China The Cookbook
By Kei Lum Chan and Diora Fong Chan
Suzy Chase: Welcome to the Cookery by the Book Podcast, with me, Suzy Chase.
Kei Lum Chan : Hi, I'm Kei Lum Chan and my latest cookbook is China: The Cookbook. This is a book that is done with me and my wife working together.
Suzy Chase: 650 recipes from 34 Provinces and 56 indigenous groups. China: The Cookbook is the definitive cookbook bible of the worlds most popular and oldest cuisine.
Discuss the magnitude of this project.
Kei Lum Chan : Actually, our publisher, Phaidon Press, has asked us to write about the eight regional styles in China. Plus, maybe, a few others. And we've thought about it, we say, "If the book is gonna be called China: The Cookbook, it's not only the eight regions, but we have to cover the entire country." So we, sort of, took it on ourselves and we said, "Fine, we will do everything in country." And that covers over 30 region of styles. Covers entire area. We want to make sure each area is represented. No matter how much large or small, at least, they should be there.
So we spent quite a bit of time, in fact, doing research and also the writing of the book itself. The writing itself took about 12 months just for the recipes, and then another two months on the culture. But, prior to writing the book we, really, had live in China for many, many years and did quite a bit of research. So we started, not from ground zero, but with a pretty solid foundation.
We started to write, not 650 recipes, but 800. That is what the publisher required us to do, 800 recipes. And we fond that in our own portfolio we had 1,200 recipes. Ya know, at home we have collected, and so on, throughout the years. So we had to select 800 from the 1,200 and deliver to the publisher. They, finally, narrow it down to 650 because the book was just getting too big.
Suzy Chase: It's gorgeous.
Kei Lum Chan : If, we had put everything in, it may have been a thousand pages. So it made sense to cut some of'em out.
Suzy Chase: I was under the impression that, for example, Shandong in the north had salty cuisine and Sichuan in the west had spicy cuisine. What should we know about the complexity of the eight great cuisines?
Kei Lum Chan : Well they each have different characteristics. Partly based on geography, climate and history. The reason why we had, pretty much, 8 regional styles that is quite well known, is because they have really had the benefit of a very long period of stability. Whereas, elsewhere in north no, turbulence, the disasters from the natural and so on. That did create a lot of problems for them.
Along the coastal region, also to the west of Sichuan we were blessed, usually with pretty good weather, lots of ingredients, very rich and stability. So we were able to develop each area devout its own cuisine.
Now, we talk about Sichuan, the hot and spicy food. Well, Sichuan is not always hot and spicy. They didn't get chile until, around I would say, the 5th century. So it's only been a few hundred years. But 60% of Sichuanese food is not hot, contrary to what people's expectation. So, again, this is something ... I did not specifically point it out, but many of the Sichaunese dishes are not hot.
To the south I've thought the Cantonese, now, which I think the Americans are quite well familiar with, is tend to be milder in taste. Again, perhaps it's our weather or perhaps it's just the fact that we get very, very fresh ingredients and we would love to taste the natural taste of the ingredients themselves and not try to overpower it with too many condiments, and so on.
And then, of course, we move onto the eastern side, the Shanghai, the Jiujiang Province. They are very rich also, in terms of seafood. And they tend to have a, I would say, bit of a sweeter tooth than other places. So their cuisines tend to be a bit on the sweeter side. And Shandong Province, which you just mentioned, is bit up on the north. Salty, a little bit more oily than the southern cuisines.
So, I think generally, this is how I would characterize the various styles.
Suzy Chase: China's agricultural output is the largest in the world. Only about 15%, give or take, of its total land can be cultivated. Considering that plus war, poverty, floods and famine, I marvel at the complex cuisine. Can you talk a little bit about the history of Chinese food culture?
Kei Lum Chan : So we started 10,000 years ago with a certain cooking technique and that is something we still use today. Now throughout the ages, again, historically China was not always a united country as we know today, they had different factions, different kingdoms within China. And so, they each have their own historical development. They like different foods because in the old days it was not easy to go between areas. So it was pretty segregated in each area and so they developed their own unique style.
