The Wisdom of the Chinese Kitchen
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The Wisdom of the Chinese Kitchen, with its 150 recipes culled from a lifetime of family meals and culinary instruction, is much more than a cookbook.
The Wisdom of the Chinese Kitchen is a daughter's tribute—a collection of personal memories of the philosophy and superstitions behind culinary traditions that have been passed down through her Cantonese family, in which each ingredient has its own singular importance, the preparation of a meal is part of the joy of life, and the proper creation of a dish can have a favorable influence on health and good fortune. Each chapter begins with its own engaging story, offering insight into the Chinese beliefs that surround life-enhancing and spiritually calming meals. In addition, personal family photographs illustrate these stories and capture the spirit of China before the Revolution, when Young's family lived in Canton, Shanghai, and Hong Kong.
The first part, “Mastering the Fundamentals,” provides instruction on the arts of steaming and stir-frying; the preparation of rice, panfried, and braised dishes; the proper selection of produce; and the fine arts of chopping and slicing. Part Two, “The Art of Celebration,” concentrates on the more elaborate, complex, and meaningful dishes—such as Shark's Fin Soup and West Lake Duck—that are usually made with rare ingredients, and sweets such as Water Chestnut Cake and Sesame Balls. The final part, “Achieving Yin-Yang Harmony,” explores the many Chinese beliefs about the healing properties of ginseng, gingko nuts, soybeans, dong quai, and the many vegetable and fruit soup preparations that balance and nourish the body. The stories and recipes combine to demonstrate the range of Cantonese cooking, from rich flavors and honored combinations to an overall appreciation of health, well-being, and prosperity.
In addition to the recipes, Young provides a complete glossary of dried herbs, spices, and fresh produce, accompanied by identifying photos and tips on where to purchase them. Unique traditional dishes, such as Savory Rice Tamales and Shrimp Dumplings, are also illustrated step by step, making the book easy to use. The central full-color photo section captures details of New Year's dishes and the Chinese home decorated in celebration, reminding one that these time-honored traditions live on, and the meals and their creation are connections to the past.
Grace Young is a culinary sister to novelist Amy Tan. In The Wisdom of the Chinese Kitchen, along with sharing recipes from her family, Young immerses the reader in Chinese culture and the Chinese American experience of San Francisco's Chinatown, where she grew up. This personal book began with Young's wish to preserve the Cantonese dishes prepared by her parents and extended family. Since they cooked by instinct, the only way to record their recipes was by observing her mother, father, and aunties while they cooked, and by asking endless questions. These kitchen conversations also became a way to elicit untold family history from her deeply traditional and reticent parents.
Each chapter opens with an essay intertwining biographical stories with information about Chinese food and healing. The blending of culinary information and cultural observations is powerfully realized, perhaps because Young shows old-fashioned respect along with a contemporary perspective. The result is both affectionate and enthralling. You can vividly picture the meticulous choreography as her parents make dinner in their tiny kitchen, reaching over steaming pots and rushing the steaming food to the table.
Young delves into the hows and whys of Cantonese home cooking, with particular attention to technique and ingredients: Chinese broccoli with flowers should be avoided because the bright yellow blossoms indicate the stalks are too old. Steaming is valued because it draws out the intense flavors near the bone in chicken, fish, and meat, leaving them tender and moist.
Many dishes are elementally simple. Hot-and-Sour Soup is fired solely by aromatic white pepper. White Chicken is perfumed just with ginger and garlic. Some choices are quick and easy, as in stir-fried Bean Sprouts, while others require long and elaborate preparation, like savory Rice Tamales stuffed with pork, Chinese sausage, and duck egg yolks and wrapped in bamboo leaves. Anyone who enjoys eating Chinese food or has experienced the generational differences in immigrant families will get lost in The Wisdom of the Chinese Kitchen. --Dana Jacobi
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