Saturday, August 18, 2007

READER'S CORNER: Corax on Ken Hom's A Taste of China

Ken Hom. A Taste of China: The Definitive Guide to Regional Cooking. London: Pavilion Books 1996. Second edition 2005. 239 pages. ISBN: 1-86205-707-9. Paperbound, $16.95.

There are plenty of great cooks who do not excel at writing about the food they cook. No doubt there are also many gifted food writers who are not so good at presenting or explaining actual recipes (the great Elizabeth David comes to mind). The rarity with which these two distinct skills coincide makes the event all the more welcome. The select group of those gifted in both areas includes such luminaries as James Beard, Madhur Jaffrey, Robert Farrar Capon, Deborah Madison, and of course Julia Child. And, I maintain, Ken Hom, the author of A Taste of China.

Hom is regarded as one of the world's leading authorities on Chinese cuisine. The fact that he is Chinese/American, born in Tucson and raised in Chicago, positioned him ideally for this, in terms of ready access both to his Chinese heritage and to western broadcast and print media: he was able, on the one hand, to absorb the lessons of Chinese culture, particularly cuisine -- in the conscious and poignant way that those from immigrant families sometimes do -- and, on the other, to turn his knowledge and experience into a product, making optimal use of the luxuries of the late-twentieth-century western economy in disseminating the Ken Hom brand to a very wide and receptive audience. This he accomplished via five television series, the first of which was the BBC's Ken Hom's Chinese Cookery; a cookbook, published along with that first series, and followed by numerous others; a line of Ken Hom cooking ingredients such as sauces, noodles, and such; the development of a wildly popular flat-bottomed wok, more easily adaptable to western kitchens; and even a chain of restaurants.

A Taste of China is, in part, the record of a sentimental journey -- a return to the ancestral home in Kaiping, a county-level city in Guangdong province. Hom made this journey with his mother, laying the groundwork for subsequent trips back to China and elsewhere in Asia (he has since moved to Thailand). The text of the first edition seems to have been largely complete by 1990; it is not clear to what extent the second (2005) edition has been revised.

Hom's Cantonese background seems to account for the place of honor occupied in this book by that particular cuisine -- the only one to have an entire chapter devoted to it. Indeed he says so explicitly:
There is a well-known Chinese saying: 'To be born in Suzhou (famous for its beauty and beautiful women), to eat in Guangzhou (where the food is by general repute the best in China), to be attired in Hangzhou (home of the best silks and fabrics), and to die in Luzou (where the best wood for one's coffin is to be found), these are the great wishes of one's life.' I was born in the United States of Cantonese parents, nourished by my mother's delicious Cantonese food, and I grew up with the conviction that Cantonese cooking is the best in the world. Certainly, although I enjoy all of the many regional variations of Chinese food, the offerings of Guanzhou (Canton), the capital city of the thriving, teeming province of Guangdong, remain my favorite.' [p. 99]
He goes on, in this passage, to argue extensively for the supremacy of Cantonese cuisine. Nonetheless, A Taste of China does offer a number of glimpses into other Chinese cuisines -- notably, that of Sichuan (with a valuably explicit description, on page 150, of how one Sichuan cook creates 麻辣 [ma la, lit. 'numb/spicy'], the signature Sichuan paste of chilli peppers, garlic, and 花椒 [hua jiao, lit. 'flower pepper']) -- the irreplaceable Sichuan peppercorn, with its sharp, mouth-numbing essence). Readers of this blog who favor the teas of Yunnan may be interested to know that Hom also includes a fair amount of information on the cuisine of that province. Those whose experience of Yunnan food is limited to the offerings of P. F. Chang's (or less) will find a veritable mini-course in Yunnan cuisine here, with recipes and other information on pp. 70, 71, 73, 77, 79, 81, 96, 136, 142-6, 151, 170, 171, 173, 180, and 230.

The book begins with a 'personal odyssey,' briefly sketching out how and why Hom came to write this particular work, and then (cleverly) moves to a quick volley of recipes, the better to whet the reader's appetite for the rest of the book. Then he offers a catalogue raisonné of the ingredients (pp. 29-58) and utensils (58-63) that he deems most essential to Chinese cooking. Many books on Chinese cuisine include such lists, but this one is particularly helpful and clear.

