CLASSIC CHINESE CUISINE

“In China, more than in any other culture, food and civilization are synonymous…” Nina Simonds

I absolutely LOVE Chinese food – unfortunately, however, it doesn’t always love me. Over the years, I’ve discovered that many of my migraine headaches could be traced to having dinner in a Chinese restaurant.  Obviously, there’s something in the ingredients that doesn’t go well (I’ve often suspected MSG). What to do? Am I condemned forever to spend the rest of my life avoiding a kind of cuisine that I adore?  Of course not!  The solution was simple – I just don’t eat Chinese restaurant  food anymore. That doesn’t prevent me from enjoying my own, or that made by friends who understand my dilemma.

So, of course, you can understand my delight discovering CLASSIC CHINESE CUISINE by Nina Simonds, revised and updated from the original Houghton Mifflin book published in 1982.  I am amused by the original publishing date of 1982 – I don’t think I knew how to cook anything Chinese in 1982. (You’ve come a long way, baby!).  I really like CHAPTERS books. This is a large soft cover book with the most mouth-watering assortment of photographs (by Alan Richardson), easy to follow directions, and–of course—wonderful recipes.

Acknowledges the author, “This book is the product of more than 10 years of study, research and experience. So many people contributed by sharing their knowledge, expertise, and encouragement. She tells us that, “for a foreigner in Taiwan, whose basic Chinese vocabulary considered of the words ‘Hello’, ‘goodbye’ ‘thank you’ and ‘no MSG’, the phrases ‘Ni chi bao le mei you?’ was extremely useful. This salutation is uttered when greeting a relative or friend, and it is frequently blurted out at acquaintances when further conversation is impossible…although the phrase symbolizes a wish of well-being, translated literally it means ‘HAVE YOU EATEN YET?’. For a 19 year old woman who had grown up fascinated by all aspects of food and who had traveled to Asia to study Chinese cuisine, this sentence was a revelation.  Clearly, I had come to the right place”.

Ms. Simonds had grown up in New England to a family for whom food had always held a special importance. She recalls that while most parents are content to read fairy tales to their children at bedtime, her father would bundle the four of his children, pajama-clad and squeaky clean from their evening baths and then describe in mouth-watering detail, the various delicacies sampled on his latest business trips. By the age of five, remembers Nina, they were all well versed I the subtleties of cold stone crab with mustard sauce and familiar with the heady fragrance of fried saganaki, a Greek specialty of fried cheese.

“It was hardly surprising,” she writes, “that after one uninspiring year in college, I decided to reassess my goals and steer myself toward a food oriented career….”  She took an introductory course in Mandarin and a growing fascination with Chinese cuisine led her to Taiwan in 1972 where for three and a half years she apprenticed herself in restaurant kitchens with some of Taipei’s foremost chefs.  Many of these chefs were the finest of the Chinese master-chefs who had fled from China after the revolution. She writes that she was overjoyed to discover in Taiwan all the various regional flavors of China had been preserved and the restaurants in Taiwan were an  ideal training ground for studying authentic Chinese cuisine.

During that time, Simonds translated several cookbooks with Huang Su Huei, a renowned authority on Chinese food. She lived with a Chinese family and for the first time in her life, was surrounded by a nation of people whose preoccupation  with cooking outdid her own.

Simonds writes that the Chinese fascination with food dates back to the beginning of an established culture. Ancient Chinese society held men  with a refined knowledge of food and drink in high esteem. In FOOD IN CHINESE CULTURES, K.C. Chang relates that I Yin, a prime minister of the Shang dynasty (18th century B.C. to 12th century B.C.) and once a chef, apparently  initiated his political career on the strength of his cooking prowess (perhaps akin to James Beard running for president in the U.S.A.?)

At a time, writes Simonds, when most other cultures regarded food solely in terms of basic survival, Chinese cuisine was well developed and correct preparation, service and consumption were an essential part of social behavior.

