In my previous column I wrote about some of the contents in a box of Uncle Richard papers that had been kept in our family’s Imperial Dynasty basement. I found notes for the first gourmet dinner he created for the Pasadena Wine and Food Society on March 28, 1960. It was the dinner that instigated Uncle Richard’s special eight-course, gourmet dinner the Imperial Dynasty served until 2002.
During this past week, I did a little more rummaging through the box of yellowed papers. Most of the material correlated with the 1960 dinner. Among such, I found several typed drafts of a letter Uncle Richard wrote on April 5, 1960, addressed to Harrison Chandler, Chairman, Board of Governors, Pasadena Wine and Food Society, and sent to the Times-Mirror Press in Los Angeles.
In the body of the letter Uncle Richard wrote: “The favorable reception of the dinner means very much to us. We have never done anything like it before. As the matter of fact, we wouldn’t even dare to dream about it. And yet, it did happen. However, I must admit that there were some mistakes made on the dinner, such as cold soup bowls, chestnuts were overcooked, etc., and we were handicapped by an unfamiliar kitchen. We tried our best efforts, and yet, we still made mistakes. These mistakes did bother me, and I was sickened for three days afterwards.”
Oh, the triumphs, the failures, the wins, and the losses in the restaurant business, so often in the very same instances. I immediately recalled numerous nights of “mistakes” in the Imperial Dynasty kitchen — the scorched soup, raw prime rib because the oven was accidentally turned off, rice that was cooked unevenly. There were also my own home kitchen failures of late — breads that wouldn’t rise, curdled sauces, and burnt chow mein noodles. Ahhh, those poor noodles I made last night. I had wanted them to be pan fried crisp, but not that crisp.
My gaze returned to Uncle Richard’s letter. His closing comments piqued my curiosity. “I thank you very kindly for your most gracious letter of April 1. We are very proud of it, and we show it to everybody. I also wish to thank your great newspaper, The Los Angeles Times, for the wonderful article of March 31.”
The Imperial Dynasty’s foyer walls were covered with framed awards, complimentary reviews, and laudatory letters. Many of them hang there still. But I had never seen the letter of April 1, nor had I seen March 31 Los Angeles Times article. The search is on. Wish me triumphant success!
I did have a recent kitchen success. I have always wanted to learn how to make joong (zongzi in Mandarin). Joong is a traditional rice dish made of glutinous rice mixed with different fillings such as mushrooms, nuts, eggs, pork belly, or sausage and wrapped in bamboo leaves or other large flat foilage, such as ti or lotus leaves, and cooked by steaming or boiling. While the leaves are inedible, they impart flavor. Joong is also the traditional food eaten during the Chinese Dragon Boat Festival, a traditional holiday that occurs on the fifth day of the fifth month of the traditional Chinese calendar.
I needed to find a recipe that used the ingredients I had in my pantry and fridge. I had dried lotus leaves on hand because making joong has always been on my cooking goals list. I perused numerous Chinese cookbooks and searched the Internet, but I couldn’t find one that suited my first lesson in Joong 101. I thought I had a cookbook with a simpler version and after another search through the bookshelves, I found the recipe I was looking for. I thought of Uncle Richard lurching into the adventure of multi-course gourmet dinners and what a huge undertaking that was. The risk of it all.
I controlled my risk with a simple recipe for my endeavor to increase my likelihood of success and so that I would have a recipe to share here. In these pandemic days, I have realized both the need to be able to share what is known and experienced and to take risks within creative endeavors even as we are cautious with our health and the health of those we love and those we meet however tangentially each day.
While I realize not everyone has dried bamboo or lotus leaves hanging around in their pantry, they may be purchased at most Asian markets or ordered online. Otherwise, the rice is a tasty dish on its own. Chinese sausage can be found in most Asian markets and online as well. If you can’t find them, barbecued pork from a Chinese restaurant makes a fine substitution.
Arianne Wing is the co-author of “Noodles Through Escargots,” and co-owner of the L.T. Sue Co. Tea Room and Emporium, benefiting the restoration and preservation of China Alley. She may be reached at email@example.com
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