(Also for Magpie 87, Sunday Scribblings and ABC Wednesday)
"N" is for "Nice"
A few decades ago I had a great job, making motion pictures around the world for various national governments and American businesses.
One of the assignments was to make a film on Taiwan.
The island of Taiwan – (and, by the way, their preferred name is the Republic of China) – is a beautiful place, a perfect subject for a documentary film-maker.
I shot footage of the usual attractions, as might be expected. But the government agency I was working for wanted me to be sure to include a sequence on the food.
Because the food on Taiwan is really good.
There’s a solid historical reason for this. When the Communists took over mainland China, back in 1950, they closed down the great hotels and the fine restaurants; such things didn’t fit in with Marxist philosophy.
So the great Chinese chefs took off, along with everyone else who could get out, for Taiwan. Result: for many years the island had the best Chinese food on the planet.
My clients wanted me to show this in the film I was making for them, and especially to emphasize one of the great national dishes, Peking Duck.
I had heard about this dish, but I had never had a chance to taste it in its authentic form. It has been around for quite a while; some say almost a thousand years.
So I arranged for a sequence for my film, shot in a Taipei restaurant. During the shoot, I had a brilliant idea.
(Like so many of my brilliant ideas, it didn’t work out too well.)
My view was that preparing Peking Duck wasn’t all that difficult. You see, back home in New York I had always wanted to be considered, by admiring friends and relatives, as a competent amateur chef. How satisfying it would be if I used what I learned here to prepare a really nice dish: Peking Duck. I could imagine a large, full-color photograph of me as a champion Peking Duck chef, with a note reading: "You Are Here."
Again, it didn’t look too hard. You just had to have, first of all, a duck – which would be sort of a basic requirement – and such stuff as scallions, hoisin sauce, etc., etc.
A small, tentative voice within me said, you can do this!
You’d think I would have learned never to listen to that small, tentative voice.
It was back home in New York that I was forced to face the basic fact about cooking Peking Duck – it ain’t easy.
Of course, some of the steps weren’t too difficult. Completely cleaning and eviscerating, the bird? Okay, I could do that. I began to get an idea of what a project this would be when I learned that I was supposed to hang it to dry for 24 hours.
I tried to think of what to say if other members of my condominium association dropped in and saw this small carcass hanging in my apartment - surely that might be regarded as a breach of condo rules? But the next bit was even worse: you were supposed to actually blow air through the crevices between the skin and meat; this would remove excess fat.
The reaction of those same folks who dropped by if they saw me blowing air into a duck – well, that could only be imagined.
At one point a sentence in the recipe caught my eye: "Total preparation time 11 hours and 20 minutes." It was around then the flame of ambition I had to be a Peking Duck chef became a dying ember.
Some folks, as it turned out, did drop by and we had a fine meal. I had phoned for Chinese takeout home delivery -- General Tso's Chicken. :-)
1 year ago