Food

Craving Mu Shu Pork? Secrets to Delicious Recipes Revealed in Chinese Soul Food

Eating at my favorite Chinese restaurant always leaves me with a craving to create those delectable dishes myself.  I’ve played around with stir-fries and sticky rice over the years—to varying levels of success—but the moment I discovered this new cookbook: Chinese Soul Food, A Friendly Guide for Homemade Dumplings, Stir-Fries, Soups and More, I knew I’d found my guide.

Recently I prepared Chinese Beef and Broccoli (with green beans) for our What’s Cooking at Third Coast column. That yummy dish is a featured recipe in Chinese Soul Food, but the rest of this gem of a cookbook deserves more attention.

Written by Hsiao-Ching Chou, former food editor at the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, the book is a testimony to family, food and tradition. It’s especially charming because the author’s mother, Ellen Chou, a former journalist turned restaurateur, provides a delightful introduction to her daughter’s cookbook in the foreword.

Growing up in her family’s Chinese restaurant in Columbia, MO, this compendium of recipes, photos, tips and tricks reflects not only the author’s skills as a writer, but as a master of Chinese cooking. As Chou explains in her introduction, her cookbook’s Chinese name loosely translates to Everyone’s Kitchen. “The spirit of that name connects to the heart of the cooking in this book. It isn’t high cuisine. It is Chinese food for the soul,” she explains.

Loaded with 80 recipes and exquisite photographs, Chinese Soul Food is a page-turning pleasure. Aside from the mouth-watering recipes that cover everything from dumplings and little eats to stir-fries, soups, and guilty pleasures, my favorite chapter is all about key ingredients, techniques, and equipment.

That’s my personal challenge with preparing Chinese or Asian-inspired meals. Where do I get the proper ingredients, what tools do I need, and how do I stir-fry without burning down the kitchen? This chapter provides a fabulous tutorial answering all those questions.

While the author suggests buying essentials like sesame oil, rice vinegar, chili bean paste, and soy, hoisin and oyster sauces, from most grocery stores, it’s best to go to Chinese-centric markets for specialty items. Here in Chicago, a trip to Chinatown or any number of Asian markets in the north side of Chicago like Joong Boo can help you stock up. Chou provides a list of just about every ingredient key to preparing her recipes, providing a clear definition, how it’s used, and (in some cases, such as with dried wood ear fungus), how to prepare it. Of special note: the two-page spread exploring soy sauces. Who knew that soy sauces had tasting notes ranging from earthy, molasses, and floral to nutty, mushroom, and meaty beef broth?

Chou pays homage to rice, noodles, and most every vegetable used in Asian cooking. Through gorgeous photos and clear descriptions, expect to learn about white-stemmed bok choy versus Shanghai bok choy, Chinese broccoli, Napa cabbage, pea shoots, Chinese mustard greens, and Chinese/Japanese eggplants. With these, as well as with aromatics, oils, sauces and dried ingredients, Chou writes a very helpful how-to-prep and use section.

Most Chinese recipes are loaded with veggies and meats or fish, and her instructions on cubing meats and cutting veggies are ideal for improving or refreshing your skills.  Cooking methods like frying, braising, steaming and stir-frying are clearly explained., and she presents a stir-fry protocol that helps you avoid using your kitchen fire extinguisher. Regarding equipment, Chou dedicates several pages to what a fully stocked Chinese kitchen might need. A proper cleaver for cutting vegetables and bones (if necessary), a steamer, a wok, and fat skimmer, are now on my shopping list.

As for the recipes, Chou supplies an abundance of them, with a personal, yet informative narrative before each chapter. I especially liked her dumpling tales. Like so many who became great chefs, Chou learned how to make dough and dumplings at her mother’s side.

She would prepare the dough and roll out the wrappers. I would fill the dumplings and pinch them closed.

Chou explains in easy-to-understand details how to make the proper dumpling dough. The colorful and exacting photos explain the rolling, filling and folding techniques too.

Chinese Soul Food is definitely a friendly guide to cooking your favorite Chinese dishes at home. From classic recipes like fried rice and wonton soup, to more creative dishes like Salt-and-Sichuan-Pepper Shrimp and Twice-Cooked Pork with red-braised pork belly, it’s a must-have in your cookbook library.

Gather your friends for a dumpling-making party. Or impress your family with General Tso’s Chicken. If you want to add something extra to the recipe like a sprinkle of sesame seeds or an extra dash of soy sauce, that’s okay, says Chou.

The cookbook is available on Amazon and Barnes & Noble and retails for $24.95.

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