2006-12-13 · in Books · 405 words

One of the earliest Chinese cookery books published in America; first published in 1945, with updated editions in 1956 and 1968 (mine's a 1976 reprint of the last edition). The author is a doctor who first took an interest in cooking as a student, and the recipes presented here have a pleasantly analytical feel to them -- Chinese-style home cookery executed as authentically as possible within the bounds of 1950s America.

It's easy to see why this book was popular: the writing style is clear, concise and frequently highly amusing. (Chao's husband and daughter, both well-known academics, copy-edited the book and occasionally chip in with comments on the recipes -- "Very often, we enjoy sucking the bones more than eating the meat" in the chapter on duck is footnoted "That's fine, darling. I'll have the meat, please. -- Y. R. C.") The recipes stick largely to the sorts of things that can reasonably be done at home without access to restaurant-style facilities, and there's a wealth of background material covering not just ingredients and techniques but the social context of Chinese food.

The text has dated remarkably well. It's missing sixty years of conventions in Chinese cookery, so ingredient names often aren't what you'd expect from a modern book, but there's little here that would look out of place in a Good Food article today. Chao makes it clear where she's substituted an American ingredient for something that she couldn't obtain in 1956; a modern reader can use the correct ingredients. My only complaint is that many of the recipes are slight variations on a base, which was common in cookery books of the time; these days we'd write one recipe with a set of optional ingredients instead.

There's an interesting comment in the foreword (by Hu Shih):

Some of the new terms like "Defishers", "Stir-frying", "Meeting", "Plunging" and a host of others, I venture to predict, will come to stay as the Chaos' contributions to the English language.

One out of four's not bad when it comes to neologisms, I feel. Recommended for anyone who's into Chinese cookery (or thinks they might be, and wants some easy recipes to try). Unfortunately the book is long out of print; if you see a second-hand copy that isn't absurdly expensive then grab it.

I first heard about this book from the excellent cooking blog Tigers and Strawberries; it's also come up on Language Log in the past.