Taste in Translation

Taste in Translation

published in the Chicago Sun Times

I was just dying to try chicken feet.

I saw them on the menu the last time I had dim sum in Chinatown. Always in search of different and authentic, I couldn’t find anything more unusual than chicken feet.

But I was with my very-adventurous-to-a-point 11-year-old and less-than-adventurous parents, and I really didn’t know how to eat chicken feet anyway. I stuck to the curried octopus and the lotus-wrapped shrimp.

So when I joined the Chopsticks Dining Club for a dim sum luncheon at the Phoenix Restaurant recently, I was thrilled to discover that chicken feet were in fact making their way to our table. Better still, I’d be able to try them with the guidance of a true Chinese expert and in the comfortable presence of others equally clueless about what to bite into first.

And that is precisely the purpose of the Chopsticks Dining Club: It provides a taste of Chinese culture in bite-sized portions.

Z.J. Tong, president of the Chicago Chinese Cultural Institute and organizer of the Chopsticks Dining Club, found food to be a good starting point in his cultural mission.

“The most Chinese culture they know is Chinese food,” Tong says of the general public. “But even for Chinese food, they go to the same Chinese restaurant and order the same Chinese food.”

Tong is able to lessen the intimidation factor for those willing to experiment. He has hosted six monthly dinners thus far at different restaurants and with different themes.

To date he’s worked with restaurants he knows in Chinatown. “If I set up a menu, I have to like it,” Tong says. But guests have suggested locations on Argyle Street and in Evanston. And his guests are willing to travel.

Barbara Leskie of Chicago has come to five of Tong’s dinners now. She was so enthusiastic about the experience and Tong’s instruction that she invited her friend Carol Alexander to make the trip from Schaumburg for April’s dim sum.

“It’s a great opportunity to hear about the food rather than just order blindly,” Leskie said. “He’s the greatest cultural ambassador.”

As Tong explained on this day, dim sum is typically served from 9 a.m. to 2 or 3 p.m. He compared dim sum to tapas in that each diner might order three or four dishes and share with the table.

In China, Tong said, a typical day might start with morning exercise, the newspaper, some tea, a few dishes with friends and then work. Dim sum choices might be carried from table to table on bamboo trays strapped over servers’ shoulders.

Here at the Phoenix Restaurant, bowls of different delicacies were brought to our large, round table on carts and placed on a flat wooden wheel in the center, which we could turn to share the feast: shrimp dumplings, pork dumplings, steamed spare ribs, baby octopus with curry, rice in lotus leaf, a creamy fish soup, shrimp crepes, turnip cakes and, for dessert, gelatinous coconut cake, tofu much improved with a healthy dose of liquefied sugar, and sesame balls.

And yes, chicken feet. Of course I dug in—or I would have, if I’d had any success holding them with my chopsticks and trying to nibble a taste of what turns out to be cartilage, tendons and a bit of fat in barbecue sauce. I finally put my fork to work and managed a small bite. And with that, I seemed to have picked off everything edible and satisfied my curiosity. I can say I’ve been there, done that, and might not need to do it again.

The rest of the guests at my table seemed equally adventurous. Some, like Cindy Wojcik, there with her husband, David; and Jennifer Schwalbenberg, who brought her friend Kristen Soderberg, have taken Chinese lessons from Tong.

David Clarke and Terry Hush are world travelers, thanks to Clarke’s work in oil valve sales. Terry’s sister Peggy McGuire joined her for this event with Dana Lundquist, whose work facilitating U.S.-China hospital management exchanges has taken him to many parts of that country.

It’s that type of growing involvement in China, in fact, that inspired Tong to found his Chicago Chinese Cultural Institute. “People were curious about Chinese culture, and there was so much business being conducted with China,” he said. “A lot of people are promoting business; I’m promoting culture.”

It’s a two-way exchange. Not only does he host events such as the Red Tie Gala and a Chinese New Year celebration, but Tong also promotes American culture to China, helping arrange trips there for performing groups.

