Going to market with Mama

Mama is an expert in the art of selecting (gan). It embarrasses Mama when I say this because she doesn’t perceive her expertise as anything special. One of my earliest memories, involves going to market with Mama and watching her choose her produce. As with many Chinese housewives, every ingredient Mama has ever bought has been carefully chosen for beauty (gan langde). Whether it was several pounds of snow peas or a few delicate papayas, each item was individually examined for fragrance, ripeness, and blemishes. If I ever brought borne produce chosen without careful examination, her dismay upon discovering something that was blemished would be palpable.

Partially from my parents’ training and partially because I am a food stylist, I, too, am very particular when it comes to fresh produce. It baffles my husband, Michael, that I need to look at every fruit and vegetable stand along Canal and Mulberry Streets before I will make my selection. It upsets me to buy mangoes from one stand and then to see riper, more beautiful mangoes two stores down the block. My own perfectionism notwithstanding, it still astounds me how Mama will willingly walk to three or four markets until she finds bean sprouts that meet with her approval — plump, short, and never limp.

As finicky as I think I am, Mama has an altogether higher standard of excellence. She is totally energized by the adventure of shopping for produce. Despite the fact that I am nearly thirty years her junior, I often cannot keep pace with her as she whips in and out of markets on Stockton or Clement Streets, as if on a treasure hunt. In every store she seems to know who the owner is, greeting him, complimenting him on his outstanding produce, while often politely asking him to check his storeroom for specialty items. Every vegetable has criteria that must be met and an equally serious list of what to avoid. Regardless of my admiration of Mama’s expertise, she, too, will occasionally buy produce that disappoints her. Perplexed, she will confer with friends, seeking tips and advice, ever ardent to master the art of produce shopping.

We have a family friend, Chen Mei, who was raised on a farm in China and who almost unconsciously will pinch and squeeze Chinese turnips and taro root until she finds the perfect vegetable. She is so proficient at choosing produce that Mama often instructs me to learn from Chen Mei. For example, in selecting Chinese broccoli, she advises that the bunch should never have open flowers. Buds are acceptable, although Chen Mei warns me that sometimes the buds have insects hidden inside, which explains why some people wash broccoli in salt water, hoping to force the insects out. Some Hong Kong food connoisseurs eat only the stalks to avoid this danger. (There is also a superstition that if you eat broccoli flowers, you will become deaf.) When choosing the best fuzzy melon (zeet qwa), Chen Mei insists it be bright green, stubby, fat, and have tiny hairs that lightly prick you. If the melon is hairless, it’s too old and not worth cooking. On the other hand, the most coveted winter melon (doong qwa) must be as old as possible to be worthy of selection. The outside of the melon must be well covered with white powder, and the rind must be very hard, all good signs of proper maturity. My Auntie Katheryn reminisces that winter melon rind in China, even after hours of cooking, would seem as though it was as hard as tin. “Sadly, American winter melon rind is so soft,” she says, but “at least choose the end pieces, which are preferable to the center portion.” (Winter melon is sold in pieces, much like watermelon.)

Years ago Mama and Auntie Katheryn used to commiserate on how inferior American produce was compared to Chinese produce. “Everything is grown bigger but is less flavorful.” When I was a child, they spoke of fruits and vegetables from China as though they were from a fairy tale. All fruits had a crispness (choy hul) that the Chinese prize — from plums and peaches to Asian pears which, unlike many American varieties, are soft and without fragrance. In China, most fruits and vegetables are picked before dawn and delivered to the markets early in the morning. Mama and Auntie Katheryn tasted that rare sweetness and crispness of just-harvested produce. Today, the quality of Asian produce available in America has improved tremendously because of the influx of Asian farmers. The variety and quality of produce is a far cry from what was available when we were growing up. In addition, the more exotic vegetables and fruits of China and Thailand, like lotus root, fresh lichees, and durian, are flown in when in season.

Sometimes as we race through the open-air markets, Mama will spot some farm-fresh produce, like bitter melons, that have just been brought out to be sold, and she will linger in front of the stand wanting to buy. I remind her we still have three in the refrigerator, which she is fully aware of, but flawless produce is hard for her to resist. Reluctantly she walks away explaining to me how perfect those bitter melons were — light colored, fat, yet tapered like the shape of a rat, with the proper thick ridges. “Not,” she says, “like the flavorless, skinny, dark green, bitter melons.” Still, as particular as she is, she will not shop for anything she feels inexperienced at choosing. Fish and meat are Baba’s domain and she will not risk wasting her time buying them. There are also certain vegetables she is less familiar with, like taro root, which she is reluctant to purchase.

I remember in the sixties, when supermarkets first began to wrap produce in cellophane, Mama would examine the scaled packages, frustrated that she couldn’t touch the fruit to see for herself if the vegetable was indeed fine. It would annoy and embarrass my brother and me to hear Mama ask the clerk if the oranges were sweet. We’d ask Mama if she really thought he’d say no. Then she would say, “If he says yes and they’re not sweet, I won’t trust him again.”

Although my parents will shop in a supermarket, their preference is to go to Chinatown. There, the demand for high quality and fresh ingredients naturally creates a market with high turnover. I believe this high standard manifests itself the more nutrient-rich foods the Chinese eat. Compare supermarket produce, which has often sat for days in a warehouse, with produce you see in Chinatown, where just-delivered boxes are sometimes eagerly emptied by customers on the street. Even at the butcher shop, Baba points out to me the difference in freshness between supermarket meat and the kind sold in a Chinese butcher shop. When we buy a piece of pork butt (moy tul), he has me touch the package and take note that the pork is not cold to the touch. “Just slaughtered,” he says to me with a wink (sung seen tong zaw), and as we walk out of the shop I notice the truck parked in front delivering the slaughtered pigs.

Baba and Mama shop daily, which is possible for them to do because they are retired. However, even when they worked, they would never shop for produce only once a week or stock up on frozen or canned fruits or vegetables. Freshness is such an important requirement in Chinese cooking that the extra effort to shop more frequently is accepted willingly. They appreciate the difference you can taste when food is sung seen (fresh).

In America, it is considered the height of luxury to call in an order to a fine market for home delivery. However, for the Chinese, allowing someone else to put produce into your bag, to do your selecting, would be unthinkable. It is impossible to assume that a stranger would take the proper care in selecting your food. The freshness and ripeness of the food you eat is so critical that you must personally oversee it if you are to be responsible to yourself and for your family’s well-being. Lin Yu Tang, the great Chinese philosopher, wrote in The Importance of Living, “For me, the philosophy of food seems to boil down to three things: freshness, flavor and texture. The best cook in the world cannot make a savory dish unless he has fresh things to cook with, and any cook can tell you that half the art of cooking lies in buying.”

To my mother and my father and, indeed, most Chinese people, selecting farm-fresh produce brings them pure delight and satisfaction. They literally glow, and beam, to bring home choice, blemish-free produce. And this glee lasts through every mouthful of the delectable dishes they prepare.

Taken from Grace Young’s book “The Wisdom of the Chinese Kitchen” with permission. © Grace Young. Published by Simon & Schuster, Inc. ISBN 0-684-84739-6.