Cooking with books

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 14 June, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 14 June, 2012, 12:00am


Documenting recipes is one way of preserving them, but it's not one that is encouraged in local culinary culture.

Most Chinese cooks say that exact measurements are not useful and that the only way to learn is by watching. That's why most recipes and techniques are still passed on directly from master to apprentice, mother to daughter.

In the 1950s, the relatively new Chinese newspaper Sing Tao Daily was looking for ways to boost its readership. So the editor-in-chief, Chan Mong-yan, began a lifestyle column simply called Sik Ging, meaning 'food writing', in which he covered Cantonese food.

His columns talked about particular dishes, ingredients and eating cultures, with the occasional recipe. He was known to roam the markets on a regular basis and became a well-known gourmet. His columns were later compiled into a series of five books with the same name as his column.

Another cookery writer, Jiang Xian-zhu, the granddaughter of scholar and gourmet Jiang Tai-shi, later published a recipe book titled Gu fat yuet choi sun po, meaning new recipes for classic Cantonese dishes, inspired by some of the dishes described in Chan's columns.

One of the most prolific writers of Chinese recipe books in English is Eileen Lo Yin-fei, a native of Shun Tak in Guangdong province, who later moved to the US and taught cookery classes. Mastering the Art of Chinese Cooking covers basic techniques, while The Chinese Kitchen is an extensive cookbook with more than 250 recipes and The Chinese Banquet Cookbook focuses on complex, special occasion dishes.

A recent effort to document popular home-style dishes was Grandma Grandpa Cook, a bilingual tome published in 2010 with stories and recipes from more than 40 senior citizens who were part of the massive influx of mainland immigrants to Hong Kong before the second world war. These are mostly simple, everyday dishes, and they are accompanied by excerpts of interviews telling the seniors' life stories.