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Chinese English-Language Cookbooks: 100 Years of Content and Context

by Jacqueline M. Newman


Spring Volume: 1999 Issue: 6(1) page(s): 21 and 28

The Chinese began coming to the United States in the middle of the 1800's. They did not bring any cookbooks with them nor do we know of any cookbooks written in English that were here, in China, or anywhere before they came. That being said, when did Americans first read recipes about Chinese food? There are a few isolated recipes in early American cookbooks, even a few in newspapers published in and around Salem, Massachusetts. More on this entry of Chinese food into American kitchens at a later date.

So when did the Chinese begin writing English-language cookbooks? The answer is that such books were written quite a few years after any American or any one else in the world wrote cookbooks about the foods of this ethnic group. Looking at both content and context of the more than two thousand cookbooks with Chinese recipes written in English or English and another language is easy for me. I own what is purported to be the world's largest such collection, just over two thousand and growing weekly. Just this week I acquired half dozen new ones and ordered a handful more. The Chinese cookbooks that I do not own but have heard about, I travel to see and then annotate them.

The first thing that I or anyone would notice is that not one Chinese cookbook is written in more than three different languages in a single book; even the idea of two languages in one volume is relatively new. They came into existence about fifty years ago, then with most multiple language Chinese cookbooks written in English and Chinese. After those they were in English and Japanese. Chinese cookbooks written in other than in Chinese are more often in English than in any other language.

The growth of Chinese cookbooks in English and the expansion of my collection is amazing. Only seven hundred thirty-two Chinese cookbooks were located and/or annotated in a volume I authored titled: Chinese Cookbooks: An Annotated English Language Compendium/Bibliography. That unique book, the only book ever printed about Chinese cookbooks, was published by Garland Books in 1987.

The oldest Chinese cookbook located, and it is in my collection, is not a book but rather a booklet. It has information and recipes, though not written in standard style with ingredients listed in order of use and preparation recorded in numbered steps. That item was printed in 1899. Aside from its age, the interesting thing about it is that it is about Chinese vegetables. It tells how they are grown and used, talks about their nutrition content, and provides a few meager instructions on how to cook them. All of this in a government document written by Mr. Blasdale of and for the United States Department of Agriculture.

Other books of note include the smallest appropriately called A Little Chinese Cookbook. It is two inches square, has eight pages of text, and came in a box called: A pet wok. Another tiny tome is A Little Book About a Lot of Chinese Vegetables. It's size, about twice that of the above, sports forty-five pages of recipes and information.

The largest book, by page count, was written in 1966 by Gloria Bley Miller. It has and is called The Thousand Recipe Chinese Cookbook. It has nine hundred twenty-seven pages and the most recipes. However, in reality a large number of the recipes are variations on a theme. Equally large in recipe count is the Encyclopedia of Chinese Cooking by Chang, Chang, Kutscher, and Kutscher. This book has five hundred thirty-four pages and really does have one thousand recipes. Chang and Chang are none other than Wonona and Irving Chang, the test kitchen directors of Flavor and Fortune.

Trailing right behind is another comprehensive volume by Irene Kuo called The Key to Chinese Cooking; it has five hundred thirty-three pages. Another large Chinese cookbooks is a five hundred four page book by Chen, Chen and Tsang titled Everything you Wanted to Know about Chinese Cooking.

Size, type of recipe, authorship, how the book is bound, and other issues are not indications of quality or type but the large books just mentioned are worth including in anyone's collection. There are very fine books, though not that large, that are hard or soft bound and there are dreadful ones of every type. As the expression goes, it is hard to judge a book by its cover, and not every cookbook, Chinese or otherwise, is appropriate for every person.

Just over forty percent of Chinese cookbooks are hardbound, more than thirty percent paperbound, almost ten percent spiralbound, about ten percent pamphlets, and nearly five percent recipe cards bound or in a folio. The books range from tiny and easy to lose to a few that are big, beautiful, inappropriate to cook from, or what is known in the trade as a coffee table cookbook.

People ask: Where are Chinese cookbooks in English published? Looking at a pie chart published in the hard copy of this issue shows that about forty percent are published in the United States, about twenty-five percent in Hong Kong, nearly ten percent in Taiwan and a like number in England, about five percent published in Singapore, nearly three percent each from Japan and Australia, and the rest from ten other countries (Ceylon, Czechoslovakia, Germany, Holland, India, Malaysia, Morocco, New Zealand, Russia, and the West Indies).

In the United States, Chinese cookbooks have been published in thirty-two of the United States, and from coast to coast. New York and California published one quarter of all of the English Language Chinese cookbooks, and almost every one of these is only in English. About ten percent of the books have no date of publication and a mite fewer than half of that number do not say where they were published.

The data in this article is fluid as I am ever learning about new Chinese cookbooks, ever collecting, and always donating any duplicates I sometimes acquire by mistake to other major collections (See the article on one such collection in Flavor and Fortune's Volume 5(4) on pages 11 and 21).

