Mastering the art of Szechuan cooking

 Szechuan peppercorns distinguish Szechuan cuisine from other Chinese regional traditions with their uniquely fragrant and numbing spice, known as ma la. / Photo courtesy of Wikicommons

Szechuan peppercorns distinguish Szechuan cuisine from other Chinese regional traditions with their uniquely fragrant and numbing spice, known as ma la. / Photo via Wikimedia Commons

America’s first cookbook of Szechuan home recipes was co-authored by one woman who didn’t speak English and another who proclaimed it to be the most boring thing she had ever done.

Mrs. Chiang

“Mrs. Chiang’s Szechwan Cookbook,” written 40 years ago, has a cult following.

Yet during the course of nearly four decades, “Mrs. Chiang’s Szechwan Cookbook” quietly achieved cult status among American enthusiasts of Szechuan cuisine. Contributors to online cooking message boards regularly recommend the book to one another. Booksellers offer copies of the first and second editions, published in 1976 and 1987, at prices ranging from $1 to more than $100. Such persistent enthusiasm helped spur the cookbook’s release as an e-book in 2011.

Chiang Jung-feng spoke no English when she journeyed from rural Szechuan, China, to Taiwan where she met Ellen Schrecker and her husband John, American academics on a research trip abroad, and became their cook and housekeeper. When it was time for the Schreckers to return to their home in Princeton, N.J., in 1970, Chiang left her husband and went with them.

Chiang soon began to fill the Schreckers’ Princeton kitchen with the aromas of Szechuan cooking. When John Schrecker was hired at Brandeis University, the family moved to Cambridge, Mass., and Ellen Schrecker joined Chiang on shopping pilgrimages to the markets in Boston’s Chinatown.

“Mrs. Chiang’s arrival in America completely altered our life style,” Schrecker wrote in the cookbook. “We began to give dinner parties, dozens of them.” Raymond Sokolov, a close friend and the New York Times food editor at the time, encouraged the Schreckers to write a cookbook with Chiang.

Ellen Schrecker

Ellen Schrecker/ Photo from Askmar Publishing

In the book’s preface, Schrecker writes that she had set out to record and re-create the “zhen wer, the true taste of Chinese cooking.” Most contemporary Chinese restaurants in the United States at the time offered menus burdened with heavy sauces and spiked with MSG, Schrecker explained, and this book would correct that.

Szechuan cuisine, like China’s other regional traditions, emphasized elements of texture, presentation and nutrition, in addition to flavor. Successful menus balanced dishes of varying temperatures, spice levels and even colors. Schrecker promised that the American home cook could create authentic Szechuan dishes in his or her kitchen, with little more than a wok, a cleaver and a reliable grocer nearby.

The Schreckers’ friend Walter Gilbert, who would win the Nobel Prize in chemistry in 1980, tested every one of the book’s recipes with his daughter Kate. Judith Jones, famed for her role as editor of Julia Child’s “Mastering the Art of French Cooking,” assisted Schrecker with the book’s writing and layout. The recipes of “Mrs. Chiang’s Szechwan Cookbook” therefore look and read very much like those of “Mastering the Art of French Cooking,” with ingredients ordered in a separate column to the left of a recipe’s instructions.

Despite Chiang’s clear proficiency in an ambitious range of techniques – the book includes instructions for smoking a chicken in your home kitchen (xunji), preparing whole fish for a formal meal (shaoz yu), and stir-frying snails in garlic, ginger and sugar (luosi) – Chiang was a “home cook,” Schrecker explained in a January 2015 interview at the annual meeting of the American Historical Association, in New York City. “She never became a professional cook.”

Still, the breadth and depth of Chiang’s culinary knowledge, learned at her mother’s side in her childhood kitchen in Szechuan, propelled her far beyond amateur American cookery, then and now. The Chiang family grew a wide variety of vegetables and grains. They caught fish and raised and slaughtered pork and chicken. Chiang’s mother made bean curd, soy sauce, pepper paste and wine. She pickled vegetables and baked breads. “I loved it,” Chiang remembered, quoted in the cookbook’s introduction. “I washed pots, chopped vegetables, and kept the fire going …. But mainly I watched, listened and learned.”

Szechuan enthusiasts will recognize many dishes from contemporary menus, whose colorful names have not changed much from Schrecker’s translations: Ants Climb a Tree (mayi shang shu), Don Don Noodles (dandan mian), Lions’ Heads (shiz tou) and Pock-Marked Ma’s Bean Curd (mapo doufu). Others are new and adventurous to even seasoned fiends of Szechuan’s numbing spice: Dumpling Knots in cabbage broth, fragrant with ground, toasted peppercorns and chili oil (mian geda), Red-Cooked Brains (hongshao naohua) and Eight Treasure Rice (babaofan), a dessert pudding studded with dates and sweet potatoes and rich with rendered pork fat.

