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This article by Pat Tanner

was prepared for the March 27, 2002 edition of

U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.

Kitchen Secrets of `Chinese Home Cooking’

I know a cookbook is good when, while reading it, I

have to restrain myself from jumping up, heading out to the nearest

market, and cooking up something — anything — from its pages.

And this is exactly what occurred while I was reading "The

Intriguing

World of Chinese Home Cooking," the book just out by Princeton

resident Angela Chang.

My policy, when I’m going to write about a cookbook, is to make a

few of its recipes — usually three — to get a handle on the

cook’s style and how well the instructions work. With Chang’s book

I couldn’t stop after 10 dishes. I even attempted a Chinese New Year

banquet dish: pearl rice meatballs, which are pictured on the book’s

bright orange cover. I was impressed with the beautiful and delicious

results, but equally so with recipes for braised whole red snapper,

Sichuan cold noodles, sugar-glazed spareribs, and multiple stir-fries,

including one with pressed tofu and chicken, another with shrimp and

silken tofu.

The book contains can’t-miss recipes for dumplings, noodles and rice,

vegetables, tofu, salads, soups, pork, beef, chicken and duck,

seafood,

pastries, and desserts, but it is the subtitle that hints at the

book’s

special appeal: "Cooking Secrets from the Kitchen of Angela

Chang."

These secrets emanate from a kitchen as modest and diminutive as the

author herself. Chang and her husband, Humphrey, moved into their

Cape Cod on a quiet street near the Princeton Shopping Center in 1984

and have done little to the kitchen since, other than removing

wallpaper

and installing a heavy-duty range hood to eliminate odors when she

prepares a stir-fry dish.

From this utilitarian space Chang whips up feasts for her many

grateful

friends, and at no time more than Chinese New Year, when she offers

at least 20 dishes made from scratch. These include specialties like

Wind-Cured Chicken, for which salted, peppered chicken legs are cured

outdoors at temperatures below 40 degrees for at least a week. Last

year Chang found herself with so many friends to invite into her small

home, she wound up throwing two parties one week apart.

Among the kitchen secrets Chang imparts in her book

are tips on ordering wisely in a dim sum house and navigating the

aisles of Asian food markets, with their bewildering array of exotic

foodstuffs. It’s especially helpful that she doesn’t turn up her nose

at using packaged or prepared foods, such as Bisquick for scallion

pancakes and frozen dumplings. (Although she also provides

step-by-step

instructions for making dumplings from scratch, including the

wrappers.)

She doesn’t hesitate to name her favorite brands of Chinese pantry

staples.

Scattered throughout the book is information that ultimately provides

readers with a unique understanding of the philosophy behind Chinese

cooking. For example, Chang writes that the ubiquitous seasoning

sauces

and marinades used in Chinese cooking — those containing staples

such as soy sauce, chili bean paste, dried mushrooms, five spice

powder,

and toasted sesame oil — are there to "remove the gamy flavor

of meat and the fishiness of fish. " This is a telling insight

into the mindset of the Chinese cook, and a somewhat alien concept

to the Western cook. Likewise, she writes that, for salads, "hard

vegetables such as carrots are first shredded and then salted to draw

out the water and to temper the sharp taste." Who knew carrots

had a sharp taste?

Each recipe is preceded by Chang’s personal notes, a rich source of

other secrets. Readers learn that the best wontons contain "very

fresh ground pork loin and a small portion of minced fresh shrimp

or crabmeat to give the filling a subtler and sweeter taste."

And that, despite the practice in most Chinese restaurants of serving

long-grain rice, "many Chinese households are partial to

short-grain

rice for its resilient texture and deeper flavor." To Chang, the

best rice is made by blending the two types together at a ratio of

one-to-one.

Angela Chang is a native of Taiwan who came to the U.S. in 1966 on

a scholarship to Ball State University in Indiana, where she received

master’s degrees in English and Education.

"Growing up as the youngest daughter in a traditional Chinese

household, I had no need to be near the kitchen," she writes.

Yet her mother loved to entertain, and as early as age seven or eight

Angela started to learn from the cooks employed by her family. Her

parents had emigrated from mainland China when the Communists took

over. Her father had been in the incense business but retired early,

"when he was in his forties or fifties," she says, and she

remembers that her mother owned some income-producing properties.

After she married Humphrey Chang, she learned more about cooking from

her husband’s sisters. Her husband is semi-retired from his position

as director of quality assurance for Dow Jones Indexes. Their son,

Raymond, is a medical resident in Philadelphia. Chang says she began

to give cooking classes out of her house, in part out of loneliness,

and as a way to make new friends.

