China is vast. Its land is vast; its history is vast; its food repertoire is–you guessed it–vast. If you like eating Chinese, you’ve probably heard of these cuisines right? Sichuan, Hunan, Guandong, Shandong… And you’ve more than likely heard of these spices and condiments. Peppercorn, star anise, oyster sauce…
So you may be ready to try your hand at Chinese cooking, but you’re worried. You don’t know how to find a cookbook that’s authentic (but easy!), and you don’t know if you want to focus on dishes from a single region or from all over China. And you would rather not be stuck with a cookbook filled with ingredients you can’t get your hands on. Actually, you probably have a million more questions, so let’s slowly work through them together.
How to Choose a Chinese Cookbook – Buying Guide
When faced with so much questions and such a vast topic, there’s only one thing to do. Divide and conquer. So, below, we picked out a few general questions you might have about Chinese cookbooks, organized them into sections, and answered them one-by-one.
Are You a Beginner? Or Just Busy? Look for Simple Cookbooks
Authentic Chinese cooking can be difficult–and we’re not just talking about stir-fry techniques. An advanced cookbook is good if you already know a thing or two about Chinese dishes and you’re looking for new inspiration. However, if you don’t have a lot of time on your hands or are new to cooking, you’ll want a cookbook tailored to beginners.
Make Sure the Cookbook is Meant for Home Cooks in America
Let’s get this out of the way. The average commercial burner used for Chinese stir-fry can produce temperatures nearly 10 times as high as that pitiful thing in your kitchen can. Ten times. So if you aren’t careful when you pick up a Chinese cookbook, you are going to end up with limp, leaky veggies and chewy, characterless meat.
And while we’re on the topic of equipment, make sure that the cookbook doesn’t ask that you use any woks, knives, or other gear you don’t have or otherwise aren’t willing to buy. (Some cookbooks do give you the option to use American-styled skillets.) Look for important keywords like “Simple” and “Home Cooking” when it comes to Chinese cookbooks.
You also want to check how many spices the cookbook utilizes. There’s Amazon Prime now, as well as plenty of cities where rarer Chinese condiments and spices, like chili bean sauce and five-spice powder can be found. But if you don’t want to pay for shipping or you live miles away from the nearest Chinese supermarket, look for a book that calls for as few rare spices as possible.
Look for One-Dish Meals that are Fast and Nutritionally Balanced
Chinese side dishes usually have just one main ingredient–so you have just a pork dish or just a vegetable dish. That means that, for a complete meal, you’d have to make at least two side dishes, as well as get the rice going in the cooker. And who has the time or energy for that on a busy weekday night after work?
So if you’re looking to cut down on prep time, see if the cookbook offers one-dish meals that also ensure you meet your daily dietary requirements.
Does the Book Explain the Spices and Cooking Methods and Offer More Inspiration?
If you do decide to go for a book that uses a bunch of different spices, see if it includes explanations of them–aroma, taste, about methods of use. That way, when you’re ready to start experimenting in the kitchen, either crafting your own Chinese dishes or dreaming up fusion-cuisine, you can incorporate these spices in novel ways.
Likewise, books that offer general how-tos for Chinese cooking methods and tools will 1) be invaluable to beginners who are just learning how to cook and 2) leave you with the freedom to use those tools and methods in different ways.
Do You Want Just a Region or a Smattering of Different Styles?
China is huge, and each of the regions has a different taste to offer. We could be here all night, and we wouldn’t be able to talk about all of them. What we will talk about are the “Eight Great Cuisines”–made up of eight regions famous for their distinctive tastes.
Sichuan and Hunan: The Two Spicy Ones
You’ve probably heard of this first one–Sichuan. It’s known for its biting hot chili and pungent, refreshing peppercorns. The taste, in Chinese, is often described as “mala“–or numbing and spicy. A lot of Sichuan dishes will also have a sweet or sour component playing underneath, perfect for people who like complex, layered flavors. A famous representative? Mapo tofu.
