Review: The Modern Art of Chinese Cooking

By Barbara Tropp

1982 William Morrow Cookbooks ISBN-13: 978-0688146115

I have owned this book for at least a decade now and this year it will be thirty years old. At least one reviewer has described it as being somewhat ‘dated’ but I have to say that I cannot really see in what way this might be so. It is a very comprehensive overview of general Chinese cuisine with plenty of instruction and a decent selection of recipes featuring many classics and some innovations by the author that illustrate various principles of Chinese cookery… 

Content and Organization

The book contains over 200 recipes in 624 pages. The first 100 pages or so are devoted to various techniques and the information provided is very detailed and instructive.

The recipes are well chosen to illustrate the various techniques and, even where the author departs from more traditional recipes to include her own innovations, or ‘fusion’ types of dishes, she takes pains to explain the underlying basics of Chinese cuisine that make a given dish Chinese in spirit.

There is also a wealth of interesting and informative supplementary material provided with each recipe and, as a very useful added feature, the author always includes some suggestions for serving the various dishes as part of a larger meal.

Critique

Some people may find this book a bit too much in so far as it almost buries the recipes in a whole lot of ‘extraneous’ material but, in my opinion, this is what raises the book above the crowd, so to speak. There are, however, some failings:

The first glaring deficiency is the lack of illustrations. There are some line drawings included showing some of the foods in the glossary, the equipment to be used, and a few of the simpler techniques, such as folding wontons, for example. But for a book that provides such otherwise excellent instruction on Chinese cookery methods, the pictures provided are woefully inadequate.

Another thing I rather dislike about this book is the layout, which is very cluttered. This is quite probably a function of trying to include so much material in the given number of pages but, all through the book, one recipe or section ends up running into the next and it is sometimes confusing for the reader. I think a little bit more care and planning could have avoided some of this.

Overall

Aside from the deficiencies noted above, this book is very useful from the point of view of the interesting information it includes. In particular, I was very interested to read what this author had to say about ‘fish-flavor’ dishes at page 195. I don’t recall ever seeing this explanation of how the name arose in any other book (and I am not sure I am convinced) but I think it is this sort of thing that will make the book appeal to all serious students of Chinese cookery.

It is indeed unfortunate that the book is so deficient in decent illustrations. Had this not been the case, I think it could well be deserving of being known as one of the ‘bibles’ of Chinese cuisine. That being said, however, even though this is not the best book in my collection it is one I refer to frequently and I recommend it as being one of those ‘essentials’ for a well-rounded library of cookery books.

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