Catholic Recipe: Sweet-Sour Beef Balls with Pineapple and Peppers
"CHINESE COOKING TAUGHT HERE" A strange sign to see in Tokyo! To find it you must walk down a narrow lane in the Azabu district, to an old three-story building. And there it hangs. If you are interested you must enter through a small doorway and be conducted by a polite Japanese hostess to the classroom. If your timing is right, you can watch a cooking class.
Sister M. Francetta and Sister M. Regia, of the Order of St. Benedict, are the instructors here, and for the past decade they have been teaching the delights of Chinese cuisine to wives of GI's and generals, diplomats and businessmen, from a dozen different nations.
The path that brought these Sisters to their Tokyo convent traversed thirty years and three wars, and was attended by considerable personal hardship along the way. They set out for Peking from St. Benedict's College in St. Joseph, Minnesota. In Peking they helped to found the Women's College at the Catholic University. After five years they moved on to a mission in Honan Province and were there when the war with Japan began in July, 1937. And there they remained until the attack on Pearl Harbor in December, 1941. Two hours after the news was flashed, Japanese soldiers surrounded the mission. The Sisters were interned in one concentration camp after another as the bitter months dragged on until V-J day.
Although they could have returned to the United States, the Sisters hurried back to their mission in North China. Almost as soon as it was cleaned up and in operation again, civil war broke out, and they were forced to flee to Shanghai, then to Formosa, and then, for fear of invasion and at the insistence of the United States Consul, to Japan. They landed in Tokyo in June, 1950. Now the Korean war was on, and the American occupation of Japan was still in force. The Sisters of the Sacred Heart gave them shelter "because," says Sister Francetta, "we were really hard up, then."
Here, completely by accident, the Sisters found a new life. One afternoon they whipped up a batch of fudge for some visitors, and as they sipped tea, nibbled fudge, and chatted, they began to talk of Chinese foods. Suddenly an American woman suggested that a cooking class would be fun. An opportunity to earn their way, at last! The Sisters hurried home to learn how to do the things they were supposed to teach!
Sister Francetta has an M.S. degree in home economics from the University of Minnesota, but this was a completely new problem — how to transform unwritten Chinese cooking lore into standardized recipes for Occidentals to follow in their own kitchens.
"We tested and we tasted and we chopped and we stirred for hours," Sister Regia remembers. Finally they had their recipes on paper — recipes for dishes that up to now they had only watched being prepared by Chinese cooks.
The classes grew and grew. A new house was needed, and the Sisters asked permission to found their own convent in Tokyo. They met with a cool reception at first, but finally permission was granted, and by 1952, the Benedictine Sisters had their own home and their own cooking school. Before long the school had 200 students a week. In class a two-hour demonstration is spiced with the witty and warm personalities of the two Sisters. Their light banter, as they chop and measure and cook, is one of the main attractions.
"You know," said one woman to Sister Francetta, at the close of her first lesson, "I never knew that nuns laughed and joked and had so much fun as you did here today. Thank you for that lesson, too."
The three recipes that follow are among the many that these good Sisters demonstrate to their classes. Enjoy them!
Combine beef, egg, 1 tablespoon cornstarch, onion, and pepper. Shape into about 18 balls. Brown in small amount vegetable oil. Combine 1 tablespoon vegetable oil and pineapple juice; cook over low heat 3 to 5 minutes. Combine remaining cornstarch, soy sauce, vinegar, water, sugar, and salt to taste; add. Cook, stirring, until thickened and clear. Add meat balls, pineapple, and green pepper strips. Heat thoroughly. Makes 6 servings.Recipe Source: Cook's Blessings, The by Demetria Taylor, Random House, New York, 1965