Thursday, May 18, 2017

Thanks, Henry!

Monday morning, I got up, ate breakfast, and started the coffee, after which I headed into my office to see what disasters had befallen the world since last night. I also checked the e-mail and, as usual, one of the mails was my daily news digest from the New York Times. And there, in the obits, was the headline:

Henry Chung, Who Helped Bring Hunan’s Flavors to America, Dies at 98

I looked at the coffee cup I'd grabbed. 

One side

The other side
After I got over the shock of the coincidence, I had one of those "I had no idea he was still alive" moments, but I knew the Hunan Restaurant still existed because I'd attempted to go there with a couple of friends a year or so back. It being Easter weekend, it was closed. My friends were a bit skeptical: they'd heard it wasn't as good as it had been. But that just made me want to go more: in the novelty-obsessed world of San Francisco (and elsewhere) foodie-ism, there's always a rush to find the newest, the latest, and the most authentic. The Hunan fulfilled only one of those slots in the 21st century. 

I read the obit with interest. I'd known Henry, but not known a lot about him. Of course, it was impossible to go to the restaurant without knowing Henry: he was as friendly and garrulous a man as ever walked the earth, and it was clear that the restaurant was a mission. I know, because I was an early convert. 

When the Hunan first opened, I was working at City, a magazine where a bunch of ex-Rolling Stoners were working, which was, I surmise from looking at the map, on Pacific just off of Columbus in the bit of San Francisco where Chinatown blends into North Beach. Of course, Broadway is the official boundary, but even back then it was getting blurrier, and the stretch of Kearny between Portsmouth Square and where Columbus crossed it was a bunch of nondescript businesses, as well as a couple of bars and restaurants nobody in their right mind would enter at any time of day. In other words, rent was cheap, just the thing for an ambitious Chinese restaurant startup. I think the only reason Michael Goodwin stopped in there was because it was a new place, not as obviously trashy as its neighbors. Michael was from New York, and he was Jewish, so the soul-food element may have figured in. Or maybe he was just on his way to a deli and passed the exhaust fan. 

In any event, he came into the office, raving. "Hey, check this out!" He had one of those classic cardboard takeout containers with the wire handle. And, when he opened it, an amazing odor came from within. "What is it?" "Smoked ham and vegetables from this new Chinese place." "Wow, where is it?" "That's the best part; it's just around the corner!" And so it was. 

I don't want to pretend that City's patronage at lunch established the Hunan as a hip place to eat, but I do think that the money we spent there was part of what made Henry able to make the rent at first. But only at first: Within a year, it became the first restaurant I'd ever seen that had a line in the street. It didn't hold many people: there were a number of tables ingeniously squidged into the irregular space and a much coveted counter where you could watch Henry and his family prepare the dishes. What you couldn't do was find out what some of the stuff he was using was. Michael innocently asked him one time what kind of wood he used to smoke his ham (and duck) and Henry threw back his head and laughed. "I'm not gonna tell you that!" he said. (Probably this was because he was doing it himself, illegally, if the tale he tells in his cookbook -- that he steamed American bacon or used Canadian bacon -- is to be credited: I know what those things taste like, and, well, no. And, of course, there was the duck.)

My friends and I were frequent enough visitors that he stopped warning us "That's hot" or "Lotta garlic in that one." We'd just say "GOOD" and he'd chuckle and get to work. I can't even remember all of the stuff I enjoyed there over the years. Scallion pancakes, for one. Wow, they were a revelation, although they're common enough these days. Dungeness crab, in season, treated far less politely than the garlic-butter-and-parsley treatment it got at Fisherman's Wharf, and spectacular for what Henry'd done to it. We had a protocol for dining there: if the line hadn't reached Washington by the time we arrived, we'd stand. Two people around the corner and it was too late. Four years after he opened, he'd acquired another property on Sansome, a cavernous place where there was never a problem getting a seat, which is not to say it was often very empty. Same good food, just a long line of woks to prepare it in. 

Shortly after opening the new joint, Henry, with the help of Tony Hiss, a journalist who specialized in China, put out a cookbook. 

