Wednesday, April 17, 2024

This “very” Chinese cookbook from a father-son duo is a keeper

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“A Very Chinese Cookbook” isn’t like most of what America’s Test Kitchen’s publishing arm has produced. On the one hand, there’s that cheeky title – and its even cheekier subtitle: “100 Recipes from China and Not China (But Still Truly Chinese).” » But more precisely, in addition to the characteristic red box with the ATK logo, directly on the cover are photos and the names of the father-son duo Kevin Pang and Jeffrey Pang.

The two co-host the ATK video series “Hunger Pangs,” from father Jeffrey’s own low-fi YouTube channel, which began as a way to document his son’s family recipes — and went viral. Today, Kevin, a prolific food journalist whose career includes stints at the Chicago Tribune and as editor-in-chief of the website Takeout, is editorial director of digital at ATK. And this book with his father represents a fusion of his wacky, avant-garde approach to personality, his chemistry with his softer-spoken father, and ATK’s meticulous research and testing processes.

Get the recipe: Homemade tofu

The book – ATK’s first devoted to Chinese cooking – proves that you can teach and entertain in the same volume: a few pages after a few photos showing how to shape and roll scallion pancakes is a delicious spread from Kevin on how to open a fortune cookie and replace the paper slip with a personalized fortune (“You should really get that checked,” says one of the Kevins), all without breaking the cookie. The book also explains how cooking became the bridge that repaired a frayed relationship between an immigrant father and his son.

Overall, this is one of the most charming works I’ve seen in years, and I’m already wanting to get a second copy, so I can leave one in the kitchen and one on my dining table. night.

In a three-way Zoom conversation, I spoke to both authors about combining their family stories with ATK’s precision, American misconceptions about Chinese cooking, and Chinese methods of cooking with vegetables and tofu . Edited excerpts follow.

I’m curious about the process of meshing two factors: ATK’s sense of accuracy, testing, repetitive testing, and your personality. Was there tension?

Kevin: First of all, before I started in the business, I didn’t know that on average, each recipe costs $11,000 to develop from start to finish.

I saw this mention in the book and my eyes almost popped out of my head!

Kevin: I know. And the only thing that maybe makes us a little nervous about tackling this is that a number of these recipes come directly from my parents – you know, the little tattered blue notebook that ‘they brought back from Hong Kong. So when we were to translate that from a pinch of this, a little bit of this, cook until done, to the specificity of a quarter teaspoon, what would get lost? in the translation? But there have been instances where my parents said that the version of this dish tested and developed by a 22-year-old summer intern was better than the version they had been cooking for 30 years.

What are Americans’ biggest misconceptions about Chinese food?

Kevin: The first is that it requires inaccessible ingredients. Many of ATK’s earlier Chinese recipes were developed 15 or 20 years ago, at a time when it was impossible to buy dark soy sauce anywhere. So many recipes started with molasses in place of black soy. In 2024, you’ll be able to buy something like dried flounder powder, of which you’ll only need a pinch for our Hong Kong wonton recipe. You can get it on Amazon and it will be delivered to you in four hours. So this gave us permission to take existing recipes and improve them, using rock sugar and dark soy sauce, because ingredient availability is no longer an issue.

Kevin: The most important thing is that it’s a monolith. The Chinese cuisine most Americans are familiar with is Cantonese cuisine, the food of southern China. Or rather, it is South China which, after more than 100 years of adapting to American tastes, has become its own thing, with Cantonese cuisine once suppressed. But certainly in larger metropolitan areas, you start to see the diversity of what Chinese cuisine can be. And for me, that’s really exciting, because if you don’t like Cantonese food, or you don’t like Sichuan food because it’s too spicy for you, try Shanghainese food. It’s more of a sweet and sour palate, and it has more seafood. Or if you don’t like that, try Taiwanese cuisine. The monolith is still a misconception, but with each passing year I see it slowly disappearing.

Jeffrey: This recipe book is very complete. All of southern, eastern and western China – almost everything.

Kevin: It’s like a Costco free sample table.

Let me direct you to vegetables and tofu. Can you explain to us how Chinese cuisine differs in its approach?

Jeffrey: We have so many ways to cook tofu. You know, you can fry tofu, stuff tofu, steam tofu, make tofu soup. Tofu has no taste. But for the Cantonese, we cook a lot of tofu, and the best pairing with tofu is oyster sauce.

Kevin: With vegetables, there are so many different possibilities, right? The way you cut gai lan (Chinese broccoli) into sticks rather than steaming it whole creates a whole new texture and releases different flavors. Small, simple actions produce such different results. And certain vegetables, with our westernized American education, we think of them as a particular texture. Most people think of potatoes as mashed or crispy, but a very popular Chinese way of cooking potatoes is barely because we like the crunch. The texture resembles that of jicama.

How did Homestyle Tofu appear in the book?

Kevin: It was developed by [ATK’s] Carmen Dongo and I worked with her on this. The word homestyle is really curious because it means many things to many different people. But essentially, in Sichuan cuisine, it means there’s a certain flavor, a little bit of heat, some sour notes. It’s a perfect introduction to Sichuan cuisine because it’s stress-free to eat, it’s easy to execute, and I think it really illustrates the versatility of tofu. And it’s really colorful.

Texturally, it’s interesting too. You get the crunch of the peppers and carrots, but also, the Chinese like us a spongy texture, and when you make this tofu right, it has just the slightest crunch from the hot wok, but when you bite in, there’s that succulence of the sauce that the tofu absorbs. Oh, you keep me going and I can talk about it for hours and hours and hours.

Get the recipe: Homemade tofu

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