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The Wisdom of the Chinese Kitchen: Wisdom of the Chinese Kitchen

The Wisdom of the Chinese Kitchen: Wisdom of the Chinese Kitchen

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by Alan Richardson (Photographer), Grace Young

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The Wisdom of the Chinese Kitchen, with its 150 recipes culled from a lifetime of family meals and culinary instruction, is much more than a cookbook.

The Wisdom of the Chinese Kitchen is a daughter's tribute—a collection of personal memories of the philosophy and superstitions behind culinary traditions that have been passed down through her


The Wisdom of the Chinese Kitchen, with its 150 recipes culled from a lifetime of family meals and culinary instruction, is much more than a cookbook.

The Wisdom of the Chinese Kitchen is a daughter's tribute—a collection of personal memories of the philosophy and superstitions behind culinary traditions that have been passed down through her Cantonese family, in which each ingredient has its own singular importance, the preparation of a meal is part of the joy of life, and the proper creation of a dish can have a favorable influence on health and good fortune. Each chapter begins with its own engaging story, offering insight into the Chinese beliefs that surround life-enhancing and spiritually calming meals. In addition, personal family photographs illustrate these stories and capture the spirit of China before the Revolution, when Young's family lived in Canton, Shanghai, and Hong Kong.

The first part, “Mastering the Fundamentals,” provides instruction on the arts of steaming and stir-frying; the preparation of rice, panfried, and braised dishes; the proper selection of produce; and the fine arts of chopping and slicing. Part Two, “The Art of Celebration,” concentrates on the more elaborate, complex, and meaningful dishes—such as Shark's Fin Soup and West Lake Duck—that are usually made with rare ingredients, and sweets such as Water Chestnut Cake and Sesame Balls. The final part, “Achieving Yin-Yang Harmony,” explores the many Chinese beliefs about the healing properties of ginseng, gingko nuts, soybeans, dong quai, and the many vegetable and fruit soup preparations that balance and nourish the body. The stories and recipes combine to demonstrate the range of Cantonese cooking, from rich flavors and honored combinations to an overall appreciation of health, well-being, and prosperity.

In addition to the recipes, Young provides a complete glossary of dried herbs, spices, and fresh produce, accompanied by identifying photos and tips on where to purchase them. Unique traditional dishes, such as Savory Rice Tamales and Shrimp Dumplings, are also illustrated step by step, making the book easy to use. The central full-color photo section captures details of New Year's dishes and the Chinese home decorated in celebration, reminding one that these time-honored traditions live on, and the meals and their creation are connections to the past.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
Amy Tan A cookbook of family secrets that the Kitchen God's Wife would have been proud to write for her daughter.

Ken Hom author of Easy Family Recipes from a Chinese-American Childhood Grace Young's The Wisdom of the Chinese Kitchen is a poignant, touching look at her Chinese-American past. Each page is filled with delicious recipes written straight from the heart. This is more than a cookbook; it is a social history that deserves a place in every American library.

Paula Wolfert author of Mediterranean Grains and Greens It's so rare to come across a cookbook that I fall in love with at first sight. I heartily recommend The Wisdom of the Chinese Kitchen for its terrific recipes, intimate view of how Chinese-Americans eat, and charming writing. The sections on yin-yang harmony and shopping like a sleuth are worth the price alone!

Chinese Family Recipes

Traditional Cantonese cuisine is a subtle, refined way of cooking that not only takes into account the health-giving and balancing properties of ingredients but also matches countless auspicious foods prepared in special dishes to celebratory occasions. Grace Young took this way of eating for granted, growing up in San Francisco on the Cantonese dishes her family had brought with them from China. Now, recognizing that the traditions of Cantonese cooking are dying out in her extended family, Young has dedicated herself to preserving not just the techniques and recipes but also the philosophy behind this complex cuisine. The result is an enchanting book, The Wisdom of the Chinese Kitchen. It is an eminently practical book—with step-by-step instructions, glossaries of ingredients, listings of mail-order sources, and a series of full-color photos that identify the many exotic Chinese fresh and packaged foods called for in the recipes—but it is also a highly personal one, full of family photos, culinary lore, stories from the time before the revolution in China and from the years after emigration to the U.S., and anecdotes about trips to the market, celebrations, and mealtimes. The recipes range from everyday home-style cooking to ritualized, labor-intensive dishes prepared for celebrations to health-giving tonics, soups, and teas. The Wisdom of the Chinese Kitchen offers a window onto a way of thinking about food and a way of life that is as fascinating as it is unfamiliar to most Western cooks. But what makes the book especially rewarding is the sense permeating every page that it was truly a labor of love.

