Talking with Grace Young
About The Wisdom of the Chinese Kitchen
What is unique about your book?
Countless Chinese cookbooks provide recipes of every kind. But no one explains the culture and traditions behind Chinese cooking from a personal perspective, one that illustrates a Chinese family's experience of integrating the principles of yin and yang into their diets and using herbs such as ginseng and angelica. Today many people take ginseng or gingko supplements, but why not learn to cook with these herbs and use them as the Chinese have for thousands of years for culinary healing. I think the book is also unique because it has color photographs of all the key Chinese ingredients.
Why is food so important to Chinese culture?
Few cultures have a cuisine which is as developed as the Chinese. It is sophisticated in its range of flavors, textures, aromas and attention to presentation. Whether the cooking is extraordinarily simple or complex, it still integrates the yin yang principles of Chinese nutrition. Home cooks recognize that food satisfies more than hunger. When prepared with the appropriate cooking technique or combination of ingredients Chinese cuisine harmonizes the body. The cooking reflects the layers of meaning and wisdom of its ancient culture. It respects the auspicious meaning certain foods have for providing vitality and longevity.
How did you collect your research?
I began by interviewing my parents, uncles and aunts. Naturally no one person in the family had all the information. From each relative I learned something that piqued my curiosity and lead me to another question. Over the course of three years I began to feel like a detective. Just when I thought I had finished a subject, another aspect would come to light. Of course, the more I learned, the more I realized how little I knew. For example, the concept of Chinese people loving rice was not news to me. However, the more I researched, the more I realized rice's importance far exceeds its primary role as a carbohydrate. For the Chinese, rice is a symbol of prosperity, nourishment and is revered like no other ingredient. The wealth of rice lore inspired the chapter, The Meaning of Rice.
Did your research lead you to a better knowledge of family?
My family, like many Chinese, are extremely private. My questions about food-which they love to discuss-opened a door to their past in an unthreatening, even welcoming way. I went home for long visits to cook with my parents. This time together was a gift for all of us. It was in the course of researching the book that I discovered the evocative old photographs of our family in China that are included in the book.
Has your cooking changed since you did this book?
Nothing compares to knowing how to cook your own family's recipes. Even though I have cooked every kind of cuisine, nothing equals the experience of duplicating the taste of my mother's cooking. Tasted memory is such an important experience to cherish. So often we take for granted what we grew up with. I encourage all my friends to take time to learn their family's recipes for it is an empowering experience. I now cook many of my childhood favorite recipes and I believe that home cooking nourishes the soul.
Were any recipes lost forever?
Many of my relatives are quite elderly, so their cooking reflects a very traditional style of Chinese cooking, one that was in many ways lost during the Cultural Revolution in china. All my relatives are wonderful home-style cooks, and since no one of my generation had really taken the time to learn their recipes, most of the recipes were at risk of being lost.
Do you have any special tips or secrets form your family or from your own culinary experience?
My Auntie Lily taught me that a Chinese cook's most prized possession is a well seasoned cast-iron wok. Cast-iron is excellent for stir-frying and in fact adds iron to the food. If it is treated properly, the seasoned work will require less and less oil and become like a non-stick skillet. Our family friend Chen Mei who grew up on a farm in China taught me that one of the secrets to properly treating the wok is to never wash it in soapy water. Instead, the Chinese typically wash their rice in several changes of cold water (contrary to the Western notion that this washes away vital nutrients). The traditional cook then saves this water and uses it to soak the wok after cooking. The starch from the water removes any greasy film from the wok, while not stripping it of its seasoning.
What is the traditional home cook's repertoire? How does the traditional cook eat?
The range of mastery for the Cantonese home cook includes basic stir-fry recipes, steamed recipes, rice dishes, braises, and soups. Traditional cooks like my parents also know the more auspicious and elaborate foods connected with New Year's or specialties like dim sum. Finally, Cantonese cooks are famous for their tonic soups, intended to restore harmony and strength to the body for proper yin-yang balance. These soups offset the occasional indulgence (as well as deficiencies in the diet) and restore balance to the body.
Why did you write this book?
I realized I had taken my Cantonese culinary heritage for granted and while I had learned to cook European food I had never taken the time to formally learn my own family's recipes. My cousins enjoy Chinese traditions, but only a few have sustained the knowledge of the traditional recipes they were raised with. It became clear to me that if I didn't begin questioning my parents, grandmother, aunts and uncles, their wisdom and the lore of our culinary heritage would be irretrievably lost.
How can this book help me when I shop for ingredients?
I think one of the biggest obstacles people face when they want to cook Chinese food is finding and identifying the ingredients. Clerks in Chinatown often don't speak English, the packages often have only Chinese labels, and the same product can have different English names depending on the manufacturer. In my book I provide color identification photos for vegetables, herbs, dry ingredients and fresh ingredients. In addition there is a glossary that includes a description of the ingredient, plus the Chinese characters with a phonetic pronunciation of the words in Cantonese. Two chapters in the book, Shopping as a Sleuth and Going to Market with Mama provide the secrets for identifying the ingredient as well as instruction on how to differentiate between fresh and old produce.
For more information visit graceyoung.com.
The Wisdom of the Chinese Kitchen
Classic Family Recipes for Celebration and Healing
By Grace Young
Published by Simon & Schuster Editions
Publication date: May 1999
Reprinted by permission.
The Wisdom of the Chinese Kitchen
This page created June 1999