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Food Culture in China

by: Jacqueline M. Newman

Westport CT: Greenwood Press 2004, $49.95, Hardbound
ISBN: 0-313-32581-2

Reviewed by: Harley Spiller
Winter Volume: 2004 Issue: 11(4) page(s): 21, 22, and 36

In the hard copy of this issue, there is an article titled: On a special bookshelf. If I were the editor, I would have titled it and this book review: Everything You have Always Wanted to Know About Chinese Food but Do Not Speak Enough Chinese to Ask. The book I am referring to is one in the Food Culture Around the World series called: Food Culture in China by Jacqueline M. Newman. It was published by Greenwood Press in Westport CT, and the author is this magazine's editor. You can find it, as I first did, on the web at www.greenwood.com and learn other things about it such as its ISBN is: 0-313-32581-2; that there are 256 pages, figures; map; photos; tables, and its cost of $49.95. And, you can see the Greenwood flyer for it on the top of this page.

Our editor does like to keep things, titles in particular, somewhat uniform, hence my title was pitched. One last thing, I was asked to review this book before coming on as an associate editor; and I selected the title of Vice-Editor. But now on to reviewing what I think is a very special book.

Studded with cooking tips, food lore mysteries, and clear definitions of Chinese regional food cultures, Dr. Jacqueline M. Newman’s new book, Food Culture in China, recently published by Greenwood Press, is as delicious and surprise-filled as lo mei gai, those steamed packets of Chinese sticky rice stuffed with assorted ingredients. In order to set the stage, Dr. Newman wisely opens with a map of China’s many provinces, and a time-line listing China’s many dynasties. Readers will find themselves flipping back to these important reference tools time and again, to reinforce the important material being presented in the logically ordered chapters that follow.

Part of a new series of books about food culture around the world, Dr. Newman’s tome tackles the daunting task of delineating regional and other differences in Chinese foods and culture. There is no more qualified person for the job. Chinese food is her passion. Ever since she was a child growing up on the cusp of Manhattan’s Chinatown, she has eaten Chinese food almost every day, up to four and five times on some days. Now retired after a full career as a professor at Queens College, she is still going strong.

Over the years, Dr. Newman has amassed the world’s largest collection of cookbooks with Chinese recipes in English. She uses many volumes in her almost three-thousand-volume collection almost daily, and writes with the kind of deep passion that can only be developed by someone totally immersed in, and enthralled with, her subject.

Just recently Dr. Newman donated most of this collection of cookbooks to the State University of New York at Stony Brook. Perhaps she was inspired by their new Charles T. Wang Asian-American Cultural Studies Center. Nine visits to Beijing and other Chinese cities, and dozens of other professional excursions throughout Asia add to her wide base of knowledge, which she generously shares with her readers. Dr. Newman is also editor-in-chief of Flavor and Fortune, a quarterly Chinese magazine she helped found in 1994.

Her writing is logical, restrained, and not prone to the types of blanket statements which too easily roll off the tongues of people who do not always remember that a little knowledge can be a dangerous thing. This book is a boon for serious students because the author reiterates important points, like the fact that Chinese food is split into two main categories: fan (the grains), and cai (the flavoring foods), so one can re-read individual chapters or portions and get clear synopses.

A book published in 2003, Finding Chinese Food in Los Angeles, by Carl Chu, sets out to cover a few of the same topics as Food Culture in China, with the added resource of where to find examples of the different cuisines in Los Angeles. Dr. Newman’s book is different and certainly not limited to one city in any country. Hers is better because she wields words as carefully as a Confucian chef’s cleaver, adds more than a dash of acumen, and a fair amount of disclaimers in this sincere and successful effort to present the truth about Chinese food culture, and nothing more. She chooses terms like “said to have” and “is believed to be” rather than make global statements. In fact, Food Culture in China counters the easy assumptions mistakenly made by many, revealing for example that stir-frying is not China’s major cooking technique. The information is densely packed, so one must read slowly to learn all the details. Newman can turn a phrase, like when she reveals the secret of how they get soup 'inside' Shanghai dumplings. She conveys the fun nature of this tricky snack by writing about the “soup that spurts.”

