I’m a perfectionist, a personality trait insisting things fit neatly on black and white labels. I want to understand them clearly, know my boundaries, and master them with graceful ease. But as most of us know, life isn’t usually so cut-and-dry. It’s pretty gray most of the time, and rather damp. And, my locale only confuses my sense of perfectionism—no matter how hard I try to keep my life in neat, manageable lines, China just swirls it all up.
Don’t get me wrong. I love living here. But the longer I live here, the more I sense a sea of gray enveloping the parts of my world that I’d long since categorized in more dichotic terms. What I thought I had identified as right or wrong or progressive or backwards doesn’t always look the same when seen through a China lens. My sense of balance, before living here, had a lot to do with unavoidable restrictions that I’d just accepted as a part of life. Exposed to a different system, though, I’ve started to wonder where the lines really are, and whether they’re all that straight to begin with.
As a result of this disorientation, I find myself asking all kinds of new questions these days. Here are a few. Is it really OK to download music and movies even though it’s so easy? Why should I tell someone they can’t practice trademark infringement when their competitors do it without a second thought? Isn’t making kids laugh and have fun in the classroom just as important as teaching accredited curriculum? Why not jaywalk when it gets you there in half the time? And, what’s the harm in taking credit for a recipe that my boyfriend actually wrote?
On the surface, I know the answers to these questions. But, life has a way of making it so easy to forget to answer them at all. In fact, that’s a major paradox of living in China. There are so many people here, that it often seems absolutely forgivable to forget about people altogether. When I get too caught up in maintaining my sense of space in the midst of all the hustle and bustle, my personal bubble becomes my whole world.
Because of Bittman, I get soups, and they get me.
Thus, every now and then, I try to take a step back, look at the bigger picture, and consider what and who led me to where I am. It can be difficult to find perspective when it comes to food. Since cooking is a passion of mine, it’s all too easy to focus on my latest fixation and forget what led me to it.
For instance, the first culinary thing I fundamentally understood was soup. Silly as that may seem, there was a day when a light bulb went off in my head, and I realized that, with the right formula and cooking order, I could make a large variety of soups simply by tweaking a few basic variables. Yet, I can’t claim to have figured that on my own–rather, my Bible, Mark Bittman’s How to Cook Everything, first turned the overwhelming world of soups into clear, formulaic, black-and-white lines for me. Because of Bittman, I get soups, and they get me.
Much of what I make is based on recipes from food blogs or cookbooks that I tweak to accommodate my tastes. But, how much tweaking is needed before I can call a recipe my own? Replacing the main ingredient of a dish can totally change it, but so can changing the order in which you add its base components. Is food even available to claim? Someone may trademark a recipe, but once it’s known, the creator can’t stop anyone from changing it or sharing it with friends. Intellectual property rights are no match for the desire to please the palate.
Many, or most, of the recipes I’ve shared in this column are not totally my own. I’ve made lack-luster creations worthy to print with a ninja ingredient suggested by a friend, and I’ve presented recipes from cooking blogs—tweaked to accommodate the limitations of local produce—as practical things any China newbie can manage. I’ve even printed Home Made recipes that my boyfriend created because I’d made them so many times since their debut that I’d forgotten he was the source. In fact, looking back over two years’ worth of columns, it’s hard to find one I can completely call my own.
So, inspired by the New Year, I’ve endeavored to share a unique Robin special. I’m more proud of this recipe than most because it didn’t go wrong. My usual experiments result in dishes that are a little “off.” With the exception of breading the chicken in flour, I can’t attribute any part of it to a recipe I’ve had before. It’s its own entity, and I call it Mustard Chicken with Mushroom Slivers. Enjoy.
Mustard Chicken with Mushroom Slivers
- 3 large spoonfuls of butter or olive oil
- 2 chicken breasts
- Salt and pepper
- 2/3 cup flour
- Garlic powder
- 15-20 button mushrooms, sliced thinly
- 2 large spoonfuls Dijon mustard
- 1 cup milk (or ½ cup of heavy cream and ½ cup milk)
- Juice of ½ or whole lemon(to taste)
- Filet chicken breasts. Lay each filet between plastic wrap or baking sheets and pound to tenderize. Sprinkle each with salt, pepper and garlic powder.
- Spread flour over a plate and heat 2 spoonfuls butter or oil in a medium pan. When hot, coat each filet with flour on plate, shake free of excess flour, and place in pan. Cook 3-4 minutes per side, until browned.
- Remove chicken filets from pan. Add remaining spoonful butter or oil, and then add mushrooms. Sauté for 3-4 minutes.
- Stir in mustard and mix thoroughly, and then add milk. Bring to boil and simmer until liquid reduces by a third. Add in lemon juice and stir.
- Put chicken breasts back in pan, lower heat and cover. Simmer 1-2 minutes, flip chicken and simmer 1-2 minutes more. Remove chicken to a serving dish and pour remaining sauce over.
Serving size: 2-4 people
Serve with: white wine