Wednesday, May 6, 2015

When Engineers Cook

The Chinese Cook Book by Wallace Yee Hong
Crown Publishers 1952

Check out the attractive gray and yellow color scheme
I inherited several mid-century cookbooks on Chinese cuisine from my grandmother. I find them fascinating. Without fail, they all proclaim that they teach "real" Chinese cooking. Never mind that Chinese cuisine has serious regional differences--much can be said the same for any book on French, Italian or American cuisine. You gotta start somewhere, right?

I find Chinese books from this era to be endearing in their belief that acceptable result are possible in a Western kitchen with limited access to special ingredients, while also finding them to be unappealing in the liberal use of canned ingredients and MSG.

Hong, a restaurateur in NYC and Boston according the jacket, begins with a brief introduction, a list of purveyors of special ingredients, and a list of Recommended Chinese Restaurants.* He then jumps right into soups and shu mai and works his way through various ingredients, ending with tea and wine.

There isn't a lot of handholding here. Hong has no truck with explaining ingredients or techniques. You better already know how to stir-fry and what to stir-fry in. There are no pictures. This reads very much like the sort of recipe book a restaurant creates for its staff. Formula-based, the recipes give amounts and basic instructions, but the chef is expected to have enough experience to understand the preparation and serving of the dish.

To make matters worse, and this is what I love about this book, there is the actual syntax of the recipes. Hong loves to assign letters to his ingredients; I assume to make the actual writing of the recipes shorter and more efficient. He basically breaks all the rules of recipe writing. The result is something that will most likely make perfect sense to the engineers out there. The rest of us will have to muddle through what is distressingly like cooking instructions from IKEA.

Insert Tab A into slot B. Simmer for 10 minutes. Garnish with C.

This is also how he crams in 438 recipes in a 262 page book. He liberally uses cross-references like this:

272. Steamed Squab, West Lake Style (Si-Woo Bok Opp)
Use the same method and ingredients as in recipe No. 247, using 3 or more squabs instead of duck.

I will give this book credit for including the Chinese names of recipes in the text and index and for using mostly fresh foods and ingredients we don't see very often, including terrapin, eels, squid, and lotus root. Compare the complexity of the above recipe with a newspaper clipping I found in the book for a much more pedestrian and Westernized "Jade Empress Chicken."

Don't go crazy with that garlic salt or dry ginger!

Unfortunately nearly every recipe in The Chinese Cook Book calls for MSG--certainly every savory recipe calls for at least a teaspoon of "seasoning powder."  If this was standard operating procedure for Chinese restaurants in the day, no wonder everyone complained of headaches. I'm getting thirsty just thinking about it.

*including one in Detroit! New Life Chop Suey on Gratiot.

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