Like so many stories on The Takeout, the origin of this idea came from that website, Twitter. Tina Antolini, senior story producer for the excellent Pop-Up Magazine, was soliciting suggestions for Chinese cookbooks last month. As a Chinese man in food media who picks up every Chinese cookbook he encounters, I chimed in. I rattled three off the top of my head:
Since then I’ve been thinking about the important Chinese cookbooks in my life.
Calling a cookbook Chinese is like calling a cookbook European—China is too gastronomically diverse to be encapsulated with any depth between two covers. That’s why I picked the four cookbooks below, which in my opinion, together provide a fundamental understanding of how the native Chinese cook. As a Chinese man who immigrated to the States at age 11, these books are more than just practical guides, but help me rediscover my past. I cherish these four books, and if you’re interested in the rich world of Chinese cookery, I’d recommend you seek these out too.
More than just a collection of recipes, Lo—considered the Julia Child of Chinese cooking—organized her magnum opus as a series of lessons, from navigating a Chinese market, through fundamentals of stir-frying and poaching, to more esoteric techniques such as Chinese barbecue and the nuances of sand clay pot cooking. Dishes simple enough for weeknight cooking can be found here, as are elaborate showstoppers such as Peking duck. If you were to buy one Chinese cookbook, I’d begin here. It’s impressively comprehensive, and perhaps the most gorgeous and lavishly photographed volume in my library.
This is my favorite Chinese cookbook for everyday cooking. Dunlop—the British-born, Sichuan-trained chef—is the English-language authority on regional Chinese cuisine, and her books on Sichuan, Hunan, and Yangtze may require treasure hunts of ingredients that might even be too obscure for Chinatown grocers. But not Every Grain of Rice, her entry-level cookbook, and the dishes here remind me of what my grandmother would prepare—spare, understated, light, not mucked in heavy sauces, just employing a handful of ingredients to create culinary alchemy. As I wrote previously:
You may not find another guide that captures China’s culinary ethos more accurately. Such as: How the Chinese treat meat as a luxury rather than a commodity (two-thirds of the dishes in the book are vegetarian), that cutting ingredients is a crucial skill (nine shapes presented here), or that cooking is more uncomplicated than one might think (stir-fried garlic stems with bacon requires only 10 minutes, its two namesake ingredients, plus oil and salt).
At 514 pages, this book-shaped medicine ball is as much instruction as travelogue. Broadly speaking, there are eight major cuisines celebrated within China, but completists will argue that number is closer to three dozen. This encyclopedic book is essentially a culinary Lonely Planet with 300 recipes. You’ll already find plenty of available information on Cantonese and Sichuan cooking elsewhere, but in All Under Heaven Phillips shines light on every corner of the Middle Kingdom: the Muslim cooking of the Uyghur people in China’s Northwest, the Indian-tinged cuisine of Tibet, even the strange and wonderful confluence of Portuguese-Chinese in tiny Macau. There are perhaps more accessible cookbooks for the Chinese neophyte, but none I’ve enjoyed reading and learning more from than All Under Heaven.
Dunlop makes a second appearance within four entries, but that just goes to show how important she has been to proselytizing Chinese cookery. This book first came out in the U.K. in 2001, and it landed like an atom bomb in the English-language cookbook world. Never had there been a treatise on Sichuan cooking as scholarly as Dunlop’s, who was the first Westerner to graduate from the Sichuan Institute Of Higher Cuisine. If you think Sichuan cooking is just all spiciness, Land of Plenty reveals a cuisine arguably as sophisticated as the French (at least 56 cooking methods, such as “homestyle braising” and “dry-frying.”) Those seeking true mapo tofu, dan dan noodles, and kung pao chicken will find the definitive recipes here, but do as I do with this book—next time you’re at a Sichuan restaurant, instead of making guesses at the vague menu descriptions, bring this along as a translation guide.