Phil's Cookbook Reads of 2021

phatch

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Added Hong Kong Local to the list. For being published in 2020, this is only available in physical print. I found this book as a result of my searches on two classes of eatery: dai pai dong and cha chaan teng. Wikipedia defines them both pretty well. Cha chaan teng also have a kind of reverse American Chinese food. Things like macaroni soup, fried rice with hotdogs and ketchup, baked pork chop on fried rice covered with cheese, a French toast variation and so on.

Have to see if it's any good.

This book is part of a "series". Others so far are Penang Local, Bangkok Local and Tokyo Local. I don't know if there are more entries planned or not.
 
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phatch

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This is bothering me in "My Shanghai". In the introdcution, she throws around the word pure more than I find myself comfortable with. For example:

To coax out that pure, deep flavor, some dishes take a bit of time to prepare and cook, such as Suzhou Pork Belly Noodle Soup, which simmers on the stove for hours after a lengthy curing process. A look at the ingredients shows that the pork belly is only lightly flavored with aromatics, both fresh and dry, cooking wine, and a touch of soy sauce. Like all good food, it’s all about layering. Layering—from the initial prep to seasoning while cooking and the final garnish—builds up the flavors seamlessly. It’s no wonder that this is one of the most famous dishes in Suzhou, beloved for its pure flavor and delightfully melty texture.

So what is a pure flavor? How does 5 hours of cooking not alter a flavor, render it therefore less pure? Here are the ingredients.

1¾ pounds (800 g) skin-on pork belly
4 tablespoons kosher salt, plus more as needed
1 bunch scallions
4 slices fresh ginger
3 whole star anise
4 dried bay leaves
2 tablespoons Shaoxing wine
1 tablespoon soy sauce
1 tablespoon rock sugar
1 teaspoon salt
The weakest flavor there is the scallions IMHO. The rest are plenty to season some pork belly to significant degree.

How is the result purer than the starting point from a flavor perspective? I'll quote from Chinese Gastronomy for what these ingredients are considered to do in Chinese cooking.

Sugar: restores or improves Hsien flavor (Hsien being the "sweet natural delicate flavor" as of fat pork)
Ginger, spring onions: suppresses offensive flavours
Wine, Spirits: suppresses rank flavors
Soy sauce: impart meaty taste

Salt: added for texture control, removing excess water--may not apply here particularly, but worth noting.

Boiling (the long simmer): Extract fat.

This particular idea of purity then seems to focus on what tender fatty pork can become rather than what it is--the pursuit of Hsien flavor. You have to mask the natural but off flavors, amplify it with sugar and soy, purge water, fat and its' natural toughness through long cooking as textural elements are also part of "flavor" in this case I think.

I think the use of pure is meaningless to an English audience, and sloppy writing and editing. Betty Liiu is writing from within a view and experience of a culture we as outsiders can only struggle to understand. She's too close to the culture to see that what this word means to her is not what it means to the rest of us. And her editor didn't catch the idea differences either.

I live within a regional religious culture where "purity" has a particular meaning I find on the oppressive side so I may be overly sensitive to its use here. But I struggle to see the usage of pure flavor when it is so distinctly altered. She should have defined this usage and cultural ideal so the reasons for the seasoning and techniques become clear.

I wouldn't have really clued in without having read Chinese Gastronomy.
 
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phatch

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My Shanghai by Betty Liu

Plenty of detailed instructions, a lot of new dishes, and fun tweaks on well known ones.

I'm going to quibble with the organization principle of seasonality. I think it's a great way to cook generally, healthy, inexpensive, less planetary impact and all that. But when you're writing an ethnic cookbook for a not-that-ethnicity-nor-location audience, the seasonality basically ceases to exist. I can't get hairy crab from Yang Cheng Lake in October. I'm happy to read about them, but you better give me good substitutions. And she does, recommending blue crabs.

There's a lot of bamboo in here. I like bamboo. I can't find the kind of bamboo she talks about. She differentiates between winter and spring bamboo, the winter being more often used, probably because of availability. I can't go into the local forest and forage spring bamboo. She's less good about substitutions here, talking about using dried or frozen winter bamboo quite often. Except I've not found dried or frozen bamboo of any season in my markets. I can buy fresh of some sort in the produce section, a vacuum sealed variety in the refrigerator case and canned bamboo.

Some of her preferred greens are equally scarce, though she gives options there.

Anyway, there's quite a bit of new content for me. Stuffed lotus, pig trotters, a soy-black vinegar radish pickle, various new vegetable ideas and plenty of "red" cooked dishes.

The red cooking is a departure from what I've seen in the past. My past reading is that you build a master red cooking stock and use it again and again, tweaking the seasoning as it evolves with use. And don't use it for fish as that will change the flavor beyond recovery. Here she builds a comparatively simple broth most of the time and uses it just the once. And she red cooks fish too. There's also a fun variation on Lion's Head Meatballs that get red cooked. I think that sounds like a good idea.

There are few bao dishes that rose to the level I actually want to try. Bao have usually struck me as too time intensive. These seem a bit faster, and perhaps my life has discovered more availability for cooking time from covid. The Morning Pork Bao and the similar Pan-Fried Pork Bao appealed to me.