Library Journal
Although Young, a food writer, grew up in a traditional Chinese American home in San Francisco, until quite recently, she says, she took her culinary heritage for granted. She realized she knew more about other cuisines than the Cantonese cooking of her own background, and so she decided to set down her family's recipes. In the process, she learned much more about her parents, her ancestors, and her extended family than she'd expected, and the result is this lovely, very personal book. The first part includes recipes for the everyday dishes prepared for the family by both her mother and father, introduced by reminiscences such as "Going to Market with Mama" or mini-essays on topics like "The Meaning of Rice." The next section focuses on celebration, specifically the traditions and dishes of the Chinese New Year. The final part is devoted to "Cooking as a Healing Art," with recipes for tonics and soups. (This is the shortest section; Nina Simond's recent A Spoonful of Ginger, LJ 4/15/99, has more on Chinese holistic healing.) Some of Young's recipes are elaborate or require unsual ingredients, but she was interested in the authentic versions, not Americanized Cantonese food, and her instructions are clear and thorough. Well written and absorbing, Young's cookbook/memoir is highly recommended. Copyright 1999 Cahners Business Information.

Product Details

Simon & Schuster
Publication date:
Sales rank:
Product dimensions:
7.70(w) x 9.40(h) x 1.20(d)

Read an Excerpt


My older brother, Douglas, was born in San Francisco just after the Communists took control of China. My grandfather, Gunggung, who lived in Shanghai, gave Douglas his Chinese name, Nan Chung, which means "Remember China." Grandfather was intent that this first grandchild, born in a foreign land, would never forget his family in China, and always reflect on his family's long history and tradition. Indeed, none of his grandchildren would be born in China. Growing up in America, Douglas and I behaved more like American children than Chinese. Our taste, our interests, our goals were all American. It is only now, after nearly fifty years, that I have begun to heed Gunggung's instruction to "Remember China."

Nothing can more powerfully transport me across time and geography to the intimacy of my childhood home than the taste or small of Cantonese home cooking. I naively set about writing my family's recipes with the thought that this project would be solely about cooking. But with each question about a recipe came a memory from my parents and, with each memory, I was led into a world I hadn't realized belonged to me. I listened to Mama reminisce about the weeks of preparation at her grandmother's kitchen in Hong Kong before the New Year's feast, about the servants hand-grinding rice to make flour for all the special cakes. My relatives also discovered photographs they had forgotten existed. One was a fragile sepia portrait of my great-grandmother, her feet bound. I studied the image trying to grasp my blood relationship to this woman, separated by only three generations. Another elegant studio portrait shows Baba's family in Canton, in 1934. In it I see the young faces of my father, my uncles, my aunts. Who were these innocent souls before they carved their life paths? Few photographs survived that other life, making its reality ever more ephemeral. This glimpse into my own history was but one of the treasures uncovered in the process of collecting my family's recipes.

A remarkable chapter opened in my relationship with my parents when I began recording our family's culinary heritage. Despite their unfathomable reticence to talk about themselves, eventually, as I persisted in my questions, they slowly responded to my desire to learn. "Show me how you choose bok choy, how you prefer to stir-fry. Describe for me how it was in Shanghai and Canton when you were little. Did the water chestnuts taste like this or were they sweeter, the lotus root smaller, the tea more fragrant?" My parents, each in his or her own way, came to enjoy teaching me. Baba, whose routine is to monitor the stock market while drifting in and out of catnaps, suddenly had a list of cooking lessons. Mama, ever the matriarch, was only too happy to instruct me on her highly specific principles for produce shopping, or to confer with my aunties on recipes I requested. I, in turn, was grateful for this new relationship. We talked not only about cooking but also of their recollections of life in China and in San Francisco's Chinatown at mid-century. Flattered by my interest, they stretched their memories to unearth stories and reclaim their forgotten past. Baba mentions to me one day that he had owned a restaurant in Chinatown in the 1940s called the Grant Cafe, on the corner of Bush and Grant Avenues, which served Chinese and American food. But when I ask for details, it is difficult to get him to elaborate. His reluctance to talk about what he considers private tempers how much I learn about his past.

