The classic Chinese cuisine is almost always so sharply antithetic to the goals of Western cooking that we must view as a significant culinary development the great number of Chinese cookbooks being written and sold in the United States today. This is comparable to a similar expansion of interest in French cooking some years ago, but learning how to cook the Chinese way confronts the amateur cook—whatever his degree of competence in the kitchen—with a larger challenge.
It assumes the ability to hold in suspension a lifetime of rigidly ordered responses to ingredients, implements, sequence, and procedures, and to allow, as it were, a totally new set of mechanisms to take over. Even more importantly, it demands speed and enough technical facility to handle simultaneously the numerous dishes for a traditional Chinese meal, which are meant to appear on the table at precisely the same time. Despite the assurances of sanguine food writers, Chinese cooking for Americans is not the simple matter it is so frequently said to be.
Unlike the classic French cuisine to which it is often and misleadingly compared, the Chinese cuisine lacks structure. Or at least structure as we understand it. It is, of course, well known that the Chinese developed before any other culture the primary culinary devices of sautéeing, deep frying, poaching, broiling, roasting, and even soufflé-making. But it is the manner in which these techniques are used and combined with one another in Chinese kitchens that confounds the Western culinary mind.
Chinese cooking is capricious, daring, and magical. Above all else it is intensely subjective. The basic dishes (theoretically, there are thousands) which have evolved from its three-thousand-year heritage are seldom, if ever, made the same way twice. No professional Chinese chef worthy of the name (the resounding title, Daai See Fooh, or Grand Master of the Culinary Arts, is a mark of enormous distinction) would even consider duplicating exactly a dish made by a fellow chef. Rather, he will take a traditional procedure or dish as a point of departure in order to create a similar dish of his own devising. Although the name and the basic ingredient of the dish may be the same as its model, it will, despite recognizable similarities, have a character all its own. Dr.Lee Su Jan in his Introduction to The Fine Art of Chinese Cooking says,
The Chinese philosophy considers cooking an art rather than a craft; the gourmet and the chef are not tied to the material but feel free to compose new and original works. In Chinese cooking, the idea and the vision inspiring the dish are important, not the ingredients. The taste of the cooking depends on the relationship between the various ingredients and condiments rather than the character of the individual elements.
Dr.Lee extends this concept at some length and, indeed, it is his seventy-five-page exposition of the philosophy of Chinese cooking which gives his book its quality. As a teacher of Oriental philosophy at the Academy of the Oriental Arts in Seattle, Dr.Lee is as articulate as one might expect; his passionate concern for a cuisine he evidently loves and understands is an affecting one. He is especially perceptive when he discusses the philosophic systems of Confucianism and Taoism and their relation to food, the first with its emphasis on the pleasures of civilized eating and the second with health its primary concern. The manner in which the Chinese through countless centuries have reconciled and fused both strains constitutes in an important sense the history and character of traditional Chinese cooking.
BUT IT IS ONE THING to write lucidly, gracefully, and abstractly about Chinese food in relation to its culture and quite another to give precise directions for cooking a Chinese dish. Western culinary history abounds in food writers unable to cook and cooks unable to write, but whether they chose to use it or not, there has always been available to them a vast and important culinary literature upon which to draw. The contemporary Chinese cookbook writer is less fortunate. With few, if any, traditional Chinese cookbooks to turn to, he must of necessity devise a recipe-writing system of his own if he is to communicate successfully with his Western readers. Dr.Lee and his wife, May Lee, who assisted him have not resolved the vexing problem.
They have chosen to write their often excellent recipes as clinical formulae, separating each dish into three categories: Ingredients, Condiments, and Method. On the surface, it is scarcely possible to quarrel with so reasonable an approach, but because the system is rigidly adhered to recipe after recipe, the would-be cook, in the end, is left with small, neat formulations none of which indicates what a finished dish should look, smell, or taste like. These distinctions are, after all, the very elements which in Dr.Lee’s view differentiate the Chinese cuisine from all others.
Far more successful is Buwei Yang Chao’s How to Cook and Eat in Chinese, first published in 1945, and one of the earliest Chinese American cookbooks. It has already gone through three editions and is now in its eleventh printing, surely a measure of its durability. Mrs.Chao has approached the maze of Chinese cooking and eating with directness, courage, and skill. Her long Introduction, unlike Dr.Lee’s, is concerned not with philosophical abstractions but with the tangible realities of the table. She makes clear once and for all the enormous culinary gulf which separates the Americans from the Chinese. What might in other hands have become a chauvinistic polemic is handled by Mrs.Chao with so much wit and tact that when she has finished with us, we are quite prepared to forsake our forks for chopsticks and unprotestingly let her lead the way.
