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Chinese Cuisine Recipes and Their Stories

by: Zhang Enlai

Beijing China: Foreign Languages Press 2001, Paperback
ISBN: 7-119-02824-3

Reviewed by: Jacqueline M. Newman
Fall Volume: 2003 Issue: 10(3) page(s): 28

Special Delicacies, Poultry and Egg Dishes, Meat Dishes, Fish Dishes, Vegetable and Bean Curd Dishes, and Other Dishes, these are the categories in this eighty-recipe one hundred seventy-six page culinary collective of tales and tastes. Some of the recipes are three thousand years old, some much younger, from only a few hundred years ago. All come with a few paragraphs each with their own historical story. Each has a color photograph of the completed dish, and many have lovely hand-painted color drawings that show/tell the tale(s) of the time.

There are tales in palace kitchens, others in mountain villas. There are stories of emperors, scholars, and common folk. Included are dishes cherished by officials, others loved by ordinary citizens. All are beautifully presented. The book is filled with delicious delicacies and delights.

This is a book for cooks and those who want to learn more about Chinese cooking. It has simple dishes such as Chicken Cubes with Pears, a 1657 dish for a Prince in the Yunnan Province. There is Mandarin Fish and Pickled Mustard Leaves from a bit later, tasting and telling about a Zhejiang Province servant lady known as Peihong. She made a fine dish with old vegetables. There is Slippery Pork Yingshan Style made for Emperor Li Shimin (599 - 649 CE) who was seriously ill and had no appetite. This dish from the Hubei Province provided an appetite, and for its cook came a generous reward.

There are so many other wonderful food-story details, like the one that took place in 1180, when an emperor took a cruise. He told his guards to buy fish and turtles from the lake and then release them. Then he and his party came across an old lady called Fifth Sister Song. She sold fish soup. He invited her into his boat to try it, and enjoy it he did. Other wealthy people learned about and wanted some, too. The Emperor gave her many silks and popularized this dish, and today it is still popular. It is still considered a traditional dish in Hangzhou.

And there was Qu Yuan (circa 339 - 278 BCE), a poet during the warring states. His recipe, sometimes called: The First Soup, also goes by the name of Chicken with Seeds of Job's Tears. This pheasant, Job’s tears, salt, and plum potage is the first soup recipe ever recorded. There is a recipe about Braised Ox Tail eaten by the first Emperor of Qin (259 - 210 BCE), and one about Hu Style Mutton consumed by Zhang Quan in 139 BCE. Another is of Stewed Twin Carps made in the Confucian mansion to remember that he is buried between his son and his grandson.

The very oldest of any of the dishes commemorates and is called the Meeting of the Capable. It honors the period from 1066 to 771 BCE when eight gentlemen rose up and made a pact to fight and kill King Zhou. They took this pledge holding sticky glutinous rice as a symbol of their unity and of completing that task. Later, cooks created this glutinous rice and fruit dish to honor them and it is now served at the end of many banquets. You may know it as Eight Precious Pudding, and now you know why the number eight. Incidentally, they did kill the king.

Enjoy this book's valuable read. Delight in the tale of the pock-marked lady for whom the Sichuan dish Ma Po Dou Fu is named. Take pleasure in the Life Saver dish that uses the rice cakes of Tengchong. And know that reading it can be a lifesaver for those who wonder about why some dishes have tantalizing names, others just called by their main ingredients. With more than ten thousand different Chinese dishes in their culinary repertoire, hope there are many future volumes to better acquaint people with more fantastic tales, superb tastes, too.
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