On one visit Auntie Margaret and Auntie Elaine describe the thrill of being driven by my Yee Gu Ma (second-eldest aunt) in her Packard in 1937, when Grant Avenue was a two-way street. Few Chinese women drove in those days, but my uncle, George Jew, was a "modern man" who wanted my aunt to drive. Baba wonders aloud about whether it was a Buick or a Packard, but I am lost in thought imagining my petite aunt wielding a big car down Grant Avenue, on her way to Market Street with her younger sisters and brother.

The San Francisco Chinatown of my youth is barely evident in the Chinatown of today. In the 1960s it was a charming, intimate community inhabited by legions of old-timers, known as lo wah kue, and locals. On any given day I would see Uncle Kai Bock sitting on a stoop on Washington Street; run into Auntie Margaret at her restaurant, Sun Ya, or stop to see Auntie Anna or Uncle Roy at Wing Sing Chong market. My Auntie Anna knew everyone who came into her store, and I was convinced she was Chinatown's honorary mayor. To this day you can barely walk two steps with Auntie Anna without someone greeting her. Every Friday night nay family went out to eat. Whichever restaurant it was, Sai Yuen, Far East Cafe, or Sun Hung Heung, Baba would stroll into the kitchen to order our food. This was no small feat. Restaurant kitchens were off-limits to everyone but staff, but Baba sold liquor to all the Chinese restaurants, and often the owner was the chef. Rejoining us, he would tell us which dishes were the freshest and best to eat that day. I still believe he must have observed many professional cooking secrets during these visits, and I can't recall ever eating in a restaurant where Baba didn't know the chef or owner. Baba seemed to know everyone.

In those days, Chinatown was the safest neighborhood in all of San Francisco. My cousins Cindy and Kim stayed with their grandparents in Chinatown on weekends and Gunggung would take them for a late-night snack, siu ye, of won ton noodles, chow mein, or rice porridge, jook, at two or three in the morning. Their paternal great-grandfather, Jew Chong Quai, was one of the wealthiest merchants in Chinatown in the early 1920s. San Francisco had a thriving bay shrimp industry for more than eighty years, and he had a shrimp cannery in Hunter's Point in addition to being an importer and exporter of bean sauce (fu yu).

I have warm memories of standing on Grant Avenue for the Chinese New Year's parade and watching for my glamorous Auntie Katheryn on the Pan Am float and my cousin Carol who led the St. Mary's drum corp. Today, Chinatown is still the vital center of the Chinese community, but the purity of its Cantonese soul is lost amidst the Wax Museum, McDonald's, Arab merchants hawking cameras on Grant Avenue, and the mixture of non-Cantonese Asian immigrants who have since moved in. Still, a few sights remind me of the Chinatown of old: the Bank of America on Grant Avenue with its classical Chinese architecture, the creation of my Uncle Stephen, an architect, as is the Imperial Palace Restaurant on Grant Avenue and the Cumberland Church on Jackson Street; my Uncle Larry's medical practice on Clay Street, one of the oldest original practices remaining; and, until recently, my Uncle William and Aunt Lil's family's restaurant, Sun Hung Heung, the oldest Chinese restaurant owned by one family, in operation since 1919. Another remaining point of pride is the Kong Chow Benevolent Association and Temple on Stockton Street, which my Uncle Donald was instrumental in building. This association serves the overseas Cantonese from two counties in China: Sunwui (where Baba's family was born) and Hokshan (where Mama's family was born).

When I think of the delicious food of my childhood beyond my own family's influences, I think of my beloved Uncle Tommy. He was an artist and a natural cook who had a special gift in the kitchen. His early death left an enormous void in the family. As a child, I enjoyed many a meal at Uncle Tommy and Auntie Bertha's home. I well remember the intoxicating aromas that would come from their kitchen, and tire taste of the food Uncle Tommy cooked.

It was out of this world. I have asked my cousins Sylvia, Kathy, and David for their father's recipes but, sadly, neither Auntie Bertha nor my cousins ever recorded them. Alas, they are but a sweet memory for all of us. We partook of his specialties without ever thinking there would come a time when we couldn't taste the pleasure of his cooking and company. A great cook's recipes are as unique as fingerprints.

My brother and I did not grow up sitting on our grandparents' laps, hearing tales of their youth. And it was not my parents' custom to speak much about their life in China. They came to America for economic and political reasons, to seek a better future. I once asked Mama a simple question about her parents, and was surprised that she couldn't answer me. "In China, we only knew what our parents told us. We never asked personal questions out of respect for our elders." Occasionally, my parents would share a story but, for the most part, they rarely divulged their remembrances. Perhaps, too, Mama and Baba weren't ready to speak of their former life and we were too young to care, or to know what to ask.

