It all started with my daughter.
She wanted to learn to cook Chinese food. And she wanted a wok and a rice cooker of her very own for Generic Winter Holiday.
Now, if she lived with me, all of this would be much simpler. She wouldn’t need her own rice cooker, because she could use mine; she could have her own small carbon steel wok and she could learn to cook Chinese food the best way–at my elbow.
But, since she doesn’t currently live with me, this posed a few interesting challenges.
I ended up getting her the wok and rice cooker, a pair of pretty good kitchen knives, some silicone prep bowls that she cannot break, a garlic peeler, a wok shovel and some rice paddles.
That just left the problem of a cookbook.
I wanted to get her a really good cookbook for absolute beginners that taught not only the hows of Chinese cooking, but the whys. She not only needed to know how the techniques worked together, but why they fitted together so well into a seamless whole of cuisine theory. The Chinese have been cooking, eating, and writing philosophical treatises on such since the time of Confucius. Indeed, the great philosopher was himself an epicure, and gastronomy is considered so highly that many Chinese scholars, ancient and modern, discourse upon the subject in their works.
In addition to the aesthetic and scientific principles of cookery, there is an entire underlying layer of meaning to Chinese food that has to do with the subtleties of health and physical energy, known as chi. As in tai chi, the Chinese martial art that has to do with moving the natural physical energy in the body in such a way as to bring harmony to the body, mind and spirit. Chi is the same things as hay in Cantonese–as in wok hay. And it is understood by the Chinese that food and eating are both integrally involved in one’s physical, emotional, and spiritual health on a subtle, energetic level.
I believe that all of these principles are extremely important to understanding Chinese cooking, and I try to at least expose my students to these ideas so that they get a good foundational understanding of the concepts behind the dishes I am teaching them. When I have taught private students, or when students take an entire series of courses that I teach publicly, they tend to get a deeper understanding of Chinese cookery as a holistic art that touches upon every aspect of Chinese culture and life. I wanted to help my daughter, who is turning fifteen in a few days, to get a foundational understanding of these principles while she learned to cook the dishes she enjoys from my kitchen and in various restaurants.
So, I started by looking through my rather large collection of Chinese cookbooks for a book to start a teenager down the path of learning to cook and eat in a Chinese manner.
And I discovered something.
There are some really great books in print that teach various Chinese dishes, and some of them teach the techniques well for beginners, but none of them really go in depth on the “whys” that form the essential logic and philosophy of Chinese cookery. Some touch on the healthy aspects of Chinese food, and other books do well at teaching physical techniques, but not many are well-illustrated to show how the techniques should look in practice. Chinese cookery is very technique-heavy, with a great deal of emphasis on very precise cutting in preparation for stir-frying, that it is difficult for an inexperienced person to grasp these without pictorial references.
I was lucky when I started learning Chinese cooking; I had the experience of watching a variety of trained Chinese chefs working in the kitchen with Huy. I had seen them do all of the various cuts and had watched them prepare meats for roasting and had even helped with some preparation, like filling wontons or wrapping spring rolls. And of course, there was always Martin Yan on television, so I could easily learn how to use a Chinese cleaver or how to dry fry from a book that had few or no illustrations. I had already seen these actions performed and had them in my memory.
I reluctantly ended up picking up Chinese Cooking for Dummies by Martin Yan, (what an unfortunate title) because it gave a very good step-by-step explanation of the fundamentals of Chinese cuisine in a way that was simple enough for an inexperienced cook to understand. There were very few photographs, but there were a lot of line-drawings show how to hold the knife and how various cuts should look. I also picked up, much less reluctantly, Yan-Kit So’s Yan-Kit’s Classic Chinese Cookbook, which is lavishly illustrated with full color photographs, not only of the finished dishes, but of ingredients, tools, and the techniques of cutting, steaming and stir-frying. The text is also written in a manner which I find to be very beginner-friendly, which is good for someone like my daughter, who is, unlike her mother, not in the habit of reading cookbooks for the sheer joy of it.
Books that I rejected out of hand because they were too densely written for someone with the patience level of a fifteen year old included Barbara Tropp’s The Modern Art of Chinese Cooking. It pained me to not give her that book, for it is a well-loved classic in my house, but I knew that Morganna would not have the patience to delve into some of the rather dense and dry prose that Tropp uses to explain the complex techniques and philosophy of the Chinese kitchen. I also turned aside Gloria Bley Miller’s doorstop classic, The Thousand Recipe Chinese Cookbook, which was the second Chinese cookbook that I owned, because it had very little in the way of useful illustration and too many of the recipes were simple variants of each other. I knew that if she had a volume of that size to dig through, my daughter might never pick up her wok and start to cook.
That is when I started looking at some of the books that I have which are out of print. Irene Kuo’s classic, The Key to Chinese Cooking has a nearly perfect balance of technical information and philosophical background, and once I picked it up, I began re-reading it for the pleasure of it. Her prose writing style gives the feeling of having an old friend whispering instruction into your ear, as you embark upon your adventure in the kitchen. Grace Chu’s Cooking School by Grace Zia Chu is similarly informative and comforting; both of these women were accomplished cooking instructors who worked primarily with American students, so they really can get to the heart of how to explain the complexities of Chinese food to people who were not born to that culture. Another great teacher whose books are all sadly out of print is Florence Lin.
