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Dec 17, 2010 02:49 PM

Pre-1980 authentic US Sichuan cookbooks?

1. This is a specific historical query for US-sold pre-1980 cookbooks of authentic Sichuan recipes. To illustrate, I describe two examples below. Another title I tried to get at the time, and I don't have exact title or date. (This query is spun off from a recent and, to me, enlightening* thread, "Szechuan Trend?")

The particular book I seek had a good recipe for Kung-Pao (Gong-Bao) Chicken, a dish that (originally from Sichuanese recipes) became fashionable in the US in the late 1970s. After casual introductions to Sichuan cooking from chefs practicing it in California (1968-1978), this specific recipe, cooked by someone else, awoke my interest in spicy Chinese food (which continues), and led to always keeping at least dried hot peppers at home. It was a 1970s or maybe '60s US-published cookbook by a name like Joyce Chen. Maybe NOT literally Joyce Chen: her 1962 US Chinese cookbook, with decent recipes for things like red-cooked beef, is weak on hot spicy dishes. Then again, the book I seek might be a later title of hers. Even in '62, Chen complained about US Chinese cookbooks "so 'adapted to American kitchens, grocery stores, and tastes' that the dishes they describe are not really Chinese at all."

Any recommended, authentic, PRE-1980 US-sold Sichuan cookbooks are of interest. I'm hoping for advice about books that people own and preferably have cooked from (not just titles seen online).

2. Two of the good US Sichuan cookbooks in those days are Robert A. Delfs, _The Great Food of Szechwan_ (Kodansha International, 1974, ISBN 0870112317 or 4770004443, published in US and Japan), and Chiang, Schrecker, and Schrecker, _Mrs. Chiang's Szechwan Cookbook_ (Harper & Row 1976 and 1987, ISBN 006015828X), which I've cited on CH before. Both are available used.

To illustrate the style of these two books, here's a little about their accounts of the Sichuanese dish Ma-po Dou-fu (Tofu), more formally "Chen Ma-Po Dou-fu" as Delfs has it. Both Delfs (translating Chinese sources in Asia) and the Schreckers (who had returned to the US) were US scholars of Chinese studies. Mrs. Chiang was a Sichuanese cook who collaborated with the Schreckers to publish her family recipes.

For reference, Fuchsia Dunlop (_Land of Plenty,_ UK, 2001) offers an "official" modern Sichuan cooking-school recipe built on bean curd, ground beef, hot bean paste, fermented black beans, Sichuan citrus "peppercorns" (hua jiao), leeks or scallions, and optional additional hot peppers.

Both 1970s US cookbooks employ a core recipe very similar to Dunlop's (even to the proportions, generally, and Dunlop's use of "everyday" rather than enriched meat stock). Delfs (US, 1974) incidentally gives more specifics on the dish's creator, Mrs. Chen of Chengtu, than
Dunlop or any other cookbook I've seen. Delfs also lists common variations: pork instead of beef, and optional additional garlic, ginger, fermented black beans, mushrooms, wood ear, or sesame oil. With more humor than Dunlop, Delfs acknowledges that his recipe too was represented in China as "the authentic and original Ma-po Dou-fu," but "you can take that statement as seriously as you like." Chiang (US, 1976), in her family recipe from Chengtu, specifies either pork or beef and adds garlic, ginger, and wood ears, with optional finely chopped water chestnuts for a little crunch (sounds good to me, though I haven't tried that option when I've cooked Chiang's recipe).

(* Enlightening because until that thread, I didn't know that anyone with views on it was UN-aware of the US influx of authentic Sichuanese cooking in the 1970s. Had that been forseeable 30 years ago, I'd have gladly saved scores of menus and published mentions of the subject for their benefit!)

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  1. I have Delfs's 'Good Food' book, though I haven't used as much as the Crown Encyclopedia (even for Ma-Po). Did you have a question related to Delfs's book, or just other unnamed book?

    3 Replies
    1. re: paulj

      paulj, I am trying to track down a particular book whose title & author I forgot (Joyce Chen or some other 2-word hybrid name like that).

      But I'm also interested in any other good (i.e. faithful to Chinese recipes) US-sold Sichuan ("Szechwan," "Szechuan") cookbooks pre-1980. I don't know all the books that fit that description and I haven't looked systematically for them before.

      Incidentally in recent years the 1976 Shrecker/Chiang cookbook (reissued with different introduction in 1987) has been so abundant on the used market that when I recommended it elsewhere 5-6 years ago, MANY used copies were offered on as low as $1 - $2. (Amazon, if anyone doesn't know this, besides selling new products, also functions as a clearing house for used-book sellers; I've often found common titles very cheaply there, without going to the specialized used-book sites -- ABE, alibris.)

