Six distinguished chefs from Canton, four men and two women, are touring the United States, presenting a series of 18-course Chinese banquets of intriguing food put together with spectacular artistry.
Dumplings in the shape of rabbits and tiny pears and colorful depictions of fruit, flowers, and animals, some elaborate, others whimsical, were part of the outstanding presentation, the object of which is to introduce Americans to authentic Cantonese cooking.
The chefs are from the famous Pan Hsi restaurant, which specializes in small pastries called dim sum, in addition to a whole repertory of other Cantonese dishes. Their work proves that the old skills of decorative baking and food sculpture are still flourishing in China.
The tour is coordinated by the Chinese Culinary Institute, a Chinese-American company, in cooperation with the government of the People's Republic. Future plans of the institute include bringing other culinary delegations from China and establishing a permanent Chinese cooking school in the United States.
The team of chefs, led by Master Chef Lo Kun, will tour several US cities, holding lunches and dinners in a restaurant in each location. The price of the banquets is around $100 per person, and the lunches are about $30.
The first banquets were in Washington in late July, followed by a series in New York. Visits are being planned for Philadelphia, San Francisco, and Los Angeles.
The banquet in New York, at the Fortune Garden Restaurant, started with a beautiful presentation of cold foods in unusual shapes, listed on the menu as Lovely Fantasia.
One of the platters was a magnificent peacock, another a butterfly.Others included a colorful fish, a hen, and a basket of flowers. Everything was edible.
Used to form these elaborate figures were slices, slivers, strips, and bits of thousand- year-old eggs, sliced aromatic beef, lacquered duck, assorted carved vegetables, and cutouts of gelatin-like agar-agar, all carefully arranged to resemble the gorgeous plumage of the various objects. Slivers of carrots were made to look like tail feathers and cucumbers were sliced to look like leaves. Radishes and other vegetables were shaped into gorgeous chrysanthemums, roses, and other flowers. Carrots were cut and curled into tiny rosettes and curlicue garnishes.
The first dish after the Lovely Fantasia was Gold and Silver Threads, a dish of abalone and duck, with noodles made of rice flour; bamboo shoots; and a carrot garnish. Next was Fried Milk, Da Liang Style. It's a bland, soft food, one of the few dairy food dishes in Chinese cuisine.
Pear Shaped Dumpling was next, and it was delightful. Shaped like a tiny pear, it is made of mashed potato with an exotic filling of pork, mushrooms, shrimp, and Yunnan ham. It is dipped in crumbs and deep fried a pale golden pear color. Stems were made of slivers of ham.
The famous rabbit dumpling is enchanting. In making it, tiny bits of shrimp filling are placed on a circle of dough. Then it is twirled expertly with fingers to seal and to shape the figure.
Excess dough is twirled from the gathered edges into a point, which is clipped in half to make ears. Well-placed pinches on each side make nose and nostrils. With dots of chopped ham for pink eyes, the rabbit dumpling is ready for steaming.
The Bee-Hive Dumpling, another of the Pan Hsi specialties, is also called a Taro Triangle, being made only of selected species of taro with characteristic flavor and tenderness.
Canton Aromatic Mushroom Soup was made of mushrooms brought over by the chefs , the only ingredient they thought they wouldn't be able to buy here.
Scallops With Garlic was a very special dish, because these dried scallops are considered a great delicacy, costing about $65 a pound in US Chinatown markets. The dish also include a special green, a fresh water seaweed called Fachoy or hair seaweed, also considered a delicacy.
It was an unusual dish but not terribly appealing to most Americans, probably because we like and put such emphasis on fresh seafood, especially scallops.
These scallops are dehydrated in a special process, Chef Lo told me. They are larger than our Bay Scallops and come from Japan.
Roast Duck Canton style was a surprise to many guests who were familiar with Peking Duck served with hoisin sauce and small pancakes or doilies.
In Canton style, a piece of duck with skin had been placed on a small square of white dough and was served with a crisp noodle. It was excellent duck.
Next came Steak Kew, made of tenderloin that had been tenderized unnecessarily.
A dish with fresh scallops, abalone, and broccoli was excellent.
Desserts were Sweet Black Sesame Roll, Creamy Steamed Haw Fruit, Soft Coconut Pastry, and Plum Blossom Cakes with Lotus Nuts.
The Plum Blossom Cakes are individually shaped like plum blossoms of a white, translucent pastry. They were most attractive, and sweet and delicious to taste.
The attention to artistic detail was meticulous. Some of the beautiful dishes also tasted good. Since I was at the Pan Hsi in Canton last year, I know these chefs are famous throughout China for their amazing variety and superb presentation of dim sum dishes.
As many as 60 are listed on the menu in Canton, and 25 varieties are changed every three days, Chef Lo told me through an interpreter. The chef also said they never have fewer than 300 waiters on the floor or fewer than 20 dim sum cooks.
At the Pan Hsi in Canton, there are 250 people in the kitchen; 160 are professionally trained chefs with years of experience.
The Pan Hsi is more like a village than a restaurant. From the outside it looks like a large private residence, but actually it includes 20 individual pavilions, old-fashioned pagodas, balconies, bridges, and a modern, foreign-guest pavilion built out on a lake.
Although it serves a great number of people, about 6,000 on an ordinary day, it has landscaped ornamental gardens with zigzag paths, and stands of tropical foliage.
Chef Lo has been at the Pan Hsi 10 years and has had 46 years' experience making pastries in the Dadong restaurant at Long Beach, Canton. He also spent 10 years in Hong Kong and has traveled to Vietnam.
Chefs are definitely allowed and encouraged to be creative in China, he said, especially for banquets.
One of his own original dishes is called Treasure Buried Under Snow, a dish of crab meat, mushrooms, and shrimp with olive kernels cooked into a sort of egg white souffle. It is served hot and is too complicated to make on this particular tour, he said. I assured him I would come to the Pan Hsi and request it on my next trip to Canton.
Bamboo Shrimp, served at the New York banquet, is also one of Chef Lo's original dishes. The shrimps are cut to symbolize bamboo plants, which have a significant role in Chinese culture.
I asked the chef if he thought American- Chinese restaurants made food differently here in the United States. His answer was that if they would stick to the authentic Cantonese recipes the food would be fine.
Asked if he thought Chinese cooks in China made their foods different to accommodate the tastes of the tourists, he said that in the Pan Hsi it was a help to the chef to know when people from different countries placed an order.
He said he would make the dish to suit people from Europe or the United States and that it might vary somewhat. Asians want larger portions, he said; others can't eat so much.
Food in China is improving tremendously, he said, and Chinese people eat out 70 percent of the time.
I asked if his wife was a good cook. He answered that she doesn't cook much, since she works in a factory all day. They have seven children.
I asked if he did the family cooking, and he said whoever gets home first starts the meal and cooks for that evening. They eat out or at their jobs during the day.