Hunan is another bright and spicy region, but it doesn’t use copious amounts of peppercorn–so you don’t get that tingling sensation. Instead, the aroma of garlic and the savoriness of meat give Hunan dishes their bold flavor profile. Hunan is known for its “dry pot” dishes–stir-fries with very little moisture, which leaves the meat crunchy without, the vegetables crisp, and spices fragrant.
Guangdong or Cantonese: Lighter and Easier on the Stomach
All the spice and oil in a Sichuanese dish can land you in the restroom the next day if you aren’t careful. If you’re looking for something lighter and more refreshing, perhaps pick out a Cantonese cookbook. The Cantonese are famous for dim sum–or “morning tea”–which often consists of steamed dishes light enough for a morning meal. Their rice noodle rolls are to die for.
Cantonese congee is the ultimate comfort food, by the way. The most popular variety is Century Egg-Lean Pork Porridge, which infuses rice with the umami of meat and preserved egg.
Shandong, Jiangsu, and Zhejiang: Seaside Regions with Savory-Sweet, Braised Dishes
Tender and savory-sweet isn’t, of course, all these regions have to offer, but it’s one of their main tastes. Shangdong has rich, nourishing flavors–featuring clear broths that have bubbled for hours, deep, milky soups, sweet and sour carp, and the creaminess of sea cucumbers.
Jiangsu offers more balanced flavors. Jiangsu chefs stress the use of fresh ingredients, and sugar is a popular seasoning, so you get sweet and mellow undertones. It makes good use of the hong shao method, where you braise pork in soy sauce and rice wine. Jiangsu is also famous for salted duck and sweet and sour Mandarin fish (look above), which you will not be able to make at home.
Zhejiang is directly south of Jiangsu, and it utilizes the same savory-sweet approch and attention to fresh ingredients and seafood. Its dishes are quite dainty and not quite as greasy and overpowering as other Chinese dishes. It’s home to Shaoxing, famous for its wine, so its braised dishes–such as the tender and succulent Dongpo pork–are both clear and flavorful.
Fujian and Anhui: Hearty, Nourishing Fare
Fujian is another seaside province, and its dishes are rich, with a number of thick broths, stews, and soups known as “geng.” This region also loves to pickle its food and use Chinese rice wine, giving dishes a slightly sweet, crystallized, heady taste.
Anhui is further insland, neighboring Jiangsu, so their fare can be quite similar at times. However, Anhui is a mountainous–and not a coast-side–region, so their dishes utilize a lot of wild herbs, plants, and animals. There is less emphasis on stir-frying and more on stewing–think of the famous and multifarious Li Hongzhang Hotchpotch.
How is the Book Organized? Make Sure It’s Easy to Read
There can be a lot of recipes in one book, so you need to make sure they’re laid out in a way that makes sense to you. Check first if the index is extensive and easy to follow.
Then see how the recipes are arranged. Is it by the type of main ingredient? That’ll be good if you’re looking for nutritional balance and a variety of side dishes. Is it by cooking method? That’ll be good if you’re looking to budget your time.
Then look at the recipes themselves–are they written out in a way that’s easy to read, or is there a lot of text that obscures the instructions? Are there icons and visual cues? Is there cook time and serving size and, if you need it, nutritional information listed out? Amazon has a LOOK INSIDE! for a lot of its books, which will come in helpful if you want to quickly look at the layout.
Top 10 Best Chinese Cookbooks to Buy Online
Hopefully, we’ve primed your appetite and left you chomping at the bit and ready to get cooking. So here are 10 of our favorite cookbooks that will have you working magic in your kitchen.
10. Harper & Row – Mrs. Chiang’s Szechwan Cookbook
The Best for Authentic Dishes: A Classic from 1976
Let’s go way back to the classics. This book was first published in 1976. Its cooking method are sometimes dated and the pre-instantaneous-internet-age recipes can take a lot of time (marinate a chicken for three days?!), but that’s also what makes the flavors so authentic and robust. As far as taste goes, it’s hard to beat Mrs. Chiang’s.
It does try to be beginner-friendly, including instructions regarding planning, ingredients, and equipment. If you want a bit of history, too, Ellen and John Schrecker, who actually authored the book, share with you the life of Mrs. Chiang, who grew up in Sichuan and whom they eventually invited back to the States. (Though some readers think the whole thing reeks of colonialism.)