So China has many, many different styles and we saw a relent of its others, as well, throughout the ages. From the South we pick up new things from the North. Then we used to eat a lot of rice, we now eat a lot of noodles, as well. And vice versa, the North has picked up a lot of new ingredients andtake techniques from the South. And so, we enrich each other by absorbing each other's knowledge, techniques and skills.
Suzy Chase: The power of home cooking, you believe food should be about families. Can you talk a little bit about that?
Kei Lum Chan : Food is about sharing. We don't cook Chinese food just for one's self. It is hard to do this, you cannot cook for one. You may make a few dumplings, or wontons, or bowl of noodles, but other than that food is for sharing. So we always cook for a number of people.
Now, family is an important element in Chinese life, so food cooking for the entire family is probably the most important thing. It brings the families together, it allows communication across the dinner table, lunch table. And this is something everybody prize, the opportunity to share, to be together. So food is important in family life, home cooking in particular, because most people prefer home cooking. Food is something that stays in one's memory, the taste, the flavor. So everybody would, somehow, remember what they eat at home and would always gravitate towards home for home cooking.
Suzy Chase: Now tell us about your father. Did you get your passion for Chinese cuisine from him?
Kei Lum Chan : I learned a lot from him. He was a war correspondent in the 20th century, around the first part of the century. In his travels he was able to go everywhere in China, and therefore able to sample all kinds of food. He was naturally a very, naturally curious person, he asked about everything, people he bet, things he ate, how they did it. So when he became a chief editor in newspaper in Hong Kong, he started to write about things he learn on his trips. And he published 10 books between the years 1951 and '53, and these books are still being republished today and are considered references for a lot of chefs.
So when I was young I, sort of, learned from him. Not so much in terms of instructing me how to do it, but I watch and I look at the way he treated food, the respect and the time he spent doing it and occasionally he would ask me to do a few chores for him. And so I started to know a little bit about cooking and got a interest in it. But the passion only came after I grew up and had more chance to, really, do some cooking myself. And then when my wife and I got married we did a lot of cooking for my father. He loved to entertain guests at home, so afterward we would go home and we became the chefs for him at home. And by doing that we were learning from him, a lot. And this gave us that solid foundation, for us, later, to get into the business, writing cookbooks.
Suzy Chase: So yesterday I made two recipes out of your cookbook. Number one: Drumsticks and sauce from page 274 and Peanut Mochi, for dessert, on page 626. I was reading about the chicken recipe and I saw it was from the Yunnan Province.
Kei Lum Chan : Yes.
Suzy Chase: And so, how does that south western, mountainous terrain influence the cuisine in that region?
Kei Lum Chan : They have the most variety of mushrooms, in the Yunnan District, Yunnan area. They have high mountains and forest and all that and they grew most the worlds mushrooms. So mushroom is a big part in their cuisine. But we talk about mushrooms, it is always Yunnan. Yunnan mushrooms are world famous. And then, of course, they have a number of ethnic nationalities in Yunnan and their cooking is little bit different. They would use flowers, coconut and things that you can get from the forest, and that become part of their cuisine. So Yunnan cuisine is, sort of, a mixture of ethnic group cuisine as well as the Han people's cuisine, in making use of all kinds of ingredients from their forest and the mountains.
Suzy Chase: I found that the Peanut Mochi was really easy and quick to make, and not too sweet. Now that recipe is from the Hakka Region and I read that the hallmark of their cuisine is texture. As a Westerner eating something, solely, for texture makes no sense to me.
Kei Lum Chan : The Hakka people, actually, migrated from the north to south China and started to live in the mountains. It was actually pretty hard to survive in those days, so they would cook whatever they could get. They did not have all that much great ingredients to start out with, so it is not just ingredients but, again, the mixture of everything else. The kind of texture they created, that, sort of, became the hallmark of some of the Hakka's people.
Suzy Chase: This stunning book, China: The Cookbook, makes cooking an experience. Thanks so much for coming on Cookery by the Book Podcast.
Kei Lum Chan : Thank you Suzy.