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To China, seeking a delicacy

(Steve Sullivan)
By James H. Burnett III
Globe Staff / September 22, 2011

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WHO: Jasper White

WHAT: If you’ve lived in or near Boston for more than a minute then you know Jasper White, thanks to Jasper’s Restaurant, his cookbooks, and his string of Jasper White’s Summer Shack locations. What you may not know is White is a traveling man. In addition to New England, the New Jersey native has cooked his way through New York, Florida, California, Washington, and Montana. And he’s traveled abroad, in search of perfect food. That quest recently led White to help coordinate a trip to China for himself and 15 other people, including five other chefs. The group will hunt for a rare crab that White says is the best he’s ever tasted, then rendezvous in Beijing with celebrity chef Martin Yan, and trek through Xian, Nanjing, Soochow, Shanghai, and Hong Kong to put on cooking demonstrations, commune with Chinese peers, and sightsee.

Q. What prompted this trip? This isn’t your average jaunt to the grocery.

A. I went with a group of chefs in 1986 that was sponsored by the Chinese government. We did a cultural exchange. . . . One of the reasons we were there was to help the Chinese chefs with breakfast. They were having trouble with breakfast for the American businessmen who were coming over. And it was on that trip we were treated to an amazing specialty, sweet water hairy crabs. So basically, we’re going for the crabs!

Q. I really do want to know about the hairy crabs, but can we back up to the breakfast trouble?

A. The Chinese chefs just didn’t have a clue how American breakfasts were prepared. For example, something that was getting lost in translation was the American businessmen would ask for fried eggs, and the chefs would put oil in a wok and heat it up and put in an egg, and . . . it created problems.

Q. So what exactly makes the crabs special?

A. They’re delicious and highly steamed. And also, they’re rare. They’re found predominantly in the Nanjing Province. And they’re only in harvest four weeks, during fall.

Q. If Indiana Jones was a chef this crab sounds like something he’d hunt for, no?

A. I agree. We will be doing other, non-culinary cultural things - visiting the Great Wall, going to see the Terracotta Warriors, and temples. I love the temples. But finding the crab is the biggest part of this adventure.

Q. Will anything surprise you on this trip?

A. Well, I think my mind’s gonna be blown over how things look. When I was in Beijing in the 1980s there were only 600 registered cars and Shanghai had no high rises. Now, it seems like there are more high rises there than in New York!

Q. What’s your favorite movie that reflects an element of Chinese culture?

A. The one about the grandfather chef - “Eat Drink Man Woman,’’ I think. I was really moved by the idea of a chef losing his palate later in life. As a chef, watching that felt like pure devastation and amputation. But seeing how he was able to make up for it by serving his granddaughter was redeeming.

Q. Is there something about you a fan of your food might not know?

A. I went to high school with Bruce Springsteen - good old Freehold Borough High. And I trademarked the phrase “Food is love.’’

Q. Do you have a favorite Chinese food?

A. You may as well ask which of my three children is my favorite. It’s so hard to say. Again, I love it all. There was one dish, though, that brought me to tears. In Hong Kong 25 years ago I had Beijing Chicken. It’s cooked the way they do Peking Duck. It was chicken times a thousand, perfect and so exquisite. And then there’s the crab. That’s why I’m going back.

James H. Burnett III can be reached at james.burnett@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @jamesburnett.