Sunday, May 27, 2007

Secret Recipes (fiction)

Secret Recipes

I may be the only person who knows the real origin of General Mo’s chicken. Even though I’m not much of a cook, I may also be the only person who knows the proper recipe for the popular dish that combines boneless balls of chicken with a hot sweet sauce. While far too many people claim to know the original recipe, none of them really know the story behind the origins of the dish. If they had the real recipe , they would have to know the story that goes with it. It just doesn’t occur to most people that the lost history of the original River Empire is written in its food.

In my life, I have found General Mo’s chicken in Chinese restaurants all over the world. Sometimes the balls of chicken are deep fried in batter. In many places, they are simply stir fried, but it’s not uncommon to find versions where the chicken is either steamed or baked. There’s even a version of the dish in a restaurant outside Chattanooga in which the meat is left almost bloody. It happens that this version is closer to the original dish in spirit. Americans, of course, generally won’t eat this Tennessee version of General Mo’s legacy. The dish stays on the menu there because there are a handful of Chinese families there who like it that way and order it regularly. If you ask where their variant on the recipe came from, they will insist both that theirs is the only original version of General Mo’s chicken and that they’ve been making it that way for generations.

The sauce for General Mo’s chicken varies even more. In most restaurants, particularly in the corridor from New York to Boston, it is orange-colored and includes maple syrup, an ingredient that couldn’t possibly have existed in China. On the west coast of the United States, the sauce is brown and slightly opaque. Most versions there have flecks of ginger floating in the sauce. In the Midwest, you find both colors, but they always top it with chopped bits of cilantro. In Budapest, Hungary of all places, the General Miao’s chicken has a bright red sauce. The owners claim that their recipe was brought west by the Mongols. It shouldn’t surprise anyone to hear that they too insist that they have the only authentic version of General Miao’s legacy to the modern world. Of course, this doesn’t explain why General Miao’s chicken in Budapest includes paprika as a major ingredient. For that matter, it doesn’t explain how a restaurant in Mumbai has General Mung’s chicken soaked in a sweet curry with bits of pineapple in the sauce. This one was supposedly brought south by the Mughals.

Not only am I the only person in the world who might know the origin and real recipe for General Mo’s chicken, that fact is tied to a sublime bit of irony - my father’s restaurant may have been the only Chinese restaurant in the world that didn’t offer some version of General Mo’s chicken. My grandmother, who happened to be an extraordinarily creative cook herself, forbade it. Even on those occasions when she would consent to go out to a restaurant in Sacramento or San Francisco, my Grandmother wouldn’t let any member of the family or their guests order General Mo’s chicken.
“Brown sauce, orange sauce, it doesn’t matter. This family will never eat General Mo’s chicken,” she would tell us.

She would then redirect us to items like paper-wrapped chicken, sweet and sour chicken, gold coin chicken, steamed chicken with oyster sauce and scallions.

“Here’s these taste better and they’re better for you.”

If we tried to ask why, Aunt Cheryl would warn us “Listen to your yin-yin. We do not eat General Mo’s chicken. You don’t have to ask why before you listen to your grandparents. ”

“Does that mean that you don’t know why either Aunt Cheryl?”
She would then stare us down and tell us, “We’ll do the ordering. You don’t seem to be ready to do it by yourselves.”

My Uncle Leon’s wife was always a bit too easy of a target and she could be vindictive when she wound up having to supervise us away form the other adults, so we didn’t do this as often as we would have liked. Still, the running game with my cousins was to get either our younger cousins or whatever other kids we brought along to try to order General Mo’s chicken in my grandmother’s presence.

Once the innocent would ask “Could we maybe try the General Mo’s chicken,” my Grandmother’s eyes would widen, she’s turn her head without moving her shoulders like some character in a horror movie, and she would hiss through her teeth.

“No, no you try something else. This is better. Next time you go somewhere with your family, you have General Mo’s chicken if it’s okay with your parents, but our family does not eat that dish.”

This meant that I had to try General Mo’s chicken. My first chance came when I was nine years old and I had an overnight visit with Jeff Feinstein, a classmate from my private school in Sacramento. Dr. Feinstein had to work late that night, so Mrs. Feinstein packed us into their Ford Country Squire station wagon with the wood paneling on the sides and the tailgate that opened in three different ways to go meet him at Sammy’s , the much more popular Chinese downtown restaurant that my father liked to consider his major competitor.

