Review: Szechuan Cooking

By I-Chow Chen

1984: Hilit Publishing Co. Ltd.  ISBN:0-914929-75-5

This book is part of the ‘Chinese Regional Cuisine Series’ published out of Taiwan. I purchased two others in the series, “Cantonese Cooking’ and ‘Peking Cooking’, nearly twenty years ago and they are the first cookery books I ever owned that were printed in both Chinese and English. When I came across a second hand copy of this particular volume at Amazon a while ago I snapped it up, as the series is really pretty decent… 

Content and Organization

There are 55 recipes in the book organized chiefly by main ingredient, but there are additional sections covering soups and cold plates and a rather unusual grouping of deserts and snacks. There is a short introduction to the history and cuisine of Sichuan and all of the recipes are attractively illustrated with even a few being accompanied by additional ‘step-by-step’ photographs.

Critique

The variety of recipes is pretty good and there are some unusual ones you won’t easily find elsewhere. Unfortunately, it is clear that many of them are very much Taiwanese interpretations of Sichuan dishes rather than traditional native versions. The Kung Pao Chicken recipe, for example, looks like it might actually be quite tasty if you make it as the authors suggest but the procedure is quite a bit different from more standard recipes and would not produce the ‘proper’ scorched chili taste that most Sichuan diners would demand. Likewise, the recipe for Ma-La Dumplings includes Chili oil but doesn’t call for Sichuan Peppercorns (or the derived oil) which is a curious omission indeed given that the ‘ma’, or ‘numbing’ taste, is specifically produced by this ingredient.

Readers should also be warned that some of the recipes have been a bit hastily written and possibly not properly tested. The Hot and Sour Soup recipe, for instance, calls for only three cups of stock but then suggests you add two ounces of ground pepper. Many people like a good, fiery Hot and sour soup from time to time but this amount seems a little excessive, to say the least.

The introduction, while containing some interesting factual information and some nice pictures, would really have been improved by offering a bit more information about the various ingredients used in the book. There is actually a recipe for making Bean Curd included, which you don’t often see, but the authors direct you to add ‘plaster’ as a coagulant but don’t further identify what they mean. Similarly, quite a few recipes call for peppercorns but do not identify whether they mean the Sichuan or the more common western variety. One would assume the former but given some of the very non-Sichuanese interpretations of certain recipes it is difficult to be sure.

Overall

This is not a great book, by any means, and it isn’t even the best of its series. That being said though, it does present some interesting takes on a number of common dishes and several recipes, while not strictly Sichuanese, are well worth trying. It is not easy to find copies of this book anymore but if you happen across one at a decent price I would definitely recommend picking it up

5 thoughts on “Review: Szechuan Cooking”

  1. I love finding older cook books. Great review.

    Chinese cuisine (and all of its sub-categories) is something I definitely need to learn more about.

  2. My mom had these cookbooks and I have been looking for them for years but could only remember what the cover looked like and not the name of the series.

    Thank you!

    You have a great find!

  3. I have this book, and have been making a few recipes from it. I’m pleasantly surprised to discover how easy some of them are, although I admit that I won’t be trying Ma Po Pork Brain any time soon, as easy as it looks. I know exactly what you about how some of the recipes don’t appear to have been tested. I can’t help but wonder if there’s something lost in translation. I’m still trying to figure out how to make “sugar color”.

    I see that you’ve reviewed a number of cook books. By any chance, do you have a recommendation for one cookbook that’s readily available for Hunan cooking? While we’re at it, a Sichuan cookbook that’s more authentic than this one would be nice as well.

    Thanks.

    1. Fuchsia Dunlop is the best for both Sichuan and Hunan cookery books. See my other cookbook reviews for links to her ‘Land of Plenty’ (Sichuan) and ‘The Revolutionary Chinese Cookbook’ (Hunan)…. They are absolutely top-notch.

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