Corrections or additions?
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
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
The book contains can’t-miss recipes for dumplings, noodles and rice,
vegetables, tofu, salads, soups, pork, beef, chicken and duck,
pastries, and desserts, but it is the subtitle that hints at the
special appeal: "Cooking Secrets from the Kitchen of Angela
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
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
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
instructions for making dumplings from scratch, including the
She doesn’t hesitate to name her favorite brands of Chinese pantry
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
and marinades used in Chinese cooking — those containing staples
such as soy sauce, chili bean paste, dried mushrooms, five spice
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
The author feels her most important contribution in this book is the
chapter on desserts. To me, these best illustrate her talent for
a traditional Chinese recipe and updating or improving it with
ingredients, such as her sweet rice dumplings, which are steamed and
served with maple syrup. Elsewhere, she incorporates western
like potatoes, black-eyed peas, and tomatoes into recipes, and
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
by many people. They are, in fact, the lost art of an ancient food
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
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
When it comes to tofu, she includes detailed information on and
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
North Brunswick, 732-545-7966. Sample dishes from "The Intriguing
World of Chinese Home Cooking" ($24.99). Free. Thursday, April
4, 8 p.m.
from Sesame Place), 215-269-0450. Sunday, April 7, 3 p.m.
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