It’s so simple in its execution. The complexity is in the years it took for me to see the possibility.
Last year, I went to China for the first time. I know a little more now, but knew very little about the different cuisines, let alone regions of China. In Chinese American restaurants I wouldn’t have been able to order more than Dim Sum without depending on friends who were Chinese descendants or at least grew up eating more Chinese food. I was interested in it, but I was intimidated by not knowing any pronunciation or the difference between Mandarin and Cantonese dishes. I grew up in mostly white suburban Southern California and we didn’t eat out much. My mom and once in a while, my dad cooked our food. I don’t ever remember studying any Chinese history other than one week on ancient dynasties when in school. All I know for sure is that it is better to learn about anything at its origin. I wanted to go to China because I wanted to learn more about it, especially the food.
After doing some guest chef talks and events with Yale Hospitality at Yale University over the last couple years, I met Devin, who was a fan of mine and a big foodie. Devin is a Yale graduate who works with the university between Beijing and New Haven. When I met him the first time while doing an event in New Haven, he mentioned he was trying to get Professor Paul Freedman, a world famous historian, food historian and author specializing in the Middle Ages. Devin was going to bring Professor Freedman to Beijing for some lectures. He had this idea to bring an American chef along with them and maybe even more chefs. “Well, this sounds amazing”, I responded. “Count me in.”
About a year and a half later, here we were in China, for a month, starting in Beijing. I was allowed to invite another chef on the trip, and I asked my friend Chef Anita Lo. Anita and I have been friends for years. We are the same age and have both been cooking for thirty years. Anita had a great restaurant called Annisa for a seventeen year run in New York City in the West Village. She had a Michelin star and is a very well respected French trained chef. We have cooked together and fished together often for several years. We have traveled together in Australia, Spain and Mexico and we cook at many food festivals and events together and around each other all the time.
I came up with this dessert while in the van going from Chengdu to Hangzhou.
“You Dream in Color, Black”
I make a dark caramel by taking sugar to the edge before it gets burnt. I add a little butter and a little cream and water. I put that in a blender with black sesame seeds and fermented Chinese black beans and a touch of soy sauce. Its a black sesame caramel sauce with a lot of umami. I make a big swipe of it around the bottom of the bowls. To each bowl, I add one 2” X 2” cube of soft tofu and then a good couple of large spoonfuls of black sesame streusel. I make that with butter, sugar, flour, cornstarch (the cornstarch gives the streusel a melt in your mouthfeel), salt and ground black sesame seeds and a few toasted white or brown sesame seeds (these extra seeds are there to give the mixtures some aeration), and a touch of toasted sesame oil. Bake it at 350 F. on sheet pan lined with parchment paper and rake halfway though to make a crumb. I finish the dish with a few rehydrated goji berries in the bottom left corner of the bowl.