Vintage Chinese Food

Dear Constant Reader,

The other day I indulged in some vintage Chinese food. That’s not “vintage” as in “hmm… how long as this white box been in the back of the fridge?”, but as from a vintage cookbook.

The Art of Chinese Cooking, The Benedictine Sisters of Peking (1956)

The backstory to this cookbook is as good as the recipes. It was written by two nuns who were in China when the Japanese invaded. After Pearl Harbor, they were sent to a civilian internment camp. When the War ended, they went back to being missionaries, but the Communists kept pushing them out of various cities until they ended up in Taiwan (then called Formosa). The American Consul thought they might be in danger there and sent them off to a safe place. Ironically, that was Tokyo. Needing an income, they opened a school where they taught Chinese cooking.

Their book is illustrated with the cutest line drawings of dancing dumplings and opium-smoking ducks. Yes, there are some utterly stereotypical “Oriental” caricatures, but do keep in mind when it was published. It’s also a product of its times in the use of canned foods which we can easily get fresh these days.

There are a whole lot of recipes I’m planning to try someday, quite a change from many of my midcentury cookbooks, where the recipes are more “interesting” than delicious. I’m really intrigued by Loquat Chicken and someday I’ll have to visit my parents when their loquat tree is fruiting and try it out.

I made Cashew Chicken, a favorite. I’ve modified the recipe a bit from the original, mostly in terms of proportions (i.e. heavier on the vegetables, lighter on the meat), but a little regarding the ingredients.

The ingredients: bamboo shoots, water chestnuts, raw cashews, rice wine vinegar, soy sauce, salt, cornstarch, celery, chicken breast, sugar, chicken broth, onion. There was also oil, which I completely forgot to put in this still-life.

Combine soy sauce, salt, sugar, cornstarch, and vinegar* in a bowl. Chop the chicken into small cubes and add to the bowl. Set aside. Not the most attractive photo, but raw chicken isn’t exactly glamorous.

Chop up bamboo shoots, water chestnuts, celery, and onion. The most important thing when making Chinese food is to cut up everything first, because you won’t have time once you start cooking. Also, everything should be about the same size so it all cooks evenly.

Heat up some oil** and add the veggies. Stirfry them until they’re softened (not mushy — you’ll be cooking them more later) and the onion is just little bit brown. You want to use a big pan and high heat. Scoop the cooked veggies out of the pan.

In the oil remaining in the pan (add some if necessary), brown the cashews. This is why I specified raw ones. Keep an eye on them, so they don’t burn. Once they’re toasty, remove them from the pan. The original recipe is for walnut chicken (with a substitution of blanched almonds), but walnuts are my least favorite nut. The original also calls for deep frying the nuts. I though that was excessive. But feel free to make it that way if you like.

Add more oil to the pan and add the chicken. Be careful; it will spit! Cook the chicken until it’s browned. Then add some chicken broth or stock. When that heats up, add the vegetables and nuts and cook it all until it’s hot.

Serve with rice.

The recipe proper:

Mina’s Cashew Chicken, Benedictine-style
1 boneless skinless chicken breast (about 8 oz.)
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 Tablespoon cornstarch
1 1/2 Tablespoons soy sauce
1 Tablespoon rice wine vinegar
1/2 teaspoon sugar

1 can (8 oz.) water chestnuts
1 can (8 oz.) bamboo shoots
3 ribs celery
1/2 large onion
Approx. 5 Tablepsoons oil
1 cup raw cashews
1/4 cup chicken broth

Combine salt, cornstarch, soy sauce, vinegar, and sugar in a medium bowl. Cut the chicken into 1 inch cubes. Add the chicken to the sauce. Set aside.

Chop water chestnuts, bamboo shoots, celery, and onion into small pieces.

Heat 2 Tablespoons oil in a large pan over high heat. When it’s hot, add the vegetable and stirfry until soft and slightly browned. Remove vegetables from pan and set aside.

If necessary, add 1 Tablespoon oil to pan. Heat and add cashews. Cook until browned. Remove and set aside.

Add 2 Tablespoons of oil to the pan and heat. Carefully add the chicken to the hot pan. The liquid will make it spit, so be careful. Brown the chicken. Lower the heat and add the chicken broth. Once the broth simmering, add the vegetables and nuts.

Cook all until it’s hot. Serve with rice. Makes about 4 servings.

