Chinese New Year With Chef Ming Tsai

Jan 28, 2014
Originally published on January 29, 2014 1:15 pm

This Friday marks the beginning of the year 4712 in the Chinese Calendar, the year of the horse. James Beard Award-winning chef Ming Tsai joins Here & Now’s Jeremy Hobson in the studio to discuss some of the customs of Chinese New Year, as well as the Mandarin, Hunan, Szechwan and Cantonese cuisines.

Interview Highlights: Ming Tsai

On food traditions for Chinese New Year 

“With Chinese New Year, everything is significant… The shape of the potstickers resembles an ingot of gold. So for Chinese New Year, you want to bring fortune and wealth into the new year, so you eat potstickers. This is a guaranteed success of bring wealth and good and prosperity into your new year… You want wholeness, so eat whole duck, whole chicken, whole fish, a whole lobster. Green is important — green signifies money, which is a Western thing as well. Chinese New Year is one of these great holidays, like Thanksgiving, that is just based on the food.”

On the “Americanization” of Chinese cuisine

“It goes back to how the Chinese were emigrated here. We were literally brought here to build railroads, then when that was done, all these men – mostly all men – did not speak English. One of the only ways to make money was to make food. But unfortunately, it was kind of dumbed down to the American palate. And I think that happens in a lot of cuisines in this country. So that came all the way to the ’80s, and then we realized, and then we brought real chefs… to cook their cuisines.”

On the development of the American palate for Chinese food

“You can travel around so much more easily, so people are going to China, they’re going to Thailand, they’re going to Japan. So they’re tasting the real deal and they’re demanding to have those real flavors. And you can buy any product anywhere in the world now. Twenty, thirty years ago, there was one ginger in the grocery store. Now, there’s like four different types of ginger… The palate of America is 50 times better than 20 years ago.”

[Youtube]

Guest

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JEREMY HOBSON, HOST:

It's HERE AND NOW.

And if you can hear that sound here, it is because we have turned this studio into a bit of a Chinese kitchen. We've got Ming Tsai here. He is the chef/owner of the Boston area restaurants Blue Ginger and Blue Dragon. He's also host and executive producer of the PBS show "Simply Ming." And, Ming, what are you doing there?

MING TSAI: I am flashing this whole fish with oil, which is a old way of bringing lusciousness and deliciousness into a fish. And since we're celebrating Chinese New Year, the key, of course, is you want to bring wholeness into the new year. So you never would cut the head off or do a fish fillet, right? You need to have a whole fish.

HOBSON: And you say we're celebrating Chinese New Year. I should explain Chinese New Year is coming up at the end of this week. And we wanted to talk about some different kinds of Chinese cuisine that you can have to celebrate Chinese New Year and not just the typical, what, General Tso's chicken or whatever you get at the local Chinese restaurant.

TSAI: That is correct. And you were just there. We're talking about that, Jeremy, there's such varied cuisine in China.

HOBSON: Absolutely. There were types of Chinese food that I had never even really heard of. There was Hunanese cuisine...

TSAI: Right.

HOBSON: ...which was very different. And, of course, you've come here with four different kinds. You've got for us, what, Mandarin, Hunan, Szechwan and Cantonese.

TSAI: Correct.

HOBSON: OK. Do you want me to taste this fish, by the way?

TSAI: Please. So that's from - this is my Cantonese. So this is a whole fish that's just been steamed with just ginger and scallion and then flashed with oil, just a touch of light soy sauce. Cantonese food is very delicate. Soy, ginger, scallion is used quite often. There's almost never chili or spice in them. You want the fish to shine. And - I didn't mention we have this fantastic champagne Pierre Peters, which we should toast because this is Chinese New Year. And everyone knows...

HOBSON: Happy New Year.

TSAI: People know that sound. I think it's important, you know? That's just one thing that we don't do in China is match food with wine like we do in France in America.

HOBSON: Why is that?