Cookbook readers know that not all of a book’s recipes are winners. In contrast, those in “Mrs. Chiang’s” are reliably successful. I have reached for my copy of this cookbook so often that its jacket has become frayed and its binding cracked. Pink post-it notes sprout from the book’s top and side, marking favored dishes or recipes still to try.

The book’s timing was ideal. It appeared as American eaters were becoming increasingly savvy about the distinctions between regional Chinese cuisines.

Craig Claiborne, the legendary New York Times restaurant critic and food writer, was largely responsible for cultivating this enthusiasm. He had carefully tracked the spread of New York City’s Chinese restaurants, beginning with the arrival of the first “Oriental” establishment in Midtown Manhattan in July 1958. Chinese cookbooks, cooking classes, chopsticks and unfamiliar ingredients such as snow peas all merited articles. When a Szechuan chef arrived at Mandarin East restaurant in 1963, Claiborne predicted his “peppery” cuisine would distinguish it from the city’s many Cantonese establishments.

By the close of the 1960s, Claiborne preached to the choir. “New Yorkers, who once contented themselves with … chop suey and chow mein, now … speak knowingly of the shades of difference between various schools of Chinese cooking – including Cantonese, Mandarin, Szechuan and Shanghai,” he wrote in September 1967. By 1979, New York Magazine restaurant critic Gael Greene credited Claiborne with “fuel[ing] the Szechuan revolution a decade ago.”

However, Ellen Schrecker, now the most prominent American historian of McCarthyism, found the book so boring she declined to promote it after Harper & Row published it.

Photo from Wikicommons

Photo from Wikicommons

When the Schreckers returned to America from Taiwan, Ellen was finishing what she later described as a “really boring thesis” on the history of French debt to the United States after World War I, to earn a doctorate in history from Harvard University. “This [was] pre-second wave feminism,” Schrecker explained, reflecting in 2015. She had chosen her thesis topic in deference to her husband’s career, selecting one that would let her follow him as he traveled and researched. She took care of their two sons while also completing her own work.

As Schrecker wrote the cookbook with Chiang in 1974 and 1975, she began to teach about the McCarthy era at Harvard. “I discovered that there was no book on McCarthyism,” she recalled. So she wrote one. And another. And another. Schrecker published “Mrs. Chiang’s Szechwan Cookbook” in 1976 and divorced her husband a few years later. Over the next 30 years, Schrecker would write more than seven scholarly books and became a professor of history at Yeshiva University.

“I did not enjoy doing the cookbook mainly because I felt frustrated,” she explained in 2015. “I could tell it was a little dead because it wasn’t filtered through my experience.” As a historian, Schrecker was used to interpreting sources herself – sifting through boxes of archival manuscripts to determine how the many disjointed pieces of a puzzle fit together. But Schrecker had never been to Szechuan province, so she was unable to describe its markets, restaurants, or farmland from her own perspective. Linguistic differences forced another layer of distance, since her husband acted as the primary interpreter with Chiang. (John Schrecker was credited as a joint author of the book.)

Tired of instructing the reader to chop scallions, Schrecker sought to shape the project into an “informal ethnography” as well as a cookbook. Introductions to recipes commonly offer snippets from Chiang’s childhood memories of growing up in Szechuan. Before a recipe for Pork Chop Noodles (paigu mian), for example, Schrecker presented Chiang’s recollections of rural peddlers and urban vendors, who would offer just such a dish to passersby.

When the cookbook was published in 1976, Schrecker remembered knowing that it was special but made no effort to publicize it. “I just didn’t want to follow up on it,” she said recently.

Nevertheless, fans found it. Schrecker said her most remarkable call was from a researcher in Minnesota. He and his colleagues studied blood clotting and were experimenting with their own blood in Petri dishes. He came to the lab one morning and found to his surprise that his blood was the only sample that had not clotted. He had made Mrs. Chiang’s recipe for mapo doufu the night before and ultimately found that the dish’s wood ear mushrooms had deterred clotting. His observation confirmed the longtime use of these fungi in traditional Chinese medicine as anticoagulants.

Schrecker continues to cook from the cookbook although she is no longer in touch with Chiang (now Jiang Jung-feng), who lives with her current husband in New York where Schrecker also lives.

Dry-Fried Beef (ganshao niurousi), she says, is still her go-to dish for company. “You just cook it until it sort of becomes almost hard and black and [a] little crumbly looking,” she said. “It looks awful, but it’s absorbed all the flavor. I’ve never had leftovers … I’ve never seen it cooked [in a restaurant] the way Mrs. Chiang cooked it.”

