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Review: The Wisdom of the Chinese Kitchen

By Grace Young

1999 Simon and Schuster Ltd.  ISBN 13: 978-0684847399

The title of this book suggests that it provides a broad overview of dishes from across China but, as we learn in the introduction and notes to the reader, the focus is almost exclusively on Cantonese cookery. It is not just a bare collection of recipes, though; Ms. Young, who grew up in a Chinese-American family, spends a lot of time introducing the reader to some of the philosophy and traditions of this particular regional cuisine… 

Content and Organization

In this book, the author departs from the more common way of categorizing the dishes on offer by main ingredient and instead divides the book into three main sections, each of which contains a number of sub-chapters:

I – Mastering the Fundamentals: This section contains 5 chapters each dealing with a particular cookery method, or the various methods employed for certain basic food types. These are:

  • The Meaning of Rice  – 10 recipes
  • The Breath of a Wok (Stir-frying) – 8 recipes
  • The Art of Steaming – 10 recipes
  • Shreds of Ginger Like Blades of Grass (Cutting technique) – 19 recipes
  • Going to Market with Mama (Fresh Vegetables) – 22 recipes

II – The Art of Celebration: This part includes dishes involving special ingredients or particularly complex cooking techniques and illustrates, for each, their particular significance to the Chinese table.

  • The Good Omen of a Fighting Fish – 13 recipes
  • New Year’s Food and Traditions – 9 recipes
  • A Day lived as if in China – 13 recipes
  • Dutiful Daughter Returns Home – 9 recipes

III – Achieving Yin-Yang Harmony: This final section contains two chapters each focusing on Cantonese beliefs and traditions concerning the health-giving and therapeutic values of various ingredients.

  • Cooking as a Healing Art – 29 recipes
  • Baba’s Mama’s Dong Quai and Restorative Foods – 8 recipes

Each chapter and recipe is prefaced by a wealth of interesting anecdotal, or factual information and there is a very thorough glossary of information at the end. It is, thankfully, well indexed, as this is very necessary given the unorthodox organizational scheme.

Critical Review

I am not sure, in the final analysis, that I like the way the author has chosen to organize her material. Clearly, she is quite passionate about the underlying traditions and concepts of her native cuisine but I think she could have communicated it in a more straightforward and less haphazard way. Even organizing chapters by main ingredient, of cooking method, she could have prefaced each part with an introduction covering all the material that, in the current scheme, is presented in a rather obscure and convoluted manner.

My other main dislike about this book is that it is very sparsely illustrated. There is a section in the middle with color photographs, but only a few of the actual dishes are shown. Most of the chapters also include some family pictures but these, while somewhat interesting, don’t add a lot to the culinary value of the book.

On the plus side, there are a lot of recipes and the range is excellent and well balanced. A few dishes are relatively common, but there are plenty that are either unique to this book, or else uncommon enough to be very interesting and well worth trying out.

Overall

I have to confess that I don’t browse through this book all that often; the best I can say, though, is that it has survived repeated culls of my library and will continue to do so. This is not a book for the casual cook, by any means, particularly with the dearth of illustrations, but I especially find it useful as a reference on occasion. Quite often, when I come across an interesting recipe elsewhere, I will consult this book as well to see if, and how, Ms. Young has handled it.  Serous students of Chinese cuisine will enjoy it.

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