There is no lack of books about Chinese cooking. In recent years dining customs, techniques and recipes have been presented in many different forms with varying degrees of competence. Now comes "The People's Republic of China Coookbook" (Random House), a $10 hardcover or $6.95 paperback), a volume that belongs on the bookshelf, no matter how crowded, of any student of Chinese cooking.
The book manages a rare trick. It is scholarly and informative, yet to the point and practical. It was written by Nobuko Sakamoto, a Japanese-American who, along with her husband, has immersed herself in the literature and culture of China for many years. Working from three originals sources published between 1958 and 1965 in the People's Republic, Sakamoto has translated and adapted a wonderful collection of about 200 recipes. Restaurants owners as well as home cooks might benefit from becoming familiar with them.
Spareribs are not "Chinese" spareribs; they are presented in styles representative of various regions. Even if you talk of "sweet and sour spareribs," you're not talking of the same dish in Suchou as in Canton. Mu Hsu (moo shi) pork is prepared and served differently in Shantung than it is in Hangchou.
This is not presented as estorica, or as an example of one-upmanship. Sakamoto has obviously worked hard to provide a cookbook that is stimulating and usable.
The recipes very considerably in complexity, but that is intended as a reflection of the food prepared and served in the People's Republic. There is much here that will fascinate the experienced cook (a novel northern approach to a sweet and sour sauce for shrimp, for example), but many of the recipes contain nothing forbidding to the novice.
In the low-key introductory material there is an intelligent exposition of cooking techniques and step-by-step descriptions of stir-frying and braising. Ingredients change, but, as the author makes clear, the methods remain the same.
"Because the ingredients. . .give Chinese dishes much of their authentics flavor," she writes, "it is important to have them on hand and to use them properly. Substitutions may often be made for main ingredients without compromising a dish, but the seasonings are crucial to the authentic character of a dish."
Sakamoto's husband found the 11-volume "Treatise on Famous Chinese Dishes" in a bookstore. It was compiled between 1958 and 1965. "The Cookbook of Famous Dishes from the Peking Hotel Restaurant" was published in 1960, and "The Masses Cookbook" a compendium of dishes officially sanctioned by the Communist regime - the nouvelle cuisine of present-day China - came out in 1966. She translated them, experimented and , where absolutely necessary, changed ingredients or suggested substitutes.
"The books were hard to find, although some people have taken random recipes without giving credit," she said in a telephone interview last week. Her book not only segregates recipes by region of origin "as faithfully as possible," but lists the restaurants in each region that contributed the originals.
While Sakamoto worked without benefit of first-hand exposure to food in China, her sincerity and scholarship are readily apparent. Preparation of several recipes provided a vivid endorsement of her sense of taste and skill in writing recipes.
Sakamoto believes Americans are getting a fresh view of China, but there is still much to learn. "Chinese restaurants in this country are trying very hard," she said. "There's been an upgrading. But I'm irritated when a waiter in a restaurant listing dishes from all over China says, "Our cook is Cantonese, but he's learned Hunan." The Hunan dishes don't taste right," Sakamoto said, "and the ingredients don't match those in recipes we have. I think it will be another 10 or 20 years before we eat real Chinese food in this country.
The recipes that follow are from the four geographic subdivisions of the country she utilizes in the book. The Chinese version of crab curry is from the Southwest, the ginger chicken is from the East, the braised pork is native to the Southeast and the bean sprout recipe is prepared in the North. CRAB CURRY (2 or 3 servings) 2 cups crabmeat, canned or frozen 4 tablespoons vegetable oil 1/2 teaspoon salt 2 garlic cloves, minced 2 cups green pepper, cut in 1 1/2-by-1/2-by-1/2 inch pieces 2 1/2 cups tomato juice 2 teaspoons sugar 2 teaspoons rice wine 1 teaspoon curry powder 5 tablespoon water with cornstarch 2 tablespoons cornstarch 3 tablespoons green onion cut into 1 1/2-inch sections
Pick over the crab, discarding any cartilage, and drain well.
Put oil in a work over high heat. When hot, add 1/4 teaspoon salt and the garlic. Stir a few seconds, then add the crabmeat. Stir-fry for 1 minute, add green pepper and stir-fry for another minute. Add tomato juice, sugar, salt, rice wine and curry powder. Stir, cover and cook for about 5 minutes. Uncover and thicken sauce with the cornstarch mixture. Garnish with green onion. FRESH GINGER CHICKEN (2 servings) 1 1/2 cups chicken breast, cut into strips 1 1/2 inches by 1/2 inch 2 egg whites 2 tablespoons cornstarch 1/2 teaspoon salt 1 tablespoon slivered fresh ginger 1/2 cup Chinese stock (made from pork, ham and chickens bones) or chicken stock 1 teaspoon salt 3 tablespoons rice wine Vegetable oil for deep-frying 1 teaspoon water mixed with 1/2 teaspoon cornstarch 4 drops sesame oil 1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper 1 teaspoon minced green onion
Mix egg whites, 2 tablespoons cornstarch, 1/2 teaspoon salt to make a batter and coat chicken with it.Put the ginger in a bowl, pour boiling water of it. Let stand for 1 minute and drain.
Mix the stock, salt and wine together moderate heat to about 350 degrees. Separate the strips of chicken and add them to the oil a few at a time, using a fork to keep the pieces apart. Deep-fry about 2 minutes or until golden. Scoop out and drain.
Carefully pour out all but about 3 tablespoons oil from the wok. Reheat the oil and add the stock mixture and ginger. Bring to a boil, add the cornstarch mixture and stir until thickened. Add the chicken and stir lightly.
Quickly transfer the chicken to a heated platter. Sprinkle sesame oil and black pepper over the dish and garnish with green onion. BRAISED PORK, CHESTNUTS AND ALMONDS (3 or 4 servings) 1/4 cup blanched almonds Vegetable oil for pan-frying Seasoning mixture: 2 1/2 tablespoons thin soy sauce 1 tablespoon grated fresh ginger 1/2 tablespoon sugar Pinch of MSG (optional) 1/2 teaspoon five-flavored spice 2 tablespoons vegetable oil 1 pound pork tenderloin, cut into 3/4-inch cubes 1 cup stock 1 cup onion, cut into 1/2-inch slices 1/4 cup sliced canned water chestnuts 1 1/2 cups canned chestnuts in syrup 1 tablespoon water mixed with 1/2 tablespoon cornstarch
Pan-fry almonds in a little oil until golden, then drain on paper towels.Combine the ingredients for the seasoning mixture.
Put vegetable oil in a work over high heat. When very hot, add pork and stir fry until browned. Add seasoning mixture and stock, lower heat and simmer gently for 1 to 2 minutes. Turn up heat, add onion, water chestnuts and chestnuts and stir-fry until the onion turns slightly translucent. Add the cornstarch mixture to thicken. Transfer to a heated platter and garnish with almonds. QUICK STIR-FRIED BEAN SPROUTS (3 servings) 5 cups fresh bean sprouts Seasoning mixture 1 teaspoon sesame oil 1 teaspoon rice wine 2 teaspoons thin soy sauce 1/2 teaspoon ground black pepper 2 teaspoons grated fresh ginger 1/4 cup vegetable oil 3/4 teaspoon salt, or to taste
Wash bean sprouts and drain well. Combine the ingredients for the seasoning mixture.
Place a work over high heat. When very hot, add oil. Let it smoke, then add bean sprouts and stir-fry for 1/2 minute. Add the seasoning mixture and stir-fry another 1/2 minute. Sprinkle salt over the sprouts, stir once and serve.