associations, too, except for holidays.''

During the Cultural Revolution, many traditional observances, at which food play a large role, were discouraged.

Now, Simonds says, ``weddings are important again, birthdays too, and the traditional ceremonies, stories, and the preparation of foods involve the whole family.

``The national art of cooking has become a part of the Socialist culture of China and now enjoys an important position in the life of the people,'' she says.

Today, many Chinese chefs visit other countries, and Simonds's visit undoubtedly heralds a succession of cultural exchanges with Western food professionals.

In her newest cookbook ``Chinese Seasons'' (Houghton Mifflin Co., $19.95), Simonds celebrates the innovative as well as the traditional in Chinese cooking, presenting for the first time 150 recipes coordinated with the seasonal calendar.

She has also created new dishes that are based on the classic philosophy but that are also in the spirit of present culinary trends.

During her own learning years in China and Taiwan, Simonds was an apprentice in two Taipei restaurant kitchens specializing in the cuisines of Hunan and Chekiang-Kiangsu.

Those were the days when, as a rule, only Chinese were allowed to work in Chinese restaurant kitchens. And on top of that, only men were allowed to work in Chinese kitchens.

She worked around all these obstacles, receiving not only her Chinese chef laurels but later a Grande Diplome in classic French cuisine from LaVarenne, Ecole de Cuisine, Paris.

Simonds speaks Mandarin fluently and has translated and edited three Chinese cookbooks.

She lives in Salem, Mass., and when not working or studying in China she lectures, teaches, writes, and cooks.

Phyllis Hanes is the Monitor's food editor.

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