It's All in a Day's Wok for This Celebrated Chef

Martin Yan discusses fusion cuisine and his new TV show on Asian cooking

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

Chef Martin Yan's playful sense of humor has graced television screens for 19 years. That makes his public television show, "Yan Can Cook," the second longest-running cooking program ever (after "In the Kitchen With Julia Child").

Many home cooks watch his program habitually, not only to see Mr. Yan demystify Chinese cuisine, but also for the sheer entertainment value of his presentation. His trademark knife work la Bisuteki and his even sharper wit have carved a lasting impression in the minds of viewers worldwide. The show now airs in 70 countries.

On a trip to Boston to benefit public broadcasting, Yan joined Maison Robert chef Jacky Robert for a cooking duel in which Robert and Yan turned similar sets of ingredients into magnificent French and Chinese dishes respectively. Yan shared his thoughts on the art of Asian cuisine, recounted recent travels, and discussed his new program "Yan Can Cook: The Best of Asia."

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The widespread influence of Asian cooking in American haute cuisine has roots that Yan traces to Wolfgang Puck, the celebrated chef of Chinois on Main in Los Angeles, which Yan cites as "one of the first Chinese-French restaurants in the world."

How fusion cooking fits in

Fusion, a hackneyed moniker applied to any menu that juxtaposes Eastern and Western stylings, has found a small niche in most American cities. According to Yan, "Anyone can get away with fusion if they have a good, basic background. When you put the right things together, it becomes a masterpiece. If you put the wrong things together, it becomes confusion cuisine. You don't want to confuse people, because then you basically make a mess. Put the wrong colors together in a painting, and it looks really ugly."

This sentiment echoes Yan's belief that "cooking is not just a science, but also an art." Drawing on his own education in food science, he defends fusion cuisine, saying, "If you understand [food] as a chef, then you know how to handle it, but, as an artist, you don't want to paint the same painting time and time again." He chooses a Boston favorite as an illustration. "Lobster with a black bean and garlic sauce, with just a touch of butter and some spices: delicious. But add hoisin and plum sauce, and you cannot taste anything."

Yan also cautions against the use of the word "fusion" today.

"All cuisines are, in the true sense, fusion. Chinese [alone] is a fusion cuisine. For example, white pepper, tomato, cilantro, eggplant, mustard, star anise, snow peas, spinach - all these were introduced to China. The Chinese word for watercress [translates literally into] 'Western vegetable.' White pepper is called wu jill, meaning 'spice from the West.' "

Growing up in China, Yan never saw broccoli or asparagus in Chinese restaurants. "Even the chili pepper," he explains, "was introduced." In today's world, he says, communication and commerce have created a global marketplace, making the culinary world something of a model for societies to follow. "As long as [the food's] good," Yan says, "it doesn't matter where it's from or who created it."

But putting the right flavors together is an art in itself. Citing the Chinese tradition that embraces bipolar harmony, balance, and diversity, Yan says, "I incorporate yin and yang in my cooking wherever possible. It is very important [in cooking] to have different textures and flavors coming together."

Even restaurant locations play a role in food presentation, he says. The au courant Asian belief of feng shui, or how one relates to one's surrounding at home, applies to cities, too, says Yan. He believes feng shui plays a role in restaurants and the cities they are in.

Cities like San Francisco and Boston, for example, possess "good feng shui," according to Yan, because they are "melting pots ... close to the water." Other plusses include cultural diversity, acceptance of new ideas, and - of course - great food and chefs.

Work on the road has kept Yan busy. While traveling for his new show, which showcases the cuisines of the Pacific Rim and began last fall, he has observed the phenomenon known as mutsusaka - a regimen for live prize cows in Japan that produces an expensive cut of beef - and even spent the night (intact) with real headhunters in Borneo.

In his new series, Yan visits Thailand, the Philippines, Malaysia, and Vietnam to work with local chefs. "I chose these countries," he says, "because if you study the roots of all these cuisines and their cultures there is some Chinese influence."

Technique not ingredients

Although many Japanese tools are different - and Vietnamese, Filipino, and Malaysian cuisines also draw on the influences of France, Spain, and India - Yan suggests that "cooking these types of cuisines is not so different, and is not too difficult." Because of his proposed "global market," Yan asserts that technique is what is distinguishes one Asian cuisine from another, not ingredients.

Yan radiates energy and inspiration. "Like Tiger Woods," he says, "if you practice anything enough, you'll be good at it. Even a genius needs to practice."

Yan describes his approach to life as "very Chinese," suggesting that "if you are good, people will seek you out. If I am successful, it is because I am flexible, confident, and I love what I do."

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