You Are What You Eat

The Yin and Yang of Asian Delectables

Alameda Magazine – October 27th, 2010

I had just placed my order for the braised sea cucumber at Alameda’s East Ocean Seafood Restaurant when a young woman bustled over to me with a worried look.

“Excuse me,” she said, introducing herself as one of the restaurant’s managers. “Do you really know what you’re getting?”

Traditional Asian cooking includes ingredients many Westerners would simply throw in the trash — or back in the ocean. Intestines, fish lips, bird’s nests (the main ingredient of which is saliva, I discovered, rather than twigs), snakeheads, starfish, sea horses, jellyfish — and the humble sea cucumber. The question was logical.

But I’d ordered in full possession of my faculties. In the past month I had eaten my way from Beijing to Shanghai, scarfing down river snails, jellyfish, whole baby crabs and other barely-mentionable items in an attempt to move beyond the California rolls and walnut prawns of my favorite local eateries. Defenses down and chopsticks honed, I was ready to take on more exotic fare, including the strange Water Wiggle–like animal that was my meal to come. How lucky that I had returned to the San Francisco Bay Area, home of America’s first Chinatown and reigning center of some of the country’s best and most varied Asian cuisine. I just had to open a menu and dig in. Yet despite the Bay Area’s culinary cool, it seemed I’d crossed some kind of divide.

Step inside Oakland’s Chinatown and you’d be hard-pressed for evidence that you were still in America. Just a few blocks from the bustle and trendy cafes of Broadway, the sensory cues have all changed: street signs have suddenly become bilingual, red lanterns festoon storefronts and the handwritten signs inside stores are all in Chinese characters. Aromas of stir-frying garlic, ginger and onion fill the air. Men in blood-streaked aprons chop fish in the backs of seafood stores, arranging the heads and tails for purchase on tables of crushed ice. Every so often, they pull a live fish from one of the many tanks behind them — sturgeon, salmon, Chinese ling cod, milkfish, rockfish, cabazon, catfish and other sea creatures, swimming lethargically in their watery prisons. Out on the street, aproned women neatly order the rows of Chinese cabbage, bok choy, broccoli and mustard in cartons. Elderly Chinese couples stop to look at the wares, and little girls on Heelys zip by, laughing. It’s a lively scene and everyone’s talking or shouting, but not a word is in English. 

In that way Oakland’s Chinatown hasn’t changed that much since the 1860s, when some Chinese who had immigrated to San Francisco during the Gold Rush moved across the Bay. They planted gardens, sold fruits and vegetables from baskets, and set up “chow chow” eateries for themselves. Soon after, as restaurant critic John Mariani states in his book, America Eats Out, they began catering to the sensibilities of their host country, “lest Occidental customers shy away for fear of being served duck feet and bird’s nests.”

Chinese restaurants continued to modify their cuisine to suit American tastes, creating separate recipes (chop suey, sweet and sour pork and wonton soup) and eventually separate menus for their Western customers, a practice that Mariani claims still exists in places today. Dishes became sweeter, stickier and more batter-heavy until they bore little resemblance to anything the Chinese would claim as their own. 

“The basic formula appears to be: Take the fattest, rankest pork you can get; cook it in a lot of oil with the sweetest mixture of canned fruits and sugar you can make; throw on a lot of MSG and cheap soy sauce; thicken the sauce to glue-like consistency; and serve it forth,” E.N. Anderson describes in his 1988 classic, Food in China. “The Cantonese regard the whole business as proof that Westerners are cultureless barbarians.”

In San Francisco, though, things were changing. Chinese food aficionado Barbara Tropp opened China Moon Cafe in 1986, bringing a new level of interest and sophistication to Bay Area Asian cuisine. In the wake of the Vietnamese war, immigrants from Thailand, Vietnam and other Southeast Asian countries also poured into the Bay Area, opening restaurants and adding their cuisines to the mix.

Millie Low, co-manager of the Alameda East Ocean Seafood Restaurant, said that Bay Area diners have become more discriminating about Chinese food in the past 20 years. Her restaurant, which also once had separate menus for Asians and non-Asians, halted the practice in the 1980s, she said. As we spoke, however, Low pointed to the only other customers — both Asian — who had ordered what I would be eating. 

