The Chinese Cookbook Project VI: The Julia Child of China

Julia Child said that her second favorite cuisine next to French was Chinese; she recognized that Chinese cookery was a complex art dependant upon fresh ingredients and mastery of technique, and she appreciated the depth and breadth of flavor called forth by one of the oldest culinary traditions in the world.

Often called by the media, “The Julia Child of China,” author, cooking instructor and television personality Fu Pei Mei undertook a great challenge–to teach mastery of Chinese cooking technique to as many people as possible.

A native of Dalien, in Northeastern China, Pei-Mei moved to Taiwan when she was nineteen years old, and there she worked at a trading company, and then appeared in television commercials promoting electric appliances. Much like Julia Child, she did not learn to cook until she was married, and like Julia, once she started learning the skills of the kitchen, Pei-Mei strove to perfect them.

Her quest for perfection and her ability to teach the skills she aquired to others led to her starting a popular weekly television show in Taiwan in 1962; her show continued for thirty-nine years. During those years, she taught nearly four thousand recipes to untold numbers of viewers in Taiwan and around the world. (There are some Chinese-Americans and Taiwanese who grew up watching her show, much as many of us here grew up watching Julia Child.)

In addition to the television show, in 1955, she started the oldest cooking school in Taiwan, “Pei-Mei’s Chinese Cooking Institute.” More than thirty thousand students, Chinese and foreign, attended and learned the techniques and secrets of regional Chinese cookery. She also judged Chinese cookery contests in Taiwan, Hong Kong and Japan, and she put on cooking demonstrations around the world.

Of course, Pei-Mei also wrote cookbooks–some of the most popular cookbooks ever written in China.

Pei Mei’s Chinese Cookbook, Volumes I-III are beautifully put together sets of recipes, with full-color illustrations of each dish. The text appears in both Chinese and English, making this set of books a treasured resource for both Chinese and Chinese-American households.

Her books were de rigeur for every bride, and copies, often with hand-written notes in the margins, have been passed down from mother to daughter to granddaughter in both China and the United States for years. They are now all sadly out of print, and are somewhat difficult to find, but they are all worthy of attention from serious students of Chinese cookery.

Volume I is set up regionally; after a basic introduction to Chinese ingredients which includes photographic illustrations, the recipes are arranged according to general geographical boundaries of Eastern, Southern, Western and Northern cuisines. These chapters give pictorial introductions to dishes representative of each region, while snacks and desserts merit their own chapter at the end of the book.

For example, the chapter on the Southern region, which includes Canton, showcases the ubiquitous white-steamed whole chicken with scallions, minced pigeon in lettuce cups, and soup in winter melon.

Volume II is put together in a completely different way; the recipes are arranged according to their main ingredients, starting with chicken, moving through duck, pork, beef, fish, seafood, eggs and beancurd and vegetables, with separate chapters for soups , noodles and desserts. As with Volume I, each recipe is illustrated with a full-color photograph, and the book includes explanatory notes and illustrations on Chinese ingredients and techniques.

Similar to Volume I, Volume III is organized regionally, but this time, instead of broad regional categorizations, the chapters are more specific to named provinces. In addition to being focused on provincial cookery, this book presents dishes appropriate for formal dinners and banquets, resulting in dishes that include luxury items like shark’s fin and are beautifully garnished. Instructions on how to present a formal dinner, including seating etiquette are presented both in Chinese and English.

After the very composed and artful dishes of Volume III, the more laid-back and simple foods presented in Pei Mei’s Homestyle Chinese Cooking are a welcome comfort. I have to admit that while I have attended a formal Chinese banquet (Zak’s grandfather’s 80th birthday, hosted by his business partner Mr. Ting), and I greatly enjoyed myself, I do prefer the more robust and homey dishes that are cooked by and for family, so I saw many more recipes that I wanted to try in this slim volume. Maybe it is because my first tastes of “real” Chinese cookery were the homestyle dishes that Huy cooked for the employees to eat at dinner time at China Garden, or maybe it is because that is the kind of cooking I prefer in any cuisine. (I should also note that this book has text only in English–perhaps it was written with an American/European/Australian audience in mind; however, the dishes are still very “Chinese”–they use authentic ingredients such as preserved vegetables, hot bean sauce and dried bean curd sticks.)

