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Oct 26, 2009 12:26 PM

Eileen Yin-Fei Lo's Mastering the Art of Chinese Cooking is finally out!

Funny, that title sounds familiar, doesn't it? Have been waiting for this with baited breath - just ordered it from Amazon and can not wait to get my mitts on it. Will report.

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  1. Can you tell me why this particular volume has you so excited? Always on the lookout here.

    1 Reply
    1. re: Dual

      Dual, now I'm very curious, too. According to her Wikipedia page, she's been described as " The “Cantonese Julia Child” and the “Chinese Marcella Hazan” (New York Times) The “Chinese Alice Waters” (Food authority George Land) The “Diva of Dim Sum” (Food Arts Magazine)"


    2. I'm looking forward to your report. You're also a fan of Irene Kuo's book? I'd be interested to see how the two compare.

      3 Replies
      1. re: beetlebug

        That's precisely my main interest in this (comparison w/Kuo) - and there hasn't been a comprehensive Chinese cookbook in some time. I like Ms Lo's other books as well.

        1. re: buttertart

          I've been intrigued by Kuo's book ever since I read the Tenth Muse. But I haven't had time to borrow it from the library to take closer look. Maybe I'll borrow both and do a side by side comparison. No one hold your breath though, this sounds like an after the holidays kind of project. Or, even better, a Chinese New Year project.

          1. re: beetlebug

            Indeed it would. Kuo is especially good on technique (cutting, precooking, etc.), will be very interested to see how Lo approaches the subject. The book is supposed to arrive today.

      2. Have received it. It's beautiful (have only been able to give a very perfunctory look through so far). Big and heavy - will be lugging it tp read it on my commute home tonight!

        17 Replies
        1. re: buttertart


          Can't wait to hear all about it!


          1. re: The Dairy Queen

            I have read the first few chapters, and I have to say that I am not as taken with it as I expected to be. It starts with a tour through Chinatown markets and shops, and a discussion of essential ingredients, which is useful. It then goes to basic recipes, stocks etc., again useful. The following recipes for dishes are not terrifically appealing. One calls for 64 (!) fresh water chestnuts to equal ½ cup – would equal more like 2 + cups. Cutting techniques are only perfunctorily described and given one page of small illustrations. The other beefs I have with the book are to do with the Chinese used, and would not necessarily bother or interest anyone without knowledge of the language. It is a beautifully-produced book – the red of the endpapers is absolutely glorious and the photographs interesting – but the substance so far does not equal the style.

            1. re: buttertart

              Oh how disappointing... Still that section on markets and ingredients sounds really interesting. Would you say that that section is far more useful than the similar sections from the Dunlop books?


              1. re: The Dairy Queen

                Not really, I am a Dunlop fan through and through. But let me get a grip on the rest of the book, it may redeem itself.

                1. re: The Dairy Queen

                  I had the Chinese Chicken Cookbook for several years and didn't make a thing from it for a long time. Eileen Yin-Fei Lo's is are not even vaguely user-friendly. She doesn't even include the pinyin without markings so that one can type a proper shopping list.

                  Armed with no more than her words, I had two options--get nothing but awkward giggles, blank stares, and weak attempts at fobbing the wrong thing off on me, or taking the entire book and then having someone peer at the Chinese characters...and then still try to fob the wrong thing off on me.

                  In contrast, Fuschia Dunlop's Sichuan pantry sections was highly usable for me. I just ignored the make-it-yourself recipes at the beginning and assembled the rest.

                  Worse, though, Eileen Yin-Fei Lo's recipes are often just a bit ridiculous. In The Chinese Chicken Cookbook, at least, she spent a lot of time tracing the emotional/historical/anecdotal roots of this dish or that--just the opposite from Childs' approach of just presenting how to make something in the clearest way possible. She does not include MANY of her ingredients in the pantry section at the front, too. Many of the recipes are painfully dull and uninteresting--white cut chicken? SERIOUSLY? Sure, as a base for some sauce or other, but no amount of story-telling is going to make plain boiled chicken something I'd actually put on the dinner table. And her connection with reality is a bit whacked--she tries to play the ancient Chinese wisdom route with such ridiculous advice as to go to a market and pick out a live chicken and have it killed for you there. Because that's "better."