I still don’t know whether the Feinsteins had any idea that my father owned a competing downtown restaurant before that night. For non-Chinese, Sammy’s was the Chinese restaurant to go to because the legislators went there. Dr. Feinstein wasn’t a medical doctor, he was a public health administrator working for a state agency so his grants depended on his contacts with the members of the health and science committee of the state senate. If the Feinsteins wanted Chinese, it only made sense for them to go to Sammy’s instead of my Dad’s restaurant, the Lost Province.

The story was that the politicals figured they could talk business there safely because none of the waiters at Sammy’s understood English well enough. At least a dozen of Sammy’s waiters and a couple of the busboys retired or put children through college on stock tips or property buys they’d picked up on just from pretending not to understand English well.

The running complaint in the Chinese community was that the food at Sammy’s was just never all that good. Most of Sammy’s menu wasn’t Chinese at all. It was chicken and pork cubes in sweet and sour sauce, chow mein with fried noodles that came out of a can, mock chicken drumsticks, and chop suey that mixed won ton with noodles and what appeared to be the stock from Campbell’s chicken soup. About the only thing edible to a Chinese palate at Sammy’s was the fortune cookie at the end of the meal.

However busy the restaurant happened to be with its Fan Yin clientele, no self-respecting Chinese family would ever book their own wedding, funeral banquet, or six week baby celebration at Sammy Wong’s restaurant. Sammy didn’t care whether his fellow valley Chinse ate his food or what they said about his restaurant. He was too busy making money. My father’s favorite complaint was, “How can you have a restaurant and not care about the food. What kind of country is this?”
For years, he would take pains to demonstrate the many dozen reasons that the food at the Lost Province was better. He, however, never did the math. The Chinese population of Sacramento in 1965 was about ten thousand. The other hundred thousand people living in city limits knew little to nothing about real Chinese food. Like Willy Tang’s supermarket business, Sammy Wong just had a better sense of when to be Chinese and when not to be Chinese when it came to business than most members of my Grandfather’s family.

It shouldn’t surprise anyone that the most popular dish at Sammy Wong’s was General Mo’s chicken, though now that I know the story behind General Mo’s chicken, it does shed some light on why California lawmakers do what they do sometimes.

Before that dinner with the Feinsteins, I’d never been inside Sammy’s. I was relieved to discover that Sammy’s, like most other downtown restaurants was dark and windowless. This meant that I couldn’t look out and see my Dad’s much less busy restaurant just a block away and no one could see me inside. My sense of duty to my family and my father’s restaurant told me that I should say something to the Feinsteins. I chose not to because I had convinced myself that either God or Buddha had allowed me this glimpse of the forbidden through the Feinstein family.

Our fifth grade teacher had explained Karma to us a few weeks earlier. Jeff had spent the night at our house in Strawberry Creek the previous Saturday. My dad made Sunday breakfast and Jeff had consumed five pieces of bacon before my dad had remembered to offer to make him pancakes instead. Afterwards, my Dad had laughed about it. That was the first time that I learned that most Jewish families didn’t eat pork. Actually, it was also the first time that I’d found out that bacon came from pigs. It wasn’t that I was stupid, I was always squeamish when I learned where certain things came from, so my parents seldom talked about it.

It appeared to be the Feinstein’s custom at Chinese restaurants to each order a dish. When we went out, my father usually ordered the meal and he would make sure that one of the choices was one of my favorites. I had heard that white families sometimes each ordered a dish at Chinese restaurants and each one would then drop a scoop of rice on the plate then eat only that particular dish. The Feinstein’s, though, were more advanced than that. Before we started ordering, Mrs. Feinstein turned to me and said,
”Lucky, when your family goes to a Chinese restaurant, what dishes do they order?”
Dr. Feinstein then jumped in, “Yes, we always see Chinese families eating in restaurants and I can never figure out where those dishes are on the menu.”

“That’s because they’re eating cats,” Jeff’s older sister jumped in.
Jeff and his sister started giggling.
Mrs. Feinstein scowled and quickly pulled Jeff’s sister away from the table. They both returned a minute later.
“I’m sorry Lucky. I know you don’t eat cats,” Jeff’s sister apologized to me.
“It’s okay,” I whispered.
While they were gone, I’d glanced around Sammy’s restaurant. I was the only Chinese person sitting at a table.
Mrs. Feinstein then picked up where she had left off, “Lucky, really, what sort of dishes does your family like?”
I shrugged, “I don’t know. I never know what they’re called. Sometimes, I’m not even sure what they are. All I know is my parents always make me try at least a little bit of everything.”

