Kansas professor wears two hats

After spending all day studying the microscopic organisms that inhabit food, Daniel Y.C. Fung might not be expected to have much of an appetite for cooking.But the Kansas State University professor turns out to be as handy with a spatula as he is with a microscope – especially when it comes to preparing dishes from his native China.

“Food is to be enjoyed,” Fung said. “We can kill (organisms), we can control them, and some of them are good. For example, with yogurt we are eating bacteria and it’s good for you.”

In science, Fung’s specialty is the rapid detection of organisms in food such as the potentially deadly salmonella bacterium. Twenty years ago, he says, it might take lab workers a week to determine whether an organism was present in a sample. Today, the time has been reduced to a day or less. Quick detection is important both to the food industry and medical workers.

Speeding things up would appear to be natural for the 58-year-old Fung, who has enough irons in the fire to outfit a commercial kitchen.

In addition to teaching classes, conducting research and writing scientific papers (around 600 at last count), he annually hosts a microbiology workshop at Kansas State in Manhattan, Kan., that draws scientists from around the world. He plays classical piano duets with his wife, Catherine. And the two of them travel the world – nine countries last year – often in conjunction with Fung’s scientific presentations.

Fung jokes that he gave his first lecture in 1973, “and I’ve not stopped talking internationally since.”

Cooking is another passion. Shortly after arriving here in 1980 (after stints at Penn State University, where he was a badminton champion, and Iowa State, where he got his doctorate in food microbiology ), he taught a class called “Chinese Cooking Without Sweat” for Kansas State’s free university. Since then he’s often pulled out his wok for cultural festivals, church dinners and the participants in his annual workshop.

According to his wife, Fung is happiest when cooking for a large crowd.

“To me, it’s the same amount of energy cooking for 40 people as for five,” Fung said.

His specialties are the foods he grew up with in Hong Kong – pepper beef, wine chicken, fried rice and wontons.

Fung said one characteristic of Chinese food is that it is cooked in small pieces. “That’s why the Chinese use chopsticks to eat. We do not cut food at the table.”That, in turn, allows the food to be cooked quickly. At church dinners, Fung said, “I will not open a lid until the preacher stops praying.”

Most of his recipes don’t require a lot of special ingredients or equipment. A large skillet can be substituted for a wok, and white wine for sake, although the latter is available at many liquor stores.

For the pepper beef, he marinates thinly sliced round steak in sake and soy sauce (look for the “Mushroom” brand in an Asian market for the most authentic version) for 30 minutes. He slices bell pepper, celery and onion in small pieces and sautes them in oil (peanut oil is preferred) over high heat for a few minutes, then removes them from the wok and throws in garlic and ginger, cooking them just until the smell reaches his nose. He adds the beef, stir-frying it a minute or two until it’s nearly done, then returns the vegetables to the wok and adds the marinade, bringing it just to boiling.

The actual cooking shouldn’t take more than 10 minutes. No wonder Fung has time to get so much else done.

“Sometimes I wonder how I can handle all these things,” he said, before adding, “I’m so happy with what I’m doing – every day is an adventure – that I can’t imagine not doing it.”