9. Knopf – The Key to Chinese Cooking
Best if You’re Looking to Learn Technique: The Primer of Chinese Cooking from the 70s
This is another classic that won’t just teach you Chinese recipes–it’ll teach you how to cook. This was basically the textbook of Chinese cooking in the 20th century (the book was first published in 1977 and is now out of print), and the first 120 pages are all on technique–cutting, braising, stir-frying–the instructions accompanied by beautiful ink illustrations.
The recipes are expansive, including both traditional recipes and inspired spins. The instructions are easy to understand and concise; Ms. Kuo, though born into nobility, doesn’t include many details about her life in this book, but sometimes a beautiful flash of rhetoric shines through. And because the recipes are older, there’s likely a dish or two you’ve never seen before.
8. Ten Speed Press – All Under Heaven: Recipes from the 35 Cuisines of China
The Most Expansive Book: Includes Detailed Recipes and Eloquent Descriptions of Culinary Culture
We don’t know whether to call this one a recipe book or a textbook. The dishes are divided first into huge regions, the first being “The North & Manchurian Northeast,” with notes on the geography, history, and culinary culture of key provinces. The book is very much black and white, nothing about prep-time, and each step is written as its own highly detailed paragraph.
There’s a section on technique at the back of the book, as well as an extensive glossary of Chinese ingredients. Ms. Phillips also includes little illustrations of various cooking and cutting techniques. However, if you are new to Chinese cooking, it will take some determination to get through the recipes (but it’s not impossible!). Make everything correctly, and expect varied, authentic dishes.
7. Simon & Schuster – Stir-Frying to the Sky’s Edge: The Ultimate Guide to Mastery, with Authentic Recipes and Stories
Best if You Want to be a Stir-Fry Master: Includes a Primer on Techniques Along with Delicious Recipes
This book will take you on a stir-fry quest. It introduces to you first easy stir-fries, before ramping up the level all the way until you hit the final boss (velvet stir fries and oil-blanching). It also includes helpful food identification photographs and a guide to buying and caring for woks, as well as other important equipment.
The first half is essentially a textbook, walking you through technique–prep essentials, what kind of oil to use, the proper heat and control for stir-frying. Then it leaps into the recipes, divided by main ingredients. You get authentic Chinese recipes, as well as some great fusion cuisine, like Chinese Jamaican Stir-Fried Beef and Carrots. Ms. Young writes eloquently, too, on the history of food.
6. Rockridge Press – The Essential Wok Cookbook: A Simple Chinese Cookbook for Stir-Fry, Dim Sum, and Other Restaurant Favorites
Best If You Love Chinese Takeout: Includes Authentic Recipes and Americanized Favorites
You get some dishes that are more “Chinese,” like Hunan Lamb and Twice-Cooked Pork. But there are a lot of take-out favorites here too, like Crab Rangoon, Orange Beef, Pineapple Fried Rice, and Better Beef with Broccoli. The book is beginner-friendly as well, careful to use ingredients that are readily available either in supermarkets or online.
It takes you step-by-step through the whole cooking process, starting off with a buying guide on woks.The recipes are replete with tips, teaching you how to fold a dumpling, and substitutions. You also get some origin stories about certain Chinese foods and how they’ve evolved or changed to meet the American palette. The only this is, you don’t get photos of every dish.
5. Phaidon Press – China: The Cookbook
Best if You’re Looking for the Definitive Chinese Cookbook: 650+ Recipes from All over China
If you are looking for new recipes to add to your already stuffed arsenal of Chinese cooking, this cookbook contains over 650 recipes from all over China. The first 40 pages are a discussion of history, geography, technique, and equipment, and the rest of the 700-page book is almost all recipe (plus the index and stuff).
All the recipes are meant for home chefs, though they don’t seek to save you any time. However, there’s information about how long each dish will take at the top of the page, and the layout is very clean, the instructions easy to read. The ingredients can get a little exotic, but there’s very little you can’t buy off Amazon. There’s also a selection of dishes from internationally famous Chinese chefs.
