I read an article in the Globe & Mail a little while ago called “Chop Suey Nation” about why Canada has so many Chinese-Canadian takeout restaurants in small towns from BC to Fogo Island. Not regional Chinese places making hand-pulled wheat noodles in bone broth soups or offaly gelatinous pig parts braised in rich fermented black bean sauces, but the kinds of places with chicken balls and cherry sauce, sweet-and-sour pork ribs and cornstarch-slippery chow mien.
The foods of our Canadian youth, and often still of today.
And then I got asked to review a new cookbook. Katie Chin’s Everyday Chinese Cookbook: 101 Delicious Recipes from My Mother’s Kitchen is all about Chinese at home.
A year ago I wouldn’t have loved this cookbook. I’d have snubbed my nose at it for not being Beyond the Great Wall: Recipes and Travels in the Other China enough. There are no pictures of markets or stories of eating congee by roadside stalls before catching an about-to-die bus to yet another far-flung Chinese province.
But what’s special about Everyday Chinese is that many of the recipes are what some Chinese-American moms were cooking when author Katie Chin was growing up in Minneapolis. It’s what her own mother made and she herself grew up eating, which makes me feel better eating her lemon chicken and fried rice.
Now not every Chinese-American girl had a restaurateur for a mom who spent six decades in the food industry. Katie’s mom cooked dishes she’d learned from her own mom in China, like the book’s dumpling recipes, which you wouldn’t find at China House in St. John’s, Newfoundland, my family’s Chinese restaurant/buffet of choice.
But she also cooked dishes she’d adapted to American palettes (hence the omnipresence of cornstarch in the sauces, I think). There’s beef and snow peas stir-fried with soy sauce, wonton soup, and honey-barbecue pork (all of which my local buffet in Newfoundland did have).
And there are recipes that Katie and her mom developed together with pan-Asian influences. There are spicy beef skewers inspired by Chin and her mom’s trip to Koreatown in LA. And a “Hong Kong sensation,” says Chin, called walnut shrimp, where shrimp balls are deep-fried and served with a sweetened condensed milk and mayonnaise dressing, which sounds completely disgusting but isn’t actually that much stranger than fish ‘n’ chips with tartar sauce – just more addictive.
Most importantly, though, the recipes work.
But what I like most are the five simple sauce recipes at the beginning of the book, things like homemade hoisin (really easy, and gluten free if you use gluten free soy sauce!), chili paste and sweet soy sauce. And I like how accessible the recipes are. They don’t ask you to go find ten million different bottles of sauces in the basement of a Chinatown grocery. Most of what you need will be at any grocery store: oyster sauce, soy sauce, ginger, garlic and oil. Even Sichuan peppercorns and brown bean paste are easier to find these days, with most small towns now having at least one Chinese grocery. (Note: The Magic Wok grocery in St. John’s has better dried dates than anything I’ve found in Montreal.)
I also like how the recipes range from incredibly simple to fairly fancy, but never impossible. Yes you could spend awhile learning the zen art of wrapping shiu mai dumplings or setting up a tea-smoker in your oven, but the Kung Pao chicken recipe is dirt simple. And while there are a lot of recipes that call for deep-frying, the instructions are clear and the photos are enticing.
And holy c**p, that lemon chicken…
Honey Barbecued Pork
Baby Bok Choy with Ginger and Garlic
Kung Pao Chicken
General Tso’s Chicken
Stir-Fried Pork with Asian Eggplant
Spicy Garlicky Asian Eggplant
All the recipes worked perfectly.
That’s amazing. There’s usually at least one flop. I thought the baby bok choy recipe was a little bland, but it’s not supposed to overwhelmingly saucy. It’s a fairly healthy side dish. And even the deep-fried recipes weren’t greasy though I admit I messed up the Kung Pao chicken and it ended up delicious but not crispy (though I’m not sure how crispy it was supposed to be).
I felt like this was some of the healthiest, tastiest, freshest Chinese food I’ve ever eaten, all while being indulgent and comforting.
And now I really want to make the shrimp with lobster sauce, the hot-and-sour soup, the whole deep-fried crispy fish with ginger-scallion sauce and the Sichuan beef…
…and so should you.