      1. re: eatzalot

        So that was you who recommended Mrs. Chiang's online about 4 years ago? Thanks so much!

        I bought it from Amazon after that for $2 (plus shipping), and finally had success cooking Chinese dishes that actually tasted Chinese. I was reminded of that tonight so I found this topic while looking for where / who had recommended that book to me. I found the original recommendation elsewhere online.

        Sorry I can't help with your query in this topic, though.


        1. re: mdg

          Kind of you to mention it Michael, though I confess am not the only partisan of that book who has talked it up enthusiastically online. (I did, though, recommend it emphatically to a publisher who checked into its enduring popularity and is bringing out an electronic edition.)

    2. Hi eatzalot! Slightly post 1980 - but near enough is the seminal, yet under-rated work of Barbara Tropp and her first Chinese cookbook in 1982. China scholar, Ph.D drop-out from Princeton, opened a Chinese restaurant in San Francisco. Wish she were alive today so we could ask her!

      4 Replies
      1. re: scoopG

        Thanks, good tip, I'll check into it. I'd heard of Barbara Tropp and her Cafe (I live in the same region) but not seen her writing.

        It's remarkable how many foreigners go to China to study its literature or history or art and end up fascinated with its food, writing cookbooks for their home countries. Tropp, just like the two titles I cited above, fit that pattern. Delfs's introduction says that he originally mimeographed a set of translated recipes and sent them to friends as holiday gifts in December 1973. The response was so enthusiastic that he expanded them to a book.

        1. re: eatzalot

          Great story! I think Chinese cuisine is the most under-appreciated one in the world!

        2. re: scoopG

          I wanted to let you know that after reading this thread and researching Barbara Tropp, I ordered her first book. I very rarely do stuff like that, but her book sounded so comprehensive that it sounded like a must-have. I am very happy with the book. I haven't cooked anything from it yet, but I have been reading it as if it were prose and not a cookbook. What a treasure. So much to learn from this book about cooking techniques and Chinese food culture. Thanks for the heads up on Barbara Tropp, an amazing cook, writer, and entrepreneur.

        3. Back in the late 1970s when I had more time on my hands than cash, I borrowed Schrecker and Chaing from the library and typed out some of their recipes. That is were I first encountered Ants climb a tree, While some of the recipes (that I still have) use hot red peppers and Sz. pepper corns, none called for sauces or pastes like hot bean paste. The most exotic ingredient that I used back then was canned preserved vegetable (hot spiced knobby root).

          2 Replies
          1. re: paulj

            Thanks for the correction, paulj. The Chiang book, unlike Delfs's earlier book, does specify just hot pepper paste in the Ma Po tofu recipe. The introductory matter dwells somewhat on hot bean pastes, that Mrs. Chiang was accustomed to making her own condiments (recipes omitted, I believe, alas), and that hot bean pastes are used sometimes . Unlike Kenneth Lo's popular _Chinese Regional Cooking_ (1979), translating from the 1963 edition of the many-volume national cookbook (a "good" Kenneth Lo book; he seems to've produced others, less respected, in the UK, though acknowledged as a mentor by multiple high-profile Chinese-US celebrity chefs) which dwells on bean pastes and distinctive dishes using them. I used to cook those often in the 1980s. I omitted Lo above, because that book isn't specifically Sichuanese.

            1. re: eatzalot

              I remember hot pepper and bean pastes too, Delfs uses them a lot. Not specifically Szechuanese: Irene Kuo's Key to Chinese cooking has a "spicy pork with peanuts" with a chicken variation that looks pretty good. Craig Claiborne & Virginia Lee's 1972 Chinese Cookbook also has a kung pao chicken recipe, it uses bean sauce, hoisin sauce, and chili paste with garlic. I've weeded out most of my older Chinese cookbooks, but the recipe was certainly out there. (My roommate made excellent hot & sour soup from the Chinese entry in the Time-Life series, so that's another possibility.)

          2. Delts writes "Ma-po Dou-fu should be eaten not just with, but on top of, rice. Provide a serving spoon and let each person take a helping from the serving bowl and transfer it to his rice bowl before eating."

            The first time we ordered this at a Chicago restaurant was the only time we had to ask for more rice at a Chinese restaurant.

