When the mood for tea and dim sum strikes, the first location that comes to mind in any of the major cities in the United States would be Chinatown. However, finding a restaurant that serves top-notch food can be like looking for a needle in a haystack. Luckily, I found the needle at 88 Palace in New York’s Chinatown.
My adventure began when I searched out master chef Shuntai Lau, winner of many culinary awards. He has served as president of the Chinese American Restaurant Association since its establishment in 2007, and he won second prize for Canton-style cuisine during the 2010 NTD Television’s Classical Chinese Cooking Competition held in Times Square (Culinary.ntdtv.com). With help from a Chinese friend, I tracked him down. My quest: to learn more about Cantonese cuisine, which is considered to be the most sophisticated Chinese cuisine.
During our conversation, he stated that he began his culinary career at the age of 22. “I was so inspired by the smells and the dishes being prepared for a wedding banquet when my parents and I were sent to a village for forced labor during the Cultural Revolution in China.” After that, he started cooking at home.
As we spoke, a cart full of little plates and Zheng Long (steaming cage) filled with dim sum was wheeled past us. Those intricate, outstanding culinary presentations with tongue-tickling flavors and textures and eye-pleasing colors are unique to the Canton region.
My friend reached for two kinds of shrimp shumai, different kinds of dumplings. One is small, bite-size pieces filled with a mixture of minced fresh shrimp, salt, and sugar, wrapped in a delicate, thin skin made of flour and water, topped with fish roe. The other is made with larger shrimp cut in bigger pieces and kept with its natural juices. I could not help admiring the wrappers’ transparency. The dumplings had an interesting mix of textures and flavor. The freshness of the shrimp was outstanding.
While I picked up a tasty morsel with my chopsticks, Lau told me that he returned to his birthplace, Guangzhou, in 1979 following the Cultural Revolution. He worked at a cafeteria in his hometown for a month. Lau realized that he needed to learn traditional Chinese cooking and entered a culinary school known for teaching traditional Canton-style cooking. He graduated two years later.
Lau then worked for eight months in a noted restaurant that could seat and serve 1,500 patrons. He then moved to Shenzhen where he lived and worked for six years, fine-tuning his techniques and creativity.
My friend picked another selection from the Zheng Long as the cart passed by. This time her selection was an interesting mixture of chopped vegetables and stuffed in a translucent wrapping made out of deng flour (rice flour), common to Shanghai. The flavors excited the palate. The filling consisted of mushrooms and greens. I detected a hint of lemon grass that gave the presentation a fabulous, slightly acidic taste. “The most important part of the dumpling is the skin. It must be as thin as possible and transparent. The trick is for the skin not to break,” Lau said.
Lau chose another selection from the Zheng Long cart and said, “Modern-day China has changed to catch up with the times, but no matter how much you want to change, as far as excellent food preparation, you have to use the traditional cooking methods.”
He selected Char Siew Bao, typical Cantonese barbecue pork buns. This is made with fermented wheat flour stuffed with black bean paste and small pieced of pork. The bun, unlike the previous ones, is boiled, which make it very fluffy. It was so fluffy that it melted in the mouth, making a wonderful contrast to the sweet and salty textures of the stuffing.
It is said that the Cantonese live to eat. Lau said that in the Guangzhou area, dishes during the spring and summer are light with a focus on fresh ingredients: soup and lots of vegetables, including squash and cucumbers. During the fall and winter, the use of game and snake energize the body.
Due to the marked seasonal changes, Canton chefs and cooks are more focused on the cuisine of the season, whereas Szechuan cuisine maintains the same ingredients throughout the year.
A surprising, aromatic, colorful dish appeared at our table: The Dragon and Phoenix Present Happiness. It is a well-balanced dish in all respects—a bit on the sweet side, characteristic of Canton cuisine, but with fried pieces of chicken and shrimp, slightly tossed in flour, fried for seconds, and enfolded in a semi-thick, bright-red sauce.
I felt the juices of the meat as I crunched into this dish.
Legend says that a long time ago, the emperor disguised himself and traveled to South China to explore. Along the way, he stopped at an eatery called the Dragon and Phoenix Restaurant. His stop was during an odd hour of the day. The owner did not have a lot of ingredients left to cook. He took what he had in the kitchen, prepared it, and served it.
The emperor loved it and asked for the name of the dish, but since it was just created, the owner gave it the name of The Dragon and Phoenix Present Happiness. Upon his return to the palace, he asked his chef to prepare the dish for him, but there was no reference to this dish anywhere.
Taste, aroma, and color are the characteristics of Chinese cuisine and this dish was truly representative.
Lau said: “Americans welcome Chinese cuisine, but few people know much about it. It needs to be promoted. Everyone needs to work together to make it known.”
Master chef Shuntai Lau is the executive chef at 88 Palace, 88 E. Broadway, New York, NY 10002, 212-941-8886.