She adds   that “In his writings, Confucius placed great emphasis on food and helped to   establish the refined standards of Chinese cuisine that have endured to this   day.  By the Han dynasty (206 B.C. to   220 A.D.) the Li chi, the most extensive   handbook of ritual and social behavior ever compiled, was widely in use. Some   of the earliest written recipes and rules of conduct for meals appear in this   volume. A section titled ‘Five Points   to Ponder at Meals for Scholarly Gentlemen’ gives guidelines for ‘Taking   food as a Means of Attaining Tao:

The superior person does not for one moment act contrary to virtue, not even for the space of a single meal.     He first adopts the right posture, make the proper table arrangements and     reflects on his own adequacy before he takes any food…”

Sandy’s     Cooknote: Taoism is a     Chinese philosophy based on the writings of Lao-tzu (fl. 6th    century bc), advocating humility and religious piety.

Simonds also writes “Through the centuries, food has been the inspiration for innumerable Chinese scholars, artists and poets. One of the earliest examples is a poem written in 200 BC by Chu Yuan as an appeal for the departing soul of a beloved king. Culinary delicacies, in appetizing detail, are mentioned in an attempt to lure him back to life….”

Simonds believes that “Food is an international language that can provide valuable clues to the history and culture of any country.  This is particularly true  of China,” she writes, “ and it is my belief that insight into the history of philosophy of food in ancient China contributes to the understanding of modern Chinese cuisine and culture…”

With this in mind, she has tried to acquaint the reader with the stories behind the food, relating the origin of the dishes, their symbolic importance and their significance in the contemporary Chinese diet….”

Accordingly, Ms. Simonds has carefully selected recipes from the repertory of classic Chinese dishes to represent a sampling of traditional specialties from all parts of China. “Although refined by chefs down through the centuries and slightly adapted to modern methods, many of these dishes were originally conceived and developed in ancient China…”

Before listing recipes, Simonds has gone to great lengths to provide us, the readers, with an extensive list of Special Ingredients. Some you may know about, such as Hoisin Sauce and Soy Sauce, Oyster Sauce and Chinese Rice Vinegar—but are you familiar with Gaoling Wine, Sesame Paste or Rice Vinegar?   Others that we might not have been so familiar with twenty years afo—but have become acquainted with over the years would be Cilantro, Dried Tangerine or Orange Peel and Five Spice Powder.

There are these and many others to acquaint yourself with. CLASSIC CHINESE CUISINE is packed with interesting tidbits of information for preparing the recipes, or some morsel of historic information. For example, Simonds writes “In the city of Taipei, food vendors pass through the alleyways, day and night, hawking their wares. One man rode a bicycle with a box strapped behind his seat, filled to the brim with hot steamed bread and flower rolls. Upon hearing his call, my Chinese surrogate would dispatch the children to buy a supply of the buns to eat with our dinner instead of rice. Flower rolls are particularly delicious with red-cooked meats and stir-fried meat and vegetables dishes…”

Flower rolls, incidentally, are made with a basic dough and get their name from the shape. Illustrations with the recipes provide some easy to follow directions.

And recipes?  I can’t begin to give them all justice. CLASSIC CHINESE CUISINE contains hundreds of mouth-watering recipes. Sometimes just the name alone makes the recipe enticing. How could anyone resist a recipe called TWO WINTERS OR VEGETARIAN EIGHT TREASURES –or how about PHOENIX EYE DUMPLINGS which, Simonds explains, gets its name from the phoenix, a symbol of beauty and peace, long venerated by the Chinese. A number of dishes are said to have been inspired by this mythical bird.

CLASSIC CHINESE CUISINE is a large soft-cover cookbook published by CHAPTERS in 1994. It appears to have been reprinted at least once, in 2008. Amazon. Com has a pre-owned copy available for 8.85.  Make sure you find the cookbook written by Nina Simonds! While checking on Amazon to find out what is available, I found half a dozen cookbook by different authors – but with the same title (If I am not mistaken, I believe it has always been a copyright law that titles cannot be copyrighted). I’m sure all the other Chinese cookbooks are     worthy but I don’t have them so I can’t vouch for the other titles.

Alibris.com has pre-owned copies for $1.51 and up.

Review by Sandra Lee Smith

 

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