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Authentic Chinese Cookbook Recommendations


BrandonPHX
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I have many hundreds of Chinese cookbooks. The best and most useful is Pei Mei's chinese cookbook vol. 1, and the standard of books published bilingually in HK and Taiwan is remarkably high. Nearly all the books published in the west overadapt or over simplify, but there's a lot to recommend in Yan-Kit So's Classic Food of China. I deplore the current gushing tendency of such very ungifted cooks as Kylie Kwong and Grace Young.

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Kenneth Lo, expatriate Chinese writer, teacher, and cook, is credited as mentor by prominent US Chinese-émigré chef-authors such as Martin Yan and Lawrence C. C. Chu. He pioneered popular English-language cookbooks about real, contemporary practice in China, including Chinese Regional Cooking (ISBN 0394738705, "used and new from $1.55" at one point on amazon) and Chinese Cooking on Next to Nothing. I posted re the first title to rec.food.cooking in 1988 (some people have copies of the posting but it's not currently in public archives). Lo, writing mostly in England, owned and partly translated an 11-volume national cookbook, one of several such titled Famous Dishes of China (Peking: Ministry of Commerce Foods and Drinks Management Department, 1963). Eloquent evocations of China itself, attention to underlying principles and folk recipes, condemnation of shortcuts like MSG (Lo was hardly the only Chinese chef to disparage MSG). I have various other titles from Lo. (For some reason, some of his later and British books have a different, more hack-work tone, and I spot also a different perception of Lo among some British readers.)

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Which book has authentic recipes that are also lesser known?

I'm tired of coming across the same recipes over and over again when flipping through countless Chinese cookbooks and I lose the incentive to buy another. So any suggestions for 'unique' Chinese cookbooks would be really wonderful :)

P.S. Hopefully with not too many 'exotic' ingredients that would be difficult to find in the West; Australia in particular.

Musings and Morsels - a film and food blog

http://musingsandmorsels.weebly.com/

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Assertion:

It shows. They don't work.
(I mentioned negative UK comments on Lo, and some of his later books had a different style that might conceivably fit this. Would like to learn more about it some time.)

But muichoi, you may not know it, but the categorical negative comment "They don't work" -- like many sweeping characterizations -- is very demonstrably inaccurate as I'll explain, and further, it's an assertion without data. It implies testing all Lo's books, including the two I named upthread, and The Top One Hundred Chinese Dishes (1992). These three include some of my most-used Chinese recipes (again, Chinese Regional Cooking is translations from a large national cookbook). Of the 20 or 30 recipes I tested in those books, all worked well when I tried them. (Maybe I should ask Martin Yan or Lawrence Chu to comment -- their words would carry more weight.)

Disproof of assertion by multiple counterexamples; quod erat demonstrandum.

For Sichuanese cooking, Fuchsia Dunlop's Land of Plenty (2001, ISBN 0393051773), if you overlook some fussy claims of the authentic or sole genuine way to make a certain dish (like the Guide Culinaire 100 years ago), is recipes studied and tried there, then reproduced successfully in Britain. For perceptive, incisive East-West fusion concepts I find it hard to surpass the 1990s series by husband-wife team Hugh Carpenter and Teri Sandison (Carpenter's a former Chinese-studies scholar turned cookbook author and teacher). Those books are alive with flavor, a gold mine of ideas that deserves more recognition. Amazon.com lists half a dozen of them or so, linked together.

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Also BrandonPHX, since you seem to be in the US, this might be useful: a recap of something I posted here and there a few years ago on the subject of that miraculous unique spice, Sichuan "peppercorns" -- more citrus than hot in flavor.

--

One unusual Chinese cookbook I use has some of the most rewarding spicy stews and similar dishes, some of which (like the simply named "red cooked beef with noodles") exquisitely employ Sichuan peppercorns. (In that case, with lots of of scallions, ginger and whole garlic cloves.) This book has spoken for most of those peppercorns that I used in recent years. The book is unusual in being an oral account from a skilled Chinese cook, transcribed and translated by English speaking writers. It has been a US underground classic for 30 years.

Schrecker and Schrecker, Mrs. Chiang's Szechwan Cookbook, Harper and Row, 1976, reissued 1987. ISBN 006015828X for the reissue. Readily available on the used market and probably some libraries. amazon.com currently lists 44 copies available, starting at $4.07. A good value, in my opinion.

PS: The Chiang book includes a recipe and background info about the famous tofu dish (spelled mapo doufu). Also, comments from Eugene Wu of the Harvard-Yenching Library who claims to've had the dish when he was young, in Chengtu, from the famous pock-marked lady herself, whom the dish is named for. Quoted in support of this review and recommendation:

"You ordered by weight, so many grams of bean curd and so many grams of meat, and your serving would be weighed out and cooked as you watched. It arrived at the table fresh, fragrant, and so spicy hot, or la, that it actually caused sweat to break out. Dr. Wu says that Mrs. Chiang's version of the dish rivals that of the famous old lady. It is just as rich, fragrant, and hot. / If we had to choose the quintessential Szechwanese dish, this spicy preparation of bean curd and chopped meat would probably be it. Its multiplicity of tastes and textures first stuns, then stimulates, the senses. ..." (The writers go on about the relation of the dish to Sichuan cooking traditions.)