“Most Westerners don’t like these dishes,” Low confided. Food prejudice, like the human kind, seemed to persist even in 
the absence of a framework to support it. 

When my dinner was deemed ready, Low herself arrived with the covered clay pot — and a look of apprehension. I picked up the lid to see round blobs floating in a fragrant brown sauce, topped by what appeared to be red peppers. Smartly bypassing the peppers, I went straight for the prize.

“Uh, that’s the mushroom,” Low gently advised as I held a dripping shiitake between my chopsticks. I quickly re-directed my aim to the reddish shapes on top.

One of the hardest things about sea cucumber is actually getting it to stay on your chopsticks. After a few tries (during which Low assured me I was not being stared at by other customers), I finally pincered a piece. But before I could direct it to my mouth, she issued another advisory. 

“Sea cucumber is an acquired taste,” Low cautioned, “It’s kind of like” — she struggled for a suitable simile — “warm jello.”

Warm, mushroom-flavored jello, she might have added. Like tofu, sea cucumber soaks up the seasoning of whatever else is bubbling in the pot. My first bite was a shock. It was slippery and chewy and carried a strong musky flavor, moderated by the slight smokiness that comes from the way the cucumber is prepared — soaked in water, then grilled “until it pops like popcorn.” After that, I decided to try little bites of the sea cucumber along with the shiitake mushroom. Together, the flavors and textures married, and I found the dish much more enjoyable.

The preparation and processing of sea cucumbers begins long before they arrive at the restaurant. Our specimen, the California giant red sea cucumber, lives on the rocky bottom of kelp beds off the west coast of America from the San Juan Islands to Monterey. It is one of the largest of the more than 500 species of sea cucumber, and one of the most colorful. It subsists happily on the ocean floor, sifting its tentacles through sand and sediment for nutrients. Oblivious to its growing popularity among humans, it plods along on its many tubular feet at a rate of about 10 feet per day, “vacuuming” the ocean floor. Endowed with bright red skin and rows of radially symmetrical yellow spikes, it looks like something that might have been painted on a Haight-Ashbury wall in a psychedelic haze. 

Even stranger than its appearance is its method of defense: When threatened by predators, it will squish together like a pancake and eject its entire innards — an uncivilized habit described in the scientific literature as “autoevisceration.” While the predator feeds on the easy feast, the suddenly-lighter cucumber scoots off to re-grow its insides, a process that takes about three weeks.

But all this unloveliness is offset by some very appealing qualities: The cucumber is one big living anti-arthritis pill. Recognized by the Chinese as a tonic more than 3,500 years ago, the sea cucumber contains enough glucosamine and chondroitin to keep arthritis-sufferers in good supply for weeks. In fact, sea cucumber, when not being otherwise ingested, is dried and crushed for use in arthritis-fighting food supplements. 

This corresponds to Chinese beliefs that food and medicine are synonymous.  

“Treat an illness first with food,” stated Sun Simiao, court physician in the Tang dynasty. “Only if this fails should medicine be prescribed.” 

A modern-day proponent of the Chinese belief in food as medicine is Allan Wan, proprietor of Ivy’s Exquisite Foods on Webster Street in Oakland Chinatown. His shop is filled with unusual items that, he says, fortify the body as well as fill the stomach.

“It’s a Chinese belief that the body is a balanced system,” Wan said. The body is in harmony when it maintains a balance between hot and cold or, in Chinese terms, yin and yang. These qualities are inherent in the foods we eat — meat is hot, for instance, while most seafoods are cool. “If the body is balanced, external forces — diseases — will not attack it,” Wan says.

The aisles of Wan’s store are filled with foods that help support the delicate balance of the human body, as understood by the Chinese. Buckets of dried sea cucumber, dried sea scallops and abalone, dried fungi and fish maw crowd the aisles.  

“These things may not have a lot of taste by themselves,” he added, laughing, “but they’re very good for you.”

