The Chinese have had a stable civilization and a written history for nearly five thousand years. Relative isolation, sustainable agricultural practice, and political stability have allowed Chinese to focus on civilizing arts including cooking. China is situated in a region that supports the agricultural production of almost any food item known to man. It is, therefore, little wonder that this cuisine is broad, balanced, and highly refined.
Few cuisines embrace more ingredients and none uses more cooking techniques than Chinese cooking. No kind of cooking supports more human beings. By any measure Chinese cooking is a culinary force of mammoth proportions.
Common ingredients include pork, fish, chicken, shellfish, cabbage, tofu, mushrooms, ginger, scallions, shrimp, bell peppers, hot peppers, eggplant, beansprouts, bamboo shoots, water chestnuts, bitter melon, lotus root, green beens, eggs, black beens, almonds, and peanuts. The Chinese have an endless number of flavoring ingredients, the most popular in the west is soy sauce. Rice is a staple over much of the most densely populous eastern and southern regions. Wheat is local to the northern region, and it is here where Marco Polo found noodles which he brought back to Italy to make possible today's spaghetti.
Because refrigeration is relatively new to the culture, traditional methods make much use of dried ingredients: shrimp, mushrooms, peppers, and so on. Because dairy products are not eaten, tofu is a staple; there is no other way to get an appropriate amount of calcium.
We think first of stir-fry as the preferred cooking method - and wok work is a common part of Chinese cooking. But steaming is the principal means of preparing most dim sum - those delectable finger foods that real Chinese food aficianados crave more than any other Chinese cuisine. Smoking, grilling, basting and preserving are all parts of the cooking arsenal.
The Chinese use just about every cooking technique imaginable in the west, and then some. Stir-Fry is how most westerners know Chinese cooking, but this is barely the tip of the iceberg. Steaming is a popular method, especially in the south. And it is by this method that dim sum is made. The Chinese hot pot dishes might be compared to fricassees with their mix of vegetables and meats browned and finished with moist heat. Of course, there are roasting methods, and boiling methods for large chunks of meat and for broths. Because meat is more of a luxury in the far east, it is used more as a condiment than as the central part of a meal.
The New Classic Chinese Cookbook - by Mai Leung 1998.
This is an excellent introduction to Chinese cooking. It contains the essential, well known dishes and builds upon these carefully. One can find online recipes that are not very particular about cooking steps and techniques - the "throw it in a wok and remove it when it is done" variety. This is not Leung's style. She is meticulous in describing cooking steps that matter without being overbearing. The author manages to impart a sense of inspiration to the recipes that make you want to cook them. The book is solid and well bound. It does not have color photos, but it is well enough designed that one does not miss them. Indexed, 348 pp.
Chinese Cuisine - by Susanna Foo 1995
Foo's inventiveness might not play well to those who just want a straightforward Chinese cookbook, but those who want a California/Continental twist on Chinese will find this a treasure trove. This is very much a Chinese cookbook, yet it is colored with contintental cuisine touches. Whereas Leung's recipe for Taro Root fritters uses dried mushrooms and barbequed roased pork, Foo makes a cream sauce with mushrooms. Many of her changes are in the interest of healty cooking, for instance her green beans are blanched before they are stir-fried, instead of the traditional deep frying first. Indexed, 352 pp.
China Moon Cookbook - Barbara Tropp 1992
Trott is the chef-owner of a trendy San Francisco restaurant, China Moon. It might be misleading to call this Chinese food; it would be more correctly described as 'inspired by' Chinese food. The recipes in this book, many of them, appear to have come right out of the China Moon restaurant kitchen. The good news is that if you have a commercial kitchen, you can duplicate Tropp's successes which appear to be many and large. But a number of recipes strike one as being bigger and more complicated than the ordinary home cook is willing to undertake. It is not unusual, for instance, that the list of ingredients will cover more than half of a page, for two columns. This reviewer has not made it to the end of a recipe, but he is a slow reader.
Eat well and Prosper.
Copyright S.R. Brubaker 2002 - 2006.