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.