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Chinese Chicken Cookbook, The

by: Eileen Yin-Fei Lo

New York NY: Simon and Schuster 2004, $24.00, Hardbound
ISBN: 0-7432-3341-7

Reviewed by: Jacqueline M. Newman
Fall Volume: 2004 Issue: 11(3) page(s): 20

This, Lo’s ninth cookbook, has a gold cover with some three hundred symbols of happiness. You can have a third as much happiness, if you make, as the subtitle says, One Hundred Easy-to-Prepare, Authentic Recipes for the American Table. The book and its public relations material say they are traditional, classic, and modern ways to enjoy chicken. We found emphasis on the modern, not the traditional, and know that many will appreciate the healthful substitution of chicken for pork items, such as Lion’s Head, Twice-Fried String beans with Minced Chicken, and Mu Shu Chicken.

Many recipes are accompanied with tales of southern Chinese heritage, family and personal experiences, and a mite of history as perceived by the author, a lovely southern Chinese lady. However, northern Chinese folk might bristle reading that "rice is the universal staple of China," or that it is "China’s national staple," or "symbolically, in most Chinese homes...there was always a bowl of uncooked rice displayed..." One needs to accept the unspoken, that her tales and approach to Chinese food are distinctly southern.

Lo sometimes stretches a point, as she does on page one, when after she says that the chicken is the embodiment of the phoenix. As it is a mythical bird, this mythology might be so. Lo goes on to advise that this Chinese bird rose from its ashes. Our education taught that rising from the ashes belongs to Greek mythology, not Chinese historiography. While the word phoenix is used in Chinese food, it is a lot more than just this bird. There is a phoenix or Chinese parasol tree that provides nuts and shade on temple grounds. The phoenix, to the Chinese, is the second of four supernatural Chinese animals; the others are the dragon, unicorn, and tortoise. The Chinese mythological phoenix is more associated with summer and sun, less with chicken, and to the Chinese, this bird is a combination of pheasant and peacock; but Lo does not mention that.

In our many visits to people’s homes in China, including those in China’s south, we never saw rice displayed as Lo says that ‘there was always a bowl of uncooked rice displayed.’ Furthermore, most northern Chinese homes we visited rarely served rice, and when they did, it was only in conjunction with more regional grains such as wheat, sorghum, and in the northwest, barley. In Lo’s book, you need to travel to page one hundred thirteen to learn that ‘in the Beijing area, and throughout Shandong...grains, not rice, were the staples of the diet.’ After that, she does offer eighteen noodle, wonton, dumpling, and bun recipes. One among them is wonderful, the Steamed Lotus Breads, the others are good to very good.

Your eyes need, like some noodles, to stretch when reading this book. Recipe titles and ingredients are printed in red, an auspicious color. However, when reading them, they come in out of focus. No such problem with steps in the method; they are in black. And, stretch your time when making them because though detailed, many steps are bunched into two or three paragraphs and as such, need several re-reads.

Chicken, an honored food served to the Son of Heaven in summer, is symbolic when speaking of rebirth and reaffirmation. Reaffirm your commitment to this healthful bird year-round. The recipes are easy to make and wonderful adaptations of classic Chinese dishes. Though the background is interesting but uneven, not so the recipes. The ones we made were delicious and should be on everyone’s tables and in their ‘make often’ culinary repertoire. They are a testament to the endless and varied ways to prepare chicken, Chinese style.
Lion's Head, Lo-style
For the Lion’s head balls:
1 pound chicken cutlets, minced
6 Tablespoons water chestnuts, cut into one-eighth-inch pieces
1/2 cup scallions, sliced thinly
2 Tablespoons oyster sauce
2 teaspoons rice wine
4 teaspoons sesame oil
1 teaspoon salt
1 Tablespoon sugar
pinch white pepper
4 Tablespoons egg whites, beaten
2 teaspoons corn oil
For the Sauce:
1 and 1/2 Tablespoons cornstarch mixed with an equal amount of water
4 teaspoons double black soy sauce
2 teaspoons sugar
2 Tablespoons oyster sauce
For preparing the dish:
3 Tablespoons peanut oil
1 and 1/2 cups chicken stock or broth
For the vegetable:
1 pound Shanghai cabbage or small bokcai
1. Mix all Lion’s Head ingredients in a bowl thoroughly. Scoop all into your hands and slap it against the bottom of the bowl. Do this nine times as it provides cohesiveness.
2. Refrigerate, covered, for four or more hours.
3. Mix sauce ingredients and set aside in a bowl.
4. Remove minced chicken mixture form the refrigerate and make four large round balls, and very slightly flatten them.
5. Heat oil in a wok or frypan then add balls of chicken and fry on one side about two minutes until browned. Turn over and do the same for the second side, then add the chicken stock and bring to the boil, lower the heat and simmer for four minutes, turn over and simmer another three minutes. Remove them to a pre-heated bowl and set aside.
6. Blanch the vegetable in salted water for up to three minutes or until tender. Remove, drain, and put around the edges of a preheated platter.
7. Heat the sauce mixture until it bubbles, then immediately add the cooked chicken balls and stir until the sauce thickens, Then remove the Lion’s Head chicken balls to the center of the platter, pour the sauce over them, and serve.

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