The Food Lab's Reading List, Day 7: The Joyce Chen Cook Book

Photograph: J. Kenji López-Alt

Author's Note: I recently built myself a new bookshelf in the kitchen, and in the process of reorganizing my ever-expanding book collection, I ended up blowing the dust off of more than a few majorly dog-eared pages. Old friends that carried me through college, my early days of faking it in fancy restaurants, my time as a test cook and writer, and some newer volumes as well. So, every weekday through the end of October, I'll be writing a short post featuring a food book that I really like. All of these books had a major influence either on my career or on my day-to-day cooking. They aren't necessarily the best or most essential cookbooks out there, but they are all worthy reads.

The Joyce Chen Cook Book, first published in 1962 and out of print for...who knows how long, is an unusual entry into this list of my favorite food books. Of the 22 books I'll be covering, it's the only one that I hadn't actually read until just this past year. Yet it's been perhaps the most influential of them all, in that it conjures some of my earliest food memories.*

*Any time I write one of these stories I get text messages from everyone in my family telling me exactly what I'm misremembering and what I'm exaggerating. So I'll be up front: most of my memories are probably made up.

See, my parents had picked up a copy of the book when they were living in Cambridge. At the time, Joyce Chen's eponymous chain of restaurants was still around, and it was dining at her inaugural establishment that my dad first picked up his taste for Northern Chinese cuisine. He wasn't the only one. Opened in 1958, the Joyce Chen Restaurant was one of the first Northern Chinese restaurants in the country (the Chinese restaurant landscape up to then was mostly dominated by the Cantonese cuisine made popular by a number of Chinese chefs in New York City). Cantabrigians at her restaurant at 617 Concord Avenue were among the first in the United States to taste now-ubiquitous dishes like Peking duck, moo shi pork, hot and sour soup, pan-fried dumplings (for which Joyce coined the term "Peking ravioli"), wonton soup, and Shanghai-style soup dumplings (xiao long bao).

I'm too young to have any memories of eating at any of Joyce Chen's restaurants in Boston, but I know her food intimately.

Joyce Chen self-published her cookbook in 1962, but the version my parents had was from 1978. The bright red, sauce-stained cover stuck out on the kitchen bookshelf, and when my dad pulled it out on a Saturday afternoon and said, "Let's have moo shi pork for dinner," I knew it was going to be a good evening. He'd mix up hot water dough for the Mandarin pancakes, carefully rolling it out into a log and cutting it into one-inch sections before passing them off to me and my sisters. Our job was to flatten two disks with our hands, brush one with sesame oil, place the second disk on top of it, and then roll them as flat as we could with a rolling pin. My dad would then place them in a hot, dry pan until they were brown and spotty on both sides. Finally, he'd pass them back so that we could peel them apart, revealing two paper-thin pancakes. We'd stuff them with pork that he'd stir-fried with day lily bulbs, wood ear mushrooms, and eggs. I still keep a big bag of dried day lily bulbs and wood ear mushrooms in my pantry, and just like the ones my parent's had, they have no decipherable expiration dates and seem to never deplete, despite dipping into them at least a couple of times a year for hot-and-sour soup and stir fries.

I finally got my own copy of the book a few months ago when I started working on a recipe for the book I'm currently writing. I'm calling the dish "Moo Shi Mushrooms" and it comes with those same Mandarin pancakes. As I leafed through the pages, I started recognizing dishes I distinctly remembered eating at the family dinner table. The velveted chicken my dad made for my little sister (he called it "Pico's Bland Chicken"). The flank steak stir-fried with snow peas in a light soy-based sauce my mom made (none of your gloopy Chinese-American stuff here!). Those dry-fried beef shreds, for which you shallow-fry strips of beef until dry and chewy to allow them to soak up the MSG-packed sauce (delicious). Peking noodles (a.k.a.
zhajiangmian) made with Western spaghetti. The Chungking pork my mom used to make.

I did a double take as I stumbled onto that last one. My mom's Chungking pork is a dish that has stuck in my memory as firmly as the dry, lean piece of pork she made it with used to stick in my throat. I dreaded those nights, even though I knew the recipe came from the book. I'd always figured that the use of lean pork loin in the dish was my mom's own attempt at trying to keep us healthy, but there it was, right on page 132: "1 pound lean pork." What was even more shocking to me was that this dish is actually meant to be Sichuan-style twice-cooked pork, a dish more commonly made with fatty pork belly or shoulder!

This is one of the many charming anachronisms you'll find in the book, which contains a foreword by famous Boston-area cardiologist Paul Dudley White. At the time, fat was the enemy, and in what was presumably an attempt to entice a Western audience to try a cuisine that already had a reputation for being mostly gluey stews, Joyce Chen decided to use health as a selling point. This is why we end up dishes like twice-cooked pork belly made with lean pork loin, but flavored with MSG, a seasoning against which Western audiences had yet to develop prejudices.

I've found that you can greatly improve every recipe in the book by simply omitting the word "lean" (the MSG can stay).

Some may claim that these types of changes and concessions to Western palates renders the recipes inauthentic. This is true, and Joyce Chen says as much herself. Her recipes and restaurants were created for an audience that was interested in learning about Chinese food, but had no frame of reference and very little access to specialty Chinese ingredients. One of her greatest talents was in walking that fine tightrope between authenticity and accessibility. That's a talent I greatly admire as I frequently try to wobble my way along that line myself.

Even if you've never heard of Joyce Chen, even if you never pick up a copy of her outdated, out-of-print cookbook, even if you aren't a big fan of Northern Chinese cuisine, I can flat out guarantee that Joyce Chen has changed the way you eat or cook.

Maybe you own a company that sells chafing dishes, or perhaps you're the landlord of a suburban strip mall. Well, Joyce Chen invented the Chinese lunch buffets that are the bread and butter of your business.

Perhaps you're one of those unfortunate souls who doesn't have a wok range at home and instead resorts to stir-frying in a flat-bottomed wok.* Guess what? Joyce Chen is the original patent-owner for that flat-bottomed wok.

*This, by the way, is the best vessel for stir-frying in at home, and Chen's is the best I've tested!

Do you like watching chefs cook on television? Joyce Chen was one of the pioneers of that medium, as well. Her show Joyce Chen Cooks ran for two seasons, from 1966 to 1967. It was the first nationally syndicated cooking show to be hosted by a woman of color. (You can read more about that fascinating history in this article on Food52, and watch full episodes in the WGBH Open Vault.)

Perhaps you're one of those patrons of the 41,000 Chinese restaurants in the US who has an awkward time pronouncing some of the Chinese words and prefer to order your dishes by number. Thank Joyce Chen once again for this innovation.

Oh, you can also add the introduction of bottled stir-fry sauces and polyethylene cutting boards to her list of American contributions as well.

There are those, like Allen Salkin, that argue that ultimately Joyce Chen was unsuccessful in her mission to make Chinese food accessible to American home cooks, and perhaps he's right. Despite gaining popularity, Chinese cooking still remains more intimidating for the majority of home cooks than, say, French or Italian cuisine.

But ultimately, it's impossible to deny that Joyce Chen cleared the path for generations of restaurateurs, TV chefs, and cookbook authors to come. I can tell you for certain that the Chinese-inspired dishes that will populate large chunks of the book I'm currently writing wouldn't exist if it weren't for her.

You can buy the Joyce Chen Cook Book here.