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Wednesday, Aug. 6, 2008 11:17 pm

Let the feasts begin

Stretch your Chinese food experience beyond Cantonese

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Alan Pearl, D.D.S.: We had friends who went to China . . . . They went to Peking where they make the ducks, and what they say is that the food over there is not as good. You can't get a sauce as thick and sweet over there. They don't make it like that — their food is like steamed or something.

Mrs. Pearl: They didn't have a good time.

— from the movie, Waiting for Guffman

Undoubtedly Olympic athletes will stick to strict dietary regimens in Beijing — at least until they're done competing. Here's hoping other Olympic visitors will experience some of Beijing's vast array of culinary treasures.

Beijing has been China's capital for centuries and consequently offers ethnic and regional cuisines not only from all over China but also — once it began opening its doors — from the entire world.

Until fairly recently most Americans' only acquaintance with Chinese food was Cantonese, mainly because to the large numbers of Cantonese who came here to work on the first transcontinental railroad. When the project was completed, in 1869, it was estimated that 11,000 Chinese had worked on the railroad. The dishes they cooked for themselves, as well as in the restaurants some eventually opened, were almost always Americanized, either by necessity (authentic Chinese ingredients were scarce outside cities with large Chinese populations such as San Francisco and New York) or to make them acceptable to inexperienced Western palates.

Chop suey is the most famous example. It's a catch-all term used for the simple stir-frys those rail workers made with whatever ingredients they could find, as much American as Chinese. Chop suey was the only "Chinese" dish in my grandmother's repertoire: leftover roast pork, celery, canned bean sprouts, onions, and brown gooey stuff from a jar, served over rice and topped with those yummy crunchy canned noodles. It was tasty — everything she made was tasty — but probably would have been as unfamiliar to people in China as macaroni and cheese.

In the '70s President Richard Nixon went to China, and Americans began discovering that Chinese food went beyond sweet-and-sour chicken and eggrolls. There are eight primary regional cuisines, each with numerous subdivisions. They range from that light, fresh, less spicy Cantonese to searingly hot Szechuan.

Beijing doesn't really have a separate cuisine, although the elaborate Mandarin cuisine of the imperial aristocracy is sometimes called Beijing cuisine.

Even though Beijing's food is cosmopolitan, it's heavily influenced by Shangdon cuisine, a neighboring region that is northern China's most temperate. Whereas the cuisines of southern China are primarily rice-based, for centuries rice was considered a luxury in the north, where the main starch was wheat in the form of noodles, dumplings, and pancakes.

Mu shu pork and the recipes for Sesame Peanut Noodles and Hot-and-Sour Noodles with Shrimp,which come from the Shangdon and Mandarin traditions, incorporate wheat noodles, pancakes, and such ingredients as peanuts, vinegar, and cabbage.

Making mu shu wrappers is fun, but it's also time-consuming and takes practice to get right. Unless I have a lot of time — or many helpers — I purchase ready-made wrappers or use flour tortillas, which make a good substitute. Mu shu recipes usually call for dried (day) lily buds; making them with fresh buds is a special treat.

Contact Julianne Glatz at realcuisine.jg@gmail.com.

Mu Shu Pork

3/4 pounds pork, cut into thin bite-size strips (this

is easier if the meat if partially frozen)

2 tablespoons soy sauce, divided

1 tablespoon cornstarch

2 tablespoons sugar, divided

1/2 cup dried daylily buds* (Hemerocallis) or 1 cup

fresh unsprayed buds

Three or four tree ear mushrooms* (black fungus)

1/3 cup thinly sliced scallions

2 cups finely shredded green cabbage, thick stems removed

1 tablespoon sesame oil

2 tablespoons hoisin sauce or 1 tablespoon hoisin

sauce and 1 tablespoon fermented bean paste

2 teaspoon minced garlic

Freshly ground pepper to taste

2 tablespoons peanut or vegetable oil

Six eggs, lightly beaten with 1/2 teaspoon kosher or sea salt

1/3 cup chicken stock

To serve

12 to 16 mu shu pancakes* or small (6-inch) flour tortillas

Scallions, shredded lengthwise into thin strips

Additional hoisin sauce

In a bowl, combine the pork, 1 tablespoon soy sauce, cornstarch, and 1 tablespoon sugar. Marinate the pork for about 30 minutes.

In another bowl, cover the dried lily buds with boiling water and let them stand for about 10 minutes, then drain them. (If you're using fresh buds, skip this step.)

Place the tree ear mushrooms in a saucepan, cover them with water, bring the pan to a boil, and simmer for three minutes. After letting the pan cool, drain the mushrooms, cut off any tough stem areas, and cut the mushrooms into the thinnest possible matchsticks. You should have 1/2 cup of shredded mushrooms. Combine the hoisin sauce, the remaining 1 tablespoon each of soy sauce and the sugar, garlic, and white pepper, and set the mixture aside.

Have all ingredients ready and at hand. In a wok or skillet, heat the sesame oil over high heat until it's hot but not smoking. Add the pork and stir-fry for about one minute, or until the pork loses its pink color. Add the hoisin sauce mixture, lily buds, shredded mushrooms, scallions, and cabbage. Cook for about two minutes, or until the cabbage and lily buds are just wilted. Add the chicken stock and deglaze the pan (scrape up any browned bits clinging to the bottom. Transfer the pork mixture to a large bowl and keep it warm. Return the wok to the heat and add the 2 tablespoons oil. Add the beaten eggs and cook them to a soft-scramble stage, stirring with a flat-bottom spoon. Add the pork mixture and continue to stir until the eggs are just hard-scrambled and have broken into small pieces, about a minute longer.

To serve, heat the wrapper or tortillas in a microwave. Many tortillas can be separated into two halves if a thinner "pancake" is desired. Each diner takes a wrapper, spreads a little hoisin sauce down the middle, spoons the filling down the center, and adds a few shreds of scallion, if desired. Roll up the wrapper like a crêpe and eat it out of hand. Serves four to six, or eight as part of a larger meal.

* Most ingredients for all three recipes can be found in the ethnic sections of grocery stores; starred items may be purchased at Little World Mart (2936 S. MacArthur Blvd., 217-528-2745).

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