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China, The Cookbook by Kei Lum and Diora Fong-Chan (Phaidon; hardback 720pp, colour photographs throughout; €39.95, stg£29.99)
The traditional holiday period associated with the Chinese New Year is in full swing and, just as St Patrick’s Day gives us a unique opportunity to remind the world of all things Irish (or, in the unlikely event that it doesn’t already exist, create awareness), this is a time to celebrate Chinese culture everywhere.
The ‘official’ holiday is only 7 days (27 Jan - 2 Feb this year), but the ‘traditional’ holiday extends over 23 days, so there is plenty of time to get the message across. Chinese communities everywhere, including Ireland, organise festivities that educate, entertain and strengthen generational and community bonds, there is a strong focus on food and its role in Chinese culture and traditions, and restaurants offer special festive menus.
This is the Year of the Rooster, a birth sign associated with some admirable traits - such people are said to be ‘resourceful, hardworking, talented, courageous’ - and I wonder if either of the esteemed husband and wife writing team Kei Lum and Diora Fong-Chan are ‘Roosters’ as it seems to me that the authors of the definitive Chinese cookery book, China, The Cookbook would need all of that on their side and more.
Phaidon are doing a nice promotion on their website, tying the book in with the Chinese New Year by suggesting four dishes from it for a Healthier, Happier and Wealthier Chinese New Year - in case you’re wondering, they’re Soy Sauce Chicken (prosperity); Lettuce Wrap with Oysters (boost your professional life); Stir Fry Shanghai Noodles (longevity); and Laughing Donut Holes (happiness).
Which is all good fun but, while the relatively short opening chapters of this book will teach most of us a great deal about Chinese food and its symbolism, it doesn’t dwell on festivities or ritual - the main focus is on the recipes, all 650 of them.
That means you could try a new dish every day for nearly two years without repetition, which seems very appropriate for a book that represents a country so vast that it’s hard to comprehend. Its food culture is correspondingly complex and, when you think about a country with thirty four provinces and regions and fifty six indigenous nationalities - each with its own food traditions - the word diversity takes on a whole different meaning.
Then there is the range of climatic conditions and terrain - the mountainous, the land-locked, the regions dominated by great rivers, and the favoured coastal zones… ‘A gross simplification would be to say that each of China’s main areas are characterised by a distinct flavour: the northj (Shandong) is salty, the east (Anhui, Jiangsui, Zhehjiang) is sour, the south (Guandong and Fujian) is delicately sweet and the west (Hunan and Sichuan) is heart-clutchingly spicy.’
These regions are known as China’s Eight Great Cuisines, and each is detailed in the introductory pages with its key characteristics and references to some of the signature dishes that are sprinkled through the book.
Cooking techniques and equipment are covered too and, while authenticity is a given, most of the specialised ingredients are now quite easily accessed and the wonder of it is that so many of the recipes are straightforward and very accessible for any home cook with an interest in doing things right.
The shame of it is that only a couple of the main regional styles are likely to be familiar to most of us - Cantonese (Guandong) and Sichuan - but this is just the place to learn more. A lovely gift for anyone with an interest in Chinese food and culture (including yourself), and this handsomely produced, gilt-edged volume is exceptionally good value too.
SAMPLE RECIPE: Vermicelli With Roast Duck In Soup
Region: Hong Kong
Preparation time: 10 minutes
Cooking time: 15 minutes
7 oz/200 g dried rice vermicelli
3 cups (25 fl oz/750 ml) chicken broth (stock)
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon vegetable oil
1 clove garlic, sliced
5 oz/150 g preserved mustard greens, rinsed, trimmed, and chopped
1 red chilli, seeded and finely sliced (optional)
1/2 small roast duck, meat shredded
1 teaspoon cornstarch (cornflour)
For the sauce:
2 teaspoons light soy sauce
1 teaspoon granulated sugar
1 teaspoon sesame oil
Bring a large saucepan of water to a boil and add vermicelli. Cover, turn off the heat, and let stand for 10 minutes until softened. Using chopsticks, stir the vermicelli to prevent it from sticking, then drain,
Put the chicken broth (stock), salt, and 2 cups (16 fl oz/475 ml) water in a large saucepan and bring to a boil. Add the vermicelli, return to a boil, and then transfer everything to a soup tureen.
Heat the vegetable oil in a wok or large skillet (frying pan) over high heat, add the garlic, and stir-fry 1 minute until golden. Add the mustard greens and chile, if using and stir-fry for 1 minute.
Stir in the roast duck and sauce ingredients, add 4 tablespoons water, and bring to a boil.
Mix the cornstarch (cornflour) with 1 tablespoon water in a small bowl and stir this mixture into the wok. Bring to a boil, stirring, for 30 seconds to thicken the sauce then pour over the vermicelli.