Eye of the Chicken
A journal of Harbin, China

Today's dinner
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. . . pictured here,


is a riff on several Chinese cooking techniques. It's a kind of rice,egg,chard omelette-type dish fried in canola oil (frying eggs in oil gives them a different texture than frying them in butter, I've learned). I ate the omelette with radishes and hoisin sauce for dipping.

When I went to Harbin I expected to learn to cook Chinese food, and in the six weeks before I came back I spent a lot of time bemoaning the fact that I hadn't learned to cook anything at all. (I mean, really. The restaurants were fantastic and cheap.)But as it turns out, I seem to have paid a lot of attention to home-cooked and to cheap street food.

Tonight's dinner derives from two main threads. The radishes dipped in hoisin sauce (thank you, Chey, for pointing out that's what the sauce is) hearkens to a popular summer food - all kinds of vegetables (and sometimes dried tofu, too) with hoisin as a condiment. Sometimes the hoisin is added to scrambled eggs, which are then crushed into very small pieces; that's a kind of dip for radishes and cucumbers and whatever greens you have to hand. (Green onions are especially nice.) And then you can make little wraps out of veggies, dip, and something to wrap them in - large lettuce leaves, say, or squares of what's called "dried" tofu (and which in this version has the consistency of a firm noodle - think lasagna noodle). It was something I ate frequently at the home of my best friend and her family.

The egg dish is reminiscent of a lot of street foods. One genre of egg dishes resemble pancakes as as much as it does eggs. Sometimes just egg, sometimes egg and flour, they often contain finely-chopped vegetables (or squid, hehe, which is really good). Sometimes eggs are cooked in a thin layer on top of thin squares of noodle, then spread with sauce, and sliced into ribbons an inch wide (and served in a bowl, along with a few toothpicks). Sometimes they are cooked on top of a batter that's spread in a large circle, like a flour tortilla. And like a tortilla, the resulting pancake is used to hold a mixture of lettuce, crunchy things (like rice crackers, almost) and sauce.

Another great, simple discovery was boiled peanuts. They're served with barbecue all the time, and they're both easy to make and delicious. The hardest part is finding the raw peanuts. (I finished those off before I thought to take a picture.)

So I think I learned to cook more than I thought I did. As with the language itself, I think I spent a lot of time observing and tasting and asking and getting all kinds of sensory and mental input about food . . . and now I'm checking to see what I really learned. I'm getting pretty close to recreating a lot of my favorite dishes, finally. But I seem to have learned more than just cooking from cooking . . .

and I'll have to leave you with that teaser and hope I can get back here soon. The semester has begun spectacularly well - but it has, indeed, begun. This damn day job is eating into my time . . .

Stay tuned.

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