Celebrate Chinese New Year on Sunday by firing up the wok and making your own Chinese takeout food, which cooking instructor and food blogger Diana Kuan, in her first cookbook, calls all-American comfort food.
“American-style Chinese food predates the arrival of most regional Chinese cuisines that we now enjoy, including Sichuan, Hunan and Fujianese,” she writes in the introduction of “The Chinese Takeout Cookbook: Quick and Easy Dishes to Prepare at Home.” She explains that Cantonese immigrants opened the first Chinese restaurants in the United States in California during the Gold Rush and railroad boom of the late 1840s and 1850s. Most cooks re-created foods from home with ingredients they found in California. When the Chinese and non-Chinese railroad workers began heading east, the restaurants followed. She writes that by the early 20th century, chop suey, chow mein, egg foo young, fried rice, egg rolls, barbecued ribs and wontons “had become part of the cultural vernacular.”
The author says she avoids using the word “authentic” because all cuisines have evolved and changed, “adapting along the way to use local ingredients and to suit local tastes. If a chef needs to alter a dish, it’s not a travesty as long as he or she does it well and with care.”
Her book features more than 80 recipes for making good, fresh Chinese restaurant foods at home. Her recipes don’t include MSG or food colorings, and she offers a few vegetarian variations. She notes that some recipes, such as Moo Shu Pork, are takeout classics while others, like Mini Egg Tarts, are staples of American Chinatowns. She says you don’t even have to own a wok to make the recipes. A heavy-bottom pot will do.
This is an excellent book for someone wanting to learn the basics of Chinese cooking. Its first chapter, the Chinese pantry, not only lists the common ingredients used in the recipes, it includes full-color photographs of many of them and even shows how to prepare the flavor trifecta of ginger, garlic and scallion, from chopped, minced, grated, julienned and sliced to crushed. She also explains how to select, season and care for a wok.
Recipes, divided into nine chapters, include pork and shrimp egg rolls with step-by-step photographs showing how to fold the wrappers. Among others are shrimp toasts, egg drop soup, kung pao chicken, Chinatown roast duck, Chinese barbecued pork, shrimp with lobster sauce, dry-fried green beans, and perfect steamed rice.
The book closes with a list of resources and some menu ideas. It is illustrated with full-color photographs throughout, provides instruction on key techniques, and includes interesting sidebars about Chinese food in the United States.
Among them is the story of La Choy, begun in the 1920s by two men — neither Chinese — who began producing bean sprouts and moved into canning. In 1965, the company began a television ad campaign that featured Delbert the La Choy Dragon, a real fire-breathing, full-size dragon puppet created and voiced by Jim Henson.
“The Chinese Takeout Cookbook” is definitely a book with something for everyone.
Cheramie Sonnier is The Advocate’ Food editor. Her email address is email@example.com.
Serves 4 to 6. Recipe is from “The Chinese Takeout Cookbook: Quick and Easy Dishes to Prepare at Home” by Diana Kuan (Ballantine Hardcover). Kuan writes, “Many desserts that originate from Hong Kong have a curious commonality: They invovle a fair amount of seemingly old-fashioned canned products. Mango pudding became popular in Hong Kong in the 1950s and 1960s, when the island territory’s agriculture industry was just starting up and canned evaporated milk was the main stable dairy source. (In later years, as Hong Kong rapidly modernized, canned products went from necessities to nostalgic cultural mainstays. … ) In the past few decades, Mango Pudding has become a fixture in the United States as well, in both dim sum restaurants and Chinatown dessert shops. At home, Mango Pudding is incredibly easy to make using a blender or food processor. Be sure to use ripe mangoes, as they will be sweeter and juicier.)
2 large ripe mangoes (makes about 2 cups mango puree)
1/2 cup hot water
1 envelope unflavored gelatin
1/2 cup evaporated milk
1/4 cup sugar
Fresh mango slices, raspberries or kiwi slices for garnish, optional
1. Peel the mangos and slice the flesh from the pit. Put the slices into a blender or food processor and puree until smooth.
2. In a large glass bowl, add the hot water to the gelatin and stir until dissolved. Let the gelatin mixture stand for about 3 minutes. Add the evaporated milk and sugar and stir until the sugar is completely dissolved. Add the mango puree and mix well.
3. Pour the mixture into ramekins, wine glasses or small shallow dishes. Cover with plastic wrap and chill in the refrigerator for at least 2 hours, or overnight. After the pudding is chilled, garnish with mango slices, raspberries or kiwi slices, if using.