Preparing real Chinese food yields a feast for the senses — and for intrepid guests 

Asian excursion

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For the culinary adventurist, Colorado Springs may not seem a hotbed of inspiration. But if you haven't found your way into local ethnic markets, the culinary diversity here — and its affordability — might surprise you.

Looking for purveyors of Mexican or Korean food? The Springs has you very well-covered. Indian and European markets exist, and a Thai market supplies our Thai tea and curry paste needs. In fact, I've procured everything I've needed to add Ethiopian, Mexican, Japanese, Thai and Vietnamese cuisines to my culinary repertoire.

Chinese food has been more tricky. Past experience with labor-intensive recipes calling for difficult-to-locate ingredients, often only available canned or frozen, kept me skirting around China's borders. But last year's opening of a well-stocked ethnic market got me pondering a Chinese menu for my next dinner party.

Turns out, I needn't have lingered so long. After a trip to the bookstore for a Chinese cookbook (The Food of China: A Journey for Food Lovers, Whitecap Books, 2005) and a leisurely walk up and down the aisles of Asian Pacific Market, I was ready to try my hand again at home-cooked Chinese.

Unfamiliar twists

My first trip was a reconnaissance mission. I found intensely sweet purple yams (as purple as a beet is red, and tasty with just salt and butter), fresh taro and lotus roots, garlic chives, Chinese broccoli, bitter melon and squashes. Greens included cilantro, large bunches of mint, watercress and others I couldn't identify. I've seen pea shoots before, but never packaged in quantities large and cheap enough to actually eat, rather than just use as a garnish.

Another find: a spiky durian the size of my head. A fellow shopper warned my companion and me that we may find the fruit's smell objectionable. He compared it to rotting socks, but assured us that the flavor is prized.

Returning home, I searched my new tome for recipes. Pea shoots can be flash-fried with garlic, salt and a bit of rice wine. (The wine is a ubiquitous ingredient in Chinese cooking — Shaoxing is the variety The Food of China suggests. Sweet and tart with a hint of alcohol, it's quite tasty.) I was anxious to try a recipe for fresh lotus root stir-fried with garlic, ginger and bits of Chinese ham, but on my return trip for ingredients, only the pickled variety of the root was available. I opted for some Chinese broccoli for a noodle dish instead.

(Planning this kind of meal is always an exercise in adaptability. If you want fresh and authentic, no matter your theme, you plan, you make a list, and in the end, you get what's available and adjust accordingly.)

So now I needed those noodles to go with the broccoli. While there are plenty of dry noodles, you can find semi-soft rice noodles in the produce area. I chose the package that looks like a flat, white brick and is actually one long, rolled noodle about 7 inches wide. When room temperature, it's pliable enough to unroll.

Back at home, with my dinner guests and helpers looking on, I cut the long strip into 6-by-7-inch rectangles with scissors and rolled them up with two different fillings — chopped, steamed Chinese broccoli and sauted shrimp seasoned with a bit of soy sauce and toasted sesame oil. Drizzled with oyster sauce and steamed, they make a supple, slippery and tasty dim sum favorite. The slightly brittle noodles break easily, so my creations weren't picture-perfect, but my guests' general contentment told me it didn't matter.

Reactions to the Chinese tea eggs — another simple and inexpensive favorite — were less decisive. I soft-boiled the eggs, gently cracked the shells (leaving them intact), then simmered them for 45 minutes in a solution of black tea, soy sauce, star anise and a cinnamon stick. Once peeled, they were spider-webbed in sepia and delicately seasoned. I found the hints of tea, spice and salt pleasing; my husband, a devotee of the soft-boiled-egg, just found them overcooked.

The hit of the night? A simple steamed prawn custard. Sounds a little weird at first, since custard for Western palates typically means dessert. But this was instant comfort food, and so incredibly easy. All you do is divide chopped shrimp into small, heat-proof bowls, then pour a mixture of eggs and salted chicken broth over the shrimp. Put the bowls in a covered steamer for 10 minutes, and out comes tender, mild custard, perfect for a light lunch or dinner. Sprinkle spring onion and soy sauce over the tops, and then pour on a bit of hot oil.

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Strange fruits

Taking a risk on something completely new, we prepared a somewhat more complicated dish of bitter melon, which resembles a fat, lumpy cucumber. Our recipe called for slicing it into rings, stuffing the rings with minced cod, onions and seasoning, then frying and topping with a sauce of fermented black beans, ginger and soy sauce. We liked everything but the melon — true to its name, it delivers a tongue-shriveling bitterness.

We finished our meal with the durian. Cut into one, and you'll find pockets full of ice-creamy yellow flesh emanating an aroma not unlike mild bleu cheese and sweet melon. The cheesy smell is indeed indicative of a cheesy flavor, and despite following our checkout guy's advice to mix it with spiced rum and lime juice, we couldn't wrap our Western taste buds around it. In fact, this preparation only added bitterness.

The disappointing quality and predictability of American Chinese food may make you wonder how Chinese cuisine ever deserved the title. But the real thing makes efficient use of a staggering variety of fresh ingredients from animal to vegetable, and wonderful to weird. And you don't need to be terribly adventurous or skilled in the kitchen to enjoy it — you just need a few friends to help you sort through the myriad of intriguing, fresh and affordable ingredients that are increasingly available around town.


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