The modern cookbook is a marvel of marketing and engineering. Elegantly placed photos and tons of flavor text, outlining just enough recipes to justify the expense. All too often they see service as coffee table books, as I saw in my last cookbook review “Basic Asian- Basically a Bunch of BS”, which you can read following a link at the end of this short review.
As someone who takes cooking seriously, what I look for in a cookbook is very simple. I want recipes, and I want the foundations from which they are built. The latter often includes solid amounts of context, be it from other recipes, the industry itself, or just history in general. I suppose you could get away with calling it ‘flavor text’.
The classic example is Julia Child’s 1961 classic, “Mastering the Art of French Cooking”. Full to the brim with hundreds of recipes that have been deftly sectioned, each with a foreword to add background and useful bits of information about how to combine or modify the recipes for your audience of choice.
A book much more modern that does much the same thing is Tom Collichio’s “Think Like A Chef”. One of the cornerstones of my personal collection, it teaches a home cook how to think about and prepare food in a manner akin to that of a professional while still imparting large amounts of useful information. These include flavor combinations, seasonality, and alternative or unconventional ways to use ingredients, all of which are fundamentals in a chef’s arsenal.
But to return to the past, to make a vital note. There is another book. One that did everything Julia’s book did for French food.. but for China. This is “The Fine Art of Chinese Cooking”, by Dr. Lee Su Jan. Published in 1963, it takes a no-nonsense approach to outlining the fundamentals of what has come to be thought of as contemporary Chinese-American cuisine.
Realizing that the Kennedy-era American cook would never be able to find the wealth of authentic ingredients Chinese food needed, the author turned to recipes that used the basics. In doing so, he taught not only ways to prepare dinner, but the fundamentals of Chinese cooking technique, and the philosophy behind those techniques.
Seeing a pattern here, ladies and gentlemen?
There is virtually nothing of the author itself in the book, which tells strongly of his academic leanings. Most all modern cookbooks are rife with anecdotes and vignettes to fill space and keep the casual buyer interested. The first third of this has no recipes at all! But it lays the foundation of thousands of years of Chinese history, and reads most engagingly, each chapter discussing a new and vitally important part of Chinese cooking while providing background and encouraging further independent research.
Brilliantly informative even today, the book has upwards of two hundred recipes, a worthy note on its own considering the manuscript has all of 234 pages. Admittedly many of them are derivative, but it was almost certainly intentional. The purpose was to show versatility- that a simple preparation can be nudged in many directions to please many audiences without harming flavor or legitimacy. Doing this would have given readers confidence to experiment and improve their recipes- something many cooks of the era would have hesitated to consider. Some of the recipes might be intimidating. Don’t let them scare you. Everything I’ve tried works.
The primary drawback to this book is that it’s A: hard to find, and B: dated. At many points the author makes substitutions for authentic ingredients, citing their inaccessibility. Things like scallions, ginger, and sesame oil.
Don’t laugh! The modern cook has access to more ingredients than the author would ever have imagined. Where I live in California, I have my pick of a dozen Asian or Indian specialty grocery stores within a ten minute drive. in 1963’s California, I would likely have had to drive from here to San Francisco’s Chinatown to procure those same things! And that’s in a state that’s had a massive Asian population since the days of the intercontinental railroad. Imagine what a Midwestern housewife would have had to go through!
I recommend finding this book any way you can. I haven’t found it online except for a handful of copies on Ebay or Amazon. But any serious cook; anyone with an academic bent or a love of food; anyone who wants to learn how to cook Chinese style; and anyone who wants to appreciate how far the world has come in embracing other cultures, will find this book a masterpiece.