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Nina Simonds' "Classic Chinese Cuisine"- a classic indeed

Classic Chinese Cuisine, by Nina Simonds


I've spent a good bit of my life loving Asian cuisine of all shapes and sizes, and I'll always say the most undervalued of them all here in America is actual Chinese cuisine. The history of its evolution here in America is intriguing but tragic, in that it's been stripped down, marginalized, and cheapened till it's nearly unrecognizable. I've researched long to find what might have been accurate attempts to preserve 'the real deal' in English-language literature through the latter half of the 20th century, and have managed to collect superb examples from the 60s and 70s. Next up- the 80s.

The cover, in first printing
Jacob Wojnar

Nina Simonds' “Classic Chinese Cuisine” follows in the form and function of the volumes I've come across before- Lee Su Jan's 1962 masterpiece “The Fine Art of Chinese Cooking” and Madam Wong's 1977 “Long Life Chinese Cookbook”. Ms Simmons had been a writer for Gourmet magazine, and spent years of her youth training in professional kitchens in Taiwan, under master chefs that found mainland China both restrictive and dangerous. All things considered, I can't blame them.

As I read through the book, I couldn't help but pull my earlier reads of Dr. Lee and Madam Wong from my shelves and check some of the recipes I recognized against the equivalents in the other volumes. I wasn't disappointed. Many of them are virtually identical, some down to idiosyncrasies in language that led me to wonder if a translation or two might have been borrowed.

However, that's not the important part. Most vital is that the recipes don't change over multiple decades, and the historical citations are likewise the same. All three manuscripts are quite clearly drawn from the same core playbook, millennia old and held in deference enough not to be messed with.

The recipes themselves are laid out in a very neat manner, the ingredients list on the edges of the pages, split up by purpose within the dish. The method of preparation in short paragraphs nearer the spine- these require careful reading through, as not every dish has the necessary steps in an effective order.

That small quirk aside, I very much approve of the book's layout. There's a conversion chart at the end just before the index (American, British, and Metric), and each section of the book has any necessary tutorials either right at the beginning or beside the relevant recipe. Likewise, the historical elements that must compliment any serious book of Chinese cookery are vibrant reading wherever they appear- and many of them are once again referencing the same people, times, and places other books have.

A well-researched manuscript, “Classic Chinese Cuisine” has earned a place on my shelf. It's a bit less worn and easier to read than the standards of previous decades, but I feel safe and secure in referencing it just as readily for the quotes and stories as the recipes. Hunt this one down at your local library or used bookstore- you won't regret it one bit. And if you're fortunate enough to find a copy of the others I mentioned before (my reviews are linked below), don't pass up the chance to read them for yourself!

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