You can easily double the amount of chicken, just remember to double the sauce ingredients too. Everything else stays about the same.

Tomorrow I’ll share the second dish I made, Asparagus Peking Style.


*The original recipe calls for sherry. We have cream sherry (very sweet) and I’m sure back in China it was made with rice wine, which has a sharper flavor. So I used rice wine vinegar. The reason I forgot to put the oil in the picture was because I was furiously debating the virtues of sherry vs. vinegar, decided, grabbed the bottle from the pantry, and left the oil sitting forlornly there next to the abandoned sherry.

**This should be a neutral oil that can get quite hot, like vegetable oil. Peanut oil is good for cooking Chinese food. I used grapeseed oil. Which you’d know if I had remembered to put it in the picture.

Published in: on 19 August 2013 at 12:04 pm  Leave a Comment  
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In the Kitchen with Mina

Dear Constant Reader,

I had some fun cooking while Scratch was off having fun at the Burlesque Hall of Fame. Mid-century cuisine, of course, and from one of my favorite cookbook authors.

I chose Wolf in Chef’s Clothing: The Picture Cook and Drink Book for Men by Robert H. Loeb Jr. (1950).

The recipes, for the man who knows nothing about cooking but wants to impress the ladies, have step-by-step illustrations, as seen. The whole thing is whimsical, charming, and gently condescending.

I decided to make “Orange Hawaiian”, which he recommends as either a breakfast dish or an appetizer. I was only making it for one, so I halved the recipe. And ended up having it as sort of a mid-morning snack.

I gathered my ingredients:
an orange, a can of crushed pineapple, sugar*, lemon juice**, sherry, and pistachios.

I cut the orange in half and cut out the fruit and supremed it (that’s a fancy way of saying I got rid of the membrane between pieces). I wished I had one of those funny grapefruit knives, because I needed to be careful not to cut through the peel. The fruit & juice went into a saucepan with the can of crushed pineapple, a little sugar and lemon juice.

You’re supposed to cook until it “looks like thin marmalade”. Whatever that means. I just cooked it low until it simmered a little. Once it’s off the heat, I added a little sherry. Less than called for because the only sherry we had was Harvey’s Bristol Cream*** and I don’t like it much.

Then I scooped the mix into the orange rinds. Not surprisingly, there was more than necessary to fill them, so I dumped the rest in a ramekin. Then I sprinkled them with salted pistachios and baked everything at 350 for 20 minutes. Then I let them cool a bit before eating.

It was good enough, but I’d probably serve it as a dessert rather than breakfast or as an appetizer. I didn’t drain the pineapple and probably should have. To make it really “Hawaiian”, I’d use macadamia nuts; I have no idea how available they were in 1950. I don’t think the sherry added anything, but I used so little that it didn’t detract either. I’m surprised it wasn’t topped with a maraschino cherry.


*Isn’t my sugar bowl lovely? It’s just there for symbolic purposes, as it holds lump sugar. I keep granulated sugar in a utilitarian canister that is unphotogenic.

**Yes, I used the stuff in the bottle. Sue me.

***Don’t judge. It was a gift.

Published in: on 10 June 2013 at 10:32 am  Leave a Comment  
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In the Kitchen with Mina

Dear Constant Reader,

I did a little cooking yesterday, and, among other items, made a classic fruit salad. This one, although popular in the 1950’s, has its origins in the 1920’s. The salad is quite whimsical in its design, which was typical of ladies’ “dainty” luncheon dishes.

Take your ingredients: lettuce leaves, canned pineapple rings, bananas, maraschino cherries, and mayonnaise. There was a bit of a tropical fruit craze in the ’20’s, probably promoted by Dole, which was the main importer of pineapple (canned, of course) and bananas from Hawaii to the mainland. Maraschino cherries (the neon red kind) are also a product of the 1920’s.

The assembly of this salad is key. You need to properly present all the ingredients or the impact is lost. A toothpick or two can help with the architecture. Don’t forget that this was commonly served at ladies’ luncheons, so you want to make sure the shape is instantly recognizable.


Candlestick salad!

Isn’t that clever! A pineapple ring candle holder, a banana candle, a cherry flame, and mayonnaise wax!

Why? What did you think it was?


Published in: on 17 December 2012 at 10:57 am  Leave a Comment  
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