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Inside The Mind of A Great Chinese Cook

By Herb Gardener.

Factors Americans typically consider when choosing a place to live include property values, school quality, cultural resources and proximity to a good Chinese restaurant. Well, the last may be a stretch, but we do hold strong opinions about and yearnings for this inexhaustible gastronomic tradition.

For the ambitious cook seduced by the thought of preparing an authentic Chinese meal and understanding the cultural and historical origins of dishes I recommend The Chinese Kitchen by Eileen Yin-Fei Lo.

The book begins with recollections of the author’s first cooking mentor, a redoubtable grandmother named Ah Paw. These family stories, sprinkled with colorful aphorisms like “(F)ine vegetables should be chosen with as much care as one would a son-in-law” are followed by a brief survey of dynastic influences on Chinese food preparation and eating habits. In the chapter The Chinese Larder, she demystifies the exotic character of Chinese ingredients, such as wine pills and Buddha’s hand. Detailed advice and labeling guidance will help any befuddled Asian market shopper. A tea chapter includes recommended food pairings—light green teas for seafood, black fermented teas for game.

Learning where food comes from is stressed in many traditions as a means to mindful eating. Throughout the recipe section Yin-Fei Lo provides cultural and philosophical insights that complement Chinese cookery techniques. While the West analyzes the nutritional properties of individual ingredients the Chinese are also concerned with the right combination of foods to achieve desired physical results.

For Yin-Fei Lo the essentials of the Chinese kitchen begin with balance and harmony—taste, texture, aroma, color—in accordance with the belief that all foods should improve or maintain health.

Yin-Fei Lo devotes several pages to “the pure ancestors of what became Western Chinese restaurant clichés.” Indeed, she redeems take-out classics such pepper steak and sweet-and-sour pork. Whether the recipe you choose is familiar or not, Chicken with Strange Taste, for example, directions are clear, the layout and design attractive, and results reproducible in most homes. If cooking to please, satisfy, and nourish is your motivation, then The Chinese Kitchen belongs in your kitchen.

The dominant color of Chinese New Year is red. Celebrate the Year of the Tiger with a ferocious homemade chili sauce courtesy of The Chinese Kitchen.

2 pounds mature red jalapenos, stems removed
3 1/2 teaspoons salt
3 tablespoons sugar
7 tablespoons Chinese white rice vinegar or distilled vinegar

Place jalapenos and salt in a pot. Add quarter cup cold water, cover and bring to a boil. Reduce heat to medium-low and stir peppers. Cook for 20 minutes, removing the cover frequently, until the peppers are completely softened. (Do not add more liquid, for the mixture will become watery).

Place peppers and remaining liquid in a blender, add sugar and vinegar, and blend into a puree. The sauce can be used immediately. Place some in a container and refrigerate for up to 4 weeks. Freeze the rest for up to 6 months. Yields one quart.

(The Chinese Kitchen: Recipes, Techniques, Ingredients, History, and Memories from America’s Leading Authority on Chinese Cooking by Eileen Yin-Fei Lo, New York: William Morrow and Company. $37.50)

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Flavors and More – February 2010

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