Much the same could be said of jellyfish, another unusual item on the menu at a few East Bay restaurants, including Oakland’s stately Legendary Palace in Chinatown. Jellyfish are served as an appetizer, shredded into long squiggly strips and soaked in a delicate soy-vinegar-sesame sauce. They may look like marinated rubber bands, but they are irresistibly good. The jellyfish, a soft, water-filled sac while living, possesses a lovely crunchy texture in the culinary hereafter.

The preparation of jellyfish, like sea cucumbers, is very involved and has traditionally been performed by a fisherman with the mysterious title of Jellyfish Master. The master works on board fishing vessels to separate jellyfish from their stinging tentacles, then begins the many soakings and compressings of the jellyfish bells to clean, salt and dry them for transport. (Salted jellyfish, sold in plastic bags, are commonly available in Oakland Chinatown food stores.) 

Most jellyfish sold for consumption is harvested in Asia. Recently, however, America has entered the jellyfish business, harvesting its own cannonball jellyfish off America’s Southeast and Gulf coasts. 

And what are the health benefits of these rubbery creatures, you might wonder? Like sea cucumber, jellyfish are also considered a cooling food, and used to fight arthritis and aging. Though its body may be mostly water, what isn’t contains significant amounts of a calcium-binding protein similar to one that is gradually lost as humans age. In the past few years, powdered jellyfish has come on the market as an anti-aging supplement.

The Chinese have eaten jellyfish with gusto for the past thousand years, and now, according to a recent issue of the Smithsonian magazine, Europeans foodies have also jumped on the jellyfish bandwagon. One Michelin-rated Spanish chef waxed poetic about the jellyfish floating in her new soup recipe, calling them “beautiful marine princesses.” But in America, we mostly remain squeamish and skeptical. 

When I’d finished ordering my meal at Legendary Palace, the waiter looked surprised. “You’re ordering a very traditional Chinese meal,” he said, half in praise and half, it seemed, in surprise. 

He said that few Westerners order jellyfish or my other selected item, salmon heads (which turned out to be delicious, wonderfully flavorful and meat-filled). It’s simply a different philosophy of food, as Millie Low explained.

“Chinese people like to see the whole animal; we don’t cut it up into little pieces like you,” she said. “We don’t waste any parts that way; it’s more ecological.”

In fact, ecology may play more of a role in dictating our food supply in the future. Global warming has brought spikes in jellyfish populations around the globe. And a recent Huffington Post article decried the possibility of “jellyfishburgers” in our future.

In Chinatown’s many mom-and-pop food stores, bags full of puffy, golden brown somethings that resemble fat potato chips are invariably stacked near the cash register — an obviously popular item. The label, in red Chinese characters, is unfortunately unenlightening to an English speaker. In Wan’s food store, I finally discovered what they were: fish bladders—or maw—the internal organ that separates oxygen from water to allow fish to breathe. 

For centuries, Chinese have removed and dried or deep-fried the maw for use in cooking. The organ acts a bit like cornstarch, lending a thicker texture to soups and sauces. At East Ocean, chefs make a delicious fish maw soup with crabmeat, cilantro and scallions in a rich, egg drop–like base. It felt like a good meal to eat on a cold winter’s day.

But like all of the foods on my small culinary tour, fish maw plays an important role beyond that of filling an empty stomach. A structure for breathing, it possesses properties that Wan says can benefit our largest respiratory organ — our skin.  

“You are what you eat,” he said. “So if you have problems with your tendons, you eat animal tendons; if you have problems with digestion, you eat intestines. If you have problems with your complexion, you eat fish maw, which has a lot of collagen. It’s a simple one-to-one correspondence.”

Sometimes you travel the world to discover a truth in your own back yard. Food as medicine is a philosophy that stems from the ancient Orient, yet lives on today in Oakland Chinatown. But perhaps it’s time for this idea to jump the borders of Broadway and Harrison. In a land where obesity is reaching epidemic levels and high blood pressure and diabetes claim ever more lives, many Americans could benefit from a philosophy of food designed to bring the body into, rather than out of, balance. As food expert Michael Pollan soberly reminds us, the Western diet is the only one guaranteed to make its adherents sick. Given that, ideas from the ancient Orient may indeed provide us with excellent food for thought today. 

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