His Chopsticks Dining Club has been drawing about 20 to 30 guests a month. Tong’s last vegetarian dinner was sold out—he hopes to limit the size so he can offer a personal experience for each attendee.

I just may have to become one of Tong’s groupies. Now that I’ve done chicken feet, I’d like to try jellyfish or pork belly. I haven’t had pea leaves yet either. Or maybe Tong will come up with something I haven’t heard of. Tong clearly doesn’t get cold feet when it comes to presenting guests with the extreme. And yet he’s kind enough to hand a girl who is struggling with her chicken toes a fork.

The Secret to the Secret Menus

How do you find the most authentic dish at many Chicago ethnic restaurants?

It’s a secret.

Often, first-generation or new Americans assume guests at their restaurant want Americanized versions of cultural specialties. And often, they’re right, says Gary Wiviott, founder of LTHForum.com, a Chicago online community dedicated to all things food.

So they create a separate menu—a secret menu—featuring dishes that might only appeal to a native. Generally, you have to be a native of that culture to receive a copy. Slowly, though, word is getting around that the real deal is out there, an experience to be had.

“Some of the people in the restaurant business are starting to realize there is a core group of adventurous eaters,” Wiviott says. In fact, adventurous eaters have contributed translations of “secret” ethnic menus on the LTHForum site. One lists the dishes at Chinatown’s Happy Chef, including pork tongue with moss. Another provides explanation of items such as spicy stir-fry with wild boar at Spoon Thai near Lincoln Square.

It’s expected that the person posting the list will be as accurate as possible, and the community shares corrections and distinctions.

So how does the secret get out? “There’s a natural curiosity in the diner. I call it plate envy,” Wiviott says. When you see something interesting on someone else’s plate, “you always want to know what it is. It’ll turn out that that’s not on the menu,” he says.

Generally, restaurateurs will be thrilled by your interest and the opportunity to share a bit of their homeland. And you can experience a foreign culture with only your fork as your passport. Just be sure to pack your manners, your sense of adventure … and maybe a snack if your first choice is an acquired taste.

If You Go

The next Chopsticks Dining Club Dinner is at 6:30 Thursday, May 15, at the House of Fortune, 2407 S. Wentworth Ave. To RSVP, contact Z.J. Tong at 1-312-842-1988 or tong@chicagocci.com. To learn more about the Chicago Chinese Cultural Institute, see www.chicagocci.com.

Phoenix Restaurant Chicken & Veggie Potstickers

1 pound bok choy or napa cabbage
2 tsp. salt, divided
1 pound chopped chicken breast
1 tbs. white wine
1 tsp. finely minced fresh ginger
1 tsp. cornstarch
1 tsp. light soy sauce
1 tsp. sesame oil
½ tsp. sugar
dash white pepper
1 tbs. vegetable oil
package of wonton wrappers

Dipping Sauce
1/4 cup soy sauce
1 tsp. sesame oil
2 tbs. red or black vinegar
slivered ginger, to taste

Cut the bok choy or cabbage into thin strips. Mix with 1 teaspoon salt and set aside for 5 minutes. Squeeze out the excess moisture.

In a large bowl, combine the bok choy or cabbage, remaining 1 tsp. salt, chicken, white wine, minced ginger, cornstarch, light soy sauce, sesame oil, sugar and white pepper. Mix by hand.

Take one wrapper and place 1 tablespoon chicken mixture in the center of the circle. Lift up the edges of the circle and pinch five pleats to create a pouch to encase the mixture. Pinch the top together. Repeat with the remaining wrappers and filling. Steam the potstickers for 6 to 8 minutes.

Heat a wok or nonstick skillet until very hot. Add vegetable oil, tilting the wok to coat the sides. If using a nonstick skillet, add 1/2 tablespoon vegetable oil. Place dumplings in a single layer in the wok and fry 2 minutes or until the bottoms are golden brown.

Mix the ingredients for the dipping sauce in a small bowl and serve with the potstickers.

Makes approximately 40 potstickers.