TSAI: You know (foreign language spoken) it just didn't exist 50 years ago. There wasn't wine, right? The only thing they drank in China was shaoxing and then baigar. Shaoxing is the rice wine, drunken warm. Baigar is the fire water in those white bottles that - I mean, it's our Moonshine, I guess. It definitely gets you drunk, but it didn't taste very good.

HOBSON: Do you recommend to have wine as opposed to beer or anything else with Chinese food?

TSAI: Both wine and beer, I think, are fantastic matches. You know, for example, we go to these spicier dishes - this is a Hunan dish. My grandfather is from Hunan. So this is gong bao ji ding, which has the peanuts and the whole chilies and whatnot. It'll give you a good kick. And when you have food that is spicy, you want something of a wine that has just a little sweetness. So here we have the Trimbach. It's a Riesling. As you taste the wine, it has just a little bit of sweetness. But then sweetness for a spicy dish is a match made in heaven.

HOBSON: Oh, wow. That is delicious.

TSAI: Because if you try to drink a red wine with chili or something spicy - Mexican food, Chinese food, Thai food - it accentuates the tannin of the food. And you don't want that. So a little bit of sweetness like this wine is perfect.

HOBSON: And this is Hunanese. It is not necessarily the spiciest kind of Chinese cuisine. Is that easy?

TSAI: It's - you know what? I would say it's one of the spiciest. The other one, of course, is Szechwan. But Szechwan is known for something called mala. Mala literally means numb and spicy. So when you try this - this is a mala beef soup. When you try this, you will first be like, how am I suppose to eat this? This is crazy spicy. But what happens is the Szechwan peppercorn is a magical peppercorn that within 30 seconds starts to numb your mouth.

HOBSON: Yes. It - I just want to stop you to say on New Year's Eve, I was in Hong Kong and went to a Szechwan restaurant, and it wasn't at all made for Westerners. It was absolutely the real thing. And it was...

TSAI: Right.

HOBSON: I ordered something that was literally covered with chili peppers.

TSAI: And it looks like the Valdez spill, right? It's a complete oil slick of red chili oil and - but I love that.

HOBSON: Oh, wow. That is - that's my favorite. We should be having one of these wines.

TSAI: This is why you need the same Riesling. Because of that spice - again, if you had any wine that didn't have that little sweetness, it would destroy the wine.

HOBSON: Oh, yeah. Yeah. The Riesling is perfect for it, really. It's got like (unintelligible).

TSAI: Yeah. I mean, Riesling's actually the best food grape in the world. People don't realize that. They always think it's chardonnay or sauv-blanc. But a really cold, you know, Yanjing beer from China, delicious, right? You want to have a cooling effect. And beer really - just like in Mexico, just like in Latin America, beer is a great beverage.

HOBSON: And so we've got one more to go here.

TSAI: Right. And help yourself here. Pot stickers, so Beijing, up north, capital, is where all the dim sum during the Ming Dynasty was created. Chinese New Year - everything is significant in a sense. These pot stickers are short rib pot stickers.

HOBSON: Ooh, wow.

TSAI: The shape of the pot stickers resembles an ingot of gold. So for Chinese New Year, you want to bring fortune and wealth into the new year. So if you eat pot stickers, this is a guaranteed success for bringing wealth and good and prosperity into your new year.

And, you know, like I mention, the whole fish, which we - you want wholeness, so eat whole duck, whole chicken or whole fish or whole lobster. Green is important. Green signifies money, which is a Western thing as well. Chinese New Year's is just one of these great holidays like Thanksgiving. It's just based on the food. But, you know, as you know, I'm wearing red.

HOBSON: Yeah.

TSAI: Red is very important because, traditionally, there was a beast named Nian. And this beast would come to the villages, eat the cows, the pigs, the adults, and especially loved eating kids. So the Chinese realized, you know what, let's put food out in front of our door. And they put food out in front of the door, the beast would come and eat the food and stop munching on the kids.

HOBSON: Not the children. Yeah, that's - yeah, yeah.

