Eileen Yin-Fei Lo has written 11 cookbooks on Chinese cuisine. She can teach you how to make perfect stir-fried long beans and how to serve hot-pot at home, how to shop for ingredients at Asian markets and how to prep your own hot sauces and flavored oils. Her latest book, Mastering the Art of Chinese Cooking, will introduce you to a number of traditional dishes you may not have tried before. Stuffed bean curd Hakka-style? Braised abalone? Steamed hairy melon soup? You'll find all that, plus how to make legit tea-smoked duck, steamed pork buns, and more.
Where does this cooking pro turn when she's looking for inspiration? I asked Eileen Yin-Fei Lo a bit about the books on Chinese cooking that she recommends, plus her other favorite cookbooks across all cooking styles. Here's what she had to say.
What do you look for in a cookbook?
Difficult to answer. With cookbooks, my first test is authenticity. The book must practice what it preaches. My books deal with Chinese tradition, traditional cooking. This is not to say that certain tweaks cannot be made, but any cookbook that I write, or that I would consult, or from which I might seek inspiration must be true.
I am weary of "complete" Chinese cookbooks, because there can be no such thing. Too many liberties have been, and are, taken with Chinese cuisine.
Too many so-called Chinese cookbooks are published by western writers who believe that they can immerse themselves in the ways of a 2,000-year old cuisine in a few short months then write about it with authority. Unfortunately, some Chinese-Americans do the same, thus doing a disservice to their culinary heritage.
I have little regard for most so-called Chinese cookbooks in America, for all the reasons cited. There are exceptions, however. A New York restaurant owner, the late Irene Kuo, wrote The Key to Chinese Cooking which deals quite seriously with my cuisine as does Florence Lin's Chinese Regional Cookbook.
What books do you use most often for research?
My sources are quite often small paperbacks to be found in any Chinese city or village and Hong Kong. These books are valued dictionaries of authentic ingredients which I collect as I travel. My ingrained research is always the cooking of my family in China and in Hong Kong.
Another marvelous source book is Food in Chinese Culture edited by K.C. Chang, published by Yale University Press. It is a tremendous resource, divided into eras of Chinese food history and meticulously accurate.
What are your most treasured cookbooks?
A boxed set of two books, titled very simply Old Cantonese Recipes, published in Chinese in Hong Kong. These recipes are going to be out of the public domain soon, I fear. The books are already out of print, and when the few copies left vanish, recipes—mainly family treasures—will vanish as well. They are printed in Chinese calligraphy only, and this only enhances their historical context.
Two companion volumes, China Dim Sum and China Rice Cookbook published in Chinese, in Taiwan. The titles of these two Taiwanese published books are simple. They are in Chinese only. The rice book, in addition to its recipes, is a virtual dictionary of Chinese rice, which includes the various rice powders so important to Chinese cooking. The dim sum book traces the history of dim sum from the time when it was the food of travelers, to its stature of tea house importance. Included are dishes in which Chinese root vegetables are blended with rice to create both sweet and savory cakes.
What newer cookbooks do you love?
The following books all share what I love in cookbooks: taste, authenticity, immense knowledge, and a willingness to share.
Gourmet's France. This book, more than any other that I own, gives French traditional recipes in historical context. At the same time, the recipes are easy to follow (I know they have all been tested). It stands out in a time when everyone and his/her brother/sister publish so-called French cooking.
Elizabeth David's Mediterranean Food. All of Elizabeth David's books are treasures, but this one in particular has so much of herself in it, so much of her reverence for food that when I read it, it is like a letter.
Here Let Us Feast by M.F.K. Fisher. M.F.K. Fisher's books are diaries, and I told Ms. Fisher this the only time I ever met her. Her memories are like recipes for her life.
American Food by Evan Jones. This chronological account of the development of American food so full of anecdotes and culinary way stations that it is like an auto trip across the continent. With Judith Jones along for the journey.
America's Cookbook from the New York Herald Tribune Home Institute. This book is old, out of date, and virtually unobtainable. I received it as a gift from my husband who began his career at the New York Herald Tribune. Much of it is the tested work of Clementine Paddleford. It remains a sourcebook for me of American food.
The Joy of Cooking by Irma Rombauer (the original). Notice the word "original." This wonderful book has been changed, added to, subtracted from, all in the name of modernism. I wish it could be left alone.
The Art of Eating Well. Pellegrino Artusi, not as well known as other so-called influential food writers, is nevertheless superior to most of them. His writings are filled with knowledge created by his palate and given to us from his tongue.
Marcella Hazan's Essentials of Italian Cooking. What is there to say about Marcella Hazan? Real Italian? Marcella. True Italian technique? Marcella. An unwillingness to go with shortcuts? Marcella. Enough said.
The Splendid Table by Lynne Rosetto Kasper. Ms. Kasper has taken what many people consider Italy's best regional cooking, Emilia-Romagna, and elevated it even further. It is a work of fine scholarship.
Dumas on Food. An anecdotal book on the French table. As entertaining as The Three Musketeers.
Chef Daniel Boulud: Cooking in New York City. Daniel Boulud is a friend. Even so, I have no reservations about saying that it is a superior book of recipes. I have cooked, and do cook, from it, never with disappointment.
An American Family Cooks. Judith Choate's book charms me for its picture of a family cooking and eating what it cooks. She has written for and with other cooks and chefs, but she stands on her own as one undaunted by ingredients.