Many years ago I lived for a time in Taiwan and Hong Kong and traveled extensively throughout China. The food I discovered was remarkable: almost always fresh, locally sourced, flavorful, and characterized by a special regional ingredient or preparation method. Every place seemed to have a special dish tied to some historical event or ancient figure, or a special chili pepper or mushroom grown only in that village, or a pickle fermented with locally made wine or liquor. When I returned to the United States, I was disappointed to find that menus at many Chinese restaurants offered the same standard dozen or so dishes, often made from canned ingredients and heavy on the corn starch thickeners. In some measure, that was what their customers wanted. Thankfully, in the intervening 30 years, diners have become quite adventuresome and there are many more offerings to be had. One can find, particularly in this part of the country, restaurants specializing in a particular regional cuisine. And for cooks looking to prepare dishes themselves, items that were once considered exotic are now readily available. Many shops and markets offer ingredients (including seeds) to enable home cooks to prepare delicious, authentic dishes. Asian vegetables are also increasingly available at local farmers’ markets. If you’re a fan of Chinese food or even just looking to expand your repertoire a bit to celebrate the Chinese New Year, you’ll be delighted with two huge cookbooks exploring China’s vast culinary landscapes.
China: the Cookbook
by Kei Lum Chan and Diora Fong Chan
(Phaidon Press, 2016)
Phaidon Press publishes comprehensive, handsomely photographed cookbooks, focusing on particular world cuisines, which have many fans. In their latest offering, husband and wife authors Kei Lum Chan and Diora Fong Chan, culinary specialists in China, have assembled a guide to the major regional Chinese cuisines. Featuring more than 650 recipes, the book offers recipes from China’s 33 regions and sub-regions. Recipes indicate the region where the dish comes from and, for a very few dishes, they include a headnote with more background that adds color to the recipe. Within the 720 pages, you’ll find a history of Chinese food culture, descriptions of ingredients, suggestions for substitutes for hard-to-find items, and notes on cooking techniques and equipment. Recipes are straightforward and easy-to-follow with ingredients that can mostly be found around the East Bay, though cooks may need to play with seasoning a bit to get flavors just right to taste. Find dishes like Tofu with Preserved Mustard Greens (Taiwan), Pig’s Tail with White-Back Wood Ears (Hakka), Lettuce Wraps with Dried Oysters (Hong Kong), Chicken with Wild Yams (Henan), Pork with Dried Turnips and Pumpkins (Hong Kong), Chaozhou-Style Noodles, and Coconut Tarts (Hong Kong).
All Under Heaven: Recipes from the 35 Cuisines of China
by Carolyn Phillips
(Ten Speed Press, 2016)
Carolyn Phillips is a food writer, scholar, and artist whose work has appeared in many publications. She married into a Chinese family more than 30 years ago. Her latest offering, All Under Heaven, is the first cookbook in English to examine all 35 cuisines of China. In fact, the cookbook could have been several individual books as there’s so much detail included. Drawing on centuries’ worth of culinary texts as well as the author’s own years working, eating, and cooking in Taiwan, the book offers more than 300 recipes, and although there no photographs, some recipes include charming and helpful hand-drawn illustrations that Phillips made herself. Each recipe starts with an informative headnote (including suggestions for substitutions and other tips) and offers clear, step-by-step instructions. The book is written in a friendly style, as if from one home cook to another. Among the many recipes are instructions for Guangdong-Style Steamed Fish, Beijing-Style Smoked Chicken, Wuzhou Paper-Wrapped Chicken, Tossed Cilantro and Peanut Salad (The Northwest), and Rose-Scented Lotus Patties (Shaanxi).
Look for Anna Mindess’s article and interview with author Carolyn Phillips coming up in our Spring issue. Magazines will be available at local farmers’ markets and businesses starting in mid-February.
The Dim Sum Field Guide: A Taxonomy of Dumplings, Buns, Meats,
Sweets, and Other Specialties of the Chinese Teahouse
by Carolyn Phillips
(Ten Speed Press, 2016)
If her mammoth cookbook on Chinese cuisines weren’t enough, author and illustrator Carolyn Phillips published a second book at almost the same time, exploring the rich, nuanced culinary institution of Cantonese teahouse snacks known as “dim sum.” In this pocket-size, definitive resource featuring 80 hand-drawn illustrations, Phillips includes entries for all the dim sum classics—including siu mai, xiaolongbao, char siu pork, roast duck, and sweets like milk tarts and black sesame rolls—as well as dozens of other gustatory treats. It’s a charming book with loads of detail about both the region that specializes in the snacks and the food, rituals, places for enjoying it, including the various teas that may be served. Each entry includes an extensive description and history of the item, the sauce or dip that typically accompanies the dish, and the different permutations and various other bits of helpful detail. Find loads of information packed into this small, easy-to-carry volume!
Kristina Sepetys is a contributing editor to Edible East Bay and is eager to share her ideas and book recommendations with our readers.