As I read these older books, I began to realize that there was a lot of information out there that is just not available to modern students. Unless they are interested in digging around in used bookstores, or if they know what they are looking for, hunting up titles available online, few beginners will have heard of Grace Zia Chu, Irene Kuo or Florence Lin. The books do not look like much by modern standards–they are not full of photographs, and there aren’t a lot of line drawings, but the information is all presented in such no-nonsense, practical ways that I cannot help but see them as jewels hidden by the whims of the publishing world.
As I looked at these books, and traced their pages lovingly, I began to think beyond the plight of my daughter, and began to realize that the words of these great teachers might be lost to those who could benefit from them most. I remembered my experiences at Johnson & Wales culinary college, and remembered the way in which the cuisines of Asia were presented.
Culinary colleges in the United States teach the French principles of cuisine that were set down by Escoffier. It makes sense, since Escoffier was essentially creating an efficient method of running a restaurant kitchen, and also because much of American restaurant practice and culinary lineage comes directly from France. This is all fine and sensible, however, it means that the other cuisines of the world, particularly non-European ones, suffer from a lack of time and attention to cultural detail.
When we took “International Cuisine” which covered all the other cuisines of the world that were not covered in the classes “French Classical,” “American Regional” and “Continental Cuisines,” the whole of the continent of Asia was taught within three days of the nine day class. Three days spent on Chinese cuisines alone would not even scratch the surface of what there is to learn about even the basics, much less the complexities of the subject.
In addition, the library section on Chinese and other Asian cuisines was woefully inadequate. I did better relying on my own library at home when writing papers or researching recipes.
As I held these books in my lap and reminisced, an idea formed.
Why don’t I put together a library of both in print and out of print Chinese cookbooks, gathering together as many of the significant works I can find and then, at some point in the future, bequeath the collection to Johnson & Wales so that these books would be available to young students for generations to come?
I liked the idea well enough that I posted about it on a message board that an acquaintance of mine runs on his website. I figured that the posters in that community could give me suggestions on what books I should seek out and point out good leads on booksellers. Well, Gary Soup, the administrator of the site, liked the idea so much he gave me my own forum and we emailed back and forth to talk about which books he thought would have great historic significance that I should seek out.
At this point, I thought it might be best if I let my husband, Zak, know what is going on. He was up in his studio working on art, and so had missed all of the excitement that was happening downstairs, in my head, and on the Internet. So, over dinner (I believe I cooked him something particularly good, like Ma Po Tofu), I let him in on my cunning plan. He thought it was interesting, especially after I told him that I had the thought of attempting to unravel, then piece back together and record the history of Chinese cookbooks published in English. We both get bright-eyed over history, the more esoteric and generally odd, the better. So, the Chinese Cookbook Project was born.
One of the cookbooks that Gary suggested I pick up because of its historical significance is a very old one, called simply Chinese-Japanese Cookbook, written by Sara Bosse and Onoto Watanna, and published by Rand McNally in 1914. Gary has a link to an electronic archived edition of the book, and while it is not the very first Chinese cookbook printed in English in the United States, it is among the first handful.
Another book that the posters on the forums suggested I acquire was Florence Lin’s Complete Book of Chinese Noodles, Dumplings and Breads. That was one of her books I -did- not have, but which I heard raves from everyone who mentioned it.
So, I set forth. I had no belief that I would find a copy of the first book, being as it was so old, and even if I did find one, I assumed it would be prohibitively expensive. Oddly enough, within days of Gary’s suggestion, I looked it up on ebay and lo and behold–there was a copy listed, with the ridiculous opening bid of ninety-nine cents. Yes. You read that correctly.
I am not generally a superstitious person, but I have noticed that when I am doing something that seems to be “right,” or in line with what the Universe seems to want from me, small coincidences occur which make my endeavor start to fall into place. And this was one of those times. It was rather spooky, really, coming across this book on ebay within days of deciding to start this collection as a project that reached beyond myself and my own edification.
So, I watched the auction for several days. There were only two people bidding on it, and they seemed inclined to bid fairly low. I waited until the last five minutes of the auction and bid high, and picked up the book for a very small sum. Very gratified, I set my sights on the Florence Lin book.
Which I discovered to my dismay, is a highly sought after book, and is very expensive. Some copies go on ebay, Amazon or through Bookfinder for one hundred dollars or more. I couldn’t find a copy anywhere for less than seventy dollars. I was disheartened.
But, oddly, one evening after reading my email, blogs and message boards, I decided to check for the book on Amazon one more time. And there was a new listing for a used copy of it from Alaska, of all places, for the paltry amount of seventeen dollars.
Before you can say “gong hay fat choy,” I hit the “Buy this now with one-click” button, and lucked into a very well-cared for copy of the book.
So now, I am in the process of cataloguing the books I currently have. I have also been compiling a list of books that I am seeking. In the meantime, many little adventures in online book hunting have happened that I will relate in later posts. I also intend to write about what I have learned of the history of Chinese cookbooks published in English, as well as reviews for many of these books.
For now, let it suffice for me to say, that the Chinese Cookbook Project is well in hand and underway.
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