PT Library’s Cooking Club celebrates Chinese cuisine
Shuping Liu placed a small dollop of ground pork and cabbage in the center of a perfect circle of dough that she deftly made in the palm of her small hand. She then crimped the edges to make a perfect crescent-shaped dumpling, which was cooked in a pot of boiling water.
The art Liu demonstrated during a Peters Township Public Library Cooking Club meeting Feb. 7 is an ancient Chinese tradition used to celebrate the Chinese New Year.
Liu learned the art of making dumplings from her late grandmother and on Feb. 10, Chinese New Year, she shared the tradition with her family.
Liu was one of several who cooked Chinese dishes for the monthly club meeting in the library. This year members of the Cooking Club are enjoying Taste the World, a different country each month with Ireland to be featured in March.
Library Director Pier Lee, a native of China, prepared a dish of snow peas, sliced mushrooms and strips of chicken breast, all cooked in vegetable oil. The only seasoning was a dash of salt. In China, the most important factor in preparing a meal is that all ingredients are fresh, some cooks even going so far as buying live chickens and killing them at home.
In some countries, food is prepared using sauces or gravy, or is heavy on meat. In China, the emphasis is on vegetables with the meat acting as a compliment, Lee said. Moisture from heavy sauces and gravies is replaced by the natural juices from the vegetables and some meat.
Dorothy Tecklenberg and her husband, John, of Washington, spent five years in China with their two children. For the club demonstration, she prepared a dish of fresh green beans seasoned with pork and some unusual Asian spices.
While in China, the Tecklenbergs were able to obtain Western-cooking ingredients, but also relied heavily on local recipes. Once, she was able to obtain four chicken breasts to feed her family of four, but the housekeeper froze three of the breasts and used only one to prepare the family’s meal.
Liu told the gathering that the Chinese use a great deal of pork and fish.
“Beef goes more with carrots,” Liu told the group, adding that no meat is taboo.
Techlenberg told the group that while the Chinese love tea, they usually don’t use tea bags, preferring to strain the loose tea leaves through their teeth. She said she had a tea bag once, asked for a cup of hot water and watched as the waiter opened the tea bag and dumped the contents in the water. “White tea,” merely a cup of hot water, is for those Chinese too poor to purchase tea.
John Tecklenberg told of a dish known as squirrel fish, where the fish is filleted and turned inside out. The body and head are deep fried and the end result resembles a squirrel. In restaurants, he said, the guest is often handed a net to “catch” the desired fish. Again, emphasis on freshness.
He said when living in China, he had a policy of never eating any food outside the family’s home unless he had watched it being cooked. Freshness is vital, however, sanitation and safety are not always a top priority.
For the upcoming Chinese New Year, families will gather to make the dumplings Liu made, often served with a special dumpling sauce. Two bites are all that are needed to eat one of the dumplings.
Lee said her mother, Man-Yeo Hsu, loved to cook and offered cooking classes in the township decades ago known as Granny’s Cooking Classes even though she spoke no English. Lee would translate.
Some in the Cooking Club members took the classes, and three of Hsu’s recipes appear in the cookbook the Friends of the Library are currently selling at the library.
Dorothy Tecklenberg, who offered a display of colorful costumes, told of how during the New Year celebration, the color red plays a big role along with firecrackers and fireworks. The myth goes there was a dragon that would eat the villagers, but soon the villagers discovered the dragon was afraid of red and of loud noises. By wearing red and lighting fireworks, the dragon fled so far that he wouldn’t return for an entire year.
Also, the tradition of binding women’s feet was discussed – Lee said neither she nor her late mother had to withstand the painful procedure. The tradition, Tecklenberg said, was outlawed in 1949. But the art arose from the belief that men preferred women with extremely tiny feet, because they walked in a way the men found enticing. When properly bound, the feet on adult women would be about three-to-four inches long.
As for cooking, special ingredients are available in The Strip in Pittsburgh at the Chinese market, and even in some speciality grocery stores.