The Scallion Pancake is the first I've found in writing to use You Su--the flour oil paste that has worked well in my other cooking of these. It also crops up in another dish, the Mooncakes, which I don't recall with other Mooncakes off hand. Her pancake builds a scallion oil for the paste which is a good technique.

Scallion Oil actually figures more than you might think in the cuisine generally. it's one of the core things made in Eileen Yin Fei Lo's Mastering the Art of Chinese Cooking. As for Liu's book under discussion here, she does include the classic Shanghai dish of Scallion Oil noodles. and also a Scallion Oil-Poached chicken. I've avoided making the noodle dish in the past as I don't digest oily dishes all that well. Her version isn't as oily as most I've seen, such as Mike Chen's.


Liu's includes some dried shrimp and black vinegar as well.

Scallion Oil Noodles


葱油拌面 | cōng yóu bàn miàn | Makes 2 servings


image


You haven’t experienced Shanghai until you’ve had a bowl of scallion oil noodles. It’s a quintessential old Shanghai dish, a humble, yet extremely satisfying, bowl of noodles. This dish highlights the secret of that complex umami flavor used in many of Shanghai’s signature dishes: scallion oil. Scallions are slowly fried in oil so that their flavor infuses it. This flavored oil serves as the base of this dish. Dried shrimp is an excellent addition that supplies an extra bit of umami. If you’re craving something with more protein, fry some ground pork in your scallion oil until browned and crisp, then turn off the heat and proceed with the recipe.


NOTE: You can also make scallion oil ahead of time. Quadruple the recipe (everything but the noodles) below and follow the steps. Let it cool and pour it into a sterile jar; it will keep in the fridge for up to 1 month. Use it anytime to elevate any dish you’re making.


1½ teaspoons dried shrimp
6 to 8 scallions, cut into 1-inch (2.5-cm) segments
3 tablespoons neutral cooking oil, such as canola or grapeseed oil
1 tablespoon dark soy sauce
2 tablespoons light soy sauce
½ teaspoon black vinegar
1 tablespoon crushed rock sugar or granulated sugar
pinch of ground white pepper
½ pound (225 g) fresh Shanghai-style thin noodles, cooked to al dente (or 2 servings of any dried noodles—I’ve used soba and ramen noodles to great effect.


1.Place the dried shrimp in a small bowl with hot water to cover and soak for 30 minutes. Drain and pat dry with a paper towel.

2.Smash the scallions with the side of a meat cleaver. Pat dry with a paper towel to avoid water droplets causing the oil to splatter during stir-frying.

3.Heat the oil in a well-seasoned wok over medium-low. Add the scallion segments and let them fry slowly, so they turn yellow without burning. Stir occasionally so the segments brown evenly. This slowly rendered-out flavor is essential to this recipe—be patient and let the toasty flavor infuse the oil. I usually let the scallions cook for 20 to 30 minutes, but for a deeper flavor cook them at a lower heat for longer, even up to 1 hour. Reduce the heat to low, add the shrimp, and cook for another 5 minutes.

4.Meanwhile, mix together the dark and light soy sauces, vinegar, and sugar.

5.Increase the heat to medium and immediately pour the soy sauce mixture into the wok. Fine bubbles and foam will form in the sauce (if it bubbles too much, your heat is too high) and begin to caramelize. Stir to dissolve the sugar and let simmer for 2 to 3 minutes to thicken. Turn off the heat. Add the white pepper. Add the cooked noodles to the wok and toss to combine. Divide the noodles between two bowls, making sure to scoop up the scallion segments.

And there's plenty of black vinegar, it shows up in many dishes which excited me. There is also pork lard in a lot of dishes, frequently as a sort of melted garnish. She doesn't specify the kidney fat often called for in teaching you to make lard. Westerners select that if available because it lacks the flavor possible in some other pieces of fat. So there will be more flavor to this lard than what a westerner might think of. And there's enough pork belly getting cooked that you could trim out some of the fatty parts just to use to make lard for the other dishes.

And yes, "pure" flavor continues to crop up throughout the book.

The recipes show more of a localized flair than you'll see in a general book of Chinese cooking. And the instructions and background info are pretty good. I do recommend this for fans of Chinese cooking. Probably not the best first book unless your focus is Shanghai.
 
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phatch

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I forgot to mention" exploding into flavor". Liu is only the second author I've seen to mention this method of stir frying. The other is Irene Kuo, author of The Key To Chinese Cooking. Liu's explanation is better, emphasizing a short high heat fry to generate the flavor. For the most part on a home stove, its really not so distinct in my opinion. But it's fun to get this insight into the cultural view that is likely based on traditional live fire technique.
 

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Masala Lab by Irish Ashok

Entertaing but didn't contribute to my understanding of Indian food because I don't have the knowledge assumed by the author for ratios of spices, particular words and meanings and so on. And his recommendation of base gravies in the freezer isn't a good match for my cooking style. Unless you already cook Indian food somewhat instinctively,/habitually this book isn't likely to help
 

phatch

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Added The Wok by J. Kenji Lopez Alt, available 3/8/2022

Bit surprised it's already listed. Wouldn't be surprised if that date shifts later in the year.
 
