My husband and I have a fantasy about our television (no, don't worry, it's not going to be that kind of fantasy). It goes like this - whenever we watch one of our favorite food shows, we remark to each other repeatedly, as we are salivating over Lidia's gnocchi or Morimoto's cod, how glad we are that we purchased the special television that allows the viewer to taste everything on the show with the mere press of the button.
Cooking from the Seventh Daughter, by Celia Chang, was like making my way through the best possible book version of my fantasy television. The beginning of each section of the cookbook starts with a chapter of her memoir. The memoir is beautifully written and provides a fascinating glimpse into the world of an upper class Chinese woman on the eve of the revolution. It is the intimately, humbly told story of a woman who has lived an extraordinary life. Each chapter also, of course, vividly details the food that was so central to her life -- first in her family homes in Beijing and the Szechuan province, then in her time Japan after escaping China, and finally in San Francisco, where she opened the Mandarin restaurant. And then the recipes follow.
I was a little skeptical when I read the recipes because they seemed very simple, and a few have been modified from authentic techniques in order to render them more practical for restaurant cooking. But I need not have worried. The recipes were clean, accessible, and an authentic blend of comfort, heat and flavor. Because they were easy to follow and created such evocative results, I felt as if I were following along on Celia's journey by making my way through the recipes.
The Scallion Pancakes were a cinch to make and turned out flaky, crisp and not too greasy. The pork potstickers had only a few ingredients; but when I bit into their juicy centers, memories of every good piece of dim sum I have even eaten washed over me.
The spicy Szechuan eggplant - deep fried eggplant slices studded with minced pork and dressed with soy, vinegar, wine, sugar and scallions - was tender, spicy and surprisingly delicate over some fluffy rice. The noodle dishes, spiked with loads of garlic and ginger, were toothsome and soothing, and the broths were light and full of flavor.
The only dish I did not love were the tea eggs, which were gorgeous-looking with their marbleized tea-stained veining, but a little tasteless. Next time, I would add more tea to the cooking liquid.
Celia wasn't the chef at the Mandarin. Instead, she hired and supervised the chefs, as her mother did for the two chefs cooking for her childhood household. She obviously has an expert palate, however, to create such simply, lovely dishes. If you are looking for a comprehensive cookbook regarding the authentic cuisine of a particular Chinese province, there are books by Barbara Tropp and Fuschia Dunlop that will provide much deeper insight. If, however, you are like me, and would love to curl up with an engrossing story with a few delicious meals to taste along the way, then you should turn off the Food Network and crack open Seventh Daughter.