www.agentofchaos.com presents guest artist - Harley Spiller aka Inspector Collector

Hold the Risotto, Make It Fried Rice
December 8, 2004
By William Grimes
The New York Times

When Marcella Hazan comes to New York, Italian food is not uppermost on her mind.

She teaches it, of course, as she did recently at the French Culinary Institute. And she eats plenty of it, at the ceremonial meals honoring her role as perhaps the premier interpreter of Italian cuisine for Americans. She talks about it nonstop, especially these days with the publication of her sixth book, "Marcella Says," (Harper Collins, $29.95), an outpouring of her classroom thoughts and advice.

But whenever she gets a chance to break away from the risottos and braised veal, she and her husband, Victor, eat Chinese.

It's no exaggeration to say that if it weren't for Chinese food, there would be no Marcella Hazan as the world knows her today. (More on this in a moment.) So when I heard that the Hazans would be in town for two weeks, I jumped at the chance to tear them away from the usual round of all-Italian celebrations and head down to Chinatown.

For assistance, I called on Harley Spiller, who has made a life's study of the local restaurants, and who recently organized an exhibition of his Chinese menus at the Museum of Chinese in the Americas. I wanted to spring some surprises, and Mr. Spiller, I knew from experience, has a lot of them up his sleeve.

First, the Hazan-China connection. Almost 40 years ago, while living in New York, Mrs. Hazan and her husband were treated to a meal at Pearl's, one of the city's finest Chinese restaurants. It was love at first bite for Mrs. Hazan. She signed up for cooking classes with the renowned Grace Chu, the wife of a former Chinese Nationalist official who had attracted a devoted following among the city's well-to-do eager to penetrate the mysteries of Chinese cuisine. Unfortunately, Madame Chu, as she was known, left abruptly for China, abandoning her class. But in the meantime, she had planted a seed.

"I learned that you could teach cooking," Ms. Hazan said as we drove toward Canal Street. It was a good lesson to learn, because her fellow students, desperate to continue their culinary education, decided that Italian food would be fun. All eyes turned to Mrs. Hazan, who, overnight, made the leap from student to teacher.

There were a few bumps along the way. "I didn't know anything about Americans," Mrs. Hazan recalled. "Can you imagine, I wanted to cook lamb kidneys." She laughed at the memory. "I brought a bowl of squid out one day, and people just screamed," she said. Before too long, Craig Claiborne, then the food editor of The New York Times, got wind of Mrs. Hazan's classes and dropped by for a visit. The rest is history, which Mrs. Hazan has commemorated by dedicating her book to Madame Chu and Mr. Claiborne.

Fast forward to the present, corner of East Broadway and Forsythe Street. With Mr. Spiller in lead position, we headed in a pack down the stairs of the indoor mall below the Manhattan Bridge. There, deep in the back, are a small kitchen counter and a few tables and chairs. English is not spoken, but Mr. Spiller, a regular, put together a plate of stuffed seeded buns (the house specialty), a heap of noodles, and a cold appetizer of crab on vinegar-braised seaweed. As a palate cleanser, he ordered a bowl of unidentified broth.

The buns, a kind of Chinese bagel, fried rather than boiled, are large, chewy and fresh, with an even coating of sesame seeds. The two stuffings on that day were mustard greens, chopped into small pieces, and cabbage braised in Chinese red wine. They were a hit. The mustard greens, which retained a fresh crunch, delivered a nice fiery bite. The cabbage oozed with syrupy red wine sauce, a kind of vegetarian barbecue. "This cook really knows how to fry," Mrs. Hazan said.

Mr. Spiller, who offered a running commentary as we ate, said: "They make these in northern China and stuff them with seasonal ingredients. I'm confused, though, because the cooks here are from Fujian."

The buns seemed Italian to Mrs. Hazan, but so does a lot of Chinese food. "There are a lot of similarities, much more so than between French and Italian," she said. How so? "Well, for one thing, the French don't have pasta," she said. In Italian cooking, sauces season the pasta, which is also analogous to the Chinese approach. "And stir-frying is a little like the way we deal with sautéed vegetables." Like the Italians, she added, the Chinese do not create a hierarchy among dishes, whereas French meals coalesce around a main course. Later, she pulled out a Kleenex and folded it delicately into a tortellini, then a won ton wrapper. "See?" she said.

