By Buwei Yang Chow
This book was written during the Second World War and is thus, I believe, the oldest in my Chinese cookery book collection. The author, Buwei Yang Chow, was a medical doctor who studied medicine in Japan and, after a brief return to her native country, came to the United States before the Communist takeover. She developed a serious interest in cookery and, at the insistence of a friend, wrote this classic little book. Her husband helped her in this endeavor and, as noted in the Foreword, the pair of them are to be credited with coining the term ‘stir-frying’. This alone marks the book as something of a collector’s item as does the fact that the preface was written by Pearl S. Buck, Nobel Prize winner and author of ‘The Good Earth’.
Content and Organization
The book (249 pages in the paperback) is primarily organized into 20 main sections each dealing with a different dish type. These are:
The 5 sections dealing with ‘Meat’ all deal with porcine products, reflecting the Chinese tradition that when one refers to meat without specifying the particular animal it is assumed one means pork. The ‘Meat Specialties’ include recipes for pork ribs as well as pig trotters and tripe.
The first 45 pages or so of the book introduce the reader to Chinese meals, foodstuffs and methods of cooking, and there is a final section that describes how one might put together a Chinese meal and some notes on tea.
The recipes, written as they were for an American audience in the 1940’s, is limited only to the very simple sorts of ingredients that would have been available back then. Indeed, the author says, rather wistfully, in the introduction to foodstuffs, that there is not much point in even describing the wide range of vegetables available to Chinese kitchens, as it would only serve to make her own mouth water.
The author introduces the reader to the basics of Chinese cookery by covering a basic technique in one recipe and then building on it in successive recipes (all numbered sequentially) with different ingredients. So as to avoid repetition, or perhaps paper, one is simply provided, in quite a lot of cases with a recipe such as:
6.5 Sweet Pepper stir Beef Shreds
Follow exactly Recipe No. 3.8 but substitute Beef for Pork
The writing style in the book is quite clear but sometimes so brief as to be terse. Although this is an introduction to a cuisine, it is clear that the author expects the reader to be comfortable and familiar with basic cookery techniques. Accordingly, this is not a book for beginners by any means, particularly given the fact that there are no more than a few pen-and-ink illustrations, none of which is especially helpful.
One feature of the book I did particularly like beyond the rather amusing title is the convention employed in naming the dishes. Apparently, the author dictated recipes in Chinese that were then translated by her daughter and ‘re-worked’ by her husband. The daughter would insist, for example, that ‘Meat slices with Cucumbers’ would be an appropriate wording, while the author felt that the Chinese syntax should be reflected in the translation and thus rendered as ‘Cucumbers stir-fry Meat Slices’. This style is used throughout the book and gives it, to my mind, a bit of poetry that the rest of the instructive text is lacking.
I like this book and am very glad I own a copy but it must be said that it is really a book for collectors only. To all persons who are just looking for a good introduction to Chinese cuisine I would suggest something much more contemporary, with illustrations and a wider range of foodstuff usage.