The conversation with Jeff’s parents naturally reminded me of the time I’d had to take a taste of something at the upstairs apartment of some old woman who sold medicinal herbs. The broth she was giving me was supposed to help with whatever had been bothering my stomach after I’d found out that I’d happily had three bowls of octopus soup at a banquet.
“What is it?” I asked before I had to take my sip of whatever the old lady had prepared.
“Never mind. Just taste it, it’s good for you. It’ll make you feel better,” my mother told me.
Just before we left, I got a glimpse of the old woman’s kitchen only to see three wire cages stacked on top of one another. A very unhappy looking cat sat in each cage.
I was certain that I’d actually eaten cat that day, but it wasn’t something that I shared with the Feinsteins. I’m not sure why my mother would have had me eat cat if I’d gotten sick from eating octopus, but I suspect that she had convinced herself that I’d gotten sick from something in the octopus, not from finding out that the rubbery meat in my soup had tentacles and looked like a talking cartoon character from the Diver Dan show on Saturday mornings.

Probably because of Jeff’s sister’s cat comment, Mrs. Feinstein didn’t press me any further about what my family ate at Chinese restaurants. When my turn to order at Sammy’s came up, Jeff’s parents both looked at me with interest to see what I was going to order. I turned to the waiter and said in my most polite voice, “Could I have a hamburger please?”
Dr. Feinstein looked over at his wife when I ordered it and neither of them could shake off a bout of laughter.
“I like hamburgers,” I told them.
“You’re sure that’s what you want?”
I nodded. The red-vested waiter gave me a knowing look of approval as he took my order.
“It’s what I order here,” he told the Feinsteins who still hadn’t stopped laughing.
Jeff’s parents then broke up completely. They were laughing so hard that the tables around us were staring at us, trying to figure out just what was so funny.
“We’re sorry Lucky. We’re not laughing at you. We just never expected you to order a hamburger here.”
Dr. Feinstein then shared a story about a sister in law in San Jose who let her kids talk her into bringing home a Christmas tree one year. They brought it home and she tried to make it okay by putting a Star of David on the top. The story made the Feinsteins laugh even harder, but I didn’t get it.

As he left for the kitchen after the sizzling rice soup, the Sammy’s waiter managed to pick up my bowl just so and he whispered in my ear, “You very good boy, very smart. Tell you grandfather, Tang Sae Woo he say hi.”

It was Jeff who offered me my first taste of General Mo’s chicken that evening at Sammy’s in exchange for a handful of potato chips and the pickle that came along with my hamburger. I had tricked him into ordering it by whispering to him that General Mo’s chicken was made with bacon, a secret they never tell non-Chinese.

I offered some of my hamburger and chips to the other members of the Feinstein family, but they all declined. The General Mo’s chicken at Sammy’s was deep-fried and it came soaked in a transluscent brown sauce that was far sweeter than it was hot.
“How do you like their General Mo’s chicken?” Doctor Feinstein asked me in a way that made it clear that he actually cared about my answer.
“It’s fine,” I murmured. “The hamburger’s better, but it’s okay.”
I doubt that any member of the Feinstein family realized that this was the first time I’d ever tasted General Mo’s chicken. Even if Sammy’s version was about as bad as the hundreds of variations on General Mo’s chicken ever get, I thought it was the most delicious thing I’d ever eaten. From that day forward, I understood that I’d always have a taste for forbidden food.
I saw my Grandmother a week later when we made the drive to Paperson for Saturday dinner. As soon as I walked in the door, she began clucking her tongue and making her General Mo’s chicken face.
“Hai La! How did this happen?”
She looked accusingly at my mother then started yelling at my parents in Chinese. In the meantime, I stood in the entry room of my Grandparent’s house as I tried to figure out what was so obviously different about me from the Saturday before.
A few minutes later, my Grandmother had rushed into her kitchen and I could hear the clatter of metal pots and chopping. My mother and father responded by pulling me into my Grandfather’s office off the main downstairs hallway.
“Lucky, when you stayed at Jeff Feinstein’s last weekend, did you go out to eat?”
“I told you, we went to a restaurant.”
“What restaurant?”
I lied.
“I don’t know, it was some Jewish restaurant downtown.”
“Lucky, they don’t have Jewish restauarants downtown. If they do, no one calls them the “Big Jew’s Steakhouse ” “
“Well, I thought that was the name. You don’t expect me to remember everything.”
For whatever reason, it struck me that Jewish people would name their restaurants the way Chinese restaurants sometimes got named in California.
My father broke in.
“Lucky, it’s okay. You can tell us. We’re not mad at you.”
“How come Yin-Yin is so mad?”
“She says you must have eaten General Mo’s chicken.”
I felt the blood run to my face.
“You didn’t go to Sammy’s with them by any chance? It’s all right with us if you did. I know Dr. Feinstein’s a regular there.”
I started crying.
“It’s just chicken. I just wanted to try it.”
My mother hugged me and my father’s voice dropped to it’s gentlest pitch, “It’s okay Lucky. It’s just that your Grandmother has some of these old superstitions.”
“What’s supposed to happen to me?”
“Your Grandmother thinks that if anyone in our family eats too much General Mo’s chicken, that person will be cursed.”
“What’s the curse?”
“If you eat General Mo’s chicken, you’ll never be able to go back to China.”
“Well, it tasted terrible anyway,” I lied again.
From that point on, if I ever wound up at a Chinese restaurant away from any members of my family, I always ordered General Mo’s chicken.