“Mrs. Chiang’s Szechwan Cookbook” has allowed readers of the past 40 years to bypass the restaurant and go straight to their own kitchens. Now, as then, a good grocer is essential; a wok and cleaver are optional.

Makes 6 to 8 servings

Dumpling Knots (Mian Geda)

"This is a dish few Westerners have heard of, much less tasted," Ellen Schrecker wrote in "Mrs. Chang's Szechwan Cookbook. "Even in China it is never served in restaurants, nor discussed by gourmets. It is a dish eaten by the poorest peasants. ... The dumplings, which are just like my mother-in-law's Central European spaetzle, and the pronounced flavor of the cabbage give this dish a familiar, almost Western, taste."

Ingredients

  • 1 small head cabbage, or 1/2 large head
  • 2 medium pork chops (about 1/2 pound)
  • 1/4 cup dried tree ear mushrooms
  • 1 cup boiling water
  • 5 scallions
  • 2 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt
  • 3/4 cup water
  • 3 tablespoons peanut oil
  • 3 tablespoons soy sauce
  • 8 cups water
  • 1 tablespoon sesame oil
  • 1 tablespoon salt
  • 1/4 teaspoon ground roasted Szechwan peppercorns
  • Hot pepper flakes in oil

Instructions

Slice the cabbage into rather coarse shreds, about 1-inch wide.

Cut all the bone and fat away from the pork chops, then slice the lean meat as thin as you can, cutting across the grain of the meat; you should get wafer-thin slices of meat about 3 inches long and 1/2-inch wide. (It is always easier to cut meat into very thin slices if you first put it in the freezer for about 10 minutes, until it is slightly stiff but not frozen.)

Put the tree ears in a small bowl and pour the boiling water over them. Let them soak for about 10 minutes. When they have become soft and slightly gelatinous, rinse them off and pick them over carefully to remove any impurities, such as little pieces of wood, that may still be embedded in them.

Clean the scallions, then chop them, both the white part and about a third of the green, rather coarsely into pieces about 1/4-inch long.

Mix the flour, salt and water together until the dough is well blended and rather sticky; try to get rid of all the lumps.

Heat a wok or a large pot over a moderately high flame for 15 or 20 seconds, then add the oil. It will be hot enough to cook with when the first tiny bubbles form and a few small wisps of smoke appear.

When the oil is ready, quickly put in the pork slices and the soy sauce. Stir-fry the pork and soy sauce together for about 1 minute, using your cooking shovel or spoon to scoop the pork slices from the sides of the pan and then stir them around in the middle, so every piece is exposed to the hot oil.

Add the cabbage shreds and continue to stir-fry for about 5 more minutes, using a scooping motion to toss the contents of the pan around so all the cabbage is thoroughly cooked. Start gently, so too much of the cabbage doesn't spill out, then, as the cabbage cooks and reduces in bulk, you can revert to the usual technique of scooping the ingredients into the center and stirring them around there.

When the cabbage is fairly well cooked and rather limp, pour about 8 cups of water into the pan -- or however much is needed to cover the cabbage mixture completely. Wait until the liquid is boiling, then reduce the heat, cover the pan and let it simmer.

After the cabbage has simmered for about 30 minutes, remove the cover and add the scallions and tree ears and enough additional water to cover the mixture, if needed.

When the water is boiling again, you are ready to add the dumplings. Because of the stickiness of the dough, this is a slightly tricky maneuver. The appearance of the finished product is quite unimportant, so don't worry if your dumplings assume weird shapes. You should try to make them all approximately the same size, remembering that they are smaller than American dumplings and should not be more than about 2 inches long. (If you have ever made Central European spaetzle, you have already mastered the technique, which is identical.)

Take about a teaspoonful of batter in a large spoon and scrape it off into the boiling liquid with another spoon. (It is somewhat easier if both spoons are kept wet by dipping them into the soup before you form each dumpling.) Distribute the dumplings evenly throughout the boiling liquid, but don't stir them for about 2 minutes, or they might fall apart. (There are many other ways of getting the batter into the soup. Mrs. Chiang picks up a strip of dough between two chopsticks, which she then plunges directly into the boiling liquid and shakes around until the dumpling falls off. It is fun to practice this technique, but its mastery is not essential for the success of the dish.)

After all the batter has been used up, add the sesame oil, salt and ground roasted Szechwan peppercorns. Taste the mixture after you have added the salt, and add more if it seems necessary.

Regulate the flame so the liquid is boiling steadily but not violently, and let the dumplings cook for at least 10 minutes.

The traditional method of serving Dumpling Knots is to give each person his own individual portion in a large soup bowl and let him take as much of the hot pepper flakes in oil as he wants and stir it into his dumplings. Start with about 1 teaspoonful in a bowl of soup.

The dish can be made several hours in advance and reheated just before you are ready to eat it.

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