Want to learn Chinese cooking? Step 1: get help

Cooking in China has long been a tradition handed down from one generation to the next by personal experience. Family recipes weren’t typically written down.

Cooking in China has long been a tradition handed down from one generation to the next by personal experience. Family recipes weren’t typically written down.

That means a Westerner interested in learning Chinese cooking may find the going tough. Even those recipes that are written down can be maddening scant on detail.

Experienced Chinese chefs often use the expression shao xu, which means “a little” to describe the amount of seasonings that should be added to a dish. But how much is shao xu?

Added to that, one dish may have a myriad of variations that differ from household to household, region to region.

Chinese netizens often get into “food fights” online about how a dish should be prepared. Should sugar be added or not to the old favorite of scrambled eggs with tomato?

Great cooks tell us such details don’t really matter. What counts is creativity and preparing dishes the way you like them most. There is no absolute.

But for Westerners who find this all confusing and really want to learn Chinese cooking, we have rounded up some of the most popular English-language Chinese cookbooks, TV cooking shows, apps, blogs and YouTube channels that will give you guidance if you want to make Chinese meals at home.

Eileen Yin-Fei Lo: “Mastering the Art of Chinese Cooking”

If you had to choose just one Chinese cookbook to buy, this one rates high on the list of choices. It starts with basics and then progresses to want to more difficult dishes.

Eileen Yin-Fei Lo was born in Shunde, Guangdong Province, one of the four famous homes of chefs in China. In the 1950s, she married and moved to the US, where she began offering cooking lessons in her home. She taught at the China Institute in New York City for more than 20 years.

“Mastering the Art of Chinese Cooking” contains 150 classic recipes and essays on regional, traditional and cultural traditions of Chinese culinary arts.

The cookbook does not follow the common ingredient-based content format, but rather focuses on the techniques used across Chinese cooking, arranged in ascending order of complexity. It includes recipes of different levels, including American-Chinese and original Chinese cooking.

Part one covers all the basics, from creating your own Chinese pantry with the right condiments and cooking utensils to understanding the oils, sauces and other ingredients. It explains basic techniques like stir-frying, steaming and poaching.

Part two is an intermediate guide to more detailed ingredients and cooking methods. Lesson Six is an interesting read on the different cooking styles of northern and southern China. There are also recipes for several Hong Kong-style restaurant favorites, like beggar’s chicken and yellow croaker with sweet wine rice sauce.

Part Three of the book is a collection of more advanced ingredients and techniques. There is also a lesson on the basics of Chinese tea culture and Cantonese dim sum, with easy-to-follow recipes like shrimp dumplings, pot stickers and roast goose.

The language of this book is concise and easy to follow. Lo provides clear illustrations, such as the technique for making siu mai, or pork and shrimp filled steamed dumplings.

One small downside of this cookbook is that the recipes are mostly Cantonese, which is logical since Lo herself is a Cantonese chef.

Lo has also authored another 10 Chinese cookbooks like “The Dim Sum Book,” “The Chinese Banquet Book” and “From the Earth: Chinese Vegetarian Cooking.”

Where to buy: US$36.18 on Amazon.com.

“Mastering the Art of Chinese Cooking” by Eileen Yin-Fei Lo.

Fuchsia Dunlop: “Every Grain of Rice: Simple Chinese Home Cooking”

One of the first books to pop up when searching for Chinese cookbooks on Amazon is this edition authored by Fuchsia Dunlop. Its special focus is staple dishes.

Before turning to actual recipes, the book covers the basics of Chinese cooking, like the different condiments, oils and spices used and how to buy the right wok. It also contains many vegetable dishes, like smoky eggplant with garlic.

The book is beautifully illustrated, with easy-to-follow recipes and an alphabetical index of ingredients.

Dunlop, who grew up in Oxford, studied in Chengdu for a year and speaks Mandarin, has authored several Chinese cookbooks. They include “Land of Plenty: A Treasury of Authentic Sichuan Cooking” and “Land of Fish and Rice: Recipes from the Culinary Heart of China.” She has appeared on radio and TV shows and serves as a consultant for Chinese restaurants in the UK.

Where to buy: US$18.19 on Amazon.com.

"Every Grain of Rice: Simple Chinese Home Cooking" by Fuchsia Dunlop.

Kian Lam Kho: “Phoenix Claws and Jade Trees: Essential Techniques of Authentic Chinese Cooking”

This book is written by private chef, food writer, teacher and food consultant Kian Lam Kho, who is based in New York.

Kian was a software engineer who loved Chinese food so much that he apprenticed himself to a chef to learn professional cooking.

