2008 Summer Olympics

Olympics work up an appetite

August 20, 2008 

FOOD CHINESEFOOD 4 OC

Lion's Head Stew shows off well-seasoned turkey meatballs. (Nick Koon / Orange County Register)

For some, the Summer Olympics in China inspire visions of athletes — perhaps runners or gymnasts locked in fierce competition.

But for me, mention China, and I get hungry.

The images that simmer in my brain were planted in the early '80s when I studied Chinese cooking with Lucy Lo in Hong Kong.

Officially, Lo was a cooking teacher and cookbook author, but her banter included more than just culinary advice. She was part healer, part beauty consultant and part marriage counselor.

It was the first time I'd heard that a soup made from ginger, onion, tea leaves and lemon water could cure a cold. Or that eating freshwater fish on a regular basis could prevent gray hair. And that the ability to make a great lion's head stew could prevent someone from stealing your spouse.

Perhaps the latter was designed to make a chatty student in the first row pay closer attention. Gently tossing a bundle of ground meat from one cupped hand to another, Lo told her that if she didn't listen to the intricacies of how to make light-textured meatballs, a woman paying closer attention might take away her husband.

Of course, this made all the students laugh. We laughed a lot during her demonstrations. But there wasn't anything comical about her scrumptious lion's head stew. The broth-based concoction bubbled with the tantalizing aromas of ginger, green onions and soy sauce. Tender but still bright-green bok choy swam next to those alluring meatballs.

Before we could taste the plump spheres and fragrant broth, Lo told us to examine the contents of our bowls. Squinting, we tried to see what she saw — a lion's head instead of a meatball, a lion's mane instead of the bok choy that curved to meet the bowl's rounded edge.

It's interesting to look back and remember how exotic many of the Asian ingredients seemed at the time. Lo brought out jars and bottles of new-to-us essentials — ceramic pots of fermented bean curd, chili bean paste, and salted black beans, jars of pickled vegetables and mushroom soy sauce. Now my local supermarket stocks most of these items.

Lo's cooking series offered a wide variety of delectable Chinese dishes, but it's her lion's head stew I'll be stirring up as I continue to watch the Olympics.

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