TSAI: Right. Which is very PC of the beast. But they also noticed that there was a kid wearing red, and the beast avoided that kid. So you always wear red. You - and it's very common sense, you're supposed to clean your house up, get the clutter out, paint your door red, paint the windows red. But also, what red is this. This is the red envelope, the Hong Bao. If you were my child, there'd be a huge amount of money in there. Since you're not my kid - there's money in there. Yeah.

HOBSON: Oh, there's money. Wow.

TSAI: So this is according to federal regulations. But never spend that money. This money is to bring into the new year. If you really need to spend it, then you're in dire straits, so save your life. Like that's your dollar to call your lawyer.

HOBSON: If I need to...

(LAUGHTER)

TSAI: That's to call your lawyer. So - but, you know, and oranges as well, always given in Chinese New Year. Oranges...

HOBSON: You have a bowl of oranges here.

TSAI: Again, it's prosperity. It's a whole fruit.

HOBSON: Ming, let me ask you this: Why is it that we don't have all of these regional variations at Chinese restaurants around this country? Why is it that when you think of Chinese food in the United States, you think of something that is if not Panda Express, kind of like it?

TSAI: Look, it goes back to how the Chinese were immigrated here, right? We literally were brought here to build railroads. Then when that was done, all these men - mostly all men - did not speak English. One of the only (foreign language spoken) - the only way to make money was to make food. But unfortunately, it was kind of dumbed down to the American palate. And I think that happens in a lot of cuisines when they come to this country. So that came all the way to, you know, the '80s.

And then we realized - then we brought real chefs from Hong Kong, from Szechwan, from Hunan, from Yangzhou. They would come, and they would cook their cuisine. And then some of the Chinese sous, the best in the world is actually in this country, because you have the chef, which knows how to cooks, because a wok's a wok, and the quality of the products in this country is better.

HOBSON: And do you think that the American tastes are changing and becoming more accepting to things like this delicious Szechwan dish that (unintelligible)?

TSAI: Yeah. Absolutely. I think a couple of things. The world you can travel around so much more easily, right? So people are going to China. People are going to Thailand. They're going to Japan. So they're tasting the real deal. And they're demanding to have those real flavors. And you can buy any product anywhere in the world now.

Twenty, 30 years ago, there was one ginger in the grocery store. Now, there's like four different types of ginger, right? I mean, in Ohio, we didn't have fresh gingers.

HOBSON: You grew up in Ohio. Your parents...

TSAI: I grew up in the culinary capital of the world, Dayton, Ohio, yes.

HOBSON: Well, and your parents ran a Mandarin-style restaurant, is that right?

TSAI: Yeah. Mandarin Kitchen. It was really my mom's gig. My dad literally is a rocket scientist. He was designing the B-1 bomber at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base. But back to your point.

So customers are demanding of these authentic flavors. I mean, look at the great Korean food and Ethiopian food and, you know, all these real small restaurants that I think are just crushing it because people are getting much more educated. The palate of America is 50 times better than 20 years ago.

HOBSON: Well, Ming Tsai, host and executive producer of the PBS show "Simply Ming" and, of course, the James Beard Award-winning chef owner of Blue Ginger and Blue Dragon. Thank you so much for coming in. Happy Chinese New Year.

TSAI: Yes. As we say in Mandarin, gong xi fa cai.

HOBSON: I'm not even going to try.

TSAI: Yeah, that's OK. You don't need to. But what are we going to do with all these food, Jeremy?

(LAUGHTER)

HOBSON: We'll have to give it to Meghna.

TSAI: OK. Perfect. Thank you very much for having me.

(LAUGHTER)

MEGHNA CHAKRABARTI, HOST:

Yeah. Can't wait to dig into it.

HOBSON: Go for it, Meghna. There's plenty to share. By the way, we've got a video of Ming's visit here. You can see all this incredible food that he brought in. We've got a slideshow. It's all at hereandnow.org.

From NPR and WBUR Boston, I'm Jeremy Hobson.

CHAKRABARTI: I'm Meghna Chakrabarti. This is HERE AND NOW. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.