Vintage Chinese Cookbooks

This year I've been cooking a lot of Chinese-American. This obsession began when the best Chinese restaurant in my neighborhood changed ownership and the quality of the food declined. Before that, my attitude about Chinese food was, "Why would I attempt a dish I can get down the street and that will be better than anything I could cook?" Well, after a few disappointing Sunday dinners with my mom, I turned to my cookbook library and started cooking Chinese-Amerian food!

The Woks of Life cookbook is a recent release, but the other books are vintage cookbooks from the 60s and 70s. Those old cookbooks contain some real gems.  Two out of the four cookbooks pictured above described how to bar-b-que pork ribs in your oven by hanging them on hooks above a drip pan. See the picture below which came from Jim Lee’s Chinese Cook Book. The idea is that the pork remains dry and the fat drips off.  Of course, I have no idea where you would source those s-shaped hooks!  I haven’t seen anything like that in the modern books! 

So far, I have cooked Stir Fried Asparagus with Crab Sauce, Shrimp with Lobster Sauce, Fried Noodles with Bok Choy, Double Friend Shrimp with Sweet and Sour Sauce, and most recently, Magic Dragon Shrimp.  Those recipes are on this web site. My wok skills are greatly improving!  I love cooking Chinese dishes because the mise en place step is very therapeutic.  Getting the ingredients ready takes longer than the actual cooking. Laying everything out on the chop board or counter and surveying your lovely ingredients is so calming.  So, you can really make an evening out of cooking something beautiful.  Sip a glass of wine, chop, chop, chop and then when you’re ready to have dinner, fire up that wok and go for it! I have to admit my local Asian market is still a bit of a mystery for me, and I’ve noticed that no one who works there is very helpful.  I can’t seem to Go Beyond Bok Choy because I cannot get anyone to tell me what all those different green cabbage like vegetables are…  but… that’s what Google is for, right?  

One of the themes in the older cookbooks is how a Chinese meal should play out, with multiple dishes, contrasting textures and flavors and a natural progression that will keep the diner at the table for hours!  Well, that’s not going to happen in my house and I suspect it is pretty unrealistic for the average home cook.  Cooking for myself, I have learned to appreciate the simplicity of a one-dish meal… something fun to cook, delicious to eat, beautiful on the plate and satisfying without being overwhelming calorie-wise.  The Chinese recipes I have cooked checked all those boxes.  And one of the joys of cooking for yourself is that you are cooking JUST for yourself and you’re the only person you have to make happy.  And any time you please yourself you have shared something with a person you love, don’t you agree?  And, just maybe, you are practicing and perfecting a dish you will serve to someone else you love someday.  

When you read a good cookbook, you learn something about the author.  You feel that cook’s warmth and personality (or lack thereof).  I can’t read a cookbook without thinking about the cook who wrote the recipe and I have found that these Chinese-American cookbook authors exude generosity as well as precision.  Jim Lee wrote in his cookbook that, “When I was a boy in China – and for generations before my time – our beef came from tough old water buffaloes.”  Wow, that’s something to think about!  Dr. Lee Su Jan’s bio says that he was the director of the YWCA in Peking and rebuilt Futan University after it was destroyed by the Japanese.  And yet Dr. Jan took the time to memorialize his food memories because that was an important part of his amazing life. These venerable cookbook authors shared more than just their recipes in these vintage books; they wrote down their own culinary memoirs and left us a piece of history.  And studying with these old professors will teach you more than just how to make a pretty Chinese dish.

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