My China

The Foodie's Reading Challenge is on again. Last month I reviewed The Last Chinese Chef, by Lost in Translation novelist Nicole Mones. This month, in keeping with my Chinese food theme I bring you a review of 'My China - A Feast for the Senses', by Kylie Kwong.

You don't often use recipe books to plan your travels but then, you probably haven't yet read Kwong's sumptuous book My China, named Best Chinese Cuisine Book in the World at the 2008 Gourmand Cookbook Awards. My China is that rare beast - a cookbook that you sit down and read, cover-to-cover, because the parts between the recipes are so well written. My China chronicles her travels through China, from Hong Kong, to Tibet, Sichuan, Yunnan and more, interspersed with some eighty recipes of dishes she learns to cook along the way.

Kwong is a Chinese-Australian chef and writer, well known and well-loved within Australia for her Sydney restaurant Billy Kwong, and her many great cookbooks and TV series. She is now also increasingly well-known internationally, with a nine-part TV series of My China screening around the world. Kylie (as I like to call her) has been a friend in my kitchen ever since I arrived in China. I credit her with helping me navigate the abyss between Chinese and western cooking styles and ingredients. Her recipes are simple to reproduce anywhere in the world, and apart from a couple of specialised ingredients like lotus root or fresh water chestnuts, every recipe can be made from the core Chinese ingredients found in every Asian grocery store.

I regularly cook her White Cooked Chicken with soy and ginger dressing, and her Crispy Skin Duck with Blood Plum Sauce, both incredibly delicious and satisfying to cook.

My China is divided into sections, each covering part of her journey through the vast and vastly different provinces of China.The recipes are all new to Kylie Kwong fans and reflect the regional differences in Chinese cooking while always upholding the Kwong principles of freshness, authenticity and sustainability. Favourites for me include Caramelised Pork with Ginger and Vinegar, Mrs. Xu's Prawns with Longjing Tea, and Beer-Braised Whole Fish, a dish native to Yangshuo I learned to cook after finding a reference to the Yangshuo Cooking School in the pages of My China. If the book was smaller I'd travel with it everywhere as a pointer to great markets, fabulous restaurants and incredible sights, but it weighs a tonne so I have to make do with photocopying the needed pages before I go. 

The recipes and travels are made all the more vibrant by the brilliant and evocative photography of Simon Griffiths, whose images transport the reader directly to the markets, kitchens and people Kwong encounters.

This anecdote, from the section on Shanghai, highlights the larrikin character of Kwong, endearing her to cooks and travellers everywhere:

"As we stroll I spot an interesting looking street stall out of the corner of my eye. I stop to watch the owner cooking vigorously over his high-powered gas wok. He pours in the oil, then he adds ginger, pork, shao hsing wine, MSG, chicken stock powder and so on. I eye off all the fresh produce he has around him, and I start to get itchy feet for cooking - something that always happens when I find myself in the vicinity of a wok, a flame and fresh food!

I ask my guide to ask the stallholder if I can have a go at cooking. 
'No!' the man grumpily replies.
'Chris, can you ask him once again - please, please, pretty please?'
'No!' he grumpily replies a second time.
'Please tell him I'm a chef and I think his wok is great, and I'd love to have a go.'
'No - too busy!!!!' the stall holder retorts.

RIGHT! I say to myself, I am going to get on that bloody wok if it kills me! I take out a 100 yuan note, stuff it into the man's top shirt pocket, and what do you know? Down go his cooking tools and he gladly hands the whole set-up to me.

My friends are giggling in total embarrassment at my sheer bossiness. The man is smiling too now, seeing the humour of it all. Soon there is a bit of a crowd gathering around the stall. (The Chinese love a bit of a commotion, and an inkling of anything unusual or noisy always draws a captive audience.)

I excitedly roll up my sleeves and clean the wok.I fire up the flames and soon there are oohs and ahhhs from the crowd, as they realise that I can actually steer this beast! I am in my element - if I don't cook regularly I start getting edgy, but this is the perfect remedy. I allow the wok to heat to a burning-hot temperature over the dancing, naked flame. I add a swoosh of peanut oil and a little salt, stirring vigorously to create sizzles and swirls, then in goes some finely sliced pork fillet and dried red chillies. The flames are licking high, and the fumes from the smoking chilli flakes are causing everyone to sneeze and cough. The crowd is increasing by the minute and is now about three-deep at the front. Old men and women going about their daily afternoon stroll stop and look on, inquisitive and entertained. They all stare intensely at my wok technique. I just know they are desperate to taste my food and are probably thinking to themselves, Can this outsider really cook?

In goes the sugar to caramelise and deepen the flavour: this is balanced out with a dash of soy sauce and softened with a splash of shao hsing wine, then a hint of sesame oil adds another dimension. Finally, it's off with the flame and onto a white plate as I serve the piping-hot pork and chilli stir-fry. I offer it around to all within reach - first of all to the stallholder. A hush descends on the crowd as we await his approval...or not.

YES! Thumbs up, the crowd cheers and claps...phew!"

Kwong takes us all on a journey as she goes, with brash and funny episodes like this one tempered by moments of quiet contemplation of the beauty of this vast land and its people. My China is an intensely personal account of Kwong's discovery of the land of her ancestors, the country her great-grandfather left to forge a new life in Australia during the gold rush of the 1850s. During the writing of the book, Kwong discovers her father is dying, but he insists she carry on with her trip. The poignancy of a visit to her father's ancestral village in Guangdong Province is tinged by the bittersweet knowledge that he himself never had the opportunity to visit China. He died the year before My China was published.

" much as this is a book about the experience of travelling - the contemplation of cities that are vast in scale and villages that are as remote and strange as anything Westerners are ever likely to encounter - it is also a book that tries to describe another kind of journey, one that unknots the complex mesh of heritage, family, identity, culture, memory and connection, the sort of journey that enriches lives, regardless of where we came from, or where we now find ourselves."

My China - A Feast for all the Senses by Kylie Kwong
Photography by Simon Griffiths
Published by Lantern 2007

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