Tuesday, 18 September 2012

Pei Mei's Chinese Cookbook by Fu Pei Mei: The best Chinese cookbook you've never heard of

How to know when you've really made it

As every fule kno, there is only one way to tell if you've really made it as a chef.

No it's not cooking at the White House (looks like they take anyone nowadays).

Nor is it being on the World's 50 Best Restaurant List (lets face it is a PR stunt. A very elegant choreographed one but a PR stunt nonetheless. I mean for heaven's sake my mate Gary Marshall used to be one of the judges! How low can they go? :-p ).

No, as every fule kno, you've really made it when someone starts a blog about you.

Like Julia Child - housewife, cook and TV superstar.

Or ubermensch David Chang of Momofuku.

Or our very own Heston.

Or Fu Pei Mei.

Fu who?


Pei-Mei is best described as the Julia Child of Chinese cooking (that's Delia Smith to you Brits, but without the special crunchy roast potatoes). Like dear Julia she was the mysterious combination of housewife, cook and TV superstar. She educated generations of Taiwanese housewives via her weekly cookery show, clattering through more than 4,000 different dishes over the course of 40 years.

Of course that wasn't originally the plan. Also like Julia she was shaped by the Second World War. Born in Japanese-controlled Manchuria in 1931, she grew up speaking not only Mandarin but fluent Japanese. After the Chinese civil war she joined the Nationalist exodus to Taiwan where she established a Chinese cooking school (renowned Phildelphia chef Susanna Foo was an alumnus), before branching out into TV. Although she never ran a restaurant, she was an ubiquitous presence preserving Chinese cookery in Taiwan, at time when the mainland government was closing down restaurants and generally taking a wrecking ball to their culinary heritage.

She died in 2004, but she left her magnum opus - a trilogy of Chinese Cook Books (nattily titled Pei Mei's Chinese Cook Book, Volumes I, II and III). Once considered vital for a bride's dowry (think Silver Spoon, but with recipes that actually work), they are the best Chinese cookbooks you've never heard of.

The greatest Chinese cookbook ever?

I have to admit it, set against today's multimedia productions it doesn't look like much. There's no accompanying DVD, spin-off website or exclusive ebook. This is strictly old-school - badly typewritten recipes, insert colour plates and laughable page design. Hey, this was state of the art in 1969!

But in other ways these books were way ahead of their time.

For one thing they are regional. Regional Chinese food is one of the uber-trends here in London, spearheaded by Fuschia Dunlop's books of Sichuan and Hunan cuisine and backed up by a rash of regional restaurant openings. Whereas previously you were strictly limited to bad Canto-Anglo food, now you can gorge yourself on Manchurian hotpot, Xinjiang lamb skewers and an ubiquitous dose of Sichuan Dan Dan Mian.

Pei Mei was well ahead of that, particularly in the first book where recipes are laid out by region rather than ingredient. Different sections cover Eastern (Sichuan, Hunan), Southern (Canton), Western (Shanghai) and Northern (Beijing, Shandong). Within that there's comprehensive coverage off all the greatest hits - Drunken Chicken from Shanghai, Tea-Smoked Duck from Sichuan. Not to mention an eponymous dose of Peking Duck. If you want a basic primer on the great dishes of Chinese cuisine, this is an excellent place to start.

For another thing this is authentic. Traditionally Chinese (and other ethnic) cookbooks are toned-down and Westernised for Western tastes. Ken Hom (bless his shiny hubcap) is a great exponent of this. It's only more recently we've seen a search for more authenticity and complexity in our ethnic cuisine (as exemplified again by Fuschia Dunlop).

Well Fu Pei-Mei says sod that.

Her books are uncompromisingly authentic, because they date from a time before such niceties. They are basically straight translations of what she wrote for those Taiwanese housewives. Actually the original books are unique because they are bilingual - with Chinese recipe and English text on opposite pages. Even now it is very unusual to have straight translations of foreign works published (the only ones I can think of are the Silver Spoon and Nobu Now (not many people realise this is a straight translation of his Japanese cookbook).

Now that has its disadvantages as well. Let's say that her translator wasn't exactly Hemingway. Sometimes the translations are unintentional hilarious. A dish called Chuan Jia Fu which literally means "Blessing for the Whole Family" gets titled "Assorted Dish with Brown Sauce" (presumably the translator was rushing to get home that day?).

How not to translate a cookbook...

The book goes beyond the standards. The other good thing about being authentic, is that this book isn't afraid to go off-piste into the wilds of Chinese cooking. For example the whole of Volume III is devoted to formal Chinese banqueting dishes, a whole other branch of Chinese cuisine which is not touched on in any other Chinese cookbook I know of.

You also get a lot of dishes which appeal to Chinese tastes which are censored out of more Westernised books - for example cold/gelatinous meat dishes (Spiced Duck Cold Cuts is a family favourite), steamed custards (similar to Japanese chawanmushi). And where else can you get a dish who's first step reads "Kill fish by striking a blow on the head (do not remove head)."

Step 0. First catch your fish...

There are also whole sections on pastry and dough work which are very very unusual in Chinese cookbooks (the only book I've seen which does this in decent detail is Beyond the Great Wall). This involves some particularly interesting techniques e.g. the recipes for lard-based flaky pastry (used for egg tarts and turnip puffs) which roll and fold two separate types of dough together. Along with recipes for a whole battery of Northern Chinese dumplings and pancakes.

Plus in book three there is a recipe for Braised Turtle. 'Nuff said.

And finally the recipes do actually work! That's the big danger, particularly for cookbooks of a certain age  (Larousse Gastronomique 1984 Edition I'm looking at you). Thankfully not an issue here - as the Pei Mei a Day blog shows these recipes stand up pretty well. And I can also defer to my mother on this one - having cooked from volumes I and II for over twenty years she can certainly say they work.

Okay, there's some catches...

Note the hilarious spot of cutting and pasting on her head!
Of course that's not to say this is perfect - with cruddy 1960s typesetting, cut-and-paste and a slightly creaky translation (do count the number of ingredients in the Chinese vs. English dish to check they haven't missed something out). As I said before this is not a user friendly book and unless you have a serious Mad Men/retro thing going on you may find it hard going.

And most annoying of all there is very little context given to the dishes or the cuisine. Pei-Mei gives tantalising hints in the introduction, discussing the need to harmonise colour, taste and aroma, the importance of cutting and noting that even the order in which seasonings are added affects the final taste of the dish. However the doesn't expand on any of this. If you want a deeper understanding of the philosophy and techniques behind Chinese cooking, the introduction to Fuschia Dunlop's Sichuan Cookery remains the best place to look.

So this shouldn't be the only Chinese cookbook you buy. But it one you shouldn't miss out on.

Back in print! (sort of)

Of course the problem as with all of these older books is where to get them - they are long out of print from all the usual outlets. Thankfully there are reasonably price copies of all the books floating around on Amazon (much better availability on the US site than the UK one from the looks of it).

More usefully I've noticed that they've been republished as ebooks on the iTunes Book Store: http://www.askmarpublishing.com/books/pei-mei.html. Although these versions lack the Chinese translation they claim to have tidied up some of the inaccuracies in the English Translation.

I wonder if they still call that dish "Assorted Dish With Brown Sauce"?? :-x

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