                  Well, in her spoiled Chinese upbringing, her childhood probably had quite the golden sheen. In my husband's post-Mao childhood, however, there were no more slaves who did all the cooking for you (she admitted that her grandmother--who supposedly knew everything about food and taught her, too--never picked up a cooking spoon--much to my regret, I know Chinese people like that, and no, they don't know anything about cooking). My mother-in-law actually drained the blood from chickens and plucked them because she had to. My husband caught the chicken's blood in a bowl to make soup. There's nothing romantic about it, and it's an enormous pain for no discernible difference in taste between that and fresh, unfrozen birds presented nicely wrapped in plastic in the supermarket.

                  Do I think the chicken book was worth it? It wouldn't have been if it weren't for several other books. If you wish to cook Chinese food, the best place to start is Andrea Nguyen's book on Asian dumplings. The ingredient list is VERY manageable, though the recipes, due to their nature, tend to be time-consuming. Still, many of the recipes are pretty close to fool-proof. A baby could make pork and cabbage water dumplings. It was the first Chinese thing I made, from my mother-in-law's vague "some of this, some of that" descriptions.

                  Next, you can do Dim Sum by Ellen Blonder, a ridiculously pretty and very good book, and Land of Plenty by Fuschia Dunlop. Once you do those, you can approach Eileen Yin-Fei Lo with equanimity. And from the mysticism and drivel, you can get some very solid recipes. By then, you'll be a champ and negotiating/bullying your way through the local Asian grocery store (bullying in a particularly Chinese way--otherwise, you'll have store employees try to get you to buy the wrong thing when they can't find or don't have the right one).

                  I have to admit, though, that some of my dislike is due to her tone. I can't help but think what a dragon of a mother-in-law she would make.

                  1. re: Henny Penny

                    White Cut Chicken is one of THE classic great dishes of China.

                    1. re: qianning

                      You are 100% right of course, qianning - and it's not easy to get exactly right. I find starting with dumplings and the dian xin a bit of a backdoor way to start into Chinese cooking, myself (although shuijiao are simple, of course). The Lo book is NOT the way to start or particularly of interest to the more advanced cook. The idea of anyone trying that big bowl thing that ends the book after the "instruction" received in it is ludicrous (leaving aside the fact it sounds a dreadful mishmosh of things in the first place). Not only does she not include Pinyin, she uses several romanization systems indiscriminately, some of them rather free-form, incorrect characters in some places, and what Chinese there is (in not terribly attractive characters, by the way) is often mistranslated or at best roughly glossed. I don't know why this book was foisted off on the public. I can only think the editor knew no Chinese and cared less.

                      1. re: buttertart

                        just to clarify:

                        1) i was definitely writing in "defense" of white cut chicken, not eileen yin-fei lo.
                        2) the only book of hers that i own/use is "my grandmother's kitchen", which i find a handy reference for Cantonese cooking.
                        3) in a book store after it first came out i looked pretty thoroughly at her "mastering the art of chinese cooking" and decided definitely not to buy, and agree with many of the flaws in the book that you & others have pointed out. As for her chinese chicken book, i've also looked at it but not bought.
                        4) at the risk of making a wildly over generallized statement, i often find that "chinese cooking" or "chinese cuisine" or other "general" cookbooks, especially written by an expert in one region's cooking, are not the best, although most beginners start there by default/lack of understanding, including myself with the weichuan and pei mei books many years ago.
                        5) shiu jiao made with pre-ground pork and manufactured wrappers are easy, real home made ones, not so sure. (sorry couldn't resist a small tweek)

                        1. re: qianning

                          1) that's how I took it
                          2) I have several including Grandmother's and Chicken, have never cooked from any of them, some are interesting to read
                          3) -
                          4) I still think that for someone with no background, the Kuo is still the best book out there - I started with some earlier ones in the '70s but for technique the Kuo can't be beat. The Wei-Chuan and Pei Mei books are great as followups - indispensable - but assume one has already learned knife and other prep work.
                          5) but of course, one of the pinnacles of Chinese cooking expertise is mastery of dumpling skins and just the right proportions in the fillings. That's why I a.) basically never venture into that branch of cookery myself (did when we were living far from any sources of same, in this area - speaking of NYC here - you can get very good dumplings and other dian xin very easily and b.) think that starting with dumplings if you've never cooked anything in the cuisine before is akin to starting with petits fours if you've never baked.