"It was the success of those classes that first gave me the

confidence

to write a book," she says. She had always been a good writer,

winning essay contests at her hometown high school in T’ai Chung,

a school run by American nuns.

To introduce herself to and gain credibility with a Chinese audience,

her first book — written in Chinese — introduced Western-style

desserts to Chinese cooks in Taiwan and the U.S. She next wrote the

book that was closest to her heart, the one that would eventually

become "The Intriguing World of Chinese Home Cooking." But

the road to publication was long and plagued by obstacles, so "in

the meantime" the energetic and irrepressible Chang decided to

write another cookboo, "Chinese Home Entertaining" (Culture

& Life Press, 2000).

"Home Entertaining" is a bilingual cookbook, an unusual

feature

in the U.S. One side of the page is aimed at the Chinese immigrant

who wishes to entertain in American or to pass on traditional cooking

to their children, while the English side aims to introduce American

cooks to the pleasures of entertaining Chinese style.

For each of her books, Chang has chosen to work with

a Taiwanese publisher for one overriding reason: the cost of including

multiple full-color photographs, which she believes are critical to

success. The cost in America is prohibitive, but affordable in Taiwan.

Thus, "The Intriguing World of Chinese Home Cooking" features

a full or half-page color shot of each finished dish, and the more

complex recipes also include three smaller step-by-step photos. More

than merely pretty, the photos provide visual clues to the cook, such

as what Chang means by such instructions as "cut into thin

strips."

The author is able to laugh, now, when she recalls her five-month

stay in Taiwan to shoot the photographs that accompany the book. The

schedule spanned the summer months, and in July the temperature would

soar to 100 degrees.

"I can’t imagine what the temperature was inside the kitchen,

where I had only one fan blowing hot air," says Chang. In fact,

she acknowledges in her introduction that "small differences

between

a few recipes and their pictures could occur," mainly because

she found herself trying to speed things up to escape the heat.

Chang is her own best public relations representative. When she got

frustrated with her book representative, she began calling all around

to Barnes & Nobles bookstores, placing 50 calls in a single day. The

result is a series of cooking demonstrations and book signings

throughout

the spring.

The author feels her most important contribution in this book is the

chapter on desserts. To me, these best illustrate her talent for

taking

a traditional Chinese recipe and updating or improving it with

untraditional

ingredients, such as her sweet rice dumplings, which are steamed and

served with maple syrup. Elsewhere, she incorporates western

vegetables

like potatoes, black-eyed peas, and tomatoes into recipes, and

occasionally

uses catsup for coloring a sauce.

But for Chang, her recipes for such things as rice cake with chestnut

paste, eight-jeweled rice pudding, and sweet spring rolls recover

a lost art. "Chinese restaurants rarely serve desserts," she

writes, "and this may have misled many Westerners into thinking

that the Chinese don’t eat dessert — or that they have a limited

pastry repertoire. Chinese sweets are by no means inferior as

perceived

by many people. They are, in fact, the lost art of an ancient food

culture."

The book also shows the author’s sensitivity to her audience. "My

favorite version of hot and sour soup contains sea slugs," she

writes, but the version in the book does not. The book does include

what Chang calls "the easiest recipe in Chinese cuisine,"

an impressive steamed Cornish hen with dried Chinese mushrooms. But

for simplicity, nothing beats her recipe for clam soup, for which

she combines in a pot one pound of brown clams, four thin slices of

ginger, one-quarter cup rice wine or dry sherry, one cup of chicken

broth, and four to five cups of water. She boils these over

medium-high

heat for about five minutes, skimming the impurities, then lowers

the heat to gently boil them for a few more minutes. To serve, she

turns off the heat, adds salt and pepper and garnishes with fresh

basil or cilantro.

Tofu, cellophane noodles, sticky rice, and taro root receive special

attention in "The Intriguing World of Home Cooking" because,

Chang writes, "their potential is still waiting to be

explored."

When it comes to tofu, she includes detailed information on and

recipes

for its many forms, including pressed (which is partially dehydrated

and has the texture of meat), shredded, and fried, as well as tofu

skin, her personal favorite. Chang is considering tofu for the topic

of her next book.

— Pat Tanner

Angela Chang, Barnes & Noble, 869 Route 1 South,

North Brunswick, 732-545-7966. Sample dishes from "The Intriguing

World of Chinese Home Cooking" ($24.99). Free. Thursday, April

4, 8 p.m.

Barnes & Noble, Commerce Boulevard, Fairless Hills (across

from Sesame Place), 215-269-0450. Sunday, April 7, 3 p.m.


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