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Max, as someone experienced in chinese cooking of course you can make the Lo recipes work, and he writes interestingly, but if beginners follow the recipes they don't work. His translations have too much adaptation to be useful to the experienced and not enough technique for the beginner. Mrs. Chiang's Szechwan cookbook is excellent, I agree.

FWIW, Martin Yan's recipes don't work either IMHO.

Edited by muichoi (log)
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Max, as someone experienced in chinese cooking of course you can make the Lo recipes work, and he writes interestingly, but if beginners follow the recipes they don't work. ... Martin Yan's recipes don't work either ...

I don't know Yan's recipes -- except a dazzling one I was introduced to by someone else, a sizzling black-bean chicken with shallots and ginger, which worked very well and has become a stand-by for me -- so I can't speak to his books. Rather, he's an example well known in North America of one of the people that have at least privately credited Lo for breaking ground in popularizing Chinese cooking methods overseas.

Not to belabor it but muichoi, first, assumption about me is again inaccurate: I began cooking Chinese recipes from Kenneth Lo, therefore tried them as a beginner. Second, presuming unknown facts about me is off the main issue. Were you to specify in which recipes you found difficulty and why, in Lo's books that I recommended (Chinese Regional Cooking, Chinese Cooking on Next to Nothing, and The Top One Hundred Chinese Dishes), and for Martin Yan's now that you've also dismissed his work, it would give substance to your arguments in readers' eyes. More than repeating "they don't work."

(Just a tip from someone who has been reading such things on the Internet, now coming up on 26 years.)

--------

"... all about food, cooking, cookbooks, recipes and other alimentary effluvia." -- Steve Upstill, announcement on net.general Sun Jan 31 10:16:27 1982.

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A fair point..unfortunately I've disposed of my copies of works by both authors. I do recall such things as recipes for beef with oyster sauce, in which a pound of sliced beef is chucked into the wok after a couple of aromatics and a little oil, then seasoned with oyster sauce. Just try it! I will revert later with other examples as you're right that I shouldn't condemn without going into detail. The Yan recipes I've seen are more riffs on vaguely oriental ingredients than genuine Chinese recipes.

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Which book has authentic recipes that are also lesser known?

I'm tired of coming across the same recipes over and over again when flipping through countless Chinese cookbooks and I lose the incentive to buy another. So any suggestions for 'unique' Chinese cookbooks would be really wonderful :)

P.S. Hopefully with not too many 'exotic'  ingredients that would be difficult to find in the West; Australia in particular.

A forgotten but truly excellent book is The Chinese Cookbook by Virginia Lee with Craig Claiborne. It was ahead of its time, and is out of print, but you can still find it.

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I second the recommendation for Mrs. Chiang's Szechwan Cookbook; I don't know why this book is not better known. The Dunlop books are wonderful, but you won't improve on Mrs. Chiang's huiguo rou, for example, and her ultra-simple Hot Pepper Flakes in Oil is a really useful condiment, particularly for dumpling lovers. Scan the secondhand shelves for this one.

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Pei Mei's chinese cookbook vol. 1

Found an old copy of this for a few dollars the other day, so thank you for pointing this book out. Recipes look good and straightforward enought to make. I love the very dated photography in the book.

Good going. vol 2 is also worth getting (mum swear by it) - can normally be found floating around amazon and abebooks.

vols 3 and 4 less worthwhile.

J

More Cookbooks than Sense - my new Cookbook blog!
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  • 2 months later...

I've always had good luck with any of Martin Yan's recipes as well as Grace Young's. The comment that 'she can't cook' is way out of line, I went to a class she did at Sur La Table a couple of years ago which was great and which has paid dividends many times over for me.

I agree with those who've mentioned Mrs Chiang's Szechuan Cookbook also. I'm particularly fond of the recipe for the sweet and sour spare ribs. I have Kenneth Lo's "Top ONe Hundred Chinese Dishes' and have only tried a couple from there but the ones I've tried have been fine. I'll have to keep an eye out to try to find a copy of Pei Mei's book.

Charles a food and wine addict - "Just as magic can be black or white, so can addictions be good, bad or neither. As long as a habit enslaves it makes the grade, it need not be sinful as well." - Victor Mollo

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  • 1 month later...

I'm talking different regional foods such as Teochew, Hakka, Fujian, Northeastern, etc. Too often do we get books (as great as they are) discussing either Western-Chinese or Cantonese-style cooking and it's becoming quite a struggle to find a recipe that focuses on something like the food from Chaoshan.

