Chef, blogger, teacher and Park Slope resident Diana Kuan celebrated the release of her first book, The Chinese Takeout Cookbook, with cooking demos, classes and book signings at places like BookCourt and the Brooklyn Brainery. But if you’ve missed them, no worries, because the best way to get a taste of the fun is to go buy, read and test some of the recipes in your own kitchen… and then let her know how it went over at her blog, Appetite for China.
The cookbook is two years in the making and features over 80 recipes for your favorite restaurant Chinese foods – no MSG and food coloring to worry about. Classics include Orange Chicken (page 76) and General Tso’s Chicken (page 70), and New York Chinatown nostalgia range from Lobster Cantonese (page 112) to Mini Egg Tarts (page 167).
At a recent vegetarian dumpling and almond cookie demonstration at BookCourt, Kuan explained her inspiration for both her blog and her cookbook, talked about some of her favorite recipes, and recommended at least one dish in particular for this Chinese New Year.
How did the idea for Chinese Takeout Cookbook come about?
I had started the blog Appetite For China while living in Beijing in 2008 because I had gone there to learn Mandarin and do some teaching, and I wanted to record my travels and showcase the regional tastes. When the blog took off, I started getting emails from people back home asking ‘how do I fry a wonton’ or ‘how do I get the perfect sauce for General Tso’s Chicken?’ Those emails made me nostalgic for the foods that I grew up eating here even though I was eating wonderful Chinese food over there. So I started posting more recipes for things like Orange Chicken, sesame noodles and foods I grew up eating here in restaurants.
Fast forward to 2010 when I came home: I plowed through Jennifer 8. Lee’s Fortune Cookie Chronicles where she talks about the history of takeout menus, the origin of fortune cookies and I was thinking I would really love for there to be recipes in this book because it’s making me hungry.
What is your cooking background?
I went to culinary school at the Institute for Culinary Education and am classically French trained. So I learned how to cook western food way before Chinese food. Then when I was in Beijing, I was contacted by a cooking school there to teach cooking classes to travelers and expats. After I came back to New York, I started teaching classes at ICE and Whole Foods. That was my platform for the book.
Take-out Chinese food is not traditional Chinese food – it is American Chinese food. How did you balance the two?
I also grew up with Cantonese food at home but the mixture of both was my identity growing up. I consider American Chinese food a whole separate genre. It’s a food that came about from immigration and has evolved because food just needs to evolve from country to country. I don’t think it’s any less-quality than authentic Chinese food. As long as it’s done well, food needs to adapt across cultures. Chinese takeout gets a bad reputation, but there’s also bad Chinese-Chinese food.
What is your favorite recipe or section of the book for beginners?
A lot of the appetizer recipes are very approachable: there are delicious barbecued ribs that you just marinate and bake them in the oven. The cold sesame noodles are really easy to make. And any of the stir fries, Sesame Chicken, Pepper Steak, and Beef with Broccoli are really accessible for beginners.
What’s next for you?
I still teach and I’m working on my second book, but haven’t fully formulated the idea yet. The book tour is pretty local right now, so I’ll do classes here and then a conference or two.
What does your family think about it?
They’re thrilled. I just sent a bunch of books to Hong Kong where I have extended family. I came from a family with a food background – my grandfather was a chef, both parents worked in the food industry – so I think they’re just ecstatic that someone’s continuing it.
What do you recommend for Lunar New Year, which starts on February 10?
One of the family favorites in the book is the Chinese Barbecued Pork – it’s my mom’s recipe that she taught me while I was living in China. It’s something I make over and over again because it’s so easy and so good and an example of how you can make really good Chinese food without food coloring or MSG.
Do you have any advice for readers?
It’s not intimidating to cook Chinese food at all. Chinese takeout can be really good if you make it at home with the right ingredients. It is food you can make in as much time as it takes to order out.