From Round to Square (and back)

For The Emperor's Teacher, scroll down (↓) to "Topics." It's the management book that will rock the world (and break the vase, as you will see). Click or paste the following link for a recent profile of the project:

A new post appears every day at 12:05* (CDT). There's more, though. Take a look at the right-hand side of the page for over four years of material (2,000 posts and growing) from Seinfeld and country music to every single day of the Chinese lunar calendar...translated. Look here ↓ and explore a little. It will take you all the way down the page...from round to square (and back again).
*Occasionally I will leave a long post up for thirty-six hours, and post a shorter entry at noon the next day.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Displays of Authenticity (3)—Mongolian Barbeque

Twenty-five years ago, while I was living in Taipei, a number of people in my office decided to go out for dinner on a warm, early-November Friday evening. I always loved those opportunities to learn about good food in a city known for the best across-the-board Chinese food in East Asia (more on that in a moment). My mind raced with the possibilities. We might have excellent Sichuan (Szechwan) fare with the hottest of dumplings boiled in red oil, and fish cooked in pounds and gallons of pepper and oil. We might reverse course (heading figuratively to China's southeast) and sample the stunning array of original dishes, teas, and desserts in a fine Cantonese restaurant. Alternatively, we might taste salty river fish and fresh vegetable dishes from the Yangzi (Yangtze) River delta in what has come to be known as Shanghai cuisine. We might even stick "close to home" and have the best Taiwanese cooking that could be found anywhere in the world—hands down.
[b] Fresh  RF

Although the situation is very different today, it could still be said in 1986 that Taipei had the best Chinese cooking in the world. Chefs from all over China gravitated toward Taiwan in the 1960s and 1970s, and soon there were restaurants in Taipei that rivaled the best that could be found in Chengdu, Shanghai, Guangzhou, Beijing, and Urumqi. You see, even in 1986 (and certainly in 1966 or 1976), Beijing was a culinary outpost with dependable northern cuisine and not a great deal else. The situation was changing by the mid-1980s, of course, and my first trip (in 1987) revealed hints of the profound changes that would come with two decades of growth. Let's not kid ourselves, though. In 1987, Beijing had more in common with Walla Walla than Paris. The Bird's Nest (even the soup) was a distant dream for most people in the city.

Taipei was the culinary center, and my two years there were dizzying...and filling. I am still working on undoing the damage. In any case, I spent a happy afternoon that November day as I translated computer manuals from nerdy, techie Chinese into nerdy, techie English—unreadable, both. A dozen of us would be going out to dinner, and the opportunities to taste and sample would be unmatched by anything but a handful of banquets that scattered themselves like autumn leaves across the calendar. This was the kind of Friday I loved.

[c] Fried  RF
Imagine my surprise when the whole group, after a short walk from the company, descended a staircase only to see animal skins and clearly marked canisters of yak butter. I had never thought about Mongolia and food at the same time. Little did I know that I would hardly ever think about them separately (at least the Mongolia part) again. I have been chasing "authentic" Mongolian barbeque/barbecue across the world since that time, with only dim hints of the wonders of that first (and second, and third, and fiftieth) time in the Mongolian hinterland of a Taipei basement.

I am not going to try to explain all that goes into a "proper" Mongolian barbeque experience here, but I will try to give a little hint. There are "Mongolian Barbeques" all over the world now—they have definitely gone global in the last two decades. Many are in strip mall settings, and a few have been very successful (in true all you can eat fashion) in university and college towns. None of the ones I have "researched" match the Taiwan experience.

Animal skins help create the atmosphere, and a variety of fresh meats and crisp vegetables is absolutely necessary. You pile the meat (or not—it is quite possible to enjoy this experience thoroughly without meat) and vegetables into a bowl, and then (with or without the help of the cooks), pour a range of oils over the whole mess. From there, the cook will take your bowl and dump the ingredients on a large, flat, hot surface meant for grilling. Two enormous wooden cooking sticks are the preferred instruments of most experienced grillers, although I know a nice guy in Madison who diligently and carefully employs two spatulas.

[d] Mixed  RF

They grill your ingredients right there in front of you and then—in the ultimate display of authenticity that separates the cooking sticks from the spatulas—whisk them all in an arc of fat and fibers into a clean bowl for you to take back to your table. From there, it is a matter of sampling the excellent breads, pickled cabbage, teas, and beer that accompany the meal.

It's a treat, and here is the "display of authenticity" twist that I have left out of the preceding paragraphs. The "authenticity" that even I chase through the Mongolian Barbeque restaurants of Philadelphia, Washington D.C, Paris (yes), and Madison is a chimera. I know better, but I want to replicate the newness and wonder of it all from that first (through fiftieth) experience. It is like that first cup of coffee in the morning, except that it can't be repeated every day.

Why do we chase "authenticity," anyway? I'll have much more to say about that question in future posts.

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