Celery is one of the healthiest foods in the world and is a very versatile vegetable . Its crispiness and fragrance add character to any food combination. One could eat it raw or steamed, stir fried, make it into a soup or add it to a stew. I like to eat raw celery with a bit of salt as a snack; Jane Grigson suggested spreading unsalted butter on the stalk, dripping it into salt and eating with bread.
Ten years ago a friend of mine invited me to a posh French restaurant in Paris. We each had a ten-course tasting dinner. Each course was plated in a particular way with masterly details. It is hard to remember now each of the amazing dishes, however, I cannot forget a garnish of celery and carrot on the fish dish. The vegetables were cut into one millimetre squares.(I now know this cut is called a “fine brunoise”, although I have not yet mastered the technique). I was breathless admiring this professional skill which greatly enhanced the dinning experience.
When I was in Beijing around the early 1980s I had a celery and tofu stick dish in a small restaurant. (Tofu sticks are made of dried tofu skins). I liked it so much I have prepared it often. However, my effort has never reach the tasty level of the one in Beijing. I thought this could be the poorer quality of my tofu sticks, as Beijing is famous for its tofu products. Recently I read a cookbook by Pearl Kong. She mentioned that when she was visiting Beijing, around the same time as I was, she had a dish of beef with celery. She liked the celery so much she ordered a dish of celery only. She said the celery in Beijing was the most delicious. Obviously I had misdirected myself all these years.
The best local celery is in the summer. With a good celery in mind, here is the way I prepare this dish: Prepare 4 or 5 celery stalks plus say 3 tofu sticks, (depends on how much you want to make, usually a bit more celery than tofu sticks). Soak the tofu sticks in cold water until soft, then cut them into two inch lengths. Wash the celery stalks, break from the top of the stalk and gently pull down to remove the tough fibres. Cut each stalk into half lengthwise, and then cut them diagonally into about two inches pieces. Prepare a sauce by mixing a teaspoon of tapioca powder, a tablespoon of light soy sauce and 3 tablespoons of chicken stock or water. Fry the celery and tofu sticks with a tablespoon of vegetable oil, a bit of salt, some white wine, and chopped garlic, then cover and simmer for a few minutes, until the celery is tender but still crisp. Pour in the sauce mixture, stir until the sauce thickens. It’s a nice refreshing dish that goes well with rice and any meat dishes.
The Raw and the Cooked, MYTHOLOGIQUES is a new column on the culture of eating and cooking, with contributions by various authors. The column name is borrowed from the title of a book by Claude Levi-Strauss. It is spontaneous, a little amusing but serious at the same time.