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Fon Sz (pronounced fen suh)

  • Serving
    4 People
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    123

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Family Story

My parents were foodies before there was such a term. They learned to eat with chopsticks as graduate students in 1930s San Francisco, where Chinese restaurants had existed since the days of the Gold Rush. Married, my mom and dad learned to cook Chinese food from a book, How to Cook and Eat in Chinese, by Buwei Yang Chao. Her approach to cooking as culture dovetailed with my parents’ study and work as anthropologists. They were glad to delve into Chao’s details of method and language, such as her outline of twenty-one ways of cooking, beginning with boiling, steaming and roasting. Then came red-cooking (with soy sauce), clear-simmering, pot-stewing and stir-frying, now an everyday method in the U.S. Deep- and shallow-frying are also well known. Less so are meeting (the joining of two cooked materials), splashing (liquid seasoning onto fried foods), plunging (thin slices into boiling liquid), rinsing (thin slices of lamb into a fire-pot at the table), cold-mixing (like salad), sizzling (toasted rice into soup), salting (now gaining traction in the U.S. as dry-brining), pickling, steeping, drying and smoking. Chao was a physician and spoke little English. In her book she credits her daughter and husband, a philologist, with shaping her text. Many of the recipes, like “Mushrooms Stir Shrimps,” are titled with active verbs, an ingredient as subject and object. “That’s not English,” protests her daughter, as Buwei reports. Buwei’s husband counters, “If Mr. Smith can go to town in a movie, why can’t mushrooms stir shrimp in a dish?” I admire the question as well as the Chinese language’s assignment of responsibility to the ingredients. Let the cook off the hook and see what the mushrooms can do! After I married and had kid I began to explore Chinese cooking myself. From Jim Lee’s Chinese Cookbook, published in 1968, I learned to make bean thread noodles, transliterated from Chinese as fon sz (pronounced fen-suh and sometimes written saifun; they are also called vermicelli, glass, or cellophane noodles and made of mung bean paste, literally “silken threads made of powder.”) This dish became a favorite of our children. Today Lee’s book is dated by the inclusion of MSG (monosodium glutamate) in most recipes. I look this up and see that MSG has been listed as safe since the 1990s by the Center for Disease Control. I have not included it in my adaptation, but feel free to use it if you wish. Buwei calls it "taste powder" and advises moderation in its use.

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