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Explains Huang, an insurance salesman who helps Chinese immigrants find their footing in America: "If you go to a wedding banquet, you never eat this food. I grew up in Taiwan and came here thirtysomething years ago, and never even once have I gone to an official banquet and eaten this cuisine, because this is not catered to that kind of function."
Huang notes that midafternoon is one of Lei's busiest times. That's when workers from other Chinese restaurants come to grab lunch between shifts. One afternoon I asked one, a craggy old chef who said he'd been cooking in Chinese restaurants for 40 years, whether anybody else in St. Louis cooked in Lei's style. He held up one finger.
In The Chinese Kitchen, Eileen Yin-Fei Lo describes Chiu Chow cooking as "pungent and direct." Soups are "flavored with their fish sauce, strong and salty, virtually identical to the nam pla of Thailand, the nuoc mam of Vietnam, to which they have historically migrated, and with whose people they have intermarried." The Chiu Chow, imparts Lo, are fond of pickles and sweet marmalades and bottle their own rice vinegar, tangerine oil and a soy sauce sweetened with sugar.
With its fresh ingredients and emphasis on seafood, Chiu Chow would seem to be poised for culinary cult status. In a 1982 New York Times article, Lo called Chiu Chow a "Cantonese gastronomic offshoot" on the verge of expanding its reach. In 2005 Los Angeles Times freelance food writer Linda Burum reported that the style "has reached trend status in Hong Kong. But it's infrequently found in Southern California, so there's a pent-up craving among Hong Kong expats for this delicate, delicious food."
Ferretti calls Chiu Chow "something on the cusp. One of the reasons [it didn't catch on] was that most of its practitioners were Cantonese cooks. So they would quickly do a few Chiu Chow things and then sort of slide back into the Cantonese genre."
The same phenomenon, Ferretti adds, befell another regional Chinese style, Hakka, in New York. "A New York food critic at the time did this thing that said, 'There's this Hakka restaurant on the east coast,' and Eileen and I went there and only about five dishes were Hakka. The rest were Cantonese."
Meng Lei sits at one of his tables discussing his lo soi with Washington University professor Jian Leng. This evening's meal, the remains of which we're still picking at, began with the tray of cold meats, then proceeded to an egg pancake dotted with oysters and scallions (Lei also serves a variation which replaces the oyster with "hairtail," a pungent, anchovy-like fish), triangles of bean curd doused in a mild garlic soy sauce and plain steamed Chinese broccoli, which is similar to broccoli rabe, only milder.
Leng, who was born in Beijing and earned her anthropology doctorate while moonlighting as a waitress at Chinese restaurants in St. Louis, says the most popular and financially successful eateries here are the ones that bend to fit the American ideal of Chinese food: a little sweeter, with flavors at the extremes. Most American Chinese restaurants keep odd ingredients off the menu and serve them only when a native requests them. At the Joy Luck Buffet on Manchester Road in Brentwood, Leng says, Chinese patrons will request beef lung, which is not offered on the menu. "If it was listed as 'beef lung,' it would scare the Americans away," Leng laughs. "But if you taste it, it tastes just like beef.
"Or jellyfish," she adds. "Western people hate it. But if you taste it, it's really just like crispy cucumber."
Dressed in his typical work outfit baggy jeans, black sneakers turned brown from grease and a stained yellow soccer jersey whose sleeves are pulled up to reveal muscular forearms scarred with burns from 36 years spent in the kitchen Lei looks as if he needs this breather. He looks out at the world with cool caution from a face most distinguished by high cheekbones and jagged teeth. He's 54, but with his black hair worn in a Sid Vicious buzz cut he could pass for 40.
When Lei moved from Macao to America "on November 15, 2002," he says with precision he brought his cooking utensils, his knowledge and a container of lo soi, the liquid the color of cherrywood that perennially boils on a burner in his kitchen.
Translated literally, lo soimeans "old water." Similar to the sourdough starter used in baking or the alvearsystem of aging Spanish sherry, the broth is constantly fed but retains a "mother" a kernel of its origin. Often passed down from generation to generation, it is the cornerstone of Chiu Chow cuisine.
"In the best restaurants, every day they have their marinated stock," Lei explains as Leng interprets. "You boil the meat in it, and then you save it. If a restaurant is famous, it means their stock is famous."
Lei boils the day's meat in the stock, replenishing with water as needed. At day's end he skims off any fat and strains what remains. "You don't save it all," he says. "The dirty things on the top, you throw away. What remains in the bottom is very pure. There is nothing bad in it."