The crab, chopped into small pieces with the shell still on, is a Shanghai dish, although spicy in Shanghai and sweetly vinegary here. The flat, fettucine-like noodles put both Hazans in home territory. There's nothing to the dish. Peanut butter is thinned down until it becomes a thin glaze coating each noodle, resulting in a much more pleasing texture than the usual cold, gummy sesame noodles. The broth is mysterious. "To tell the truth, I don't know what's in it," Mr. Spiller confessed.

Mr. Hazan did not mind. "In general, you shouldn't ask what's in broth," he said.

Onward to Dumpling House on Eldridge Street. Fried dumplings, five for a dollar, make up 90 percent of the menu here. The star attraction is a long crescent-shaped dumpling stuffed with pork and chives, cooked by the batch in a huge wok until it browns on the bottom and is crunchy at the edges. The chef has mastered the technique of grabbing five at a time, gently squeezing them between his fingers, and arranging them quickly in concentric circles in the wok. Dumpling House is narrow, barely large enough for us to squeeze in. It's more like dumpling hut. Mrs. Hazan, who had managed to sneak outside for a cigarette, surveyed the surroundings and zeroed in on what looked like a pizza going by. It was a Beijing-style flatbread fried on the bottom, sprinkled with sesame on top and, at Dumpling House, sliced open and stuffed with a sort of tuna salad jazzed up with minced carrot, cilantro, Worcestershire sauce and a half dozen other ingredients. It was served in triangles, and it was delicious. Mrs. Hazan disapproved. "I don't feel like I'm eating Chinese food," she said. "I don't like it when a restaurant does things because they think the clients want it that way." It's a lot better, however, than the Chinese food available in Long Boat Key, Fla., her home for the last four and a half years. "They have three Chinese restaurants, and each one is worse than the other," she said. Now 80, she has had to abandon her beloved Venice. Too many steps. But she found a small hint of it when we headed to Yogee Noodle on Chrystie Street. Mr. Spiller ordered sliced conch in a sauce with yellow chives and sliced carrots, a heaping platter of sautéed snow-pea leaves with garlic, fish dumplings and rice baked in parchment paper with dried scallops, chicken and squid.

The conch, sliced very thin, brought back pleasant Venetian memories. When the Hazans visited Venice not long ago, they played host to Nobu Matsuhisa, showing him, for the first time in his life, the city's fish markets. Mr. Hazan regarded a slice of conch and reminisced. "We have smaller ones there, called garusoli locally," he said. "In Italian, they're murici. They're the size of a large thumb, and they have a livery taste."

The fish dumplings, in fish broth, were an intriguing failure. Fresh fish is worked into the dough, for a double-fish effect, but the day we were there, the dough was heavy and chewy. Mrs. Hazan looked distressed. The explanation might lie at the next table. It was going on toward 3 o'clock, and the chefs were all eating next to us.

"I think the dishwasher might have made the dumplings," Mr. Hazan said. This is a private Hazan joke, based on an eating disaster at an Italian trattoria many years ago.

Mr. Hazan's palate, and his ear, are crucial to the Hazan enterprise. It works like this: Mrs. Hazan cooks, experiments, tries new ideas and doesn't write down or use any measurements.

"We decide what is the subject, and I'll write some notes," Mrs. Hazan said. "I am very impulsive, and I do it very fast, otherwise I'll lose the thread."

Mr. Hazan brings method and order to the process, measuring and translating stovetop creativity into the written recipe, with Mrs. Hazan's commentary. When the last of the snow-pea leaves disappeared, that was it. A three-stop lunch seemed like the limit. Mrs. Hazan got Mr. Spiller's phone number for future tips on places to go. Lately, she has been sticking with Chin Chin on East 49th Street, convenient to her New York pied-à-terre, where she dotes on the lemon chicken. But East Broadway and environs have been a revelation. She may be back. Mrs. Hazan headed outside for a last cigarette, which she puffed tranquilly on the sidewalk, then linked arms with her husband and headed back uptown..

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