China: A Cookbook: 300 Classic Recipes From Beijing And Canton, To Shanghai And Sichuan
“Historically, it’s been a ticklish problem for Chinese food writers to put together comprehensive primers of dishes that Westerners can relate to and want to cook. Tan’s . . . China beautifully meets this challenge.”
In China: A Cookbook, world-renowned chef, writer, and food historian Terry Tan takes the English-speaking home cook on a tour of this vast country’s regional dishes. This “Singapore-born Chinese” started out in his home country’s kitchens, then spent many years in London cooking and teaching. He’s the author of a litany of other cookbooks, including his celebrated Singapore Cooking, and is widely known for helping expose the West to authentic Southeast Asian cuisine.
Tan’s objective is to look beyond the stereotypical sweet-and-sour sauce and pay homage to a wide scope of local Chinese dishes. Most recipes are based on little known traditions. A few such as Hong Kong’s Lobster Noodles are innovative and cutting edge, but they’re made with simple ingredients and are easy to prepare.
To organize recipes in this massive 624-page volume, Tan divides culinary China into four broad sections: Cantonese, and the simplicity of southern food; Sichuan, with the intense flavors of the west; Beijing, and the hearty, rich dishes of the north; and in the east it’s Shanghai’s elegant seafood and rice preparations.
Chapters begin with overviews of each region’s history, geography, culinary traditions, and festivals, giving insight into the food typical of the areas. Accompanying each of the well-written 300 recipes is spectacular full-color photography.
In-depth sections discuss such topics as classic ingredients, kitchen equipment, beverages, and cooking techniques. At the end is a welcome listing of nutritional information for every single dish.
Recipes range from street food to banquet worthy. Tan’s food descriptions stir our imaginations to pretend that we’re strolling through a bustling outdoor market and stumbling upon a stall or tea house serving bowls of luxurious Chilli Noodles, Crystal Dumplings, Fish-Stuffed Vegetables, and the ubiquitous spicy, burgundy-colored Dan Dan Noodles. Vermilion-colored Cantonese Roast Ducks hang in every Chinese restaurant window, and menus feature Crispy Chili Beef and that American favorite Kung Pau Chicken.
At a rural home you might be served Beansprouts with Salt Fish, Pickled Mustard Greens, Sweet Turnip Dumplings, or Steamed Egg Custard. At a banquet, prepare to be delighted by Oil-Soaked Chicken, a Mongolian Seafood Steamboat, or Lion’s Head Pork Balls. Seafood Fried Rice and Red Cooked Fish are found throughout China, as is some version of chicken or pork Corn Soup, which can also be found in Chinese restaurants worldwide.
Tan explains that a meat free day during a Buddhist festival might be celebrated with Buddhist Vegetarian Noodles, or you might try Buddha’s Vegetarian Stew or Bamboo Shoots with gluten “Sausages.” Cook a crisp offering of Minced Pork Rolls in Beancurd Skins for a Taoist festival, and for the Lunar New Year serve Glutinous Rice Balls with Sesame Paste and the shrimp and yam discs known as Abacus Beads.
There’s only a smattering of sweets, reflecting their proportion to the typical savory-based Chinese diet. The sparse selection may seem unusual to the Western palate, with choices such as Mung Beans in Syrup, Silver-ear Fungus in Rock Sugar, Caramelized Taros, and Water Chestnut Cake.
One pitfall this book thankfully avoids is the use of herbs, vegetables, seafood, and animal parts that can only be found in mainland China food stalls. Recipes do occasionally call for the odd stalk of matrimony vine, dried lily buds, or water convolvulus (swamp cabbage), but substitutes are given. The overwhelming majority of ingredients can be purchased in your neighborhood grocery store.
Historically, it’s been a ticklish problem for Chinese food writers to put together comprehensive primers of dishes that Westerners can relate to and want to cook. Tan’s latest effort beautifully meets this challenge. Absorbing, readable, uncomplicated, and delicious, China, A Cookbook, can easily fill the needs of the typical American home cook yearning to dabble in Chinese.