In her inimitable style (thankfully, her editors have left intact her chaotic syntax and her endearing foreignisms), Mrs.Chao discusses in considerable detail the difference between our meals and the Chinese family and banquet meals. She observes:
The typical family meal has several dishes all served at the same time. In families, in shops, and on the farm, people eat together, and share a little of several dishes, and never have one dish belonging to one person. There are no “courses”…. Each person just eats a chopsticksful of this, then a morsel of rice (the rice bowls are always individual), a chopsticksful of that, then a morsel of rice from his particular bowl. The result is that you feel that you are all the time carrying on a friendly conversation with each other, even though nobody says anything, I wonder if it is because the American way of each eating his own meal is so unsociable that you have to keep on talking to make it more like good manners?
“A banquet, or chiu-hsi ‘wine-spread.’ on the other hand,” she continues, “is a vertical thing. Except at the beginning and at the end, you eat only one course at a time….” And so she proceeds, page after page, touching lightly and amusingly on Chinese table manners, Chinese restaurants, special foods for festivals, and other socio-culinary oddments. Then, more practically, she turns her probing attention to the preparation of Chinese food itself. And it is here that she is at her most persuasive.
BY MAKING an immediate distinction between what she calls “eating” and “cooking” materials, Mrs. Chao illuminates the whole concept of Chinese cooking. “Eating” materials are either fresh or preserved, says Mrs. Chao, and the Chinese think preserved foods often taste “fresher” (that is, more intense and savory) than fresh ones. In fact, there is a Chinese adjective, hsien (fresh), used to describe the flavor of such foods as dried shrimp, dried scallops, hundred year eggs, fish’s maw, dried jelly fish, shark’s fins, and similar preserved delicacies. These, Mrs. Chao amplifies in her direct way, are foods which “have started to spoil just enough to taste good, but not enough to taste bad.” (When we remember our more odoriferous cheeses, this culinary concept is not so startling as it might at first glance appear.) Among other “eating” materials in Mrs. Chao’s lexicon are fresh foods more familiar to us: meats and poultry, river and sea food, vegetables, fruits, nuts, and grains.
Chinese “cooking” materials—or tsoloao “making” materials—are, on the other hand, dramatically and significantly different from those generally employed in Western cooking. The most prominent are sesame oil, cornstarch, fresh ginger, cloud ears, tiger lilies, Szechwan pepper, sea weed, star anise, Chinese parsley, soy bean products like soy sauce, hoisin sauce, fermented black beans, and a multitude of what Mrs. Chao calls flavorers, binders, salters, and sweeteners. When all these ingredients are properly employed they satisfy the classical Chinese dictum that combinations of dishes for a meal contain six primary flavors: sour, pungent, bitter, sweet, salty, and natural.
In any serious discussion of flavor, a Chinese cookbook author must finally confront the culinary phenomenon known as monosodium glutamate, the white, tasteless seasoning powder sold in the United States mainly under the name of Accent. Mrs. Chao meets the challenge head on. Although she admits that MSG, as it is also called, can be used discreetly on occasion, she really does not approve, and quite properly dismisses it as most good Chinese and American cooks do. “Good cooking,” Mrs. Chao says, “consists in making the best use of eating materials. The cooking materials should enhance the natural taste of the eating material and not take its place. The widespread use of tastepowder in recent years has resulted in lowering the standard of right [sic] cooking and a leveling of all dishes to one flavor.”
And “right” flavor is precisely what the recipes in How to Cook and Eat in Chinese achieve. Each recipe (and there are hundreds) is lucidly written, the measurements and cooking times as accurate as any starched American home economist could wish for. The additional element of Mrs. Chao’s singular English (literally translated Chinese dish names like Pot Stuck Duck, Tile Piece Fish, Beef Emit-Silk, interspersed with ponderous scientific references to the squids Ommastrephes Illecebrosus and Pacificus, are especially enchanting) gives her recipes the human touch so often lacking in culinary prose. Having once cooked and eaten in Chinese with Mrs. Chao, one can readily understand why the authors of that great American cookbook, The Joy of Cooking, say, as they disparagingly present in their own book a recipe for Chop Suey, “To get the feeling of true Chinese food, read Mrs. Buwei Yang Chao’s delightful How to Cook and Eat in Chinese.”
On another level entirely, but of comparable quality, is the Joyce Chen Cookbook. In this well-edited, practical book, Mrs. Chen, the noted Cambridge cooking teacher and restaurateur, persuasively, almost conversationally, leads beginning cooks through the first steps of the Chinese cuisine, and it is to her great credit that she makes Chinese cooking techniques appear considerably less formidable than they really are.