Despite the subtitle of the paperback second edition -- 'The Definitive Guide to Regional Cooking' -- this book is not that, and it would be unrealistic to expect any book of a mere 239 pages to achieve such a herculean task. (In fairness to Hom, who may not have added that subtitle himself, he does say, 'This is not the definitive book of the foods of China; no such volume can be written' [7].) There is nothing here of Hakka or Hong Kong cuisine, for example, and certainly no mention of the specialties of Taiwan. But one of the interesting tidbits that Hom includes is a reference to what does stand fair to become the definitive guide to regional Chinese cooking:
... the [Chinese] government has sponsored a massive publication project, a nine-volume series, Authentic Chinese Cuisine. Lavishly illustrated and drawing on expert scholarship and the knowledge of China's best chefs, the series represents a lasting testament to one of the world's great cuisines. The government has finally recognized that in resource-poor China, one of its greatest treasures is its cuisine. [page 169]
(Americans with no Chinese reading skills can only hope that some hardy translation team will render that series into English sometime soon.)

Within the fairly restricted compass of its page-limitations, Hom's book does offer an endlessly interesting piece of culinary anthropology, furnished with plenty of recipes. (The book's table of contents is reproduced at the end of this review.) Relatively little is said about China teas, though there is a very interesting snapshot of tea-house culture, including the dim sum experience (pp. 189-192). This would not be evident from a consultation of the book's rather desultory index, which is one of its weakest features; as often in such cases, I took to annotating the index myself (and can now tell you that other references to tea occur on pages 68, 87, 124, 141, 146, and 187). There is, I think, only one recipe that actually uses tea: Prawns in Dragon Well Tea (p. 178). Though they will not find it in the index, antiquarians will likely share my excitement to read that
Today, Mr Xu Hairong, general secretary of the Chinese Cuisine of the Southern Song Dynasty Society, is trying to revive and preserve this aspect of Imperial legacy. In his Bagua Lou restaurant in Hangzhou, he offers many dishes of that era that he has re-created from ancient texts. Those who dine there get a glimpse of the glory of the Southern Song [page 89]
-- and to read re-creations of the recipes for several Song-era dishes: dofu chai (Cabbage with Bean Curd, p. 91); zha li rou (Fried Stewed Country Spareribs, p. 92); leng yacai (Bean Sprout Salad, p. 94); and leng dong gua (Winter Melon Salad, p. 95).

The book is full of interesting snapshots of Chinese culture, such as Hom's description of a traditional Sichuan kitchen (148-149). (This sort of ethnography may, ironically, date more quickly than his pages on Song or Qing Imperial China, as the effects of what we may term 'the real Cultural Revolution' -- the assimilation of western mores and consumerism into Chinese civilization -- make themselves more pervasively felt in the People's Republic.) Hom pays attention to the connection between food and festivals (such as Qing Ming, the New Year, the Autumn Moon Festival, and the Dragon Boats Festival), and the importance of offering food to the dead (p. 119). He reminds us (p. 118) that foods may be used as rebus puns (雞 'chicken' and 機 'chance/luck' are both pronounced ji1 in Mandarin). And he remains aware of the nuances that distinguish home cooking from restaurant fare, the urban from the rural, and the everyday from the festal.

In sum, readers who wish to situate their knowledge of tea against the backdrop of the larger alimentational culture of China would do well to read (and re-read) A Taste of China -- and perhaps to keep it on the shelf along with Hom's detailed earlier work, Chinese Technique: An Illustrated Guide to the Fundamental Techniques of Chinese Cooking (Simon & Schuster 1981).

Table of Contents
A Personal Odyssey
The Tastes and Flavours of China
Influences from Within and Without
The Imperial Legacy
The Glorious Cuisine of Guangzhou (Canton)
Family Traditions
City and Country Lore
Restaurant Cooking
Snacks and Street Foods
Food for the Body and Soul: The Medicinal and the Vegetarian


Julian said...


O! Ken! Hom! I have a secret confession to make - I learnt all my Chinese cooking from him.

What a great review :)

corax said...

> O! Ken! Hom! I have a secret
> confession to make - I learnt
> all my Chinese cooking from
> him.

you could do far worse! he is a great teacher.

> What a great review :)

thank you julian!

Michel said...


you seem to have my taste in Books for I bought john blowfeld's 'the art of tea' and loved it and now ken hom books and they are great!

I love it when an author is right on!
no so, or i guess, maybe -
no BS- just clear and wonderfull.....if only all of life was so.

corax said...

> you seem to have my taste
> in Books for I bought john
> blowfeld's 'the art of tea' and
> loved it and now ken hom
> books and they are great!

this makes me very happy indeed. a book reviewer can do no greater service, i think, than to give an accurate report of what a book is actually like, and then offer some evaluation of both the forest and the trees, so to speak. i hope that, over time, the collected 'reader's corner' entries at CHA DAO will offer a valuable guide for the tea-lover who wants to assemble a library of useful books. if that is already happening, even in small ways, i am moving in the right direction.