The year 1999 marks the 150th anniversary of the Gold Rush and the first major immigration of the Chinese people to America. Despite a century and a half of transplantation, Chinese cuisine remains alive and virtually unchanged -- testimony to the strengh of its traditions. The recipes my parents prepare today are not dramatically different from those of their parents and grandparents in China. Yet the Chinese of my generation stand at a crossroads: We maintain the desire to preserve our culinary heritage yet, like most Americans, have precious little time for cooking and honoring the old ways. We risk the loss of our great cooking rituals and along with them their spiritual enrichment. I have yet to find the web site for wisdom.

The time I have spent cooking with my parents, listening to their stories, and receiving their wisdom has allowed me to claim something of my cultural identity and heritage. To master Chinese cooking requires a lifetime of study, and I offer this book as an example of one family's culinary devotion. A knowledge of cooking passed from generation to generation offers a gift to the soul, one that appeals to all of the senses and affirms our deepest connection to life.

Copyright © 1999 by Grace Young

Meet the Author

Alan Richardson is an award-winning photographer and designer whose work has appeared in Bon Appétit, Gourmet, Saveur, Food & Wine, and The New York Times Magazine. He has done the photography for countless cookbooks and is the co-author of The Four Seasons of Italian Cooking. He lives in New York City.

Grace Young is an award-winning food writer and the author of Stir-Frying to the Sky’s Edge, The Wisdom of the Chinese Kitchen and The Breath of a Wok. Her work has appeared in Gourmet, Metropolitan Home, Copia, Gastronomica, Eating Well, More, Fitness, Home, and Health magazine. For seventeen years, Young was the Test Kitchen Director and Director for Food Photography for over forty cookbooks published by Time-Life Books. She is now a consulting editor at Saveur.

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The Wisdom of the Chinese Kitchen: Wisdom of the Chinese Kitchen 4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 5 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Young not only tells you how to cook it, she also explains the context around the dish. You really get the feel these recipes where handed down in her family. This book documents the cooking traditions and recipes of the author's family and therefore exposes the reader to American Chinese cooking heritage. In addition to the Authentic recipes that are really good (any one i made so far was great) there is an explanation on each recipe and before each chapter there are a few pages of info as well. If you'r looking for good authentic recipes with a little bit more then just the recipe ¿ this is by far the best book I know of. Highly recommended.
Guest More than 1 year ago
This book is filled with recipes for dishes I ate as a child, craved as an adult, but seldom cooked. I especially enjoyed the explanations of the healing properties of basic ingredients, bringing back memories of hearing the same from my mother and her friends. This book is a cherished gift from my mother-in-law, Elaine. The day after receiving this book, I went grocery shopping and purchased my first sandpot and cooked Tender Chicken on Rice...I used chinese sausage instead of Ham...Mmmmmmm :-)
Guest More than 1 year ago
Recipes organized poorly and many recipes call for exotic ingredients you cannot find at your grocery store. Only buy this book if your town has a genuine Chinese market. On the plus side, the recipes do appear to be authentic and not 'americanized.'
Guest More than 1 year ago

Though the recipes are authentic and described by Chinese characters, pronounciation, and English descriptions, the organization of the recipes makes it difficult for a reader to build a menu or track down a favorite recipe.

The author has sorted dishes by techniques/rice/produce, those for celebrations, and those for their traditional healing properties.

Unfortunately these categories aren't helpful if you wanted to browse say for a chicken dish. Your only recourse is to turn to the index and look up chicken and hop to and fro from section to section as chicken recipes (along with others) are strewn about the different sections of the book.

Check out the table of contents provided and you'll get a sense of what I mean.

(Last point: I'm not sure if I'd agree with the accuracy of the Cantonese pronounciations of the dishes)

Guest More than 1 year ago
This all-emcompassing book is a great resource for anyone who wants to learn about Cantonese food. It covers everything from homestyle dishes to banquet-style cuisine. It includes chapters about cooking techniques, family traditions and New Year's folklore, health benefits of yin and yang and tips on shopping for specialty ingredients. The recipes are very authentic and familiar, straightforward and for the most part, not too difficult. As a 2nd generation Chinese-American from San Francisco, I felt like the author was describing my own food-emphasized childhood experiences.