Baba knows best. Kimchi maker Katy Chang found a cookbook in a used-book store that proved it once and for all.
The nearly 70-year-old, out-of-print “How to Cook and Eat in Chinese” reinforced what Chang learned as a child in the kitchen of her father (baba in several languages) and in the intervening years as a home cook and maker of fermented foods.
The book was written by Buwei Yang Chao, who spoke little English yet coined the terms “stir fry” and “pot sticker.” The author was a doctor who became a cookbook writer. Chang was a vegan and a lawyer about to open a cooking school and food-business incubator. They were kindred spirits.
Chang found the book on what she called “an auspicious day.” She had just closed a deal on a building in Washington, D.C., for Baba’s Cooking School and EatsPlace. It was her birthday. She and her husband were in a used-book store, he bumped into a shelf and “How to Cook and Eat Chinese” literally fell at her feet.
The cookbook, initially published in 1945, is considered one of the first to present authentic Chinese cooking, rather than a Westernized version, to the American public.
“To get the feeling of true Chinese food, read Mrs. Buwei Yang Chao’s delightful ‘How to Cook and Eat in Chinese,’ ” the 1967 edition of “Joy of Cooking” recommended in introducing a recipe for “chop suey or chow mein,” calling them “vaguely Chinese dishes.”
Chao’s book includes more than 200 recipes and more than a little sociology (“Most people who are poor eat much rice … as the main food”), lifestyle insights (“The dishes only accompany the rice. So they are the opposite of the American eating system, in which bread accompanies the dish.”) and regional differences (there is a “three-meal system” in Hunan and a “two-meal system” in China’s South and West).
Chao lived in Cambridge, Mass., and then Berkeley, Calif., with her husband Yuen Ren Chao, a linguistics professor. Chao spoke little English. Her recipes and comments were written down by her daughter, Rulan, then tweaked by her husband, who didn’t think his daughter’s English word choices sounded Chinese enough.
The result is quirky — sometimes charming, sometimes eccentric. Some food was “uneatable” and her husband insisted that their daughter not change “mushrooms stir shrimps” to “shrimps fried with mushrooms.” He argued that “if Mr. Smith can go to Town [sic] in a movie, why can’t mushrooms stir shrimps in a dish?”
This book includes a discussion of Chinese dim sum, small meals between meals, uncommon in 1945 America. In Chinese, this is called tien-hsin, or “dot hearts.” Chang says it literally means something that touches the heart.
“The turns of phrase make sense to me,” says Chang, who speaks fluent Mandarin. “They are literal translations. I like that she calls dumplings ‘wraplings’ – its literal translation would be something closer to ‘mixlings,’ because the filling is all mixed together.” Chang recalls that in her childhood in Rockville, Md., “we made dumplings as a family every Sunday afternoon.”
The book’s whole approach makes sense to Chang, whose parents came to D.C. from Taiwan in the late 1970s. She learned about Chinese cooking in her father’s kitchen at home and in the restaurants he owned in the Washington, D.C., suburbs.
Trained as an electrical engineer in China, Chan-Min Chang became a mechanic in the U.S. because he couldn’t speak English. He shifted to restaurants, ultimately working his way up from dishwasher to owner. “Food is an easy way for immigrants to gain economic independence,” his daughter says.
The restaurateur learned to cater to Western tastes but also had the “two-menu system” used in many American Chinese restaurants, Chang says. The authentic food was on a menu written in Chinese. The more Americanized menu was in English.
Chang and her two siblings thought their father’s ideas about cooking were “wacky.” He used preservation techniques such as “wind-cured chicken,” hanging poultry outside, she says, where the neighborhood dogs would line up “and stare transfixed.” He made glutinous rice balls simmered in homemade red wine “that looked like a Martian landscape.”
“This book really resonated with me,” says Chang of Chao’s work. “It has reinforced a lot of the lessons I learned from my dad.” Now she appreciates the wind-cured chicken’s “simplicity and concentration of flavors,” she says. Like her father, Chang says, Chao was “an intuitive cook.”
Chang has been using her father’s recipes as the basis for what she’ll use in her cooking school. “This book seemed like another way of taking these lessons,” she says.
When Chang showed “How to Cook and Eat Chinese” to her father, he was dismissive. He didn’t see how one book could capture the varied regional cooking of a country as large as China. He also was suspicious of anything published in America. “He came here in the ’70s, a time of chop suey, when garlic was considered an exotic ingredient,” Chang says.
“It’s opened up all these memories I had as a child cooking with my dad,” Chang says. She found a recipe for steamed bread like she used to make at home and form into little bear shapes. She showed her father the recipe and he suggested some adaptations. She made an egg custard from the book but modified it by adding the salted eggs her father taught her to make.
Chao’s recipes are not complicated. They were designed for American housewives in the 1940s and include descriptions of cooking methods, utensils and supplies.
Chang also likes the flexibility of Chao’s recipes. They allow cooks to use what they have at home, what’s in season, what makes sense.
Now Chang gets requests from people in China who have forgotten the old ways. She’s making a series of videos in both English and Mandarin.
Chang’s father is retired but still cooks for his family. While they have been going out for dim sum in recent years for Chinese new year, this year Chang says her dad will cook. They always have a feast, full of lucky foods – long noodles for long life, lots of eggs because of their gold color, whole fish because the Mandarin word for fish also sounds like the word for wealth and riches. They also love to have longxia (lobster — literally “dragon shrimp”) for Chinese new year, she says. “Lobster is a good example of Chinese-American food since not many people in China eat it, but we’re lucky to have Maine lobsters here.”
The third edition of Chao’s book contains a preface by Pearl S. Buck, the American author of “The Good Earth,” who spent much of her life in China. Buck wrote that she would nominate Chao for the Nobel Peace Prize. “For what better road to universal peace is there than to gather around the table where new and delicious dishes are set forth … What better road to friendship, upon which alone the peace can stand? I consider this cookbook a contribution to international understanding.”
One of the many things Katy Chang admires about "How to Cook and Eat in Chinese" by Buwei Yang Chao (Random House, 1945), is its flexibility. A list of filling options are offered in Chao's recipe for steamed custard. The recipe calls for 10 eggs. Chang uses 7 eggs and 3 salted duck eggs to give the dish "a deep umami flavor." The yolks, she says, become a rich yellow when cooked and look like gold bullion (see photo). A perfect dish for Chinese New Year.
- 10 large eggs
- 3 cups water
- 2 teaspoons salt
- 2 tablespoons sherry
- 1/2 pound ground meat or,
- 1/2 pound ground cod or,
- 1/2 pound ground shrimp or,
- 1/4 pint ground or chopped clam or,
- 1/4 pint ground oyster or,
- 1 dozen razor clams, ground, or,
- 1/4 pound lobster meat (cut into 1/2-inch cubes)
Beat together eggs, water salt and sherry. Add meat and beat again. Pour mixture into pyrex or other casserole that can go on the stovetop.
Now you need a pot 2 inches wider than the casserole and big enough to hold it on a stand. Place the casserole on a stand over 2 inches of hot water, cover the pot and turn the flame to high. Steam for 20 minutes. Serve immediately.