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That one sounds interesting as well.
Did you read the books from Grace Young? Breath of a wok and stir frying to the sky's edge?

And another one that you might enjoy: the science of spice. A bit of a novel way of looking at spices
 

phatch

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I've read young's books. I like her Wisdom of the Chinese Kitchen too. I'll have to look at the spice book.
 

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Hong Kong Local by Archan Chan

While I picked this up looking for more info about Cha Chaan Teng and Dia Pai Dong, it does not go in to them much. Organized along the time of day you might eat the kinds of things presented and a final chapter covering some of the mixed condiments and such, it covers ground fairly well covered elsewhere for me. This is not a failing, just that i've become kind of jaded I think.

Early, they offer some different congees, the fried "cruller" bread, fresh soy milk, milk tea, rice rolls, noodles, common dim sum entries, soup, egg tarts and a few other sweetish offerings. The cruller I've mostly seen videos for, so it was good to see a written description. I don't recall a milk tea "recipe" before. Theirs is much stronger than I would have supposed--full disclosure, I'm medically proscribed from caffeine so if I indulge, its' usually Diet Coke. I had the impression from other discussions that milk tea was milder.

The Cheung Fun rice roll is from scratch rather than trying to cludge some other rice product into the role, and the seasoned soy sauce is more complex than most with some cooked off ginger and spring onion in addition to the sugar. Nice touch.

Hong Kong French Toast makes an appearance, a classic Cha Chaan Teng dish. The primary departure from western versions is the kaya jam addition. Savory versions are also described.

Sa Cha Beef noodles were fun to see in print. I rarely see sa cha sauce used in books outside of mentioning it for seasoning the dip sauce for hot pot. Taiwanese cuisine seems more prone to using it than other regions of China.

Now that it's Midday, we have some more Dim Sum entries, a fried rice, more sweet things. A pepper steak, another of the western dishes adopted into Chinese cuisine One new to me is the "double-skin" custard set with egg whites alone. Also a ginger custard with eggs. I've seen one once that use "old" ginger juice which is acidic enough to curdle the warm milk directly. Never tried either of these though.

Late starts off with a number of shellfish dishes. Also a poached goose an ingredient I rarely see discussed. Poached fowl holds a place in Asia that westerners really don't have presented to them in restaurants. Then chicken from poached, white-cut, hot pot, salted, baked, soy sauce style, lemon, kung pao... A few stir fries and back into sweet things.

As far as Hong Kong goes, these do strike me as things I've seen described as popular there. It's not a deep dive, but is good at what it does.
 

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Makan by Elizabeth Haigh.

Much more approachable than the other Singapore/Malay books I've read this year. While this may be because I read those other books, I think it is also a deeper explanation of ingredients, technique and steps. And that it's already Westernized to a degree by what folks in the UK can likely access.

It is not without its hurdles though. The book is unabashedly Metric without Imperial equivalents alongside the measurements. There is a pretty useful table of conversions in the back of the book, but not a big deal generally. I just have to push a button a few times to set my scale to Metric.

There are of course some language usage disconnects. I sometimes get confused which is which with courgettes/aubergines and zucchini/eggplant. She uses the term laksa leaves. I just thought it was a dish, but it refers to what is sold as rau ram in my markets, Vietnamese Coriander. She uses HP sauce at one point, which I've never heard of. It's a British tomato-tamarind condiment. I can certainly get it on line, but its only used once and not in a dish I'm likely to make soon.

The organization system didn't make any particular sense to me. So everything is kind of scattered around through the book.

I liked the Mee Soto. It's not too exotic of a dish. I'll have to see how well my tools will blend for the rempah. I only have a hand held blender and food processor which may not go finely enough for the rempah. I can do it by hand I suppose in the mortar and pestle.

I've encountered a few versions of Hainanese Chicken Rice lately and I might give it a go again now that i have more interesting sauces and some better tips on the rice. Hers looks like a good start. I will probably use different sauces though.

Her Cabbage Rice looks like it would go over well with my family.

The Char Shu looked a little weak, lacking some of the pungency I would expect. But easier for the shorter ingredient list.

The food styling for Braised Chicken with Black Fungus and Shitake seems a little like a mixed plate of organs to me. Usually black fungus gets shredded so you don't get those organic dark blobs folding through the dish. Maybe I'm just channeling the motile intestine scene from the movie Annihilation.

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She offers a chili crab, pretty similar to the one from The Food of Singapore I wrote about earlier in this thread. Hers is a little less strongly seasoned. I find it a bit odd they both used ketchup in the same amounts. I guess it's a consistent ingredient for the dish.

I enjoyed the callout to Uncle Roger for the egg fried rice. You can watch him cook his version in her restaurant. If you've never seen Uncle Roger, it is satire and colorful.

This is the better starting point to the cuisine I think than some others. She gets right to the core of cooking the dishes. Light on tradition and culture compared to some of the others. Also only for the Chinese heritage Nonya style cuisine.
 
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