However, while I like the fourth, smaller book the best, I have to say that all of the books are lovely and well worth seeking out. The way I see it–millions of Chinese housewives, Mammas and Popos cannot be wrong–these books teach real Chinese food for real people to cook and eat. If you find them, pick them up and do not let them go, unless you are passing them down to another person to learn from–they really are a wonderful resource.

Sadly, Fu Pei Mei died last September of cancer at the age of seventy-three. She was mourned and honored by many people all over the world who saw her as their mentor and teacher. Her daughter, Angela Cheng, and her daughter-in-law, Theresa Lin, are both great cooking teachers and authors in their own rights, and they are carrying on in Pei-Mei’s footsteps: writing books, teaching classes, appearing on television and on the radio across the world.

I very much hope that they are as influential upon generations of Chinese cooks as Fu Pei Mei was, and they continue the good work she started–I would hate to see China lose its culinary heritage to the booming success of Western-style fast food.

9 Comments

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  1. Hello Barbara,
    I find her recipes rather elaborate, and have been pretty intimidated by them to even try. They look like banquet quality dishes! I, however, bought her biography last year but have not been able to sit down to enjoy it. Yes, both my mother and grandmother liked her programs and have very high regards for Ms. Fu. Hmm…perhaps I should give her cookbooks another look? :) Shirley

    Comment by Anonymous — October 25, 2005 #

  2. Hello, Shirley! It is good to hear from you again–I have missed your incisive comments.

    The recipes in the third volume are somewhat elaborate–and the photographs in all of the books make all of the dishes look banquet quality. However, I think it depends on what you are used to cooking–if, as you are, you are used to Cantonese homestyle foods–many of Fu Pei Mei’s recipes will seem too complicated.

    On the other hand, if you are used to making Sichuan foods, as I am, lots of her recipes seem pared down and simple!

    My one quibble with the books, is the prevalance of deep-frying or oil blanching of foods in large amounts of oil–up to three cups.

    I am not willing to do that at home. It is too wasteful, messy and involved–not to mention not very healthy–and I find that a lot of modern Chinese cookbooks will avoid this step. I know a lot of Chinese home cooks avoid oil blanching for many of the same reasons.

    I think you would like her Home Style cookbook, though–most of the foods are just good, hearty, home cooking. It is certainly my favorite.

    Comment by Barbara Fisher — October 25, 2005 #

  3. Hi Barbara – I own Fu Pei Mei’s Chinese Cookbook Vol I, and I think it’s one of the easiest Chinese Cookbooks I’ve ever used! The recipes are very basic, and somewhat easy to understand, though as with most Chinese Cooking good technique is essential. My only regret is that I never purchased Vol II or III and now they’re rather hard to find, even in Chinese Bookstores in Los Angeles. The recipes use oil in a pretty liberal amount, though after making the recipes a few times, adjustments can be made. Come to think of it; I placed Vol I as my favorite cookbook for one of those Cookbook MEME’s. Thanks for a great post, I really enjoyed it!

    Comment by Kirk — October 25, 2005 #

  4. Welcome, Kirk–

    Guess what? I read your post on the Fu Pei Mei cookbook, and that is how I found your blog, when I was researching this post, oh, about three weeks ago.

    Good technique is always necessary for good Chinese food, which is the only place where these cookbooks will fail for someone who is not already well versed in the technical aspects of Chinese cookery. Me–I am fine. I don’t need expansive instructions on how to stir fry and in what order and for how long, etc, etc. The same is probably true for many Chinese and Chinese-Americans reading these books.

    But, for your typical American–that may be a place where the books fail them. They would best be used -after- someone has learned the basics and knows how to stirfry with their eyes closed and how to steam something, and how one shreds something with a cleaver.

    As for getting copies of the other volumes, Kirk–and maybe I should really put links up for this–probably in a new post–try looking on Amazon periodically for used copies, and Ebay. I got all three volumes from Ebay–at reasonable prices. The Home Style cookbook I purchased from Amazon used.

    To find out what prices they go for, look on bookfinder.com. They almost always have copies listed from used bookstores across the country there, in a range of prices.

    Before I bid on -any- book on ebay, in fact, I check bookfinder.

    So–now you know my secret of how I find copies of out of print Chinese cookbooks!