The recipes are classic Chinese, like Mapo tofu, and his recipes follow traditional customs by calling for quite a lot of oil.

Kian also runs the cooking blog redcook.net, which contains helpful information and recipes on Chinese cuisine, including a banquet cooking guide, but he hasn’t updated the site since 2016.

Where to buy: US$20.02 on Amazon.com.

BBC cooking series “Chinese Food Made Easy”

Hosted by Ching-He Huang, the Taiwan-born British food writer and TV chef, this series is among the best known English-language Chinese cooking programs.

The featured dishes are not entirely authentic Chinese, but rather adaptations tailored to British tastes and kitchen techniques.

There are six 30-minute episodes, each covering a general theme, like spicy Sichuan, takeaway favorites, seafood and cooking for friends and family. Ching covers basics well for beginners who are just starting to venture into Chinese cuisine beyond fried rice and chow mein.

In one episode, she explains how to season a new carbon steel wok by heating the wok and rubbing peanut or vegetable oil on the surface for 10 to 15 minutes, creating a blackened coating that gives flavor to food cooked in the wok. This is a very basic Chinese technique. She points out that the mysterious “breath of the wok”, or chi, is known as 镬气 (huo qi) in Chinese, meaning “cooking food on powerful high heat to preserve and elevate the flavors.”

Traditionally, iron woks are seasoned with raw pork fat. Ching’s technique is more kitchen-friendly to foreigners.

Chinese audiences are sometimes taken aback by Ching’s adaptations. For example, she uses pineapple and lime to make sweet and sour sauce, while the Chinese always use sugar and vinegar.

Ching and American chef Ken Hom also did the four-episode BBC documentary “Exploring China: A Culinary Adventure.” The show traveled across China, sampling local cuisines and showing how signature dishes are made. Once again, Chinese viewers quibbled a bit about the authenticity of recipes.

Where to watch: The show is available on iTunes for 1.89 pounds (US$2.42) per episode and 5.99 pounds for all six episodes.

Ching-He Huang, host of the BBC cooking series "Chinese Food Made Easy."

Two apps

The digital age offers a new avenue for exploring Chinese cooking. If you search for Chinese recipes or Chinese cooking in the Appstore, you will find a lot to peruse, but many of the recipes are not very authentic. However, here are two apps worth a look.

Chinese Recipes — Food recipes, healthy cooking

This app is a compilation of video recipes on YouTube. You can search by chef, dish, cuisine or ingredients and then directly link to YouTube video. The interface is a bit frustrating because the feature page lists recipes from three years ago and the playlists are not neatly categorized.

Chinese recipes by ifood.tv

This Chinese recipe app offers a ton of videos. The interface is easy to follow and there’s also an Apple TV app. But the videos buff very slowly and require a top network speed.

Bloggers

Appetiteforchina.com is run by Diana Kuan, a New York-based writer and cooking teacher. She authored “The Chinese Takeout Cookbook” in 2012. Her cuisine is mostly Chinese, like Chinese marbled tea eggs, a very popular and cheap breakfast snack in China. However, she also incorporates ingredients and flavors from other cuisines to make dishes like kale and sesame soba noodles.

Kuan’s photos are breathtaking and her instructions are easy to follow with detailed measures of every ingredient.

This blog has been featured on many leading networks, newspapers and magazines. Kuan tried shooting cooking videos but stopped three years ago after only six uploads on YouTube.

Huangkitchen.com was founded by Angie Liew (known as Huang), a self-taught chef who cooks mostly Asian-inspired dishes. Her blog has 285 recipes with step-by-step photos and useful tips. The recipes are not limited to Chinese cuisine, but also feature other Asian cuisines like Indian and Malay. Her YouTube channel Huang Kitchen now has 102 how-to cooking videos with instructions and recipe notes in both English and Chinese. Dishes featured include steamed pumpkin flower rolls and black sweet vinegar pork trotter.

Yireservation.com is run by Yi, who was born and raised in Chongqing before moving to the US at the age of 14. He now lives in New York City.

Yi Reservation offers a wide range of recipes, from classic traditional dishes to trendy modern meals. The site is a great source for learning Chinese regional cooking, and the index is very easy to navigate, especially the section on recipes by region.

If you like spicy Sichuan cuisine, Yi Reservation features popular dishes from fish pin spicy chili oil and double cooked pork belly to authentic kung pao chicken and quick Sichuan spicy hot pot. Yi Reservation also has a YouTube channel featuring cooking videos.

ChineseHealthyCook is a YouTube channel offering easy step-by-step Chinese cooking videos and recipes in English language. The dishes tend to be light, such as Sichuan cold noodles, steamed Asian pear with rock sugar and Chinese lettuce wraps.


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