From the pages of Eatstreets

Author: Jade & Muriel Chen

Publisher: New Holland Publishers

RRP: $45.00

Blue Eye Dragon Taiwanese Cooking

30 November 1999.
Reviewed by

The Chinese, according to a marvellous book I’m reading at the time of writing (Bomb Book and Compass, Simon Winchester, Viking), invented … everything: printing, gunpowder, the compass, the viaduct, paper, the grafting of fruit trees — even toilet paper. But all that, I submit, is consigned to the shade by their most magnificent achievement: Chinese food.

And, yes, I know that to say “Chinese food” is like saying “European food”. It varies enormously from Xinjiang to Fujian, but all of it (with only a few exceptions of an environmentally disastrous or icky nature) is inventive, sumptuous and, for the most part, sensationally simple. It combines flavour, texture and colour in the most delightful ways. Which brings me to Blue Eye Dragon, produced by one of our favourite Sydney restaurants.

This is a book about Taiwanese food. That is to say the cooking that has evolved on the island of Formosa since 1949 when the Nationalist Chinese retreated there from the mainland with their retinue of chefs, recipes and ingredients. They set about cooking their own food, swapping recipes and even adding in a little of what was already there.

And because mainland China was, for the next 50 years, a joyless and especially pleasure-free communist state (Slow Food founder Carlo Petrini, a communist, claims Slow is nothing more than the fusion of communism and pleasure), Taiwan, as it became, was the custodian of the great traditions of Chinese gastronomy — with a few little inventions of its own.

Which brings me to Jade and Muriel Chen, the progenitors of this book, and, respectively the chef and floor manager of Blue Eye Dragon. Jade Chen opened her first restaurant in Taiwan in the early 1980s and then, in 1983, opened another, Chicken House, which grew from 100 to 400 seats. If the food she cooks at Pyrmont’s Blue Eye Dragon is anything like the food she cooked in Taiwan, I’m not surprised.

In 1989, the family moved to Australia and in 2005 they opened Blue Eye Dragon following the success of their first Sydney restaurant, grain, tea rice and noodles, which was just across the road.
From the very first dish I ate from Jade Chen’s Grain kitchen, I was hooked. And now there’s a book that shows you how to cook her dishes. And they work — if you follow the instructions very, very closely. Jade is a very precise cook, in whose hands something as simple as a stirfry reminds you what stirfrying is all about: texture, aroma and clarity of flavours. Try the Sanbei Chicken with Basil on page 125, but use exactly the measures of soy sauce, rice wine, soy paste and sugar that she specifies.

This is a book that illustrates the elegant simplicity that Chinese food can exhibit, with clear recipes that cry out to be cooked (I’ve stained about four pages so far). It also exhibits the warmth that emanates from the other half of the Blue Eye Dragon team, daughter Muriel, the front-of-house animateur, who ensures that everyone who walks in the front door returns.

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