“Bring Lucky in here. Hurry!” My grandmother yelled.
The next thing I knew, I was sitting at the oval table in the breakfast room and my Grandmother was motioning for me to sit in front of a porcelain bowl containing a single steamed chicken’s foot, something I actually liked even though I knew where it came from. I sat down at what was usually my grandfather’s seat on the side of the table near his “Man Soda” cabinet, my Grandfather’s American name for whiskey.

I sat down. My grandmother reached into the bowl in front of me, grabbed the chicken’s foot and dipped it into a shallow porcelain dish that held a gray powder.
“Eat this right away. Don’t chew any longer than you have to.”
“What is it, Yin Yin.”
“It’s chicken.”
“Not the chicken, what’s the powder?”
“You eat it first, I tell you afterwards.”
I knew I had no choice. I took the powder-dipped chickens foot, tore the skin and meat away with my upper teeth and swallowed as quickly as I could. The salty powder sat on my tongue and then suddenly seemed to break into tiny explosions. It was delicious.
“Yin yin. That was really good. Thankyou. Can I have some more?”
She shook her head and responded by grabbing the bowl and the dish of powder, but not before I had the chance to slip my finger into the powder for one more taste.
“No more. It’s bad for you to have too much. You won’t want to stay here.”
“You promised to tell me what it was.”
My grandmother was both tiny and unusually beautiful. When she was younger, family legend had it that she and her sisters could not walk down the block in San Francisco Chinatown without half a dozen young men following them.
My Grandmother stood over me and she said “I can only tell you this once, so if you want to know, you have to listen. It’s called General Fa’s dipping salt.”

When I was away from Paperson, I always took a special pride in telling people that my Grandmother had been born in San Francisco. I was almost an adult before it ever struck me as strange that she spoke English with a Chinese accent nonetheless. For some odd reason now that I’d had a taste of General Fa’s dipping salt, I couldn’t notice her accent.

No Chinese restaurant in the world offers General Fa’s dipping salt either on or off its menu, yet the few times in my life I have had it, it is the most incredible tasting sensation, the apex of the greatest cuisine in the world. If you have a pinch of General Fa’s dipping salt, all other food tastes better for days, because of the way it seems to bring your senses back to life.
I began to move the bit of gray powder on my finger towards my tongue, but my Grandmother stopped me. I still smelled it though and realized right then that it smelled just like the gunpowder that came out when you unrolled a firecracker.

The real story of General Mo’s Chicken and General Fa’s dipping salt are stories that must forever be joined. The only thing most people remember about General Mo today is that his name became a recipe for chicken. The only way General Fa is remembered is as Fa Mu Lan, known in the West and through Disney as the Woman Warrior.
I asked my Grandmother, “Yin Yin what’s in that powder.”
I never forgot her answer, “Eleven secret herbs and spices. “
I looked at her with my puzzled stare and she started laughing.
“See, it’s just like Colonel Sanders. Cantonese Fried Chicken. Don’t you watch tv?”
My Grandfather and my parents began laughing too. I eventually heard two versions of the story one from my Grandmother and one from my father.



At 5/28/2007 01:35:00 AM, Blogger inkyhack said...

General Mo's?
Do you mean General Tso's?
I read this great article last year about the great-great-great grandchildren of the actual General Tso and how shocked they were to find out there's a chicken dish in American named after him.

