Elegant Simplicity: Coco Chanel in the Kitchen
Insisting on light, healthy food and warm hospitality, former banker Felice Chen cooks up deceptively simple dishes with complex flavors that dazzle the taste buds.
Elegant Simplicity: Coco Chanel in the KitchenBy Jin Chen
From CommonWealth Magazine (vol. 465 )
"My mom always said: Don't be stingy – use lots of shrimp." While sharing her mother's exhortation, former UBS Asia regional vice chairwoman Felice Chen is busily rolling the filling she has laboriously mixed using massive fresh wild-caught sword shrimp into a large wonton wrapper.
"Mama Chen's shrimp rolls" are truly impressive – about as wide as a fist. When the shrimp rolls are removed piping hot from the pot, they are sliced in half with a diagonal cut of the knife, exposing the pink and white bands of the shrimp meat, which looks so fresh it seems it may just jump right out of its crispy golden-brown wrapping. When you take a big bite, the taste of the sea leaps onto the tip of your tongue. It makes you want to stand up, clap and shout: "It's an undersea volcano!"
The hospitable Felice Chen and her husband Leon T. Ku don't merely spend Lunar New Year's Eve with family, they also invite friends who are still single and alone for the holiday to come join in the boisterous merrymaking. Felice is the master of the kitchen, but Leon handles the prep work with his masterful knife skills, slicing onions, ginger and radishes to uniform perfection.
Heaps of Mullet Roe like Little Gold Bars
Perhaps the most impressive sights on the Ku family holiday table are the plate heaped with chunks of rich golden mullet roe and the tuan yuan ("family reunion") soup, a heady stew concocted with chicken and palm-sized clams as long as your forearm.
Chen's mother originally ran away from a wealthy Tainan family, while her mother-in-law originally hails from Shanghai. The Ku family's home cooking thus combines the perfectionism of Tainan cuisine with the splendor of coastal Shanghai cuisine, along with the added condiment of the experiences they accrued during many years of living and working abroad.
Most people eat mullet roe by cutting it into thin slices.
"When we people from Tainan want to describe a family as wealthy, we won't directly come out and say the family has lots of money, we'll say they eat mullet roe in chunks, brazenly broken off by hand."
The generous pieces of rich, pure golden mullet roe look like little gold bars and are accompanied by garlic shoots and raw radish in a tradition proudly passed down at the insistence of Chen's mother.
A rebellious girl from a prosperous Tainan family, Chen's mother eloped with a handsome but poor military man who was also seldom home. She raised her seven daughters and one son alone, and times were tough. Come the Lunar New Year holidays, however, and she would always find a way to come up with enough mullet roe to eat it by the chunk in the fashion of "we Tainan people," just like in years past.
Coco Chanel once said, "Simplicity is the keynote of all true elegance." Friends describe that big pot of clam and chicken "family reunion soup" as they might Coco Chanel's clothing designs: a lot of work and effort goes into it, but the result is elegant simplicity.
Slowly simmering over a low flame, the limpid broth wouldn't catch your attention. But once the clams and chicken are removed and an assortment of bok choy, choy sum, egg dumplings, shrimp balls and sword shrimp is added, the flavors intermingle into something truly spectacular. No additional seasonings are needed to fully enjoy the gentle sweetness of the dish that begins in the throat and slowly permeates the rest of the body.
Since battling through a serious illness, Ku has in recent years been a staunch advocate of light, healthy dietary habits, and there is almost no meat to be seen on this banquet table, with oils, salt and other seasonings similarly verboten. The flavors, however, are sublime. Perhaps the spread on the Ku family table could be characterized as the Coco Chanel of New Year's feasts – seemingly light and casual but lacking nothing in culinary appeal.
Translated from the Chinese by Brian Kennedy