My friend Chantal and I were feeling pretty relaxed and rejuvenated after our acupuncture sessions recently. We left with instructions to refrain from touching our right ears for a couple of hours. Do you know that your ears alone have dozens of reflex points that address a myriad of ailments including hypertension, nervous disorders and inflammation? The bursa in my shoulder felt great after being stimulated by a dozen or so tiny needles and we decided on a casual lunch in nearby Chinatown.
Le Lai Restaurant is situated in the old Dynasty Plaza shopping mall on Bellaire. One of the original Chinese malls built long before the massive expansion of Chinatown in west Houston, Dynasty Plaza is now in desperate need of a facelift inside and out. For now, it seems to be holding its own against umpteen spiffy malls nearby, thanks to an old and loyal clientele.
In Le Lai Restaurant, we noticed that were were the only Caucasians present – not an unusual sight considering the size of Houston’s Chinese community. It is also a great indicator that were about to enjoy an authentic Chinese meal! A large menu foreign to us both was posted at the counter but our table menus provided us with translations. Service was terse and brisk and our order of whole fried fish and Szechwan eggplant was delicious. At $4.50 per lunch plate, our bill came to $9.89 including tax. To our surprise Chantal’s iced tea, my jasmine tea and two bowls of soup were included for free - quite a bargain! We were quite satisfied until…
An Oriental woman walked towards the exit, paused beside our table and smiled at us. We were somewhat surprised to be acknowledged by this little old lady. Before she disappeared through the door she gibed sarcastically, “Cheaper than McDonald’s, eh?”
Her question took several stunned seconds to digest. We looked at each other in dismay and sheer disbelief. We were obviously the result of a common stereotype that all Americans eat at McDonald’s. We have never taken to fast food since we both grew up in foreign lands and are accomplished cooks. Much of our friendship revolves around dining on gourmet food and wine, cooking and experimenting in the kitchen. Heck, our meals and desserts are all made from scratch; my husband and I tend a vegetable garden every year; and for the Chinese lady’s information I make pasta, filo dough for strudel and even her native homeland’s dumplings from scratch!
Stereotypes about the eating habits of groups of people are unfortunate but very prevalent. We all have them in varying degrees. Had the old Chinese lady kept hers to herself she would not have shown herself to be ignorant and rude and we would have ended our meal on a more positive note.
Bad vibes aside, here’s a recipe Chantal shared with me that she learned from Dorothy Huang, a local cooking instructor and author. It’s important to have all of the ingredients ready before you start to cook as tender Japanese eggplant cooks quickly. Here it is coated in a rich sweet and spicy brown sauce.
Szechwan Eggplant with pork and hot bean sauce
adapted from Dorothy Huang’s Chinese Cooking
1 tablespoon sugar
2 teaspoons cornstarch
2 tablespoons chicken stock
2 tablespoons hot bean sauce
1 tablespoon soy sauce
1 tablespoon dry sherry
1 tablespoon cider vinegar
1 teaspoon sesame oil
Mix all of the ingredients listed for the seasoning sauce in a small bowl.
Have all of the following ingredients ready before cooking:
1½ pounds Japanese eggplant (the long, slender kind with thin skins)
3 tablespoons oil
1 teaspoon minced ginger root
2 teaspoons minced garlic
¼ pound lean ground pork
salt, to taste
½ cup chicken broth
2 green onions, chopped
Rinse the eggplant. If they are small, the peel will be tender and you do not have to peel them; if they are large with a tough skin, peel them first. Cut eggplant into 1/2 inch chunks.
Heat oil in a wok over high heat. Add ginger root, garlic and ground pork; stir for 1 minute.
Add eggplant and salt, stirring constantly for 1 minute. Add chicken broth, turn heat to medium, cover and cook for 8 to 10 minutes or more.
Add seasoning sauce and chopped green onions; stir until thickened and serve with steamed rice.