THE WISDOM OF THE CHINESE KITCHEN

It was after I had seen a newspaper cookbook review on Grace Young’s book THE WISDOM OF THE CHINESE KITCHEN, that my curiosity was piqued and I had to have a copy of the cookbook.  (To paraphrase the Duchess of Windsor from the 1930s, Wallace Simpson, you can’t be too rich or too thin…or have too many cookbooks actually – it might interest you to know that Wallace Simpson wrote a cookbook herself, back in the day).  But – I digress, as I tend to do, and I wanted to write today about THE WISDOM OF THE CHINESE KITCHEN as I am a big fan of Grace Young.

I have a lot of Chinese cookbooks in my cookbook collection—there are Chinese cookbooks that are too complicated for the average cook, or else they contain exotic ingredients only available in downtown L.A.’s Chinatown (or perhaps in China)—or else the recipes are too Americanized—somewhere in between there is a compromising middle ground. And, too, I confess to being fascinated with the Chinese culture, which goes back thousands of years.

In her website, www.graceyoung.com, the author writes that she spent much of her early professional life as the test kitchen director for over forty cookbooks published by Time Life Books. In the early nineties after growing weary of producing what had become soulless work with formulaic recipes, Grace developed a yearning to reconnect to the tastes and foods of her childhood. Over the next few years she made numerous trips back to San Francisco from her home in New York to cook with her 70-year old mother and 82-year old father. It took much cajoling and great persistence to convince them to teach her their recipes. At the beginning, Grace’s focus was on a precise recording of the recipes. Eventually, and to her great surprise, as they cooked, her parents who had always been reticent about talking about the past began to share memories of their lives in China and accounts of their early days in America.

This is how Grace came to learn a large part of her family’s history. What started as a little recipe project soon blossomed into a memoir cookbook, The Wisdom of the Chinese Kitchen. [I can’t help but wonder if, years ago when my grandmother was alive, had any of her grandchildren persisted in asking Grandma about her recipes, if it might not have led to discussing her life in Germany, which—like Grace’s parents—she was always reluctant to discuss].

Grace writes that her earliest memories of food are of the extraordinary meals her mother and father prepared for her brother and herself, and of the efforts they made to ensure that they ate well. Their care was not only a matter of selecting the freshest ingredients, but also for the authenticity with which they replicated the traditional Cantonese dishes of their youth in China during the 1930s and forties. This connection to the cooking of old-world China coupled with the discovery of Julia Child on television (and her “exotic” dishes) shaped Grace’s lifelong affair with food and cooking. At the age of thirteen she began an apprenticeship with Josephine Araldo, a French cooking teacher. Those lessons initiated an exploration of other cuisines and led Grace, eventually, to her career in food.

Grace Young is also the author of STIR FRYING TO THE SKY’S EDGE and THE BREATH OF A WOK—which is going to be the next thing I order from Amazon.com.  Stir-Frying to the Sky’s Edge won the James Beard Foundation Best International Cookbook Award in 2011. On her website, Grace writes that she certainly knows how it feels not to win. Her first cookbook, The Wisdom of the Chinese Kitchen was nominated for a Beard but lost. She says that she knows how it feels to be overlooked. And, she thought perhaps her second cookbook, The Breath of a Wok was a great achievement but it was not even nominated for a Beard –however, that book won the IACP Le Cordon Bleu Best International Cookbook Award, the Jane Grigson Award for Distinguished Scholarship, and the World Food Media Awards’ Best Food Book. It was also featured in the New York Times, on NPR’s All Things Considered and was selected as one of the best cookbooks of the year by Food & Wine, Fine Cooking, Bon Appetit, and Epicurious.

Now, what I think is interesting is that I want to tell you more about THE WISDOM OF THE CHINESE KITCHEN and someone wrote to me on my blog recently to suggest I read THE BREATH OF A WOK. Awards, I think, aren’t everything—it’s what will stand the test of time with cookbook readers and collectors that will matter most in the long run.

Grace is a native of San Francisco but last I heard, she and her husband and  their cat, Henry-San were still living in New York. Although Grace’s family lives in the United States, they still have relatives in Hong Kong and China; Ms. Young has been to China four times in the past twenty years and has traveled extensively throughout Asia.

THE WISDOM OF THE CHINESE KITCHEN offers 150 recipes culled from a lifetime of family meals and culinary instruction. However, more than that, it is a daughter’s tribute—a collection of personal memories of the philosophy and superstitions behind culinary traditions that have been passed down through her Cantonese family, in which each ingredient has its own singular importance, the preparation of a meal is part of the joy of life, and the proper creation of a dish can have a favorable influence on health and good fortune.