The description, composition, and use of basic Chinese ingredients, seasonings, and spices are intelligently organized and easy to find (there is even a chapter on how to grow bean sprouts) and basic Chinese cooking methods are described graphically and in detail. Mrs. Chen’s recipes of Mandarin, Shanghai, Chunking, and Cantonese origin are those fairly familiar to Americans and include excellent and predictable versions of such well-known dishes as Egg Rolls (with a fine illustrated chapter at the end of the book on how to make Egg Roll and Wonton Skins and Noodles at home). Hot and Sour Peking Soup, Chicken Velvet, Shanghai Duck, and an especially notable and well-constructed version of Peking Duck. Mrs. Chen’s recipe (with explicit, helpful line drawings) for the classic Mandarin pancakes or Doilies to accompany the duck is an example of Chinese recipe-writing at its best. Fully aware that the Joyce Chen Cookbook is scarcely a manual for those already familiar with basic Chinese cooking, Mrs. Chen in her candid Introduction indicates that she is at work on a new book devoted to the more complicated and unusual dishes she teaches in her advanced cooking classes.
That there are few Chinese cookbooks devoted to the Chinese Haute Cuisine, as it were, is clearly apparent to anyone who attempts to find them. There are, however, now available two books which make valiant efforts to explore this area: Su Chung’s Court Dishes of China, and Food for the Emperor by John D. Keys. The Court Dishes of China is an elegantly produced book with some fine if irrelevant (for a cookbook) reproductions of early Ming and Ch’ing Dynasty porcelains. Su Chung, its Japanese born author, was originally married to the Chinese scholar and poet Cheng Hsiao-hsu, a relative of the former Emperor of China. Hsuan T’ung. She therefore had access to culinary material of the court not readily available to anyone else. But with all this largesse (much of it fascinating) Mrs. Chung, disappointingly, has written a cookbook with little or no practical value. Her recipes are uniformly telescoped, and often naive and absurd. The directions: “Pour in twice as much water as the volume of the chicken for stock” and “Add two egg shells to any thick stock, let stand until stock becomes clear” are two of the lesser technical absurdities. These reach their apex finally in an ancient recipe Mrs. Chung presents straightforwardly for Shredded Chicken. Here the cook is told to tie a three-pound chicken to a bar suspended a foot above a cauldron of boiling water, and then ordered to ladle the boiling water over the bird for two hours. The kitchens of the Ch’ing Dynasty in its more opulent days might well have managed this tour de force (though the device itself appears of dubious value) but to suggest the procedure in all seriousness to a modern cook betrays astonishing culinary innocence.
Nonetheless, it must be said that a knowing and alert cook able to sidestep Su Chung’s unwitting culinary traps will find much of interest in the recipes the author has unearthed from the Ch’ing archives; indeed, there is no caveat for the buyer of this colorful book—until he starts to cook from it.
A somewhat similar evaluation might be made of John D. Keys’s cookbook, Food for the Emperor. Portentously, Mr. Keys begins by announcing,
In translating these recipes from their original language, care has been taken to exclude those common dishes which have been presented before in basic Chinese cookbooks so numerously available here in previous years. The result is a compilation of exquisite, unique, and extravagant fare, a representation of the true haute cuisine of Imperial China.
The quality of Mr. Keys’s editorial judgments is far superior to his culinary skills. Although the recipes he has chosen for his book are indeed “exquisite, unique, and extravagant,” his directions for their execution leave much to be desired. Not only are they vague, with cooking times often non-existent, but A1 Steak Sauce is one of the ingredients often listed in the recipes, and almost every dish is overseasoned with MSG.
It is apparent that Mr. Keys has, himself, cooked few if any of the dishes he so passionately describes. Had he done so, he would have learned instantly that Yuk Yerng Chung-Dahn (Hard Cooked Eggs Deep Fried in Minced Pork), for example, would be a disaster. Having ordered his unsuspecting reader to coat each chilled hard-cooked egg with three tablespoons of a highly seasoned minced raw pork mixture bound with cornstarch, Mr. Keys then says confidently, “Fry the eggs in deep fat until golden brown.” The eggs will indeed become golden brown, and in a very short time even at the standard and moderate frying temperature (which Mr. Keys doesn’t indicate) of 375°. But unfortunately, if Mr. Keys’s directions are followed, the deepest layer of pork will remain dangerously undercooked, and the egg itself icy cold. Mr. Keys’s recipe is a culinary impossibility.
