Kung Pao Christmas
Twas the night before Christmas, and all through the house, not a creature was stirring -- except the delivery guy from the Chinese restaurant. Each country has its own age-old Xmas Eve culinary customs. In Italy it's a multicourse seafood feast for the extended family. In France, a reveillon supper after midnight mass. In the U.S.A. it's going out for Chinese food.
The custom's origins are doubtless as religiously oriented as Europe's. Exactly which religion, however, is debatable. That became apparent when a friend and I went to check out the Peruvian Chinese eatery Chifa Peru for its seasonal suitability. "Jews were responsible, absolutely," insisted Brett, who is Jewish. "It's because the only restaurants open on the Christian holiday were Chinese. Go to a movie on Christmas Eve and no one will be in the theater except Jews, too. I guarantee."
"No way," I protested. "It's because Christians wait till the last minute to set up Christmas trees, then discover half the lights don't work, and also forget the milk and cookies for the reindeer. So they have to drive miles to the only mall open that night. Who has time to cook?"
Probably the religious differences boil down to this: Jews eat at the Chinese restaurant, before the movies; harried Christians carry out. Eat-in and take-out are two quite different genres. We tested both.
Known as Hong Kong Harbor until an ownership and name change eight months ago, Chifa Peru's emphasis is now on both chifa (from the Chinese chi-fan, "eat rice") and pure Peruvian cuisine -- ceviches and so on -- rather than on Hong Kong Harbor's often remarkably authentic Cantonese dishes such as shark fin soup. But the specialty remains seafood. Sizzling jumbo shrimp Mandarin ($13.95) was a highlight of two visits, thanks to the great size of its dozen precision-cooked shellfish. Supplemented with peppers, scallions, and bok choy chunks that were slightly undercooked (and thus traveled well), the dish came in a red wine sauce that was intensely spicy but, blessedly, stopped just short of the pain threshold.
Kung pao chicken ($8.50) was also gratifyingly spicy but otherwise boring, with none of the rice wine, garlic/ginger, vinegar, sugar, or bean paste tastes that give kung pao sauces complexity. A more interesting chicken dish was an special of enrollado de esparragos con pollo ($10.95), moist white-meat chicken rolled around crunchy fresh asparagus and roast pork, in a mushroom-laden oyster sauce that was slightly oversalty but satisfyingly rich. A $3.50 side of nabo encurtido, spicy-sweet pickled turnips, went well with this dish.
Thanks to size and festive presentation, two mixed meat and seafood dishes were especially well suited to a family holiday banquet: kam lu wantan ($11.50) and especial canasta ($14.95). Both centered on a mix of shrimp, roast pork, chicken, duck, and veggies. The canasta, served in a beautiful edible noodle basket (which the chef packed separately to remain crisp as take-out), featured a humongous portion of the above mix in a soothing sauce enlivened by garlic, ginger, and five-fragrance powder. The former, in a tangy sweet/sour sauce, came surrounded by enough crispy wontons to feed every visiting shepherd in Bethlehem, plus Santa, his elves, and Frosty the Snowman. The dishes' broccoli became overcooked in transit, but both otherwise traveled well.
For those eating in on December 24, our server explained, there'll be special festivities, featuring live Seventies-era Spanish music. But those of us who'll be home tree-wrestling will have our compensations as well. The Chinese take-out bag permeated the car with smells reminiscent of childhood holidays up north, but considerably spicier: essence of Christmas Eve, Miami-style.
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