                          1. re: buttertart

                            I just bought Kuo on your advice, actually! I didn't have it.

                            My first Chinese book was the most frightening, offputting, badly translated parallel English/Chinese book with the most horrible, glistening Kodachrome photographs and the most unbelievably opaque names for all sorts of fish you can't even get here....

                            Not recommended!

                            I found making dumplings ridiculously easy and so very, very encouraging to my budding interest in Chinese cooking. Of course, I think some of that was that I could make stuff that tasted yummy and authentic based on the vaguest instructions from my mother-in-law, whereas things like the #$%# sticky rice dumplings with the exquisite beef filling that she does is perfectly impossible to decipher from her "directions," such as they are.

                      2. re: qianning

                        Absolutely so.
                        I simply don't understand Henny Penny's dismissal of 白砍雞 (white chopped chicken, rather than white cut chicken: 'pak cham kai' in cantonese). Then, there's Hainan chicken, or at least Hainan-style chicken... slobber, yum!!!

                        1. re: huiray

                          Especially when cooked by a master and it has that little layer of jelly between the skin and the meat...

                          1. re: huiray

                            may be my misunderstanding, but aren't "白切雞" (bai qie ji in mandarin), "白斩雞" (bai zhan ji), and "白砍雞" (bai kan ji), just different names for the same dish?

                            1. re: qianning

                              Don't know, but I'll take your word for it...

                          2. re: qianning

                            Yes, beloved of poor people for whom the ability to have a young, tender chicken is so rare that the taste of its meat is exquisite on its own.

                            When you're not that poor, it's BLAND. Sorry, but true. My Chinese husband all but begged me not to prepare it when he found out I was making it--until he discovered that it was to be a base for other dishes.

                            And, buttertart, it's ridiculously easy to get right with Fuchsia Dunlop's directions, modified slightly! All you have to do is get the water with the aromatics boiling nicely, put in the rinsed chicken, and drop it to a simmer the instant the boil returns. Then cover it, and after 30 min, check the thigh temp with an instant-read thermometer. The INSTANT it hits 160, yank it (yeah, I know, 160, not 165...) and run it under cold water. Voila! PERFECT white-cut chicken, tender and moist without becoming stringy and soggy. When cooled slightly, it does get a gel under the skin. I find that part of it mildly unpleasant and usually reserve it to make stock.

                            My husband mostly names it in Cantonese, but he translates it as white-cut chicken. At its very best, it's very lightly flavored tender and moist chicken. I guess it holds the same position as a perfectly cooked turkey in US culture, except with soft skin and slightly different flavor. I find plain turkey boring, too, and usually prepare it with apricot preserves or wild mushrooms or oranges or SOMETHING and always with gravy. So if you like turkey with nothing but, say, plain butter and salt under the skin, then white-cut chicken might be appealing to you. Otherwise, if you didn't grow up with it (or even many, if they did), *yawn.* It's an incredibly disappointing thing to stick on a table!

                            1. re: Henny Penny

                              "When you're not that poor, it's BLAND. Sorry, but true."
                              Speak for yourself.
                              "Otherwise, if you didn't grow up with it (or even many, if they did), *yawn.* It's an incredibly disappointing thing to stick on a table!"
                              Sorry to read that you are unable to appreciate the clean taste of chicken itself and find the need to disparage those who do by suggesting such people are poor people or people without your superior palate.

                              1. re: huiray

                                White-cooked chicken is indeed a delicacy.