The depth and breadth of the author’s knowledge is indisputable. The book’s illustrations are not, they are thin and far between, and do little to add to the knowledge base being presented. I, too, am a Chinese food fanatic who writes for Flavor and Fortune, so I scoured Food Culture in China carefully to find omissions and mistakes. When I got to the description of bubble tea I thought, “a-ha, now I will trip her up.” I have known about bubble tea since I saw an unusually wide straw in Chinatown in 1994 and Taiwanese friends said it was for drinking the large black tapioca 'pearls' in tea, an early 1990's Taipei craze that continues to this day. Surely she will not know about the latest spin on the drink, I thought. However, as soon as that idea crossed my mind, she went on to describe the new pastel-colored 'pearls.' Alas, the only omission I can find in the book is that it neither describes nor illustrates the large round spoon commonly used in the wok by Chinese chefs.

The introduction to Food Culture in China provides the first formal discussion I have read about the role of food in Chinese divinity, and the book continues to provide fascinating and little-known tidbits. One learns, for example, that Chinese food hawkers once employed monkeys ringing bells to announce their arrival; that Chinese parents bury a bottle of rice wine to celebrate a daughter’s birth and only unearth it for a celebratory drink at her marriage; that traditional chopping blocks are round, because they were originally made from slices of tree trunks.

Readers will learn that over the centuries Chinese people developed tastes for astonishing comestibles like oil tea; gold fish stomach; cut-up chayote squash with the skin, seed and all; caterpillar fungus; and something called red orange pudding, which left me wondering if the Chinese are familiar with the purple-red 'blood oranges' popular in Italy and France.

Dr. Newman tells tales of a humongous restaurant that serves five thousand diners a day and describes tantalizing foods like a Jiangsu specialty of giant crab meatballs called Lion’s Head. Just the notion of specialties like Sichuan deep-fried duck cakes; prestigious foods like 'monkey head mushrooms,' and banquet-ending soups like “sweet silver wood ear with peach and cherry soup” had me drooling.

Food Culture in China describes a mystical lost recipe for 'Flirting with the Moon Broth' and talks about cakes that are decorated with the five poisonous animals of China, the centipede, lizard, scorpion, snake, and toad. This new publication is laden with detail, down to the name of the candy tray I have been offered in the living room after every Chinese home-cooked meal I have ever eaten--it is called an 'eight-sided prosperity dish.'

Food Culture in China describes a fascinating drink that was unknown to me, 'pestle tea.' Sichuanese, Hunanese and other peoples make tea and mix it with salted and diced ginger, oil, sugar, ground sesame seeds, peanuts and soybeans, and/or ground cooked rice. This description piqued my interest, as did many details in this book which is truly a springboard for scholarship. I turned to the websites www.Hunan-window.com and www.infj.cn/travel/cj.htm where I learned that pestle tea is served with many snacks, sometimes more than thirty choices, for the sake of 'pressing table.'

Drunk in the summertime for heat clearing and sterilizing, pestle tea has a two-hundred-year history in Fujian where they may also add other ingredients including puffed rice, herbs like mint, and lard. Pestle tea sound distinctly ancient and aboriginal, and reminds me of the yak butter tea common in Tibet, which always sounded odd. When Chinese tea first came to Britain, the locals were unfamiliar with the product so they soaked the leaves and put them on buttered bread, not unlike watercress sandwiches. Upon reconsideration, pestle tea does not seem so odd when you consider that Westerners are accustomed to putting milk in their tea, and that milk comes from a cousin of the yak, the cow. This book helps people rethink their cultural prejudices.

Except for the section on Chinese calendars, which makes it perfectly clear that counting the days, months and years in China is a befuddling task, Dr. Newman does an excellent job at explaining Chinese customs and traditions that often seem convoluted, inscrutable or indecipherable to outsiders. Her description of the gruesome origins of the Cold Food Festival are indeed chilling, and I learned of a festival I had never heard of but would surely like to celebrate. On the 9th day of the 9th month of the year, Chinese people herald the Double Ninth Festival by drinking wine, writing poems, doing healthy things, and staying away from home to avoid disaster. Sounds a little like Chinese Mardi Gras.

