Writing a comprehensive volume about the variety of foods consumed by 1.4 billion people is a daunting task, as husband-and-wife team Kei Lum and Diora Fong Chan admit in their new 720-page tome, China : The Cookbook.
“When we started this ambitious project, we really had no idea of the scope of work this might entail. Our goal was to present a collection of recipes that would best represent the cross-section of Chinese cuisine – a collection that reflected the traditions of every region from Beijing to Sichuan to Guangdong. As soon as we began the process and created a list, we realized our worries had been misplaced. The problem was not in having enough dishes, but having too many to select from … The unifying moniker, Chinese food, is rather blunt when it comes to delineating the country’s culinary landscape, which spans thirty-four provinces and regions and includes fifty-six indigenous nationalities, each with their own food traditions. When it comes to defining regional cuisines, it’s useful to think of China as being more like a continent than a country […]
“A gross simplification would be to say that each of China’s main areas are characterized by a distinct flavour: the north (Shandong) is salty, the east (Anhui, Jiangsu and Zhejiang) is sour, the south (Guangdong and Fujian) is delicately sweet and the west (Hunan and Sichuan) is heart-clutchingly spicy. These regions – known as the Eight Great Cuisines – enjoy the greatest prominence of all the regional culinary cuisines. In addition to these major cuisines, there are smaller regions that are shaped by their proximity to a major region, and also by the customs of any ethnic minorities inhabiting the area.”
The 650 recipes are divided by course – appetisers and salads, soups, fish and seafood, poultry, meat, tofu and eggs, and so on – and an index listing the dishes by region would have been helpful.
There’s something here for everyone, however, from popular dishes to the less well-known. Recipes include drunken chicken; pork with garlic sauce; Sichuan-style wontons in red oil; Chinese herbal lamb soup; steamed flounder; pomfret with crispy bones; shrimp with spiced salt; oyster pancake; stuffed chicken with glutinous rice; deep-fried chicken cartilage; General Tso’s chicken; pork with preserved olives and dried shrimp; pork with lettuce wraps; eggplants in fragrant sauce; and rice with chicken and sausage in casserole.