For hundreds of
years the flavorful and delicate cooking of China has impressed Westerners as
an almost exquisitely refined art—so much so that it gained the reputation of
being the product of special Oriental alchemy.It has often been pointed out
that the Chinese—both men and women—look younger than their years, and this
desirable state is attributed to some mysterious quality of their diet. The
plain and simple fact is that Chinese food is less fattening and more easily
digested than its Western counterpart. Nor is its preparation a matter of
mystery. Even those who cannot perform with chopsticks can transform the many
and cheerful ingredients portrayed by Dong Kingman on the opposite page into
authentic Chinese dishes and then eat them with a fork. Chinese cuisine depends
not on rare ingredients but on method and skill.
generally agreed that there are two great schools of cooking in the world—the
French and the Chinese. These two ignore each other superbly. The Larousse
Gastronomique, besides studying every possible aspect of French cooking, covers
in detail American, Austrian, Belgian, Central and South American, Dutch,
English, German, Italian, Japanese, Polish, Russian, Scandinavian, Spanish,
Swiss, Turkish and army cooking. It doesn't even mention the Chinese.
The French and
Chinese kitchens do have two basic things in common. Both are characterized by
variety: variety of methods of preparation and an infinite variety of raw
materials. And both stress the importance of the freshness of foods.
point, however, they diverge. Since the Chinese eat with chopsticks (a knife is
never used at the table, and the idea of carving a roast is utterly alien),
food must either be cut into bite-size pieces before it is cooked, or if left
whole must be cooked long enough to make carving unnecessary.
The flavor of a
style of cooking largely depends on the fat that is used. The Germans use lard,
the Italians olive oil, the French butter. But the Chinese use a flavorless
vegetable oil, usually peanut or soybean. This cooking medium does not impart
anything to the intrinsic flavor of the foods, and the spices that may be added
can work their magic without interference of any kind.
contrasting textures—is all-important. Meat and vegetables are often cooked
together, yet the result is never a stew, in the Occidental sense. When the
Chinese prepare beef with lotus root, for example, they slice the meat so thin
that both will cook together in the shortest possible time. Result: the beef
will be tender and the lotus root crisp.
speak of Chinese cooking, most of them are referring to the Cantonese school.
This is by far the most widely represented here; the regional specialties of
other provinces—Fukien, Honan, Shantung ( Peking), Szechwan and Kiangsu
( Shanghai)—are scarcely known. This is a deprivation, for these regional
schools vary a great deal. The Fukien school is noted for its lightness. Honan
specializes in sweet-sour dishes. Shantung is the home of the bear's paw and
the Peking duck and of dishes prepared in wine stock—the foie gras of China is
swan's liver cooked in wine. The Szechwan school is known for spicy dishes, and
Szechwan duck is also an excellent example of how the Chinese deal with fat:
steaming the duck gets rid of almost all of it before the final cooking stage.
Kiangsu has a super meatball called the Lion's Head and some very tasty fish
dishes, some of which have been adapted for American kitchens (SI, March 30,
think that the greatest Chinese food found today in the non-Communist world is
in Formosa, even though Hong Kong (the other contender) has the benefit of
ingredients from the mainland. Formosa makes up for this disadvantage by the
quality of its cooks. One of the best is Peng Chang-kuei, once of Hunan, who is
described by Stanley Karnow at the right. Below are four great Chinese recipes,
the first a "continental" invention from Peng himself, the second from
Harriet Watt, formerly of Shanghai and now of New York, and the last two from
Grace Zia Chu, whose book, The Pleasures of Chinese Cooking, will be published
by Simon and Schuster in the fall.
DISHES YOU CAN MAKE AT HOME
If you live in New York, Boston, Chicago or San Francisco you will have no
trouble finding the ingredients called for in these recipes. If you do not have
access to a Chinese grocery, the Yueit Hing Market at 23 Pell Street in New
York City will mail dried scallops, tree ears, golden needles and spices (dried
scallops are $3.90 a pound, minimum order $1). Quong Lee and Co. at 848 Grant A
venue in San Francisco will do the same (spices are from $2 a pound, minimum