Friday, October 31, 2008

FOOD FIGHT - Revolution Never Tasted This Good!

A few days ago I had a chance to screen the documentary called Food Fight by Filmmaker/Producer, Chris Taylor. I have to say that I really learned a lot more than I ever though I would. At first, I wasn't sure what to expect when I popped the DVD into my laptop. When I think of what a "Food Fight" means to me, it brought up visions of mashed potato flying across a crowded high school cafeteria and spinach being tossed back in a revengeful response.

But as I started watching, the words "Food Fight" took on a completely different meaning. We've literally travelled a full circle where initially, our food production was more locally grown and the freshness and the flavor of our produce was paramount. Then it changed and became more about subsidizing big business where the goal became more about food at a cheaper price, which also resulted in food that was as far from its natural state as you can possibly get. This was a price that in the end wasn't so cheap because consumers paid for it in obesity, diabetes and other health issues. Cheap food? Yes. Rising health care costs? A bigger YES!

In the 70s, things started changing in the form of Chef Alice Waters of Chez Panisse, who in her search for produce that tasted the way it was intended, fresh and bursting with flavor, literally created her own food chain away from larger retail grocery chains. This food chain consisted of local farmers supplying her with fruits and vegetables grown in the areas around her Berkeley restaurant, literally picked a day or so before hitting her kitchen ready to be made into tasty dishes, using ingredients that her customers have never even heard of, even though many were grown literally in their own backyard.

This revolution spread down to Southern California where Chef Wolfgang Puck took the baton and also ran with the whole concept of focusing on local produce to create changing seasonal menus year round. With him slowly becoming a celebrity chef at the time, the notion of California Cuisine as was started by Chef Waters started getting more national recognition through his efforts. There's definitely a lot more to this story than I can describe here, but as you can see, we have come full circle.

These days, farmer's markets have popped up all over the United States. Home cooks are following the same sensibilities of today's chefs and seeing and tasting the value of buying produce directly from local farmers. It's a wave and hopefully, it's a wave that will gain the strength and the momentum to make big government see the importance the food we eat and how it can truly contribute to the health of its people.

To find out more info, check out the links below:



If you'd like to actually see the documentary for yourself, there's a free AFI screening in Hollywood on November 8th, 2008 3:15pm at the Mann Chinese 6 on Hollywood Blvd. If you are not in Los Angeles or can't attend the screening, then click here to join the Facebook group to get updates of future screenings.

Wednesday, October 08, 2008

"The Four Schools of Chinese Cooking" - Dinner at Yunchaun Garden

A few months back, I came up on this online article on the Cooking Light website simply entitled "The Four Schools of Chinese Cooking" and as the title suggests, it talked about 4 different types of Chinese cooking based on schools or more likely "regions": East, West, South and North. Given the fact that I'm lucky enough to live in the San Gabriel Valley where the breadth of Chinese cooking is unparalleled, I thought I'd start a new dining series for Pleasure Palate where we would dine at restaurants representing each school, starting with the Western School.

Taken directly from the article, "The Western School [is] acclaimed for its spicy dishes, includes Sichuan, Hunan, and Yunnan provinces." Look below for more info.

What the West is known for: Fiery Dishes That Will Perk Up Your Tastebuds in a Big Way.

Styles of Cooking: Seasonings and Condiments Combine for Mouthfuls of Hot, Sour, Sweet and Salty All in One Bite.

Common Seasonings: Chiles (Fresh, Dried and in Pastes), Peppercorns, Ginger, Garlic, Water Chestnuts, Bamboo Shoots, Mushrooms and Nuts.

Representative Dishes: Kung Pao Chicken, Twice Cooked Pork, Szechuan Beef and Mapo Tofu.

To represent the Western school, I chose Yunchaun Garden in Monterey Park to be the first dining experience in this series and I tried to choose dishes, with the help of the staff, to best showcase what the Western School was all about. For our meal there, we shared 11 dishes. The dishes ran the gamut from awesome to good to okay to "What were we thinking?"

The absolute highlight of the meal for me was the Chongqing Spicy Cold Chicken. Sitting on a flaming red pool of chili oil, it was both vibrant looking and vibrant tasting. This chicken definitely packed some heat while the slight nutty-grassiness of the peanuts and green onions added some great flavor to this dish. Also a favorite was the Chongqing Special Flavor Boiled Fish. The fish itself was delicate and tender and it definitely absorbed the hot kickiness of the chili peppers and the spicy red broth it was cooked in.

Another really tasty dish was the fried lamb with cumin. The bite of the cumin, the spiciness of the red chili pieces beautifully flecked all over the meat's surface and the distinct bold flavor of the lamb really combined into a dish that was definitely a palate pleaser. Some of the other dishes were good, if not outstanding.

Everyone enjoyed the Kung Pao Shrimp. The Won Tons in Chicken Soup and the Sauteed Snow Bean Leaf helped in cleansing the palate in between bites of the spicier foods. I thought the Ma Po Tofu was okay, but needed improvement. After taking a bite, you could feel a little bit of heat on the tip of your tongue and maybe, the back of your throat, but compared to the other three, it lacked depth and dimension. It felt like it was hot just for the sake of being hot.

Dishes I wouldn't order again include the Twice Cooked Pork and the Stir-Fried Duck with Ginger. In both cases, both the pork and duck were chewy while the dishes in general were just really bland. The Yunnan Yam Cake also wasn't to my liking. I'm not even sure how to describe the texture. It reminded me of a firm tasteless jell-o.

In general, I enjoyed my meal and would come back for a return visit. I do prefer my food, while not necessarily mind-numbing hot, to be bold in flavor and my dinner at Yunchaun Garden certainly did provide that and sometimes more. I'm sure that I've barely cracked the surface of what the Western Style of Chinese Cooking is all about, so if anyone has any recommendations for what I can order for a future visit, I'd love to know about them.

To see pics, go to:

Yunchaun Garden
301 N. Garfield Avenue
Suite D102
Monterey Park, CA 91754
(626) 571-8387

Yunchaun Garden on Urbanspoon