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Nourishing Our Knowledge
A chef's tour of 11 towns gives us Chinese Cooking 101

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TV chef and author Martin Yan finds plenty of ingredients to work with on a walk through Uwajimaya in Seattle's Chinatown International District.
My wife and I love to travel with our kids. And even though we haven't been able to wander as far or as often as we might like, we have tried to make the most of our little jaunts. In Honolulu, New York, San Francisco, Victoria and Vancouver, B.C., our explorations have led us to Chinatowns. And even if they are heavily touristed and hardly undiscovered, ventures into these neighborhoods have provided us with a certain sense of discovery. Even the small and relatively familiar Chinatown International District of Seattle holds a certain mystique for us, and as often as we can, we take the kids for a stroll through the few colorful blocks south of downtown that constitute our local Chinatown.

Recently, I had the privilege of seeing the place through the eyes of Martin Yan, one of the world's leading authorities on Chinese cooking. As we walked through the aisles of Uwajimaya, people approached to get a closer look at the celebrity chef.

Two thousand episodes of Yan's first television series, "Yan Can Cook," have established him as a bona-fide international celebrity, sort of a Julia Child of Chinese food. And last fall, he launched a new series, "Martin Yan's Chinatowns." Just the week before, Yan had appeared on the QVC network promoting his new book, "Martin Yan's Chinatown Cooking" (William Morrow, 2002). "In eight minutes," he said, "we sold 3,000 copies!"

For this series and this book, Yan traveled to 11 Chinatowns on four continents, and ultimately came up with a dazzling portrait of a cuisine as diverse and as interesting as any on Earth. While some of the dishes are familiar-sounding favorites from Chinese restaurant menus, others are completely new. Consider Eight Treasure Honeydew Melon Bowl Soup from Ping's Restaurant in New York City, Hakasan Salmon and Sea Bass in Champagne Sauce from London chef Tong Chee Hwe, or Fiery King Pao Lobster Tails from Fortune Garden in Vancouver.

Thumbnail Flower Drum Crab Baked in the Shell
Interspersed among the recipes are boxed descriptions, sort of a travel directory with restaurant recommendations for each of the Chinatowns Yan visited. There are also brief essays on subjects ranging from "Family Matters" and "Chinese New Year" to "Feng Shui" and "Ching Ming," the Chinese practice of paying tribute to one's departed ancestors. While these glimpses of Chinese culture are presented in the same blithe "gee-whiz" way that similar subjects are dealt with on television, they do enrich the text. And if these too-brief vignettes gave me the nagging feeling that the whole collection was only scratching the surface of something much bigger and more important than it could ever hope to cover, so be it. A cookbook is only a cookbook, and even the most ambitious collections cannot capture the full spectrum of actual hands-on experience.

"Seattle's Chinatown is no longer a living Chinatown," said Yan thoughtfully as we made our way up King Street toward the Tse Chong Company, home of the Rose Brand noodle factory. "A living Chinatown, like the one in New York or the one in San Francisco, is a place where people are shopping, working and living. This one is like the Chinatowns in London, Paris and Yokohama, a tourist Chinatown where people come in to work. Also, like most Chinatowns, it has grown into an Asian town with lots of other nationalities." Hence the new label: Chinatown International District.

Yan himself never lived in a Chinatown. Born near the southern Chinese city of Guangzhou, he apprenticed in a Hong Kong restaurant before coming to America to study food science at the University of California at Davis. Then he moved to a town called Brooks in the Canadian province of Alberta. But visits to "Vancouver's long-thriving historic Chinese community" gave him an appreciation for Chinese communities far from home.

Just as a Chinatown is only a day-tripper's version of China, Yan's new book is only a tiny sampling of a vast cuisine too complex to be pinned down in one book. But those of us not fortunate enough to grow up with Chinese food can get a taste of it following Yan's recipes.

Greg Atkinson is chef at IslandWood on Bainbridge Island. He is also author of "The Northwest Essentials Cookbook" (Sasquatch Books, 1999). Barry Wong is a Pacific Northwest magazine staff photographer.

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