Friday, May 23, 2008

The Seventh Daughter: An Earnest Summation

I did not expect to love this book.

But I loved this book. Clearly, I'm a sucker for any cookbook that shows even an iota of personality or soul.

Cecilia Chiang's Seventh Daughter is the drama-packed memoir of an extraordinary woman from her pampered childhood in pre-communist China through the famine-stricken war years, revolution, flight to Japan, then a second blooming as a celebrity restaurateur in San Francisco. The story is the perfect backdrop to the clear, strong recipes for dishes ranging from the red bean cakes of Chiang's youth to the crowd-pleasers at her posh Mandarin restaurant, like Prawns a la Szechwan, a sweet-sour stir fry you can easily imagine 1960s Californians finding both exotic and accessible.

I made 32 recipes from the book.

Flat-out bad: 3
So-so: 7
Good: 13
Great: 8
Worth the price of the book: 1

This is a strong performance, and mirrors the ratios in my earnest summation of Niloufer Ichaporia King's Bombay Kitchen. The "failures" probably have more to do with my own errors of execution and Western taste limitations (I'm thinking of the walnut soup and aforementioned red bean cakes) than slipshod recipe writing. I do think there were places where diagrams and more detailed directions would have been helpful, like in the recipe for scallion pancakes. But that's a small complaint. This is a wonderful volume, a treasure. I can't imagine parting with it.

I hope all my cookbooks don't turn out to be "treasures," or this will be an extremely boring blog.

In a few weeks the James Beard Foundation will give an award to an Asian cookbook, and I've cooked the hell out of two of the three finalists. If I had to choose between them right now, I would go with Niloufer Ichaporia King's Bombay Kitchen both because there are so few books on Parsi cooking, and because the volume has a sly charm that the more formal Chiang -- mediated by co-author Lisa Weiss -- couldn't quite muster.

But I really had to think about it.

I would love to spend a few weeks cooking from another part of the world, maybe a place where every dish doesn't begin with minced ginger and a quarter pound of ground pork. But to complete my self-imposed assignment, in a few days I will start on Fucshia Dunlop's Revolutionary Chinese Cookbook: The Cooking of Hunan Province. Brace yourselves for smoked tofu, salted duck eggs, and Yueyang velveted fish. 

I certainly hope my children have.

1 comment:

  1. Ms. Tipster -- sometimes I forget that what you're doing here is testing cookbooks -- or at least that's what we readers can take away from it whether or not your more personal tangents are relevant. I will defnutly put this Chaing book on my shortlist of gift ideas for my more adventurous and "epicurious" friends.

    Looking forward to what's next.