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An appreciation of Szechwan home cooking demands some understanding of the overall spirit of Chinese cooking. China has one of the two great cuisines of the world; France, of course, has the other. Debate over which is better is pointless, since the two cuisines are incomparable. There is no Chinese counterpart to the wines and cheeses of France, nor are there any French equivalents for China's savory pastries and stir-fried dishes. Yet the conditions that led to the development of sophisticated gastronomic traditions in the two countries are remarkably similar. Both nations enjoy the rich, varied agriculture and long coastline needed to supply a wide range of raw ingredients; historically both have also had the cultivated leisure class necessary to exploit these resources. In each country, chefs and connoisseurs alike were willing to innovate, to invent new dishes and incorporate new foods into the cuisine. But what ultimately distinguishes a cuisine is the quality of everyday food, and in both France and China popular concern for good food runs deep. A truffled galantine of pheasant or a whole chicken stuffed with bird's nest is a gastronomic wonder, but it is the constant availability of, say, an excellent pate in the French countryside or a spicy dish of Szechwanese noodles in a small market town that sustains a tradition of fine food.

The history of Chinese cooking is a mystery that remains largely unstudied. The best English book on the subject, Hsiang Ju and Tsuifeng Lin's Chinese Gastronomy describes the food brilliantly but says little about its history. Even Mrs. Chiang doesn't know why the people of Szechwan eat hot peppers. Still, certain things are clear. Confucian China's rational, this-worldly outlook on life provided a social climate in which a great cuisine could develop. Food was a source of pleasure as well as a necessity, and its proper preparation was a matter of concern. Confucius taught that caking, like all other human affairs, had to follow established principles : ''The rice could never be white enough and the minced meat could never be chopped finely enough. When it was not cooked right, he would not eat."

Everyone in China, from peasant to gentleman scholar, was and is a gourmet. Mrs. Chiang's family talked constantly about food and her fondest memories of childhood involve food. The Chinese understand that good cooking is an art that can be practiced by people at all levels of society; the elemental good taste that is basic to a true appreciation of fine food manifests itself as strongly in a peasant household as at a court banquet. In China, only an ignorant snob would deny that a cheap bowl of noodles or plate of dumplings could taste as good in its own way as an expensive dish of bird's nests.

If this is surprising, it helps to remember that for centuries Chinese peasants were more prosperous than their Western counterparts. The endemic famine and poverty we associate with prerevolutionary China were a recent phenomenon, the product of political dislocations and a rising population, so the reestablishment of a decent standard of living since the revolution is in some ways testimony to the basic Chinese tradition.

Szechwan is a special province of gourmets; isolated deep in the heart of China, it is a prosperous province whose rich agriculture was undisturbed by the political upheavals of the coast. As a girl, Mrs. Chiang heard about floods and famines elsewhere in China, but they never disturbed her family's placid life In the fertile countryside outside of Chengtu.

"Our life revolved around my mother's kitchen." she recalls. "She cooked all our meals on a big, wood-burning brick stove that practically filled the kitchen. My brothers and sisters and I would run in and snatch a piece of fruit or a bit of salted vegetable to eat on the way to school. We spent rainy days around the stove, making lollipops or frying glutinous rice until it popped like popcorn. "By the time I was ten, I was allowed to help my mother in the kitchen. I loved it. I washed pots, chopped vegetables, and kept the fire going. Sometimes when my mother was very busy I got to cook a dish. But mainly I watched, listened, and learned. There was a lot to learn. My mother made nearly everything we ate, including condiments. I learned to make soy sauce and bean curd, hot pepper paste and wine." Mrs. Chiang's mother spent nearly all day in the kitchen because she cared so much about good cooking. She was a great natural cook; even rice was cooked with finesse. When she made it for company, she parboiled it and then steamed it gently over a pot of vegetables. infusing each with the essence of the other:

"Even when there was no company she cooked with great care. My father was very demanding. If he didn't like the dinner, he would stomp out of the house and go to a restaurant. My mother had to cook well." Not only did Mrs. Chiang's mother cook well; she taught her daughter the recipes that provide the bulk of this cookbook. Even more important; she transmitted her deep understanding of food and her respect for its natural qualities. Mrs. Chiang has an amazingly sensitive palate. She can taste a dish at a restaurant, analyze its ingredients, describe how it was cooked, and say what should be done to improve it. Such refinement can only come from years of eating, cooking, and talking about good food.

