Not many books begin with the line 'Ï am ashamed to have written this book'but the candid and humorous 'How to Cook and Eat in Chinese' first published in 1945 (now out of print) was written not by the author and home cook Buwei Yang Chao, a doctor by profession, who studied medicine in Tokyo and learnt to cook because she found Japanese food 'úneatable'. It was penned by her linguist husband who clearly favored the tongue and cheek. He coined many of the Chinese culinary terms that we use so often today. Among them are Pot sticker and stir fry first used in this cookbook, also possibly the first ever major Chinese cookbook in English.
2 months ago I found a rare first edition of this wonderful cookbook, a collaboration between a first generation American Chinese couple and their second generation American daughter who made the United States their home at a time when Chinese culture was a complete mystery to most Americans.
The cookbook of 200 odd recipes was described by Jane Holt as 'an authentic account of the Chinese culinary system' in the 1945 NY Times review but interestingly a comparison between Chao's Sour-Hot Soup and a Hot and Sour soup by Jamie Oliver or Martha Stewart reveals that some of Chao's recipes are much simpler than contemporary versions.
Chef Bruce Cost's Hot and Sour soup described as the real thing by Epicurious lays great emphasis on the use of lily buds and various mushrooms while Chao's recipe doesn't even mention these. Likely she omitted these because they would have been difficult to find in the United States in the 40's.
The book was written at a time when fresh ginger was so exotic Chao suggests using powdered ginger root instead. Most of her recipes are mellow by today's standards and do not contain hot peppers.
Chao's recipe for Sweet-sour sauce fish another globally popular Chinese dish has fewer ingredients than say Martin Yan's version. Contemporary versions have some vegetables and fruits like bell peppers, pineapple and hot chilli.
Chao's recipe calls for a whole fish, I used cubed Mahi Mahi. This sweet and sour sauce can be used with tofu, noodles, chicken and other kinds of meat as well.
This is my version of a classic Chinese dish that became popular globally in the 40's and 50's. The sweet and sour sauce can be used with noodles, pork, tofu and vegetables.
This dish can be made vegan by replacing the fish with firm tofu.
For the Marinade
1 tablespoon Chinese Xiao Xing wine or dry sherry or a rice wine vinegar you have in your pantry
1/2 teaspoon dark soy sauce
1/2 kg cleaned and patted dry Mahi Mahi, Cod, Monkfish or Ghol in 3/4-inch cubes or firm tofu, drained completely
For frying this fish or tofu
1 egg, whisked
1/2 cup cornstarch for dry-coating
2 inches of vegetable oil for deep-frying
For the Sweet and Sour Sauce
1/3 cup distilled white vinegar such as Kalverts
1 tablespoon packed brown sugar or Demerara
1/4 cup pineapple juice or use the liquid from a jar of tinned pineapple
1/4 cup ketchup
1/4 cup water
1 tablespoon cornstarch
2 teaspoons dark soy sauce
1-2 teaspoons chili oil or red chilli sauce or to taste
For the stir fry
3 inches peeled and julienned ginger root
1/4 cup capsicum or green bell pepper seeds removed and cut into 1-inch squares
1/4 cup red and yellow bell pepper chunks
1/4 cup sliced round carrots about 1/5 inch thick
1/4 cup tinned pineapple chunks drained (optional)
6 1.25-1.5 inch pieces of green onion stalks (white part just above the bulb)
Combine marinade ingredients in a bowl. Add fish and stir gently to coat. Cover and refrigerate for 20 minutes.
Combine ingredients for the sweet and sour sauce in a small saucepan and stir well to ensure there are no lumps.
Place beaten egg and cornstarch in separate dipping bowls. Dip fish in egg, then dust in cornstarch on all sides.
Add oil into a small kadai, wok or deep saucepan to a depth of about 2 inches. Bring oil to 360 degrees F or to test oil drop a small piece of bread into it. If it sizzles and rises to the top the oil is ready. Add fish, a few pieces at a time, and cook until golden brown. Drain on paper towels.
Heat a tablespoon of this oil in a saucepan or wok. Add scallion bulbs and ginger and saute until fragrant and soft. Add the carrots, capsicum, bell peppers, white, green onion stalks and sweet and sour sauce. Cook until sauce begins to bubble. Stir to prevent burning.
Add pineapple and fish. Stir gently and cook on a low flame about 2 minutes.
Taste for salt and spicy-ness. Adjust as per taste.
Serve hot with boiled white rice or fried rice.