A good sign, however, is that I've noticed an increasing interest in Sichuan/Hunan cooking when I browse at bookstores. It's nice to know that people are branching out and not thinking of a 'sole' style of Chinese cooking.

I was also pleasantly surprised when chrisamirault recently posted about "Beyond the Great Wall", a new cookbook which explores, amongst others, Xinjiang (yay!), Tibetan, Yunnan cuisine -I suppose everything that's not eastern Chinese.

(check out the thread here http://forums.egullet.org/index.php?showtopic=115247)

But in this thread, I'm still trying to focus on eastern Chinese cuisine (i.e. mainly 'Han' recipes, not necessarily different ethnic groups) yet different regions not so well known.

Can anybody make some recommendations?

THanks in advance :)

Musings and Morsels - a film and food blog

http://musingsandmorsels.weebly.com/

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i thought Sichuan food has always been popular besides Cantonese, no? having been to both provinces several times and love the food there i really can't decide which i like more.

i've recently returned from my 3rd China oinking trip... visited Fujian province for the first time which was a very interesting experience, also foodwise. 3 days of Hunanese food in Changsha were too short. Yunnan is great all round. Xinjiang was on my itinerary but the event of march 14 ruined it all. however i managed to make it to Songpan county, miraculously in time...between before and after they closed it off to foreigners. one place i know i'd never return is Wuyishan, although i quite like the tea eggs there. Shandong will be on my list next time for sure. China is too vast and diverse it's going to take me many years to see/eat it all 6 weeks at a time :biggrin:

[i've had sweet and sour pork only once in my life but it wasn't ordered by me, and not in China.]

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Ce'nedra:

Here are four books that I love. None gives you exactly what you want, but they all have tempting bits of it.

All but Martin Yan's book are out of print, but they are inexpensive from the used book dealers.

Calvin B. T. Lee

The gourmet Chinese regional cookbook (ISBN: 9780399116735)

This is a low-key introduction from about 25-30 years ago, when ingredients were not readily available. You may want to make some modifications. Lots of stuff from Eastern provinces.

------

Yong Yap Cotterell

Chinese Cooking for Pleasure (ISBN: 094153362X)

The same but different. These two books complement each other beautifully.

------

Ken Hom

The Taste of China (ISBN: 1858131499)

This is more of a journey-to-the-west type of book, but lots of good stuff from K.H.-s home village and nearby.

------

Martin Yan

Martin Yan's Chinatown Cooking The Companion Cookbook To The Public Television Series (ISBN: 0060084758)

This book is excellent. It shows how the various "ethnicities" have brought their cuisine to foreign lands, and developed cuisines around them.

------

All of these books will make you want to cook!

BB

Food is all about history and geography.

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Just FYI, sweet and sour pork is a REAL Chinese dish, although much more refined than the ketchup and pineapple versions you get at cheap Chinese restaurants. Made properly, with wah mui (preserved sour plums), it can be a revelation.

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BonVivantNL: You're right, Sichuan food is one of the more popular regional Chinese cuisines, but nowhere near as popular as Cantonese in the West I don't think (at least not where I live).

Please tell me more about Fujian when you can! :biggrin:

Big Bunny: Thanks so much for the recommendations :) Martin Yan is indeed good! I have a free cookbook (more of promotion book but it had plenty of recipes) from him and it's truly wonderful and *drum roll* VARIED!

Your mention of his "Chinatown Cooking" really caught my eye -I really enjoy cookbooks complete with a mini history lesson and that book sort of sounds like it does!

It seems these regional books I'm after tend to be passed down by word of mouth rather than printed for purchase...sigh...

aprilmei: I'm aware there's a real version of sweet sour pork (thanks for the heads up anyway) but I was trying to make a point that I wanted Chinese recipes that were a little different/not so common :smile:

Musings and Morsels - a film and food blog

http://musingsandmorsels.weebly.com/

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Chinese regional cookbooks tend not to stay in print for long. Most of the ones I have are either from used book stores, or cut-out tables.

Now that I can (sort-of) afford it, I watch for new Chinese cookbooks as they are published.

If you can, spend time in good, old used book shops and see what comes along. In the beginning stages of building a library, random finds are valuable, and lots of fun.

BB

Food is all about history and geography.

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      Fresh Green Sichuan Peppercorns

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      A local shopping mall. The correct pinyin (with tone markers) is 'dōng dū bǎi huò'.
       
      But pinyin's main use today is as the most popular input system for writing Chinese characters on computers and cell-phones. I use it in this way every day, as do most people. It is simpler and more accurate than older romanizations. I learned it in one afternoon.  I doubt anyone could have done that with Wade-Giles.
       
      Pinyin has been recognised for over 30 years as the official romanization by the International Standards Organization (ISO), the United Nations and, believe it or not, The United States of America, along with many others. Despite this recognition, old romanizations linger on, especially in America. Very few people in China know any other than pinyin. 四川 is  'sì chuān' in pinyin.
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