For an American to appreciate Chinese food with even a fraction of Mrs. Chiang's sophistication requires an understanding of some of the fundamental principles of Chinese gastronomy. The ordinary American cooking vocabulary is not adequate to convey the spirit of Chinese cuisine; to discuss Chinese food in American terms reveals only its most superficial elements - its cooking methods and its condiments. It does not convey the spirit of the cuisine or explain what it is that China's cooks and gourmets are mutually trying to achieve.

Nor are recipes enough. It is essential to know how the food is eaten, what goes into a meal, what dishes accompany each other. Out of context, food may seem unbalanced, strange, or dull. Rice, for example, is never eaten plain in Szechwan, but how is an American cook to know that? An American may prepare several Szechwan dishes, serve the rice separately - and, finding the food too spicy and the rice uninteresting, wonder how sixty million people can eat the stuff day in and day out.

The author of a French cookbook has no such problem, because American and French cooking have a common tradition. The ingredients are the same; there is nothing exotic about a stick of butter or a pint of cream. And Americans are familiar with the way French food is eaten. We have experienced or can imagine from films and books, nursing a croissant and café au lait in a Paris café, or eating a sumptuous meal at a three-star restaurant. We can envision the elegant setting, the dishes we might be served, can recall or imagine the taste of rich sauce and fine wine. Whether these experiences are literary or real, they are in the possession of every American who opens a French cookbook.

With authentic Chinese cuisine, however, an American is at a loss. There is no shared culture, and neither real nor vicarious experience help us know what it is like to buy a bowl of steaming noodles from a street vendor or eat at a famous Peking Duck restaurant in Peking. China is foreign, and the Chinese food available in this country is deracinated.

Language is perhaps the most serious problem. French is the language of Western cooking; terms like soufflé and meringue need no translation. But with Chinese we are at a loss; the name of every dish must be explained. We are faced with a highly developed cuisine that possesses its own specialized vocabulary, as intricate and refined as the vocabulary of French cuisine and considerably more precise in describing food than English can be. We have, for example, only one word, hot, to describe both temperature and spiciness. The Chinese have two, re for heat, la for pepperiness. The criteria for analyzing Chinese food are complex, and a precise, almost scientific vocabulary has evolved to express them.

In the following pages we shall briefly describe some of the most important characteristics of Chinese food. For Americans, food is largely a matter of taste, although smell is sometimes important too. A Chinese gourmet is far more sensual. Each dish is considered not only in terms of its taste and fragrance, but equally in terms of its texture, appearance, and nutrition. Each aspect in analyzed with astonishing sensitivity and great clarity.

Taste, the most important element in food, is the most carefully described. The Chinese know, as we have learned, that the aroma of something is intimately connected to its flavor. They consider that aroma an integral part of the flavor, and the Chinese word for it, wer, means both "taste and odor." Fragrance comes through the taste buds as well as the nostrils. A sensitive Chinese gourmet like Mrs. Chiang will bite into a crisp-fried shrimp ball and describe it as fragrant, or xiang. This is a taste. Cooked garlic is xiang. Szechwan peppercorns, incredibly so. There is also the taste that comes from the natural flavor of an ingredient, a sweet, fresh taste that the Chinese call xien. One thinks of the fresh, delicately rich and sweet flavor of shrimp and lobster, the delicate flavor of fish; these are xien. Richness is a taste called nong, characteristically found in heavy, complicated meat dishes. The concentrated, meaty essence of a long-simmered beef stew is nong, as is the almost unbearably rich and luxurious favor of a fresh ham that Mrs. Chiang has cooked in a dark and sweet anise flavored sauce. What we consider tastes in America - salty, sweet, bitter, sour, and hot - are all present in the food of China, but they are parts of the more complicated flavors, elements to be manipulated to produce special effects. Mrs. Chiang uses sugar to make her Red Cooked Pork richer and more nong, she also uses it to make shrimps sweeter and more xien. She adds salt to enhance the fragrance, or xiang, of one of her crisp Oily Scallion Cakes.

