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Great Dishes of Yung Kee

by: Kimsen and Leung, Hui Hin Kam

Hong Kong : Ming Pao Publications 1997, Hardbound
ISBN: 962-973-006-5

Reviewed by: Jacqueline M. Newman
Winter Volume: 1998 Issue: 5(4) page(s): 15 and 16

First, excitement reigned when a friend advised that my favorite Hong Kong restaurant had published a cookbook. Depression set in when her son left Hong Kong before helping me get a copy. Next comes delight when the General Manager of the restaurant sends a copy for this review.

This restaurant's Roast Goose is world famous. The recipe called Glazed Roast Goose was reported in The Culinary Chronicle (see Flavor and Fortune Vol 5(1) on page 20). Here, more detail tells of the more than three hundred birds made daily; most of them consumed on one of the restaurant's four floors. It all begins when a street-cart manned by Kam Shui Kai, its founder, seeks indoor accommodations.

This cookbook has the goose recipe and more than eighty others, most prepared there for more than half a centruy. Should you visit this beloved eatery and request to see the book, prepare to pay first, browse thereafter. If you want their exquisite recipes and some lost classic dishes, do pony up first. For those not lucky enough to get to that gastronomic city, query for price, postage and handling fees at: Yung Kee, 32-40 Wellington Street, Central in Hong Kong. I did and can report that it is not inexpensive.

The book is gorgeous; each completed dish photographed on Qing Dynasty tableware. The recipes and detailed information about them and the restaurant are in Chinese and Japanese. At the end, in English, is a half page of restaurant history and every recipe titled as 'Highlights of Yung Kee Recipes.'

I could hardly wait to try them but fearing my prejudice as I could still taste several of the wonderful dishes eaten there, I enlisted help from friends. They and I read and cooked and came up with mixed reviews. The recipes are not, as the fly-leaf says, in 'a practical cookery book.' One friend says, "it is obviously intended to serve as a souvenir rather than a practical cook book." If you are unfamiliar with Chinese cuisine and foods of this restaurant, she is correct. Another praises the pictures but pans the recipes. A third, fluent in Chinese and English (but only mediocre in Japanese) finds the recipes in every language not of value for her, an unseasoned chef. She never tasted their finished products and can not guess at amounts for many of the ingredients listed.

Some of the recipes use ingredients unavailable on the shelves of even the best stocked Chinese supermarket. Can you locate frog's legs, shark's fin, conpoy, partridge, abalone, sea snails, bamboo fungus, goat spine, even goose web? What about frog stomach, sheep cheek, ricefield worm, five kinds of snake, the nasal bones of sturgeon, and snow jelly?

It does not bother me that a few ingredients make some recipes off limits. What does anger is the marinade for the goose listed as '3 tbsp exclusive Yung Kee goose sauce' or '4 exclusive Yung Kee preserved goose liver sausage.' Also bristling are typical recipes that advise 'some stock, light stock, light soy, dark soy, and Shaoxing wine, 1 star aniseed...,' etc. In spite of this, I try several and guess where ingredient amounts are omitted. Cookbooks do have an obligation to write recipes that people can cook; had I paid for this one and would have bristled because when a restaurant's cookbook does not allow me to recreate what I ate there, I think selling the book is equal to false advertising.

In this book, the Fried Chicken with Black Beans and all but about half dozen recipes require guesswork because what they call 'ingredients' are detailed but what they deem 'seasonings' are not. One recipe recommends one and a half ounces of black beans to half a chicken, four and a half ounces of shallots, and three ounces of diced green and red pepper. In it, as is typical in most of the book's recipes, no amounts are provided for oyster sauce, light and dark soy sauces, mashed garlic, stock, sugar, wine, and ginger; though the latter item does say 'several slices.'

Years of experience monitoring my cleaver and pouring hand and my results are good. I can not guarantee, however, that they equal Yank Kee's. In the Braised River Catfish, seasonings begin with '5/8 oz finely chopped rehydrated aged dried orange peel, then list ginger, wine, garlic, spring onion, cornstarch and dark soy with no amounts, and end with '4 tbsp Chu Hau sauce.' The friend who prepares it says, 'fish only OK.' Another reports about Prawns Coated with Mashed Taro, and says: 'I have always brined my shrimp before cooking. This firms them up and makes then crisper but who other than someone like ourselves would have a clue about the strength of the brine?' She says she used 'a lot of ginger and chili and the result were delicious.'

Some restaurants, cookbook authors, and chefs do not want to share their secrets. Why then, do they write a cookbook? For those who live an ocean away, this cookbook does not provide a realistic opportunity to prepare Yung Kee's fantastic food; what a pity. I love it nonetheless.

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