All Under Heaven
Like most white suburban middle-class children, my first introduction to Chinese food was far from inspiring. It took place at the food court of the local mall. I remember my mother always had a plate of Chinese food, while my siblings and I made a run for hamburgers. She could never get us to opt for the American-Chinese food, but she never stopped trying. It wasn’t until many years later when I started working that I began to expand my horizons. There was a Szechuan restaurant that my co-workers started bringing food from, and from the very first bite I was hooked. From there I started my journey into discovering all that I could about this exciting new (at least to me) cuisine.
My first Chinese cookbook was Ken Hom’s 1981 book, “Chinese Technique”. That is where my journey started. There have been many cookbooks since then, some of them ‘hits’ and some of them ‘misses.’ Even in 2017, it is not always easy to learn about the intricacies of a cuisine as vast and mysterious as China’s without going there. I was excited to pick up ‘All Under Heaven’ by Carolyn Phillips, and delighted to read the introduction by no other than Ken Hom. That almost felt like an omen to me or at least a very positive note. As it turned out, it was. When I sat down to begin reading, I found myself unable to put it down.
How can you cover such a broad and ancient cuisine that spans the ages in one book? You don’t. The author states it modestly but quite well:
“Of course All Under Heaven is by no means encyclopedic; as far as China’s foods are concerned, what lies between these covers is little more than the tip of the iceberg. Rather, this book is meant to be a subjective compilation of my personal favorites from each part of the country. The reason for this is simple: China’s culinary traditions are so vast, ancient, and varied that each one of the thirty-five cuisines touched upon here deserves a book of its own. But I hope that I’ve provided a place for you to start, and a glimpse beneath the surface.”
The sheer heft of the book with the over 300 recipes spread over 514 pages left me thinking that this is a little more than a starting-off point. I am not alone in drawing comparisons between “All Under Heaven” and “Mastering the Art of French Cooking” by Julia Child, Louisette Bertholle, and Simone Beck. Carolyn Phillips has gone to great lengths and depths to introduce Chinese cuisine to American cooks the way Julia Child did in the 60’s with French cuisine. As in “Mastering”, the subject matter is presented in a very approachable way that does not leave the reader intimidated to jump in: in fact, it is quite the contrary.
If you are a casual admirer of Chinese food that is trying to recreate some favorite take-out dishes, this may not be the book for you. This book is no ‘coffee table book’ consisting of pages of glossy photographs to seduce. What this book does have, in lieu of visual stimulation, is content. There are some familiar sounding, but more authentic versions of such dishes as Pot Stickers, Kung Pao Scallops, and Twice Cooked Pork. But generally speaking, most of the recipes will not be familiar to most westerners, which is one of the aspects of this book I found enticing. A trip to the Asian market (always a treat for me) is inevitable for some recipes, but not all. So even without glossy close-ups, I found myself anxious to get started.
Aside from the many recipes and charming illustrations created by the author, I also enjoyed her many personal stories and antidotes. The book concludes with The Fundamentals, a chapter that includes sections dedicated to Basic Recipes, Techniques and Handy Advice, Glossary and Buying Guide, and Suggested Menus. I am sure this book will be a ‘go to’ book for me to enjoy for many years to come. It is my hope that like “Mastering”, I can look forward to another volume of “All Under Heaven”.
“I received this book from Blogging for Books for this review.”