When The China Cookbook was published in late 2016, Kei-Lum Chan and partner Diora Fong, celebrated Hong Kong food writers and authorities of the Chinese cuisine, were fast to follow up with a whirlwind trip around the world to promote the sizable volume, printing 660 recipes ranged from 33 of the country’s provinces and special regions. At a point where different versions of Chinese cuisines are seen everywhere in the world, the couple were in high spirits to share a lesson or two on their culinary expertise, as well as the significance and future of Chinese cuisine.
Born in a food-loving household to Mong-Yan Chan, the former chief editor of Sing Tao newspaper and author of the definitive Chinese ‘The Food Bible’, Kei-Lum Chan took after his father’s knack for good food and fine cooking. Throughout childhood Chan gained independence in the home by making breakfast starting from a young age, followed by helping out in the kitchen as his father threw family banquets. “My father loved throwing parties at home, and with my curiosity towards food and cooking, I was in and out of the kitchen offering a hand to our Shunde helper who was an excellent cook. I’d help in turning snake meat from fresh snakes during winter, and mixing marinades for meats,” Chan vividly recalled. “My father also took me out to eat every chance he gets. Eating at restaurants has always been an exciting yet educational experience for me.”
Chan later married Diora Fong, and immediately Fong discovered the wonders of good food in the Chan family. “My father-in-law would test my kitchen skills by offering me only a main ingredient before dinner time, allowing me only hours to prepare the best dish based on my understanding of the ingredient and cooking,” Fong recalled. Celebrated as a food connoisseur of his generation, Mong-Yan Chan’s deep understanding of the customs and traditions in Chinese cuisines were reflected in his expectations for his son and daughter-in-law. Aside from influence coming from within the family, the Chan duo also studied volumes of classics from ancient Chinese literature to history, allowing them to investigate further on their exposure to different dishes from all over the country.
Travelling all over China as a technology consultant to IBM, Chan journeyed throughout China for decades with Fong, learning about local food as they moved from Beijing to Mongolia, researching to enrich their repertoire along the way. These journeys and copious notes helped them to understand Chinese cuisine as a whole, as well as what needs to be done to preserve it for the future to come; hence their latest project that is, essentially, a definitive guide to Chinese culinary heritage. By eating and cooking Chinese cuisine all their lives, the Chan’s developed a deep understanding of the country’s culinary philosophy and the crucial factors needed to spread the word out on the global arena.
Everything about Chinese cuisine is layered. Each dish is made with a variety of ingredients, which are divided to contribute different layers of textures and flavours.
There is a standard in every Chinese dish—you can call it a gastronomical endpoint of structure and form. This standard involves everything from how it looks to how it tastes. You already know what a Peking Duck is, how it should taste and how it should be served, and no matter how you change it, if you call it a Peking Duck, it should at least respect that standard.
The term ‘Chinese cuisine’ is a collaboration of culture clashes throughout history, distilling food cultures and customs to create the repertoire. It is not only a plate of food, but also a product of exchanging cultures from within the country.
‘Delicious’ is a subjective term, not in a personal way, but to a collective analysis of it. When a Chinese dish is considered delicious, that should be a result of the majority of people who sampled the dish, with qualities accepted by most people.
Balance is what you need when it comes to Chinese cooking. Breaking down flavours into different elements. It’s the same for ingredients, and adding each one by one to form the optimum balance in each dish and nothing in extreme.
You need to frequent three places to understand the cuisine completely: restaurants, markets, and your own kitchen. You can only learn and experiment in order to learn Chinese cuisine.
Never forget the basics. In today’s food industry, we only focus on creativity with little regard to how to prepare the basics. It is awful to see talents flaunting their creativity over exclusive ingredients with Chinese execution and fancy plating, while they fail at learning the traditional ways.
On chemicals and food enhancers, we never feel the need to use them. For 5,000 years Chinese never had these additives, they are a by-product of those who couldn’t or won’ t want to polish their basic skills; it’s all shortcuts for them.