4. Rockridge Press – The Healthy Wok Chinese Cookbook: Fresh Recipes to Sizzle, Steam, and Stir-Fry Restaurant Favorites at Home
Best if You Want to Avoid Oil and Sodium: Teaches You How to Choose Healthier Ingredients for Healthier Dishes
This book starts off with a bit of a primer on health. You learn about the healthiest oils, how to choose leaner cuts of meat, how avoid sauces with MSG, and how to maximize spice and minimize salt and sugar. The dishes are easy, the ingredients are mostly available at your supermarket and, if not, Ms. Ferrara includes some of her favorite online suppliers.
The recipes include beginner-friendly tips and are heavy on vegetables and light on oil. She often compares the nutritional content of her dishes to their take-out cousins, so there’s an easy way to keep track of your calories. That means you get both traditional Chinese platters and Panda Express favorites. And this book even includes sauce recipes that are both versatile and delicious.
3. W.W. Norton & Company – Every Grain of Rice: Simple Chinese Home Cooking
Best Authentic Book for Beginners: Includes a Comprehensive Introduction to Ingredients, Equipment, and Methods
Fuchsia Dunlop’s a pretty big name in Chinese cooking, being the first Westerner to train at the Sichuan Institute of Higher Cuisine. Out of all the Chinese cookbooks she’s published (and she has quite a few), this one is the most accessible. The ingredients aren’t too hard to find. She includes bite-sized introductions to popular Chinese spices, kitchen equipment, and cooking methods. And they’re all rounded out with glossy photos, which helps with identifying everything.
The dishes are organized (more or less) by main ingredient: tofu, meat, fish & seafood, leafy greens, root vegetables, soups, and so on. They’re quick and simple enough to make, but none of them can really be a meal on their own.
2. Tuttle Publishing – Easy Chinese Recipes: Family Favorites from Dim Sum to Kung Pao
Best if You Don’t Know What You’re Doing in the Kitchen: Has All the Basic Tips and Tricks
If you really don’t know what you’re doing and you need your hands held, Bee Yinn Low will do that for you. Her cookbook includes a recipe for steamed rice, as well as tips and tricks on how to cut meat, deep-fry, stir-fry, season woks, and produce perfect bouncy shrimp. There’s explanations on common utensils and ingredients as well.
The recipes and ingredients are accessible enough, but there’s still a huge range of food for you to try. The book is organized by type of dish: appetizers, soups, dim sum, beef and pork, seafood, vegetables, noodles, and desserts and drinks. There’s no information on prep time, though most dishes take less than 20 minutes to make. And the photography is gorgeous.
1. Tuttle Publishing – Katie Chin’s Everyday Chinese Cookbook: 101 Delicious Recipes from My Mother’s Kitchen
Best if You Want a Variety of Tastes: Authentic Recipes and Fresh Spins from Two Renowned Chefs
This one is also beginner-friendly, and yet it has you making dishes that taste like they come from the hands of a seasoned chef. It includes traditional dishes, as well as restaurant favorites like orange chicken and sweet-and-sour pork. There’s also interesting twists, like Chocolate-Raspberry Wontons and Lychee and Ginger Sorbet. The recipes come with drool-inducing photos of not only the dishes, but more unfamiliar techniques (such as dumpling wrapping).
There’s even a robust salad section–a rarity in Chinese cookbooks, but a real gift when it’s a summer night and you’re tired and sweaty and not in the mood for stir-fry. The recipes are prefaced with personal anecdotes from the life of Ms. Chin and her mother, a renowned chef.
Chinese cooking was always expansive, covering all corners of that vast country. But, nowadays, with more and more chefs immigrating to the States and altering their dishes to fit the palettes of North America, the definition of Chinese cooking has become even murkier.
Whether you’re a purist who believes that “Chinese cooking” can only be defined as food you’d get at a street stall in Chengdu, or you’re more open to the newer tastes of Panda Express and New Yorkian Chinese takeout, there is a cookbook for you. We hope you found something up above that inspired you to fire up your wok and make yourself a warm and savory feast.
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