My copy
I went down there right away and bought one. 

He got the tall part right
But, with California at my feet and Chinese markets just across the bridge from where I lived, I never made anything out of it. Why should I? Henry and his team did it better than I ever could. In fact, I never attempted any Chinese cooking when I lived in California. Again, why should I?

The reason came to me about a year later, when I packed up everything I owned (including Henry's cookbook) and moved to Austin, a true Chinese food desert. (It pretty much still is.) I may have tried my hand at Chinese, but I never really got it. I did, however, return to San Francisco in 1980 on a visit and I must've eaten at the Hunan, because I got the coffee cup. Somewhere in its peregrinations, it got chipped, as you can see, but the damage wasn't enough to toss it. Anyway, it brought back good memories. 

Another thing I may have picked up on that trip -- or a subsequent one -- was a jar of Henry's Hunanese chile paste. I still wasn't cooking Chinese food because Austin had only one store, on Airport Boulevard, that stocked the necessities and because none of the Chinese cookbooks I had seemed do-able. But I brought it back as a memory aid or something. At any rate, it was in my possession when the Austin Chronicle, to which I was contributing a food column as Petaluma Pete, ran an issue on picnics. I was asked to come up with a couple of recipes and wound up making one of the most inspired mistakes of my career when I made a potato salad out of The Vegetarian Epicure book and accidentally started one recipe and finished it with the recipe on the facing page, all made better by my using green New Mexican chiles. Boy, that was good! And, inspired, I then invented Chinese cole slaw, by taking Henry's "rich salad dressing" recipe and dumping it into the slaw mixture. Wow. 

I finally learned Chinese cooking in Berlin, driven by necessity and using a five-euro Ikea wok. They're not bad learners, although you burn through them soon enough. Eventually I acquired a spun-steel wok like you're supposed to use and got good with the help of cookbooks by Fuchsia Dunlop and the folks at the Big Bowl, a chain I've never even seen, but whose book wound up in my hands. Poor Henry, relegated to the never-used category. 

Nowadays, I almost never eat Chinese food at home: my diabetes flares up with rice and rice products  in a way it doesn't with wheat, although I don't eat much of that, either. Most East and Southeast Asian cuisines also use a lot of sugar. I tend to save my breaking of the diet with Chinese food for the incredible Cuisine Szechuan in Montreal. But Henry's passing sent me to the bookshelf for his book, and I see that a lot of the recipes in it don't call for sugar at all. Hmmm...

And I realize now that Henry Chung is one of my heroes. He was almost 60 that day he signed my cookbook, and he lived to be 98, making people happy and building a little empire of Henry's Hunans with his sons. Hell, he was in his late 50s before he even got started! If that's not something to aspire to I don't know what is. So I raise a glass (but, forgive me, not of one of those awful Chinese spirits) to Henry, and thank him for his life. And for you, I'll tell you how to make Chinese cole slaw:

Henry's Rich Hot & Sour Dressing 

2 Tablespoons sesame seed paste (or crunchy peanut butter)
2 Tablespoons soy sauce
4 Tablespoons vinegar (I'd use rice vinegar here)
1 Tablespoon hot red pepper oil
1 teaspoon hot red pepper powder (you could also use Hunanese chile paste if you can find it to    substitute for these two ingredients)
½ teaspoon black pepper
1 teaspoon sugar (optional)
1 Tablespoon sesame oil
2 Tablespoons vegetable oil
1 Tablespoon finely minced fresh ginger
1 Tablespoon finely minced garlic
1 Tablespoon finely minced scallions
1 Tablespoon white wine (the book was written before Shao Shing became widely available, and I'd suggest that instead)
1 teaspoon hot mustard (optional)
½ teaspoon salt
1-2 cups chicken broth

Combine. Dump over slaw vegetables and let it sit a couple of hours, then mix before serving. 

1 comment:

  1. On the menu in the Sansome Street place "Smoked ham and vegetables" was "Harvest Pork". When I worked across the street from Henry's Sacramento Street outpost the hostess greeted me by name when she heard my order over the phone (black bean chicken and cabbage, lunch special on Tuesday).


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