Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Eating. buns.

Every culture has its own version of a savory filled pie (or indeed, a sweet pie), some kind of pastry folded around meat, or fruit (hopefully not at the same time). Not long ago I had a sweet rhubarb-filled crostata at an Italian restaurant that looked like the turnovers described in children's books, only this one had coarse sugar crystals sprinkled across the golden crust; they glistened in the dim light. In Russia there are any number of piroshky to be found, filled with cabbage or potatoes or mushrooms or ham and cheese; the British have their pasties (which always makes me think of strippers, not particularly conducive to one's appetite, to be sure) and raised pies. I have never eaten a Cornish pasty or any other sort of British pie, and probably never will, particularly after reading that Laurie Colwin felt that the only truly awful thing she ate in England (having previously dined on haggis and mashed turnips, which she thought was wonderful) was a packaged pork pie. I'm not even sure what a packaged pork pie is.

And then there are empanadas. I studied Spanish in middle school, which meant that we baked churros (which came frozen) and rolled the hot strands of pastry in white sugar which crunched grittily as you ate it, and we learned how to make empanadas. The class would crowd into the tiny kitchen that was inexplicably located over the gymnasium (I think at one time our school actually had Home Ec courses), watching as our teacher sautéed onions and browned ground beef in a skillet, demonstrating how to mound the filling on rounds of (store-bought) puff-pastry, folding them in half and crimping the edges tightly, cutting vents so steam could escape. I confess I cannot remember, but I am sure our empanadas were slightly misshapen, imperfect crescents of pastry. (Years went by, and it was not until I found myself driving across Spain and Portugal that I had them again, in the basement tapas bar of our hotel. They were better in my memory).

But because I am Chinese, I grew up buying pastries from the bakery in Chinatown, the one which sold cakes filled and covered with whipped cream, decorated with slices of strawberries and, inexplicably, honeydew and cantaloupe, with perhaps a few maraschino cherries here and there. The round pastries were filled with creamed chicken; they made me think of old-fashioned novels about young girls in far-off times, who were always being taken to lunch and served creamed chicken in puff-pastry shells as a special treat. Chicken à la king, it's called. The half-moon shaped pastries were filled with beef, like empanadas, only this had curry powder, which stained the edges of the pastries a deep gold. Sometimes my mother would make these at home, using biscuits from a cardboard tube that popped open as you peeled away the paper; I loved the way it exploded in my hands, making me jump. In college I would try to recreate them, carefully rolling out the biscuits, crimping the edges closed, baking them in the toaster oven.

The other night my uncle came by and left half-a-dozen of those curried-beef buns that he had bought in Chinatown. They come in a pink cardboard box. I've been eating them for breakfast, with a mug of tea with milk and sugar. The years fall away and I am a child again; it is a strange sensation. Maybe I'll make some empanadas, using puff pastry from the freezer section of the supermarket, ground beef and onions. You can't go back in time, but you can recapture lost memories on a plate.

1 comment:

Juanita J. Sanchez said...

In defense of the British, I have to report that one of the best beef pies I've ever eaten was in London. In fact, one of the primary reasons we returned to London fifteen years later was to return to The Chimes and order the beef pie. (Well, that was my husband's primary reason, anyway. He had the lamb pie in 1991 and coveted my beef pie for fifteen years. Thank goodness The Chimes was still in business or I never would have heard the end of it.)