Newman’s discussions of food are anchored by knowledge gleaned from many sources, including the oldest Chinese food volume preserved in its entirety, Essential Techniques for the Peasantry, written by Jia Sixie some fifteen hundred years ago. Her real life tastings in the streets, alleys, and banquet halls of ever-so-many Chinatown locations the world over lend her writing real credibility, such as when she discusses the origins of dim sum, popularized during the Tang Dynasty. Her book is the first place I learned the stunning information that one prime minister of Shandong Province compiled a whopping fifty volumes of recipes for different dim sum snacks--and this was only for foods served in his province.

Food Culture in China clearly delineates the ritual foods that accompany the Kitchen God statue seen in most every Chinese restaurant and home. Newman offers even more detail than Amy Tan’s novel The Kitchen God’s Wife. Ms. Tan and others of Chinese descent can even learn about their own culture from Dr. Newman, who is not Chinese. Actually, her outsider status means she works aggressively to glean precise knowledge, harder than many Chinese people who already know about their cuisine in a more instinctive, informal, snd perhaps less detailed manner

Early on, the book gives a synopsis of the four basic tastes, sweet, salty, bitter and sour. She expands these categories to include other tastes, like 'natural' (each food’s unique taste); pungence (garlic, onion, and chive); hot pepper, sharp mustard and other foods that react with the sinuses; the flavor added by cooking fat; and the first clear definition I have read of 'savory,' known as umami in Japan. That taste is a flavor associated with dense meats and fish, thick bean pastes, and tomato, all of which contain glutamates. William Grimes, who writes about food for The New York Times has said he cannot wrap his brain around the concept of umami, sometimes described as 'deliciousness.' I hope very much he gets a chance to read Dr. Newman’s book; she clarifies the concept.

The final chapter, on food and health, provides references and quotations from the very first Chinese books about food, medicine and nutrition. The author does an excellent job of making Chinese medicine accessible to western minds. She explains the fantastic and colorful lore surrounding zongzi, sticky rice packets, and informs us that some of the rice packs, like ones made with pomegranate juice and honey, are “said to have medicinal properties that increase as they age.” The only thing that remained unclear is how the Chinese can consider 'joy' and 'thought' among the seven internal causes for disease.

The book’s detailed glossary, selected bibliography, index, and resource guide also provide handy information. Like Dr. Spock’s famous baby book, Food Culture in China is a great reference tool to turn to time and again when in need of a clear definition of, say, the differences between yin and yang.

Food Culture in China features close to fifty recipes illustrating the points and themes of each chapter. I prepared four of the dishes in my home kitchen, and found each recipe to be succinct, clear and precise.

A favorite waiter at Manhattan’s Oriental Pearl restaurant once suggested I try a dish called steamed shrimp. Steaming quickly became my favorite way to prepare shrimp because the moist heat retains the shrimp’s natural juiciness, and the resultant texture is superior to other methods of preparation. After savoring the restaurant version, I prepared steamed shrimp at home many times. The dish has never failed to garner praise from my dinner guests. But when I precisely followed Dr. Newman’s recipe, the dish came out better than ever before. Steamed shrimp are fairly easy to prepare at home, so I assume it was included in the Eating Out chapter because of the lingering smell.

The next dish I made was Southern Song Dynasty Shrimp Appetizer. What attracted me to this recipe is that absolutely no heat or fire is used in this circa eight-hundred-year-old preparation. The preparation is similar to that for Shanghainese wine chicken, which I have made on occasion. I wanted to see what the salt and wine pickling technique would do for shrimp.

Using whole shrimp with red spots of eggs visible through the clear head, I brined and wined and waited the requisite three days. The only alteration I made to the recipe was that halfway through, when the shrimp had absorbed a good deal of the wine, I topped off the bottle with cognac. My friends who taught me a wine chicken recipe passed along this secret tip, which reduces the ullage (air space in a bottle) and makes a better pickling atmosphere.