    If you ever have any questions about any other Chinese out of print titles–let me know–I have a few other sources you can try.

    Comment by Barbara Fisher — October 25, 2005 #

  5. Growing up with a chinese mom, I never had any Chinese food cookbooks and neither did my mom. She cooked and still cooks from experience of watching her own mom, as do i now.

    So its a bit interesting to read your discussion of Pei Mei’s book.

    After reading your review, I might try to get one of these volumes and fiddle around with the recipes (does she have chinese language versions? That would really push my language skills, but I could be doing 2 things at once!).

    Comment by Rose — October 28, 2005 #

  6. Hello again, Rose–

    You are right–Chinese-language cookbooks are unusual. Traditionally, there were very few such things in existence; daughters learned from mothers and grandmothers, and so on. Apprentice chefs learned from older chefs, and everything was passed down orally.

    That is part of what makes Pei Mei’s cookbooks so unusual in a cultural sense. They are a completely modern phenomina, and they are the result of some of those old traditions and lines of communication breaking down to some extent, as Chinese society responds to the cultural and political changes that have swept through the nation over the past century.

    All of the first three volumes are bi-lingual–they are in both Chinese and English. This will let you read the Chinese and then check how accurate your understanding is on the facing page! The fourth book on homestyle cooking, is in English only.

    Good luck in finding the books and cooking from them–I would love to hear back from you on your experiments!

    Also, there is a series of bilingual Chinese/English cookbooks put out by the Wei Chuan Cooking School, which is also in Taiwan. The Wei-Chuan series is very similar to Pei-Mei’s books–which of course, makes me wonder if they got the idea from her books–but they are very wide-ranging in topic. They are small, but well-illustrated volumes that give step by step instructions and photos for each recipe, and the topics include classic recipes, homestyle recipes, health cookery using medicinals, dim sum, desserts, regional cuisines, and even Japanese, Thai and Vietnamese cookery.

    These books are all in print and are well worth seeking out, though, like the Pei-Mei cookbooks, the instructions in English are a little terse, which is fine if the cook has a lot of experience, but not so much if they are beginners.

    Comment by Barbara Fisher — October 28, 2005 #

  7. Hello Everyone, I have about 700 BRAND NEW copies of the Volume 1 cookbook. My father purchased 1000 copies from Taiwan in the early 1970s hoping to sell them through magazine ads. He never sold any (magazine ads were too expensive) and they sat in his garage until 3 years ago. Now I am trying to get rid of them for him! I sell them through Amazon for $24.99. Please email me if anyone is interested in buying them, either individually or IN BULK!

    Comment by Leslie Wiser — February 21, 2006 #

  8. Hi Barbara,

    I was reading this with interest when suddenly a bell went off. I went over to one of my shelves where I have a number of my Chinese books. I checked and sure enough I have a book by her. The Title is “FuPei Mei’s Chinese Cooking” published by Shufunotomo Co., Ltd. of Tokyo in 1992.

    It has 132 pages and contains 103 recipes. It is not a book I would recommend to a beginning cook. It has a short introductory chapter Traditions in Chinese cooking, dining etiquette and Essential qualities of Chinese food. That is followed by a short chapter of basic cooking techniques.

    All Chinese terms have the equivalent Chinese characters for the item or recipe.

    I had sort of diemissed the book since it seemed to be nothing but a collection of reipes with an illustration of each dish.

    At my current stage of development, I prefer to lear more about techniques than recipes. For this reason, I’ve enjoyed many of the posts in your Chinese Cooking School. There has been little I was n;t already familiar with but you have codified it and written about it in an interesting manner.

    The book is available used from Amazon for $31.95 (used). See: http://tinyurl.com/6nkrwu

    I would not recommend it unless some one wants to complete a collection of books.

    Best wishes and regards…

    Tom

    Thomas Spillman
    Asst. Professor (retired)
    Austin, TX

    Comment by Tom Spillman — July 20, 2008 #

  9. Hi Barbara. Stumbled onto your site today. Love it! My wife and own over 1000 cookbooks. When we conk out how can they best be sold other than ebay?..Thanks,Alan

    Many chinese including all those mentioned in your recent post

    Comment by Alan McCracken — August 13, 2008 #

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