Among all Chinese cookbooks, a handful more that a dozen were published prior to 1930. During the 1930's there were about two dozen more published. In the 1940's there was a mite more than three dozen more published, and in the 1950's, a few more than four dozen published. In the 1960's, the number more than doubled again and in the 1970's, perhaps because of the change in immigration laws in the mid 1960s, there was an explosion of Chinese cookbooks with almost four hundred volumes published.

Since the immigration laws changed, more Chinese cookbooks are written by Chinese authors. Prior to that, less than one third were written by people of Chinese heritage. In the 1980's, these numbers double to more than six hundred and so far with the 90's not yet over, more than that number have been located and annotated. These numbers do not add up to my two thousand, not due to poor arithmetic, but rather because there are dozens and dozens undated at this time and multiple dozens of pamphlets without dates, as well. Some books need to be mentioned. The first two below, by Lin and Lin and by Kenneth Lo have recipes. The handful mentioned after them do not but are specifically mentioned because of their value vis-a-vis understanding about Chinese food. Lin & Lin's Chinese Gastronomy (1969) is written by the wife and daughter of the famous Chinese author, Lin Yutang. The second is by the most prolific Chinese cookbook author, Kenneth Lo, and is titled The Guide to Chinese Eating(1976). Those without recipes that anyone interested in Chinese food should know about include a volume edited by K. C. Chang titled Food in Chinese Culture (1977). One should also know about Chinese Food for Thought by T.C. Lai (1984), E. N. Anderson's Chinese Food (1988), F. J. Simoons' Food in China (1991) and Wittner, Yu, Sun, and Wang's Feeding a Billion (1987).

Most Chinese cookbooks have more than just recipes. A few include advertisements, some have menus, glossaries, health items, history, philosophy, cultural items, illustrations of food and/or technique, photographs of completed dishes, equipment shown or spoken of, cultural items, how to use chopsticks, and more. Color photographs are included in many, black and white line drawings in almost all, original recipes in some, legally or illegally copied information in a few, etc.

About one-third have glossaries consisting of from half dozen items to a dozen or more pages. These can include foods, technique, equipment, even types of cookery. There are an equal number of books with an index beyond the names of the recipes, some do it by food items, some with both.

Not all of the Chinese cookbooks are perfect in language, how to use ingredients, accuracy in listing or using all items mentioned, spelling, region of origin, and so forth. Some have a few cutsy items, some assume the reader is a dummy, others that everyone knows how to gut a duck, defeather a fowl, and fill a squid. Revealing are attitudes towards accuracy and detail, location of where to shop, and/or where to eat. A few of the books are food specific, such as with recipes only about fruit, or fish, or dim sum, or tonic dishes.

About three dozen volumes include bibliographies with more than a handful of other books, a few indicate cost of the food, some have herbal lore, or festival facts. Most have recipes most people can make, but not all are for a part of a meal. Some books have one or more suggested menus, most have less than a handful of them.

About twenty-five of these books are considered charity or community cookbooks. This genre of cookbook, well-established in the mid 1870's with contributor of each recipe duly noted, was and is very popular in the United States. It is not so in Chinese cookbooks. In an upcoming issue, an article will detail this type of cookbook.

Cookbooks, Chinese or other, are more than a collection of recipes. They are reflections of the people that wrote them. The last behavior to change when someone moves to another country are their food habits. Thus, ethnic cookbooks are sources about foods of a particular society. They tell how and when there are adaptations to the foods and behaviors of the dominant culture. Ethnic cookbooks reflect change. A few recent Chinese cookbooks by celebrity chefs from Hong Kong, such as Ken Hom's Fragrant Harbor Taste or his Travels with a Hot Wok show Chinese food habit changes. This can also be seen in the mayonnaise on the cover of a Buddhist vegetarian cookbook and in many Chinese cookbooks that now include recipes for salads with or without mayo.

Chinese cookbooks, however, no matter where they are written, show much less change than the cookbooks of other cultures. One reason can be because Chinese food habits are so very important to the culture. Another can be that more so than for any other population, eating, thinking about, tasting, and cooking Chinese food is important to almost every Chinese person. A third may be that theirs is the longest food history of any culture. A fourth that because the Chinese spend more on food than people of other cultures, they care about and know more about their own food than most, and to them, as Mencius said, "nothing is more important than eating."

In summary: Chinese cookbooks are reflective of their core culture. They are more similar than different than are cookbooks of any other ethnic population group. Some of the books do show fusion, but to most Chinese people Chinese fusion foods are not real Chinese food tastes. Fusion does not please their minds or their palates. Long, long ago, Confucius made this observation: "There is no one who does not eat and drink. But few there are who can appreciate taste." Perhaps because of this, cuisine is one of China's greatest glories. Not only is Chinese food important to the Chinese, but Chinese food is important to others, as well. Chinese food is the second most popular ethnic cuisine in America, selected by forty-six percent it in-home or in restaurants.

It would be remiss not to mention two other books with recipes that are worth knowing about, buying, or borrowing from your local library are:
Chao, Buwei Yang. How to Cook and Eat in Chinese. New York: John Day, 1945; and:
Sia, Mary. Maria Sia's Chinese Cookbook. Honolulu HI: University of Hawaii Press, 1956.

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