Then I began to wonder – didn’t I just read something with a similar philosophy, much the same train of thought and wisdom? I found it in Rebecca Wood’s THE NEW WHOLE FOODS ENCYCLOPEDIA and Molly O’Neill’s A WELL SEASONED APPETITE.

I wondered if it was only a coincidence that these two occidental authors had written cookbooks with such similar food-and-nutritional philosophical outlooks as expressed by a Chinese cookbook author…or can it be, perhaps, that we, as a culture, are finally awakening to the important of the right kind of food and its preparation, wisdom known by the Chinese for thousands of years.

As noted by the publishers of THE WISDOM OF THE CHINESE KITCHEN, the first part, ‘Mastering the Fundamentals’ deals with “…the instruction on the arts of steaming and stir frying; the preparation of  rice, pan fried, and braised dishes; the proper  selection of produce; and the fine arts of chopping and slicing…”

The next section, ‘The Art of Celebration’ concentrates on “…the more elaborate, complex, and meaningful dishes…such as Shark’s Fin Soup and West Lake Duck…there are usually made with rare ingredients, and sweets such as Water Chestnut Cake and Sesame Balls…”

The final section, one I believe to be the most important, is called “Achieving Yin-Yang Harmony” and it explores the many Chinese beliefs  about the healing properties of ginseng, gingko nuts, soy beans, dong quai* and the many vegetable  and fruit soup preparations that balance and nourish the body…”

(Dong quai is known in English as angelica and, says Ms. Young, “is the well-known Chinese herb for women.  For centuries, women have taken this herb after their menstrual cycle or after childbirth to invigorate the reproductive system…” Young says she learned about Dong quai  not from her parents, but from a massage therapist who recommended a line of synthetic Chinese herbs to her. The therapist praised dong quai’s ability to cleanse the blood, improve circulation and relieve menstrual pain.

The author asked her parents if they had ever heard of dong quai and of course, they had; Grace tells this interesting story in “Baba Mama’s Dong Quai and Restorative Foods…”

What can you expect to find in THE WISDOM OF THE CHINESE KITCHEN that you haven’t already discovered in other Chinese cookbooks? (And I must say, if you don’t have any Chinese cookbooks in your collection, you are really missing out on some great cuisine).  Well, a lot of cookbooks, Chinese and otherwise, are simply a presentation of recipes. And there’s nothing wrong with that, but THE WISDOM OF THE CHINESE KITCHEN goes so much further.  Ms. Young tells the background of the recipes she presents; she delves into the ancient Chinese wisdom behind the presentation of the recipes.

“For my parents,” she writes, “Cooking is a meditation. Because they have informally studied and observed the process of cooking for over sixty years, they instinctually sense when an ingredient is properly prepared and cooked” The author says that she was taught early in life to appreciate “the fragrance of texture, succulence, and taste of a well composed dish…”

In a section titled “Cooking As a Healing Art”, the author explains that “the women in my family have always struck me as being ‘body-fortune-tellers’. They can look at anyone and guess what their body is in need of. They will joke about being a fake doctor (ga yee sung) because a reputable Chinese herbalist performs a thorough exam before making a diagnosis. But my relatives’ expertise is for keeping the body in harmony. It takes my female relatives only a moment to observe your chapped lips, here you complain of insomnia, or watch you cough before they decide what you need to soothe your ills….” She goes on to explain the yin and yang of foods.

“Most people” she writes, “have heard of yin and yang, a Taoist concept that is based on the idea of opposites in balance, whether cold/hot, water/fire, or female/male. Foods are said by the Cantonese to have a warming, cooling, or neutral nature…”

She goes on to explain how it is fundamental to the Cantonese system of eating to keep yin and yang foods (and yin and yang cooking methods) in balance.  For the rest of this story, you will have to read the book!

In addition to the recipes, there is a glossary of dried herbs, spices, and fresh produce.

Photographs are by Alan Richardson, an award photographer and designer. Included as well are charming old photographs of the author and members of her family.

I am reminded of an adage I heard over and over when I first began writing in the 1960s – write about what you know best—and this is exactly what Grace Young has accomplished in all of her cookbooks.

THE WISDOM OF THE CHINESE KITCHEN was published by well-known publishers SIMON & SHUSTER in 1999.  You can buy this book new from Amazon.com for $21.12, new, and be eligible for free shipping, or starting at $5.65 for a pre-owned copy. BREATH OF A WOK is available on Amazon for $21.87, new, or starting at 11.24 for a pre-owned copy. Alibris.com has pre-owned copies starting at $5.68 but also list a copy that is ‘like new’ for $10.48.

You can also visit the author at her website www.graceyoung.com.

–Happy Cooking & cookbook collecting!

Sandy

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