Food is, for most Chinese people, more than just fuel for the body – it is often a symbolic, spiritual component of life. Food has its role too in Chinese mythology, philosophy and even religion. A banquet can be a cause for celebration, commiseration or even confusingly in the past as a sign of punishment. It seems all bases are covered.
Today banquets are on the whole a happy time. Mountains of food, some rituals and a general positive buzz. Yet if you wish to create your own banquet it can be confusing as to where you should start, what you should serve and maybe what pitfalls to avoid. This book can be your saviour.
This is a classic book written by accomplished, respected author Eileen Yin-Fei Lo (if you are not familiar with her other works, do check them out), but it is much, much more than simply a cookbook. From the start the uninitiated is given an excellent overview to the history of Chinese banquets and their role in society, moving right up to present-day banquets and their traditions. It would not be overkill to suggest that if you a curious soul yet have no interest in making your own Chinese food and organising a banquet, there is still enough quality educational information in the book to make it a worthwhile read – even though a lot of the book would then remain unread.
The ingredients used within a banquet can have their own specific meaning and role too. They are not just arranged to look pretty – every constituent part has its own part to play. Here this book takes a look at each ingredient and this is an excellent overview for the beginner (and more familiar cook alike). Even though the information given is quite concise, it meets a requirement and gives a jumping off point for further reading if required. It is strange: so many things in this book scream out as being excellent reading material for the beginner to Chinese cooking. The information is of such a high quality yet hidden behind a title that, no matter how interesting it is, it would probably not be considered by the casual browsing newcomer. The section about cooking techniques is truly phenomenal as to what it can teach you – all without colour photographs – and even those who think they know it all probably should swallow their pride and take a quick browse as well.
After what seems an eternity – and not through boredom – it is time to start looking at the actual banquet and what you might serve. The banquets are split into distinct geographic regions as, since everyone should know, there is not one universal style of Chinese cookery. Reading through the various recipes is an entertaining education in its own right and there are many recipes that would equally be good as standalone dishes. Why save them for special occasions? Each recipe is relatively easy to follow as long as you just go step-by-step. Complicated, unknown things need not be difficult and the author’s matter-of-fact style does not overload. It just delivers.
At the end of the book, prior to the great index, is a special section looking at Chinese New Year banquets and their rituals, customs and dishes. With this knowledge there is no reason why you should forget what purpose a little red envelope can fulfil ! Considering the relative age of this book, it remains as relevant and key today as it did at its launch. A modern version of this book would have lots of colour photographs – this could be a double-edged sword if the pictures replace text and otherwise dumb it down.
The Chinese Banquet Cookbook, written by Eileen Yin-Fei Lo and published by Random House. ISBN 0517555212, 246 pages. Typical price: VARIES. YYYYY.
This is a RETROspective review of a previously-published book that, whilst not new on the market, is still available and the review has been made of the book as it stands today.