                2. I am now midway through the book and am more impressed by it than I was with the first part - the author goes into some very interesting and unusual regional recipes including some breads and dishes to go with same. The soups are particularly appealling. The techniques are not as extensively described and illustrated as in the Kuo book (and I like the tone of the Kuo book better, Ms. Lo tends a bit to the self-congratulatory), which I still think is the better introduction to the cuisine, but this is a keeper in its own right.

                  7 Replies
                  1. re: buttertart

                    So how would you compare the Mastering the Art of Chinese Cooking to Grace Young's The Wisdom of the Chinese Kitchen and Eileen's The Chinese Kitchen? Which one do you think is more suited for a beginner?

                    The product description on Amazon for Mastering the Art of Chinese Cooking says:
                    "A series of lessons build skill, knowledge, and confidence as Lo guides the home cook step by step through the techniques, ingredients, and equipment that define Chinese cuisine". Which sounds like an excellent cookbook to learn from. How much of it is true and how does it compare to the other two books mentioned above?

                    1. re: Roost 12

                      I haven't looked at the other two in years (I think I have the Lo and had the Young from the library). Will have a look. I have been cooking Chinese food seriously since the '80s (had to, lived in Taipei for a couple of years and there was no decent Chinese food to be had upon returning to the States) so am perhaps not the best person to assess the book as a learning tool for a complete neophyte. That being said, I find that while this book is very good, I don't think it's organized in such a way that someone with no knowledge of the cuisine would be able to pick it up and become an accomplished Chinese cook right away (a bit too scattershot, and I hate to harp, but the descriptions of technique and the whys and wherefores of same are a bit sketchy as opposed to those in the Kuo book).

                      1. re: buttertart

                        I have 3 Chinese cookbooks that I look at most often:

                        Grace Young's Wisdom of the Chinese Kitchen
                        Eileen Lo's The Chinese Kitchen
                        Fuchsia Dunlop's Land of Plenty

                        I use the Young and the Dunlop the *most* by far. The Lo is very brilliant, and stuff comes out gorgeously, but I think Lo is deep down a restaurant cook. Her recipes are pretty damn involved, and make sense if you have sous chefs preparing your stocks and stuff like that. And some of the recipes feel awkwardly pared down from restaurant-scale stuff...

                        Young and Dunlop are, at heart, home and family cooks. And their recipes are more elemental. I learned to cook Chinese from Young's absolute bare-minimum versions of dishes. She's got tons of technique notes, too. The Young has the same place in my heart as Hazan and Tsuji - elemental, educational, etc. The recipes are daily, worn, and stripped down enough for you to get what's encessary. The Lo is more like... you know, a restaurant cookbook from a brilliant cook.

                        The Dunlop is incredible, too.

                        I like all three, but would recommend them to people learning to cook Chinese in the order of: Young, Dunlop, Lo.

                        The new Lo I glanced at in a bookstore, and the recipes seemed even more obviously geared towards restaurant cooking. Though the info seemed excellent.

                        1. re: Thi N.

                          I will start with Young then, thank you. :)

                          1. re: Roost 12

                            I agree with a lot of Thi N.'s points (although I don't think Ms. Lo is or has been a restaurant cook). Am a bit farther through the book and remain less impressed than I expected to be. I still think that Irene Kuo's The Key to Chinese Cooking is the best single book to learn from.

                        2. re: buttertart

                          I certainly defer to you on the subject of Chinese cooking. (I have the typical American amateur cook's knowledge of the subject.) However, your remark that "there was no decent Chinese food to be had upon returning to the States" surprises me. Do you mean nowhere or just in a particular city where you lived?

                          I'm assuming that places like New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Seattle must have some pretty good Chinese cooks. They do not lose their talent when they fly across the ocean, and the regretable lack of authentic Chinese ingredients which may have existed at one time (like, the 70's) in some of these cities has certainly been overcome by now. Surely, there must be some excellent Chinese food being produced at Chinese restaurants in the United States.

