We’re Chinese food fanatics — my hard-eating pals and I. Sure, we’re happy to try out the latest lathered-over boîte, and when cash is feeling disposable, to return to one of Boston’s lionized locales. But in a crunch, and week after week, month after month, year after year, we gravitate to Chinatown.
Our current favorite has no sign. It’s in a basement. The bathroom is the closet thing I know to an open sewer in a public accomodation. Yet the tiny kitchen somehow produces the finest fried squid in this galaxy.
Only once have I had calamari to rival it, but that judgment is possibly faulty. I was 21 and visiting an almost-deserted Greek island with a new girlfriend. All of it felt exotic for a New Hampshire boy, including the pine-pitchy retsina that we concluded was the best wine ever produced. When we returned home, the retsina we found tasted different, by which I mean horrendous.
But back to the scathingly un-nostalgic now. Why Chinese? And why elevated above all else?
I could only come up with visceral reasons. Positives along the lines of: The food has guts; it’s shareable; it feels honest and real and somehow like a secret. And negatives like: It’s not overpriced; it’s not trendy; it’s not molecular gastronomy.
In the hopes of getting to the bottom of the obsession, it made sense to search for logic. So I found a new book: “The Land of Five Flavors: A Cultural History of Chinese Cuisine’’ by Thomas O. Höllmann, a professor of ethnology at Ludwig Maximilian University in Munich.
What I quickly learned, granted via prose that feels as if it’s been translated from among seven different languages, the second to last English, is the true depth of Chinese cuisine. For example, found in the tomb of Wu Yang, buried in 162 B.C. in today’s Hunan province, was the equivalent of a cookbook written on bamboo strips, with 150 recipes, mostly for preparing meat.
I understand Tony Maws, chef/proprietor of two celebrated area restaurants, is a god because of the way he handles offal, but I’m not sure his crispy pork foot with lentils calls on tradition running back to the Han Dynasty.
Positively historic but a little less appealing, according to Höllman, was the fact that “mastery of the culinary profession could be risky, and some chefs ended up being obliged to accompany their lords to the grave — to be buried along with the well-stocked pantry.”
This fact, along with most of what comprises “The Land of Five Flavors,’’ points to how integral food has been (and remains) to the inhabitants of China. The good professor even includes a bibliography of more than a dozen pages, should anyone want to range farther.
Even more appealing for the home cook: the 25 recipes Höllmann laces through his meandering narrative. To this neophyte, all of them appear authentic and also refreshingly cook-able — i.e., with available ingredients and preparation that’s not too arcane or elaborate.
I enjoy cooking a stir-fry as much as the next guy — that sort of pan-Asian hodge-podge you make on a weeknight — but I’ve attempted very little (if any) serious Chinese fare at home, even if I own three of Fuchsia Dunlop’s gorgeous Chinese cookbooks. So I invited over an intrepid friend and made myself follow Höllmann’s recipe for spicy Sichuan chicken down to the cornstarch, the only ingredient of which I was suspicious.
If the writing in his book can feel workman-like, sporting a kind of antiflare in sentence after sentence, our meal was an astonishment. Strewn with chilies and pleasantly mouth-numbing Sichuan peppercorns and meaty cashews, the chicken dish (and from the look of it, all of the other recipes) represents that which Höllmann — and certainly I and possibly anyone — cannot truly explain. Here before us, the catalyst, the heart, likely the engine of an enterprise undertaken by a man sitting quietly in the library of Ludwig Maximilian.
If “The Land of Five Flavors’’ provided a sort of staidly analytical bulwark to my own questions of taste, the recipes made me want to meet the man. Where would we convene in this fantasy of mine? Of course in my Chinatown dive, whose name I cannot and will not speak, sharing that which is pretty much beyond the reach of words.