The author is on safer ground with the culinary dictionary he has wisely appended to his book. Here, there is no pretense, evasion, or equivocation. Every important Chinese cooking ingredient is honestly described, although the recipes which accompany them are technically inept. But they do at least illustrate the historical uses to which a few of the more obscure and esoteric ingredients he lists are put. And this information is not easily found elsewhere.
PERHAPS THE MOST AMBITIOUS Chinese American cookbook available to date is The Thousand Recipe Chinese Cookbook by Gloria Bley Miller, “a professional writer,” as the jacket blurb describes her, “with a varied background in education and in the fine arts.” When this large, handsome (and expensive) book appeared last year, every amateur cook who had ever grappled with a wok prayed that here, at last, might be the definitive Chinese American cookbook which would illuminate totally the mysteries of the Chinese cuisine. What they were hoping for, of course, was a book as convincing and thorough as Mastering the Art of French Cooking.
Despite the apparently endless research and enthusiasm Mrs. Miller has brought to her heroic project, The Thousand Recipe Chinese Cookbook has little, if anything, in common with the Child-Beck-Bertholle masterpiece. Mrs. Miller’s book is essentially a work conceived at the typewriter and the reader seldom feels a sense of the author’s affinity for the stove. Mrs. Miller’s grand title is misleading. In place of the thousand uniquely Chinese recipes she promises us, she has described instead a series of variations, for the most part, on basic themes: Steamed Chicken with Anise or Lobster or Asparagus or Chinese Sausages; Stir Fried Pork with Bean Sprouts or Bitter Melon or Chinese Lettuce and Peppers or Preserved Mustard Cabbage; shrimp dishes, duck dishes, and a multitude of other basic preparations are also followed by a host of variations. There is never any indication in the sub-variations which frequently follow the variations (such as three different batters for Deep Fried Oysters) that Mrs. Miller is prepared (if, indeed, she knows) why one variation is preferable to another, or why three batters with minor changes are necessary for the same dish in the first place. In other words, the author makes no judgments, and consequently leaves the cook sailing rudderless on an endless sea of recipes.
It would be interesting to know why, for example, Mrs. Miller’s recipe for hot mustard requires the cook to bring one cup of water to a boil and then to allow it to cool before adding one half cup of dry mustard? Surely, Mrs. Miller must be aware that drinking and cooking water in China was boiled because it was often contaminated. To suggest this procedure to a contemporary American cook without a word of explanation makes us suspect that Mrs. Miller is either putting us on that she really believes in the culinary properties of boiled water.
The author’s lengthy discussion of rice and how to prepare it in the Chinese fashion is equally imprecise and archaic. The amounts of water she suggests for cooking it are inaccurate and her assertion that rice be washed before and after being cooked is flatly contested by the American Rice Council and the US Department of Agriculture. Not only is almost all the packaged rice sold in the United States absolutely sterile but it is generally enriched with added nutrients. Washing it at any point removes most of its flavor and the nutrients as well. It has long been a truism among Chinese food afficionados that the rice served in Chinese American restaurants, however fabled their reputations, is for the most part gummy, overcooked, and usually inedible. If the directions in The Thousand Recipe Chinese Cookbook for cooking rice are followed faithfully, similar results are guaranteed.
Had Mrs. Miller spent more time in the kitchen cooking from the Chinese cookbooks she has researched and read so thoroughly, she would have chosen her fellow cookbook authors’ recipes more wisely. We find Mr. Keys’s Hard Cooked Eggs Deep Fried in Minced Pork reproduced, ingredient for ingredient, a particularly unfortunate choice. It works no better cooked from her book than it did from his. And it might be noted that three other recipes of Mr. Keys’s—Duckling Braised with Chestnuts and Sliced Pear, Dried Scallops Steamed with Ham, and Chicken Braised with Tiger Lilies—can be found in Mrs. Miller’s book with different titles, but with little else changed. Nor have Mrs. Buwei Yang Chao and Joyce Chen escaped Mrs. Miller’s attentions. Recipes strikingly similar to Mrs. Chao’s Stir Fried Beef Slices with Ginger and Mrs. Chen’s Shanghai Duck and her Special Five Spices Marinade for Barbecued Pork are included without any acknowledgement of their origins.
These depredations are, of course, not unknown in the commercial cookbook world and are at best viewed by professionals with a tolerant if weary amusement. But in a work as ambitious as The Thousand Recipe Chinese Cookbook they must be taken more seriously. Had Mrs. Miller been content to pursue her researches with the assistance of a really competent food authority she might well have written the definitive book of Chinese cooking she apparently intended to do. As it stands, The Thousand Recipe Chinese Cookbook is little more than an expensive publishing curiosity. At a fraction of its cost, much of its content is available elsewhere.
December 7, 1967