The essence of a taste, whether it is fragrant. fresh, or rich - xiang, xien, or nong - comes from the natural favors of ingredients. Every effect created by a Chinese cook is achieved by recognizing that basic flavor and then working either to accentuate it or combine it with other complementary or contrasting flavors. Mrs. Chiang knows which spices and condiments to use to bring out the fresh flavor of a fish and which to use to mask its undesirable fishy taste. She knows which spices and condiments make a fresh vegetable taste fresh and sweeter, more xien, than it would be if it were cooked without any seasonings. She knows that long, slow cooking with soy sauce will heighten the naturally rich, deep flavor of beef. But, above all, she knows how to combine flavors and ingredients to achieve unusual and intricate effects, combinations that often reveal the original favor of something more sharply than if it was simply left alone. These combinations of flavors can be convoluted and complex. A dish can be, as Pork in the Style of Fish is, hot, sweet, sour, rich, fresh, savory, and fragrant, all at the same rime. This juxtaposition of flavors is particularly highly developed in the cuisine of Szechwan but it is an important element in all Chinese food. Sweet and sour dishes illustrate in a very popular way just how brilliantly a combination of apparently opposing tastes can succeed, such combinations often emphasizing otherwise neglected elements in the natural flavor of a particular ingredient. Thus, Mrs. Chiang's combination of eggs and crabmeat brings to the fore the surprisingly rich flavor common to both ingredients, as well as their sweetness, or xien.

Chinese food is meant to be felt as well as tasted. It is this emphasis on the tactile quality of the cuisine which is one of its chef differences from Western food. Except for inconsequential things like potato chips, what foods do we have that are important primarily for their textures? Interesting textures, and interesting combinations of textures especially, play a vital role in China's cuisine at every level. Some of the most famous and most luxurious foods are texture focus. The crisp skin of Peking Duck is eaten separately so that its special texture can be throughly appreciated. The most famous texture for of all is bird's nest, which is not really a nest, but the gelatinous saliva secreted by a species of South Pacific swift to hold its nest together. It has no taste, but its slightly crunchy, yet elusive, resiliency provides a strange, almost unearthly, sensation. Bird's nest is a rich man's food, a banquet dish far too expensive for most people to indulge in except on special occasions. But there are plenty of more common texture foods, and Mrs. Chiang uses them often: cellophane noodles, with their rubbery resilience; tree ears, a common fungus with a slippery, gelatinous texture; and crisp, crunchy fresh water chestnuts. All of these are essentially tasteless, yet all of them are employed to add some kind of an interesting feel to the food.

Mrs. Chiang emphasizes the textures of ordinary foods as well, doing this mainly by contrasting them with other ingredients. She sets off the crispness of green peppers against the fibrous texture of shredded pork. A crunchy combination of raw carrots, cucumbers, and cellophane noodles would be served inside a soft pancake. The custardlike smoothness of fresh bean curd needs no foil to be appreciated; combining it, as Mrs. Chiang does, with water chestnuts, tree-ears. and ground pork in Pock-Marked Ma's Bean Curd, or mapo doufu, exaggerates its texture brilliantly.

Mrs. Chiang also uses various cooking methods to obtain special effects. Deep-fat frying, of course, produces crispness. So, too, does very quick stir-frying, especially of vegetables. There is an element of textural interest in almost every dish Mrs. Chang makes. she respects the feel of her ingredients and uses it to achieve certain specific effects. These are not subtle. After all, Americans. who rarely think about the texture of their food, always notice the crispness of Chinese vegetables.