            7 Replies
            1. re: paulj

              I've found that this dish (MPTF in my freezer-log shorthand) makes a superb topping for noodles too (either wheat or wide rice noodles as in chow-fun, maybe braised with some greens, or to top a bowl of noodles in a little soup broth). I either make the MPTF myself or get it from a local restaurant ("Hunan Chili," in list in link) with good Sichuanese chef who does a damn good job.

              To expand on something above that ties in with your MPTF experience: In his wide survey of translated recipes, _Chinese Regional Cooking_ (1979) which isn't handy just now, Lo describes, without specific recipe, one region's specialty of highly spiced dense meat braises that are served, often cold, as a topping to add flavor to rice. "Yellow-cooked" or some such local nickname. You marinate, then slowly cook, boneless pork or poultry in a combination of yellow bean paste (I think), plenty of crushed garlic and ginger, and maybe soy sauce, then cool it in the juices. It gells firmly, is strongly spiced which had some preservative value too I think, but the flavor is exquisitely intense. Just a little shaving of meat cooked this way, as a topping, adds excitement to the blandest bowl of rice or noodles, and the meat goes a long way (as has often been necessary in China). I experimented with that technique in the 1980s when I was learning some Chinese cooking, it's straightforward, no detailed recipe needed, though I'd first check Lo's book for the exact ingredients.

              1. re: eatzalot

                You might find this EatingClubvancouver blog entry on MPTF interesting. They are working from Dunlop's recipe, but discuss ingredients that are now available


                1. re: paulj

                  It was interesting to notice, comparing their MPTF recipes as I summarized above, that Dunlop's purportedly definitive recipe, which adds fermented black beans, was explicitly called out by Delfs (three decades earlier) as one of several "variations," common in China, to his own (less seriously) purportedly definitive recipe. Delfs uses one of the variations (ginger) in his own version, and lists proportions for five other optional ingredients. Chiang's recipe adds all of them, EXCEPT Dunlop's black beans.

                  1. re: eatzalot

                    Great to know that! I add some kernals of fresh (or canned) sweet corn for my own variation to MPTF every now and then.

                2. re: eatzalot

                  The cold braised spiced meats I mentioned above use thick liquid "soy paste" (not yellow bean paste). Notes on a recent batch I made are posted separately:


                3. re: paulj

                  I prefer mapo dofu over soft noodles...I have been told that this is common in northern China.

                  1. re: dmreed

                    MPTF over noodles in general is a glorious combination (I mentioned earlier here, in 2010) and was also yesterday's lunch, here in the US. Had some homemade, well-seasoned vegetarian MPTF on hand, and put it over cooked fresh thick Chinese noodles.

                    I've come to think of MPTF partly as a pasta topping, Sichuan's answer to Bolognese rag├╣. Delfs's classic cookbook recommendation (cited by paulj upthread), to serve ma po tofu (aka mabo doufu) with lots of rice, is an acknowledgement that MPTF has enough flavor to enliven bulk carbohydrates. Cooked wide rice noodles, like chow-fun, are another exquisite accompaniment.

                4. You're not thinking of Fu Pei-Mei (the Julia Child of Taiwan, had a fantastic cooking show on TV there - wish I had that on DVD) by any chance? I don't know of a specifically Sichuan book of hers but the 4 cookbook series (translated into English before 1980) covers the major cuisines.

                  4 Replies
                  1. re: buttertart

                    Thanks for the suggestion, bt, but I'm pretty sure it wasn't "Pei Mei" (whose multi-volume books are considered by many people the standard references on Chinese cooking available in English and are also, incidentally, coming out electronically now).

                    Author of the particular book I'm seeking (for nostalgia and a particular recipe) used a hybridized name like Jennie Low or Joyce Chen or Maggie Chan, but it's not any book I've checked yet. On the other hand, I have yet to do a proper search, which is fairly easy, on the used-book sites.

                    1. re: eatzalot

                      I figured as much. Those books are very good but I'm a Wei-Chuan girl, really.
                      And not my goddess Irene Kuo either, I suppose.

                      1. re: buttertart

                        Could you be thinking of Eileen Yin-Fei Lo? I've really enjoyed her "The Chinese Kitchen" -- not only interesting dish recipes, but foundation recipes like sauces, noodles and wraps, too. Though she is definitely overall "slow food" more than the quick-prep trend.

                        1. re: quixotequest

                          I am not thinking of Eileen Yin-Fei Lo, I don't particularly like her. Irene Kuo is far better.

                          Sorry if this was not intended as an answer to me, but I don't think eatzalot would be thinking about her either since her usual focus is Guangdong, not Sichuan.