Review: The Szechuan and Hunan cookbook

By Louise Stallard

1981 Sterling Publishing Co.  ISBN 13: 978-0847313310

I frequently scan Amazon for cookery books that are interesting or out of the ordinary. I do not limit myself to those just carried by Amazon but also will occasionally purchase from third-party vendors who advertise there, as it is sometimes possible to come up with the odd real gem. Sadly, though, this book, while it looked promising, just did not fall into that category.

The first edition of the book was actually published in 1976 by Drake publishing, so it has some limited ‘historical’ interest given that Sichuan cookery books were far less common then than now. Beyond that, though, there is little in this book to make it worth the money… 

Content and Organization

There are 139 recipes in the book, which would be rather impressive for such a small volume if the range on offer were not so pedestrian. The only slightly unusual aspect is the chapter entitled ‘The Insides of the Animal’ as it collects a fair sampling of recipes using offal, including brains.

There is an introductory overview purporting to cover Sichuan cooking techniques, equipment and dining etiquette but it really doesn’t offer a lot of information and one generally feels that the author has just merely repeated information culled from sources of dubious authority. Similarly, the ‘Helpful Hints’ section at the back adds nothing of any substance.

Critique

It is difficult to find any positive comments to make about this book.  In the first place, the title really has almost nothing to do with the content. Although it purports to cover the cookery of Sichuan and Hunan, there is no mention of Hunan whatsoever in the introductory pages and there are no Hunanese recipes except for two listed under ‘Hotpots’. On reviewing these recipes, however, I cannot for the life of me see what there is to connect either one with Hunan.

The rest of the recipes in this book are also poor and ill chosen. Other than the occasional use of Sichuan peppercorns, very few resemble any Sichuanese recipes I recognize, least of all the Kung Pao Chicken version, which is about the worst I have ever come across. Everything else is, at best, the sort of generic faux-Chinese dishes one might come across in a supermarket magazine while quite a few really have no business in a book with the title of this one … the so-called ‘Chinese Turkey’ and the Rumaki, particularly come to mind. One or two of the very simple recipes can be regarded as good, traditional Chinese dishes (if not especially Sichuanese) but these are definitely in the minority.

Overall

If you are a die-hard cookery book collector, with a special interest in tracing how Chinese food has been perceived and interpreted in the west then this book may interest you. Otherwise, save your money…

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