Here's a small article on General Tso and the chicken dish:

At 5/28/2007 01:38:00 AM, Blogger Chancelucky said...

in this case it's General Mo's...for a variety of reasons, I didn't use a real dish.

At 5/28/2007 01:40:00 AM, Blogger Chancelucky said...

btw, the link didn't work for some reason. I'd love to see it.

At 5/28/2007 11:44:00 AM, Blogger Sunny said...

I loved your story. I'm the same when it comes to certain restaurants regarding Mexican foods. Most of the chains ruin truly great Mexican foods, especially mole'. I only will have chicken mole' at two places, Aparichios' and Marianos Chiquita. Both family run, operated and the food is made from scratch.

The part about the cats in the kitchen did give me willies. LOL

At 5/28/2007 03:53:00 PM, Blogger Chancelucky said...

thanks for taking the time to read the story. I think in many ways, Mexican food as it exists in America is even stranger than Chinese food. I can't imagine any "chain" Mexican food being acceptable except maybe all the Garcia's in New Mexico, but I don't know that they're franchises in the conventional sense.

Chicken mole never seems to be the same in any two places....Chile Relleno seems to be even more wildly different. I always hear these great stories of people from Mexico who get jobs in the US making "Mexican" food and having to learn how to make things they've never had or in ways they never would have considered.

When I was a kid, there were always stories about catching alley cats and cooking them into soup. I never knew if they were true. Mostly, I think it was a running joke made by my grandparents' generation.

At 5/28/2007 07:26:00 PM, Blogger Dale said...

I really liked the humour of your story Chancelucky and I always wonder how fictional your fiction is.

Coincidentally, last night I had chicken breasts wrapped in bacon and the barbecue sauce was made of ketchup, dijon mustard and maple syrup. It was pretty damned good.

At 5/28/2007 07:49:00 PM, Blogger Chancelucky said...

thanks....the odd thing is I did't start out trying to write a funny story. The "made up" ratio of my stories tends to vary. Nothing in this particular story actually happened, but the settings are real and the restaurant situation wasn't all that far off.

Okay, this barbeque concoction with the maple syrup in it....that wasn't at the neighbor lady's place, the one who was barbequing for the elderly boyfriend before sitting with him and necking?

I do think there are reasons that we don't have Canadian Restaurants in the US except maybe the Canadian Pancake House in New York City....We do get your bacon and ginger ale, but ketchup, mustard, and maple syrup? Are you sure it was chicken breast and not moose or harp seal?

Actually, some of the best Chinese food I've ever had was in Vancouver....

At 5/28/2007 08:00:00 PM, Blogger Dale said...

My stories often end up somewhere completely different from where I started so I get that.

And no, haha, it was from my very own barbecue and not the wacky neighbor's. I've never eaten moose, deer, seal or a lot of other things but I still call myself Canadian.

I saw the recipe in an ad in a magazine and the ad was for all things ketchup, which I rarely use for anything.

8 slices bacon
4 boneless chicken breasts, skin on
1/2 tsp each salt and pepper
3/4 cup ketchup
1/3 cup maple syrup
2 tbsp each grainy Dijon mustard and lemon juice
1 clove garlic, minced
lemon wedges
fresh chives, chopped

Cook bacon until just opaque, blot on paper towels. Sprinkle chicken evenly with salt and pepper. Wrap each chicken breast in bacon securing with toothpicks.

Heat grill to medium-high.

Blend ketchup with maple syrup, mustard, lemon juice and garlic. Brush half the sauce all over chicken. Place chicken on grill, reduce heat to medium. Grill, turning and basting twice with remaining sauce until bacon is almost crisp (15 minutes) or until chicken is cooked through.

Squeeze lemon wedges over chicken and sprinkle with chives. Remove toothpicks before serving.

--testimonial--quite good, not out of this world and certainly much better than I expected.

At 5/28/2007 10:43:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Great story! Tho I knew it was total fiction when you mentioned cilantro in the Midwest. Ha triple ha. Zero chance of that. They do bland in fifteen different variations, not all uniformly disgusting.

I love the ironclad family superstition. I have some bizarre superstitions being from the South originally where our days are fraught with fanatic layers of superstition.

I too would have preferred that you do dogs who are quite tasty with a good sauce rather than cats who are deities who will eat us when they get bored enough with our arrogant and bloodthirsty antics.


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