Sunday, April 18, 2010

Chinese Dinner for 1.3 Billion

Back when I lived in the French house, I had a calling. It was a very special calling. I was the ward dinner chairman. I moved out after a couple months because they didn't have a spot for me in the fall and while I missed everyone dearly I had a little spot in my heart that was rejoicing because: ward dinner chairman is the hardest calling ever.

Once a month, you get to coordinate a meal for 150 people. Now, I like meals, and I like people, and I probably even like all 150 of these people but seriously. I had to sleep for 3 days straight just to recover every time.

Now that I live in the Chinese house I am on the beneficiary end of ward dinner - I show up to eat and someone else has done all the hard work.

This month, though, we had a very special ward dinner. The best ward dinner of all: Chinese ward dinner. And I volunteered to be the Chinese food consultant. (Do you think I could be a professional Chinese food consultant? If so, actually, I'm dropping out of college right now.) And so the planning and the coordination of the shopping and the coordination of the cooking was under my supervision. That's right: plan Chinese dinner for 1.3 billion people.

So here we go!

First fact: Chinese people don't use recipes. You just buy food and you cook it. I think you all really need to try cooking like this. It may freak you out a little bit; you may feel like in that first week of advanced figure drawing when they had you a 16 x 20 sheet of paper and a black permanent marker and say: Here! Make art! But at the end of the semester, how do you feel? Like the master of the marks-a-lot, that's how you feel. So if you want to be a Chinese cook, you need to stop asking for recipes. Sooner rather than later.

Second fact: This involves being able to estimate quantities. The upside, though, is that you go to the store, see what's on sale, and buy it. And then you just cook it. And life is totally fine. When you're cooking for 1.3 billion people this is a little tougher but you manage. You go to Macey's and you tell your shopping mates: "Ok, we usually get about 3 pounds of chicken for 10 people so... um... go get 45 pounds of chicken." and "Hey, will you go grab 15 dozen eggs and meet me back here?" and "Well, is that all the green onions they have? Ok, put them all in bags." It's actually pretty exciting.

Third fact: Chinese people have two things they eat: fan and cai. Fan is rice, or in some regions noodles or sometimes steamed bread. Cai means "vegetables" but it also means "dishes." Chinese people eat more vegetables in one sitting than the average American 8-year-old has had in his entire life. This is why Chinese people live until they're 120. Meat dishes are also "cai" but it takes a back seat. When you're planning a meal, you don't have a main dish and a side dish and a salad; you have fan and cai. How many cai? Well, usually 2 or 3. Or like 10 if you're being hospitable. But the nice thing is you just cook a lot of cai and you serve it family style and you don't have to worry about portions and sizes and setting the table. It's a beautiful way to eat. Hey - 1.3 billion people can't be wrong.

So here we go - we planned 3 dishes, and ate tangerines for dessert. We split our cooking teams up into three groups, one of which I supervised. I wish I had more photos, but really, it was all I could do to keep my hands attached to my body.

First dish: Gong Bao Ji

Gong Bao Ji is Kung Pao Chicken, but doesn't it sound cooler when you call it Gong Bao Ji? It was named after a government official from the Qing dynasty who really liked it or something, but that made it dangerous to talk about during the Cultural Revolution and it was outlawed in mainland China until the 1980's. For real. This is how you live on the edge, friends, you eat politically scandalous chicken.

This is my chicken chopping crew. We chopped chicken and garlic and ginger and green onions for two and a half hours. No, really. 1.3 billion people take a long time to chop for. These guys were such good sports.

Some of the chopping chaos. Life was complicated by the fact that we were working with communist knives.

This was 1/4 of the peanuts we used. I soaked them in water the night before - they were just raw peanuts because that's what was cost effective. I think I bought 8 bags of raw peanuts. I think roasted would have been tastier

Here's how you make the Gong Bao Ji: Stir fry chopped garlic, fresh ginger, green onions and red chiles (I just got the big dried bags from the Mexican aisle). Add chicken and peanuts. Add soy sauce and/or salt and sugar until you like it. Throw some sesame oil in at the very end. It can range from kind of spicy to really dang spicy depending on how well you divide up huge bags of Mexican chiles between 8 woks.

Second dish: Chao Cai
I put my roommate Piao Liang in charge of the Chao Cai. Chao Cai means stir fried vegetables. It is the ultimate in not using a recipe. You know what you do? You buy some vegetables, you chop them well, and you stir fry them. I bought red peppers, purple cabbage and bok choy because they were pretty and on sale. She seasoned them with ginger, rice vinegar and salt and sugar. They came out... dang amazing.

Third dish: Jidan Chao Fanqie
Don't the names of these dishes sound awesome? Just say it, and the room fills with mystique. Unless, of course, you speak Chinese and you know that the name of this dish means "eggs fried with tomatoes."

Someone waiting in line at dinner asked "is this even Chinese?" The funny thing is, this was the most authentic dish there. Every Chinese person I've ever known has, at one point, cooked me eggs fried with tomatoes. Sounds really boring - it's actually overwhelmingly delicious.

What do you do? You whip up eggs (15 dozen eggs in this case - usually I do 10 eggs to 5 tomatoes to 1 bunch of green onions), stir in some salt, and stir fry them in oil like scrambled eggs. Set them aside, and stir fry some chopped tomatoes. Add sugar and salt to the tomatoes and maybe some sesame oil at the very end. Throw in the eggs, the chopped green onions and fry it together just for like 30 seconds. Then, you enjoy the beauty of it.

So here we are - dinner for 1.3 billion people (this is only one half of the serving tables). It actually went of very smoothly - for once we actually had dinner ready when it was supposed to start and apart from having not quite enough rice (we had bought one 20-pound bag, which said it was 201 servings but we could have eaten more) everything was exactly enough.

Here's a lovely plate

And my lovely co-chief Piao Liang. And my post traumatic hair disorder:

And some of the guys enjoying themselves. They have the most important job, which is eating everything.

I was so glad it went well - I appreciated my hard-working
slaves comrades. We did it! We fed the masses!


  1. 1.3 billion fed with 15 dozen eggs. Those must be quite ponderous in size. Still, I salute your exceptional performance. Well met and well done, comrade.

  2. That's what it's called? Post traumatic hair disorder? Can you get medication for that? I need some.....