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Food Writing and Fish Ball Soup

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Jacqueline M. Newman is our second guest blogger. In her essay, the plight of food writers and scholars is addressed (her article was written for a book on female food writers, but could just as easily apply to those of us afflicted with Y-chromosomes). We hope that some of her issues have been -- or soon will be -- resolved. Here follows her introduction:


Two years ago, I submitted the following article for inclusion in a book. It was accepted, and I never heard another word until today. What this tells me and should tell everyone is that there are still many problems when one follows one's love and wants to write about food.

What I submitted and updated below, to take into account the passage of time, would have appeared in a chapter titled: Good Friends. It was submitted and accepted with a recipe for Fish Ball Soup, one that many of my friends adore.

What happened is that the author needed to cut materials because the publisher wanted fewer words, and as is often the case, food items were tossed out first.

The event described below occurred about thirty years ago when my employer or big boss, the Dean of Mathematics and Natural Sciences at a large eastern university, put a 'reci-bee' in my bonnet. I had recently acquired my Ph.D. in what was then known as Home Economics and just joined the full-time faculty teaching food science and related courses.


"What is left for you to do beyond the food habits you studied?" he asked, referring to my dissertation. I had been one of the first to study what was eaten by a group of women in their native China comparing that to what these same Chinese immigrant women were eating in the U.S.

"You know that cooking Chinese food will not get you promotion and tenure on this campus," the dean challenged, "What else will you study about the Chinese?" Apparently, he felt food habits were of minimal importance and that I had said it all in my small study of one hundred two immigrant Chinese women. "Don't worry," I advised him, "I will find lots to research and publish." And I thought to myself, one day I will write and publish recipes by Chinese women.

The dean's remarks express the thoughts of many men about women who study food. He probably thought that 'women's work' -- cooking and eating -- were not worthy of academic attention.

His comments stuck in my craw. For years, I assiduously refrained from researching and publishing recipes and other things cookery. Enough time and much academic effort did secure my tenure and, eventually, I was promoted to Associate and then to full Professor, an academic person's goal.

When I finally was 'The Professor,' I felt free to explore. That is when I really thought about my interests, abilities, expertise, and my future in and after academe. I learned there was no English-language Chinese food journal loaded with history, culture, anthropology, sociology, and recipes. So I set out to write, edit, and publish one with a group of supporters who were willing to work for and bankroll my desire. Named Flavor and Fortune, the magazine began while still working for the same dean. I started planning it seventeen years ago. The first issue was published in 1994. This very magazine just sent the last issue of Volume 16 to the printer. My non-academic baby has grown in size and stature, spawned conferences, won awards, and it has a loyal subscriber base of individuals as well as academic and culinary institutions.

During my academic career, and after my retirement, I have spoken and written a lot about Chinese food. I published several monographs and more than a hundred research and trade papers. One book, my first, is titled Food Culture in China. It includes a few recipes to illustrate Chinese food history in ways often omitted because of experiences like mine with the dean. I inserted a handful of early dynastic recipes in the book's history chapter. I put another sampling, but of fancy recipes in the banquet chapter; and in the health chapter, are recipes the Chinese use for healing. Every chapter in that book ends with five or six related recipes.

Now retired from academe, the stick in my craw has healed. Last Spring, my first cookbook, Cooking from China's Fujian Province, was published about one specific Chinese provincial cuisine. Though little known to westerners, it is one of the eight most important provincial cuisines. It is known to the Chinese and to others who really know about Chinese food. Five important Chinese food experts have touted this book; their comments adorn its rear cover. They are: Martin Yan, host of Yan Can Cook, cookbook author and restauranteur; Ken Hom, BBC-TV presenter and a multi-cookbook author; Sidney Mintz, anthropologist and author of Sweetness and Power and dozens of other books and articles; E.N. Anderson, author of Food of China and dozens of articles about Chinese food; and Grace Young, author of The Wisdom of the Chinese Kitchen.

May other women in academia and elsewhere never need to taste food put-downs and never need to avoid working with recipes. Recipes are the architecture of eating; they must be researched, recorded, and written about. Though food is respected more than ever today, studying it still has a long way to go to become totally respectable and accepted. Research about recipes expands the mind and fills the belly. I hope I can fill yours with one. Do take a good look at it so when you want to share a recipe, you do so in appropriate form.

The recipe below is about a Chinese soup. It helps to know that they are varied, and in no region is this more true than in the Fujian province. There they can be thin or thick, simple or complex, sweet or sour or piquant. Virtually every Fujianese meal has two or more soups, and banquets have many more than two; some are actually stews that have been thinned a mite with additional broth. In general, thinner soups are served earlier in Chinese meals, thicker ones in the middle, and sweeter ones closer to the end.

Fish Ball Soup

(to serve 8)

I first tasted Fish Ball Soup in a Fujianese restaurant in Flushing, NY. I was entranced by these fish balls which I had never seen in a cookbook. With the help of two Chinese women friends, one Fujianese, one Taiwanese, I worked out the recipe, devising the amounts.

This soup is fragrant and flavorful; and these days young folk purchase their fish balls frozen so they prepare this soup often. However, their parents made their fish balls from scratch and they did so immediately before serving this soup. That means that, in the past, this soup was reserved for special occasions; today, as it is easier to make, its use is not limited.


4 tsp. small dried shrimp*, soaked in warm water for one hour, then minced

1/2 lb. of two different fish such as dace, sea bass, red snapper, boned, then minced

1 scallion, green part only, minced

1 piece dried tangerine peel, 1 or 2 square inches, soaked until soft, then minced *

2 slices fresh ginger, minced

1/2 tsp. ground white pepper

1 Tbsp. water chestnut flour (cornstarch may be substituted) *

1 Tbsp. sesame oil

2 quarts chicken or fish stock, slightly warmed

1 tsp. salt

1 Tbsp. cornstarch mixed with equal amount of cold water

* can be purchased at an Asian market


1. Mix shrimp, both fish meats, minced scallion, tangerine peel, ginger, and pepper. Stir in one direction until it becomes pasty, about five minutes.

2. Shape mixture into one-inch balls, and roll them in water chestnut flour or dust with flour.
Heat sesame oil in heat-proof ceramic casserole on medium heat, then fry fish balls for one minute.

3. Add stock slowly, then salt, and bring to just below a boil. Reduce heat and simmer for two minutes before increasing temperature, adding cornstarch solution, and stirring for one minute until thickened.

A fancier and older Fujianese version would add half pound of finely minced or ground beef, made into small meat balls. Then follow step two, shaping the fish around the meatballs -- making the finished fish balls with cores of meat, one inch in diameter, then roll them in water chestnut flour and continue with the recipe as written.


Blogger Jonathan Deutsch said...

Jackie, it's always a pleasure to read your writing and learn more and more about your story. Gary, you have fine taste in guest bloggers!

September 7, 2009 9:40 PM  
Blogger Ken Albala said...

Great Story! Really enjoyed rading it, and I plan to make the soup tonight! Ken

September 9, 2009 12:51 PM  

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