Recipes for success across the Atlantic

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 30 October, 1999, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 30 October, 1999, 12:00am

The 'Chinese American experience' is a popular publishing genre. In The Wisdom Of The Chinese Kitchen (Simon & Schuster $270), Grace Young takes it a logical step further, focusing on an important vein that other writers touch upon, but haven't explored to such an extent: food as eaten by Chinese people in America.

This is a cookbook/memoir, filled with anecdotes about Young's immediate and extended family as she grew up in San Francisco's Chinatown, and black-and-white photographs of her family in China. Her childhood, it seems, was enviable, at least in culinary terms: her parents and relatives sound excellent cooks. The recipes are attributed to various family members, and she writes that she recorded the recipes 'without Americanising them'. Wherever it's cooked, traditional Chinese food shares more similarities than differences: the emphasis on a balanced diet, fresh ingredients and a variety of cooking methods.

Some of the recipes in the book will be familiar to Chinese wherever they grew up - homey, everyday dishes such as steamed egg custard, white-cut chicken, steamed pork with salted egg, stuffed fuzzy melon and lotus root soup.

There are also more complex recipes for dishes that are rarely eaten at home because they are time-consuming and take more skill than the average cook possesses. Although there might not be a stampede into the kitchen of people eager to try making shark's fin soup or boneless stuffed chicken wings, it's good to know the recipes are there, in case you do want to make them. But for the most part, the recipes are simple and basic.

The traditional Chinese diet - and the kind still cooked in many households - is healthy. At home, a Chinese cook will steam, poach and braise, with perhaps one or two stir-fry dishes for contrast and texture.

In The Healthful Gourmet Chinese Cookbook (HP Books $170), Rose Lee - a former restaurateur - takes already healthy Chinese dishes and makes substitutions to make them even healthier.

She bakes or broils dishes that are usually fried, cooks in non-stick pans, substitutes low-sodium soy sauce for normal soy sauce and similarly uses low-sodium, no-fat canned chicken broth. She also uses boneless, skinless chicken breasts instead of whole chickens, which a Chinese cook will probably think is taking things a bit far. The reader can probably take these alternative techniques and substitutions and use them with other Chinese cookbooks.

Lee gives a nutritional analysis at the end of each recipe, including calories per serving, grams of fat and saturated fat, cholesterol, dietary fibre and sodium. It would have been an interesting contrast to also see the nutritional analyses of the original recipes: would they have been very different? The recipes are not strictly Chinese; some of them draw on other Asian cultures. There are teriyaki mini kebabs, green papaya slaw and seafood mesclun salad.

Other recipes are more traditional, especially the soups, rice and noodle dishes. There is, however, one careless oversight: she states that even the simplest soup 'should be based on a good, strong stock that is homemade' - but neglects to give a recipe for homemade stock.