The physical appearance of the food is another important element in the cuisine of China. In its most elaborate form, this concern can manifests itself in something as ornate as a platter of cold sliced meats arranged in the shape of a peacock. Such productions usually require a professional hand and belong in the realm of haute cuisine, but home cooks like Mrs. Chiang are no less concerned about the appearance of each dish they serve their families. Color and shape are the main elements Mrs. Chiang manipulates to make her food look good. As with taste and texture, she searches for interesting combinations and contrasts. There are some foods and combinations of ingredients she considers to be particularly pretty, liking, for example, the juxtaposition of pink and yellow in her recipe for Crab and Egg. Mrs. Chiang occasionally adds a colorful ingredient like carrots to a stir-fried dish with the express purpose of making it more interesting to look at, a practice thoroughly in keeping with Chinese traditions. The standard Chinese guide for professional chefs describes the color of every finished dish as well as its taste and texture.

Shape is as important as color. Uniformity, rather than contrast, is the rule here. Mrs. Chiang tries to make all the important ingredients in a dish the same size and shape. If she shreds the pork, she shreds the cabbage, too. Chunks go with chunks, cubes with cubes. No matter how much their tastes, textures, and colors may differ, the physical size and shape of the main ingredients must be Identical.

Another element in the Chinese appreciation of food, though only indirectly a sensual one, is that of nutrition. This is something that Americans can readily understand, for it is becoming our national obsession, too. Mrs. Chiang grew up in a family that knew that a proper diet was essential for good health. Though her mother had probably never heard of vitamins, she was as concerned about providing her children with a balanced diet as any American housewife is today. Somehow, she even knew that liver and spinach were particularly nutritious. And she always served plenty of fresh vegetables, fresh eggs, and freshly killed poultry along with the rice that was the family's staple. It was a good diet, and it produced a healthy family. Mrs. Chiang doesn't remember anybody getting really sick. The family never bought medicine. When somebody had a cold, her mother would feed the invalid a special homemade preparation of sweet wine and ginger. It was probably more of a treat than a treatment.

Like many Chinese, Mrs. Chiang's mother believed that some foods were particularly effective in combating specific diseases or in strengthening certain parts of the body. She treated rashes, insect bites, and other skin aliments with garlic, which she simply rubbed over the affected area. Occasionally, she substituted a paste made from the leaves of a bitter melon vine for the garlic. She extracted oil from orange peels and used it medicinally, too. Then there were the special foods. Animal hearts were good for your heart, liver for your liver. Snake meat was very special; it was supposed to cure blindness, especially if it came from a poisonous species. There was a snake store near our first house in Taipei. Its proprietor displayed his venomous wares in wire cages in front of the shop, and whenever a customer, who was usually an elderly gentleman with very thick glasses, arrived, the proprietor would put on a terrific show of snaring and decapitating a snake. Then he would retire to the rear of the store to turn the dead serpent into a bowl of very expensive, but presumably efficacious, soup.

Even discounting such specific benefits, it is clear that the diet of a Szechwanese peasant family like Mrs. Chiang's is nutritionally superior to the average present-day American one. It is better balanced, with a greater emphasis on vegetables and simple starches. The vegetables themselves are more nutritious, for Chinese cooking methods preserve vitamins better than American ones. In addition, refined sugar and cholesterol-producing saturated fats, the scourges of the American dinner table, rarely appear in the food of Szechwan. Nor do very many calories. Eating normal amounts of Chinese food in the Chinese manner is a delicious way to lose weight. But you must eat it the way Mrs. Chiang does, with what seems to Americans to be an inordinate amount of rice. The rice is necessary to provide bulk; it is filling not fattening. And. in an era of rising food prices and worldwide scarcities, a Chinese diet presents all sorts of economic and moral advantages.

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