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Mastering the Art of Chinese Cooking

by: Eileen Yin-Fei Lo

San Francisco CA: Chronicle Books 2009, $50.00, Hardbound
ISBN: 978-0-818-5933-2

Reviewed by: Jacqueline M. Newman
Fall Volume: 2010 Issue: 17(3) page(s): 22 and 23

Riding the popularity wave of similarly titled books including Mastering the Art of French Cooking by Julia Child and a Chinese 'Mastering' volume by Charmaine Solomon and Ray Joyce, is this 'Mastering' title. Julia Child's had fifteen known New York and London editions from 1961. Solomon and Joyce's was titled: Mastering the Art of Wok Cooking, and it was first published abroad in 1986.

The current heavy-weight coffee-table 'Mastering' has lovely photography by Susie Cushner, but only a few are of its completed dishes. Calligraphy, by San Yan Wong of the pantry items, vinegars, wines, and Chinese kitchen tools are in three locations, the names of the one hundred and fifty recipes easier to locate. The Chinese is most helpful when shopping, that is if you succeed in locating the food item in English and Chinese in one of three locations throughout the book.

We found several needing historical corrections. The note after bean curd indicates freezing it is a new practice among Hong Kong chefs. Chinese chefs in Hong Kong and elsewhere knew and wrote about this technique for quite a few generations. Many emperors put this food item in their ice houses several hundred years ago; Yuan Mei who was born in 1716 wrote about it a few hundred years ago, too. As China's most important gastronome, his famous book was cited by many chefs and in it he made freezing doufu a common thing to do.

The book's flyleaf calls Ms. Lo the "Cantonese Julia Child" but Julia was more current, correct, and detailed; not so Ms Lo who speaks of water-blanching vegetables adding baking soda to keep their bright color. That technique reduces one B vitamin, thiamin, and is not legal in restaurants in most states in the USA. Why is that health detail omitted?

On the next page she writes about hairy beans, but they are not listed in the Table of Contents nor the Index yet are used in Stir-fried Hairy Beans with Snow Cabbage. If one misses pages before this recipe where she does advise they are immature soybeans, how does one find that bit of information? Of the thousands of recipes I read and cook, I never knew or saw that or as she says, they are a favorite in Shanghai. Listing a food that is not the first recipe word is one detail she needed to pay attention to.

Another is on page 31 where she discusses choi sum. Readers need to know that the first word means 'vegetable' and that it is also spelled choy or tsoi, and in Pinyin is written cai. Speaking of page 31, there are two pictures, neither food described on that page or the facing one. These omissions are hardly helpful when 'mastering' this cuisine.

One of the best parts of this book is the information about basics. However, like pantry items, they are also in more than one location. There is one set, called 'A final Collection of Basics' that apears on page 241. We wonder why learn about things 'basic' after most recipes?

In the error department, Lo discusses seasoned bean curd advising them pressed firmly to "remove all moisture, dried, then packed four to six cakes to an eight-ounce package, and variously labeled." One common name in many cookbooks but not in this one is 'brown bean curd.' Why does that name never appear? Also why are page numbers for more than half the banquet dishes on page 366 omitted though others do appear on all previous menus? Clearly the Chronicle Books copy-reader could not master the many confusions in this twenty-three lesson book whose three parts are titled: The Market as a Classroom, The Market Becomes Regional, and The Market Particular.

This cookbook does have some good information and many delicious and unusual recipes. We love the one for Shrimp with Salted Egg Yolks. It is yummy and not often found in other Chinese cookbooks. For those not familiar with Chinese cuisine, we recommend people take a look at it at a local library before investing fifty bucks to see if Lo's Mastery meets your needs. In the meantime, you may want to make the recipe that follows. It, too, is not well identified in the Index, unless you remember its name and do look up 'tomato.'
Tomato, Bean Curd, and Chicken Leg Mushroom Soup
1 pound tomatoes
4 firm bean curd cakes (one pound), frozen
1 fresh chicken leg mushroom, about five ounces
2 Tablespoons garlic oil (see note below)
1/2 inch thick piece peeled ginger, smashed
3/4 teaspoon salt
1/4 cup diced shallots, made into quarter-inch pieces
2 Tablespoons diced salted turnips, made into quarter-inch pieces
1/8 teaspoon white peppercorns
1/2 cup finely sliced scallions
1. Place tomatoes in a large heat-proof bowl and pour four cups boiling water over them. After a minute or two, pour off the hot water and fill the bowl with cold water, then remove their skins and cut them into half-inch pieces, separating the liquid from the pieces.
2. Remove the bean curd from the freezer, allow to thaw for thirty minutes, and cut them into one-third by one-third-inch dice.
3. Heat wok or large pot then add garlic oil, ginger, and salt. Stir for half minute then add shallots, stir, and reduce heat to medium. Cook the shallots for two or three minutes until they soften. Then raise the heat to high and add the tomatoes and mix well. Cook uncovered, stirring occasionally, for five minutes or until the tomatoes soften and break apart. 4. Add stock, mix well, then the tomato liquid, mix again, and bring to the boil, then lower the heat to medium and let tomatoes cook for five minutes or until very soft. Add turnips, mix well, and cook for one minute, then raise heat to high and add bean curd and peppercorns, rerun to the boil, then turn off the heat source. Transfer to a heated tureen and serve.
Note: This mushroom is more commonly known as and abalone or king oyster mushroom. To date we have never seen it by this name.)
For the Garlic Oil: Heat wok, add one and a half cups peanut oil and two and one quarter cups (about three heads) of peeled and thinly sliced garlic. Stir and allow oil to come almost to the boil, then immediately reduce heat to low (watch carefully as you may need to lift the pan until the heat source cools somewhat). Simmer on low for ten minutes, then strain. Store the oil in a closed sterilized jar and refrigerate; you can also store the garlic refrigerated in another sterilized jar. Use as needed. The oil stays for up to three months, the garlic pieces for up to two months.

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