I shared the shrimp with a Chinese friend who made a face of great glee upon first bite. He closed his eyes, threw his head back, and said that it tasted like his grandmother’s pickles, but that she had only pickled vegetables. The texture of the crustaceans is tripartite – there is the gooey tomalley in the head, the firm outer layer of the body, and then a slightly softer inner portion. They taste strongly of brine, wine, and shrimp, and one can only eat a few of these very piquant appetite stimulants. The dish tastes thoroughly Chinese and quite ancient, befitting its placement in the Historical Overview chapter.

From the Cooking chapter, I prepared Boiled and Baked Peanuts with Red Bean Curd, a lovely illustration of how texture is changed when more than one cooking technique is employed. Perhaps the most well-known Chinese dish using dual cooking techniques is Sichuanese Twice-Cooked Pork, which when properly prepared is both moist and pully.

After gathering the necessary ingredients, I opened the jar of red bean curd cubes and was hit with an aroma both familiar and thoroughly Chinese. Still, I could not place the smell. A Chinese chef informed me that red bean curd is called lan yu and that when mashed it is the sweet paste that gives Chinese barbecued spare ribs their distinctive bright red color. What fun to have that same taste in a vegetarian snack. I did not have a cookie sheet and that same chef came up with a great substitute--a wok.

Opening raw peanuts is nothing like cracking roasted peanuts at the ball game. The shells are clamped tight and the red skin stubbornly resists removal. It took over an hour to prepare the nuts--next time I am buying pre-cleaned nuts in a bag. My friend the chef said the finished product tastes like home cooked Chinese food--freshly made with the clean and distinct flavor of each ingredient, but not uniform in coating or crunchiness like commercial foods prepared in highly-standardized kitchens. The texture is the most intriguing part of this snack. One friend said 'chewy,' another said 'weird but good' (a common reaction to new foods). Using this recipe, a mere half a peanut seems denser and can be chewed for a long, long time.

Finally, I prepared another dish from the Cooking chapter, Steamed Pork with Seasoned Rice Flour. Ordinarily I prefer pork when it is still pink, so the direction to steam half-inch slices for fifty minutes seemed excessive. I was wrong. The pork may be well done but it falls apart with only the gentlest of chopstick prodding. The sauce in which the pork was marinated in turns into thick, luscious gravy that deeply flavors each striation of the meat. The sticky rice flour is preferable to corn starch for giving gooey body to the gravy. This dish does not taste so much like Chinese food as it tastes like an old-fashioned, long-cooked meat dish from any number of cultures making hearty fare to get through the winter. Pot roast comes to mind. After the long steaming, one can no longer easily distinguish the individual tastes of soy, Shao Xiang wine, black vinegar, salt, pepper and Sichuan peppercorns that flavor the meat because the flavors interlock beautifully to create a superior taste, the one known as umami.

Food Culture in China is, as its publisher Greenwood Press describes it, a true 'one-stop resource' that 'helps readers to see this ever-popular ethnic cuisine in a broader context…the most in-depth reference of its kind on the market.' The book builds steam like a ten-course banquet, like a kettle of water coming to boil. It may be slow reading through the didactic history and time-line, but once you learn those details, the good stuff that comes next seems even better. Dr. Newman’s writing empowers the reader to go forth and speak with authority about Chinese food.

Dr. Newman puts the kibosh on what Westerner’s often describe as the inscrutability of Chinese food ways, answering questions like why its OK to slurp soup, arrive late to the dim sum table, but never to a banquet. She knows more about Chinese food than anyone I have ever encountered, and her book lays it on the line in a precise and intriguing manner. I do not know if Chinese people eat them, but I do know that this precious new resource is the 'bee’s knees.'
The author thanks Chinese-Venezuelan chef and photographer Guillermo Hung for his insight.; and he invites you to his exhibition, “Have You Eaten Yet?”, a fun and scholarly exploration of Chinese restaurants in the U. S., on view through June 2005 at the Museum of Chinese in the Americas, on the 2nd floor at 70 Mulberry St. in Manhattan’s Chinatown, (212) 219-6350, www.moca-nyc.org

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