                          I don't mean to be hypercritical. You discussion of the merits of the various Chinese cookbooks is fascinating and I'll be referring to it when I buy my next Chinese cookbook! Thanks!

                          1. re: gfr1111

                            We returned to Berkeley and San Francisco in the early '80s. The Chinese food then available in the restaurants - even in places like The Mandarin at Ghirardelli Square - was nothing to compare to what we had been eating in Taipei. The tastes were just off (different recipes, ingredients, etc.). We were extremely fortunate in having been in Taipei at that point - top Mainland chefs who had been serving their post-1949 emigre Nationalist bosses as private chefs were branching out into opening restaurants as their employers passed on. The story is quite different now - we live in NYC and there are many places that serve excellent and authentic Chinese food of various cuisines here (so much so that my husband beefs that I don't cook Chinese as much as I used to...).

                    2. It (uncharacteristically) took me until last week to get through this book - kept picking it up and putting it down. I was prepared to be thrilled - since no major general Chinese cookbook has come out in English in ages and Ms. Lo's other books are good - but found it really quite disappointing. I always slightly dogear the corners of pages with recipes I'd like to try - in this one, there are precisely 2 corners turned down, one for a chicken dish with fried basil, and one for something that doesn't appeal to me on second reading. The book ends with a recipe for a multi-part "big bowl" extravaganza with many disparate food preparations layered into a bowl and steamed, which sounds as if it would be dreadful in any but the absolutely most practiced hand. The Chinese is odd throughout - for example, some Mandarin and Cantonese pronunciations of the same words are tagged as being entirely different expressions; the English chapter title to the effect of "Vegetables are the Way" is in Chinese "Vegetables are healthy foods"; and the Ming dynasty (1368-1644) is dated to the 12th century. It's a beautiful book but needed a firmer editorial hand, preferably by someone with some background in Chinese language as well as cooking. Any number of other books serve its intended purpose better, Nina Simonds's Classic Chinese Cooking, the Wei-Chuan Chinese Cooking and Chinese Cooking II books, and Irene Kuo's magisterial The Key to Chinese Cooking prime among them.

                      7 Replies
                      1. re: buttertart

                        Oh how disappointing. I know what a lousy feeling it is to have such great anticipation for something, then have all those hopes go unfulfilled.

                        Well, thank you for sharing your very thoughtful feedback on this book with us. Speaking entirely selfishly, a part of me is relieved that I won't feel it necessary to rush out and buy this book. But, of course, the fact that this book missed the mark is not really in anyone's best interest, not even mine if I take my selfish/blinders off for a moment.

                        Do you see anyone else in the cookbook talent pool who can write the kind of major, general kind of book you are hoping for. Fuscia Dunlop, maybe?


                        1. re: The Dairy Queen

                          It's really hard to say - I'm sure FD would be capable but it's such a huge, daunting project and it seems that she is more interested in regional cuisines. The book I want her to write (please please please) is the one on Huaiyang cuisine (Yangzhou/Huai'an food, cities west of China famous for their refined food) she seemed to be possibly hinting about in her memoir. (Oh no, just noticed I wrote "baited" for "bated" breath in my initial post, how embarrassing!)

                          1. re: buttertart

                            isn't Yangzhou FD's current project? thought I read that someplace.....

                            Personally, I'm still waiting for someone to write a good Zhejiang/Hangzhou cookbook (like you I spent time in Taiwan in the early 80's, wonderful Zhejiang food....)

                            1. re: qianning

                              I certainly hope you're right - it would be wonderful to have such a book. Fond memories of the Chu Feng Yuan and Sui Yuan - particularly the latter - in Taipei back then.

                              1. re: buttertart

                                seems to me i read about here working on a Yangzhou book in one of the blurbs to her recent auto-biography.

                            2. re: buttertart

                              Dear buttertart:

                              There is NOTHING I hate more than a mistake in usage!!!!!! BAITED instead of BATED? Shocking! Sorry, but I just had to rise to the bate!

                              1. re: oakjoan

                                I am humbled and covered in shame, even all these months later.