When most American homecooks think of Chinese food, it's the kind eaten out or ordered in, not cooked at home. This is partly a function of a pantry not fit for Chinese cooking and partly the intimidation factor. Heating a wok properly, making tasty condiments, folding dumplings; it can all seem like a lot of trouble when a bowl of pasta, just a boiled pot away from the plate, beckons at the end of a long day.
If this sounds familiar, might I make a plug for some good Chinese cookbooks? Here are four of my favorites. Just try one of these and work your way through it. You'll find many recipes and techniques easier than you'd imagined. As for the ingredients, these days most are available at your average market, and at a bargain.
Simple Chinese Cooking by Kylie Kwong covers both ends of the spectrum from the most simple vegetable soup and egg fried rice to more complicated dishes (but still simple to prepare) like Braised Silken Tofu with Pork and Chili. It has great step-by-step technique photos and plenty of vegetarian options.
Breath of a Wok by Grace Young is all about wok-cooking, from selecting and caring for a wok, to using it in both traditional (Moo Shoo Pork) and unusual (Three Teacup Chicken) ways. It will leave you feeling like a wok is the only cookware you need. And you might be right.
Spoonful of Ginger by Nina Simonds is a Chinese cooking book with an emphasis on the health-giving properties of traditional Chinese ingredients. This food-as-medicine perspective is not unique, but the ease with which Simonds presents it is. This is a highly accessible book for anyone wanting to cook Chinese food and understand what the Chinese understand about how it can help improve your health. This isn't a book to satisfy your craving for General Tso's Chicken, but it will give suggestions for how to make a soup that will lift your mood and soothe your belly.
China Moon Cookbook by Barbara Tropp was published in 1992, in the middle of the heyday of the China Moon cafe in San Francisco, a place I ate often. Tropp was well-known for her modern grasp of Chinese cuisine and is most remembered for her volume, Modern Chinese Cooking, also a great book. I selected China Moon for today's mention because it takes the notion of modern Chinese cooking even further, in a hipster San Francisco kind of way. It's heavy on the pork and heavy on fresh flavors. It's a plain good read, as well.
• Buy Simple Chinese Cooking by Kylie Kwong (Amazon, $23.07)
• Buy The Breath of a Wok by Grace Young (Amazon, $24.85)
• A Spoonful of Ginger by Nina Simonds (Amazon, $14.49)
• China Moon Cookbook by Barbara Tropp (Amazon, $12.71)