The Fine Art of Chinese Cooking
How to Cook and Eat in Chinese
Joyce Chen Cookbook
Court Dishes of China The Cuisine of the Ch'ing Dynasty
Food for the Emperor
The Thousand Recipe Chinese Cookbook
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…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.