Saturday, December 31, 2011

Choppers Anonymous: A Beginning

If you are reading this, we imagine three possibilities. You could be an old friend, wondering what public mischief we're up to this time around; or perhaps you're a new friend, hoping to trade in panic borne of a "mysterious" or "exotic" recipe for a proverbial piece of cake to whip up, serve up, and eat up. If neither of these rings true, you have arrived here because you clearly have a sick sense of humor and most certainly ought to be our friend. 

In any case, welcome, friend!

We find ourselves here for two reasons. First, the dishes devised in kitchens outside the European tradition are so delicious that not trying to recreate them is basically criminal. The wrinkle, however, lies in our second reason: despite valiant and ongoing efforts to the contrary, these foods, especially those with roots in Asia, remain cloaked in what we might call "oriental mystique." Consider this shorthand for "we didn't invent it, haven't given it the scientific time of day, and aren't prepared to graduate it from the medieval ranks of secret, mystical 'arts' involving dragons and magical pagodas." You get the idea.

This mystique is a needless obstacle to a world of cooking that's always been within your reach. Art and science are just expressions of the wisdom that comes from practice. Nothing, then, would make us happier than for you to join us as we learn by doing, systematically.

This isn't a space for us to show off whatever we decided to impress the crowd with on a slow Saturday morning. This is a space for you -- a space for you to see that there is absolutely nothing, aside from a little practice, to separate you from the satisfying and practical knowledge of how everything from the Chinese stovetop to the Indian pantry to the Japanese arsenal of knives can serve you in your kitchen, with friends or family, any day of the week, no matter where you live. We are here to break things down, ingredient by ingredient, one technique after the next, from greenmarket to tabletop, until we run out of handy, delicious things to test and demystify for you. We expect to be here awhile.

The Daoists had a thing or two to say about this business of art and skill, patiently cultivated. None among them spell it out better than Master Zhuang:
Ding the cook was cutting meat free from the bones of an ox for Lord Wenhui. His hands danced as his shoulders turned with the step of his foot and bending of his knee. With a shush and a hush, the blade moved as though dancing to "The Mulberry Grove," or as if conducting the "Jingshou" with a full orchestra.
Lord Wenhui exclaimed, "What a joy! It's good, is it not, that such a simple craft can be so elevated?"
Ding laid aside his knife. "All I care about is the Way. I find it in my craft, that's all. When I first butchered an ox, I saw nothing but ox meat. It took three years for me to see the whole ox. Now I go out to meet it with my whole spirit and don't think only about what meets the eye. Sensing and knowing stop. The spirit goes where it will, following the natural contours, revealing large cavities, leading the blade through openings, moving onward according to actual form -- yet not touching the central arteries or tendons and ligaments, much less touching bone.
"A good cook need sharpen his blade but once a year. He cuts cleanly. An awkward cook sharpens his knife every month. He chops. I've used this knife for nineteen years, carving thousands of oxen. Still the blade is as sharp as the first time it was lifted from the whetstone. At the joints there are spaces, and the blade has no thickness. Entering with no thickness where there is space, the blade may move freely where it will: there's plenty of room to move. Thus, after nineteen years, my knife remains as sharp as it was that first day.
"Even so, there are always difficult places, and when I see rough going ahead, my heart offers proper respect as I pause to look deeply into it. Then I work slowly, moving my blade with increasing subtlety until--kerplop!--meat falls apart like a crumbling clod of earth. I then raise my knife and assess my work until I'm fully satisfied. Then I give my knife a good cleaning and put it carefully away."
So much for skill. Unlike the Daoists, however, we suspect that a bit of chopping at our end, duly recorded, can open the way for you to cut cleanly straight from the get-go. So then, with Cook Ding's shoes to fill, let there be practice!

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