It's a new year for Chinese cooking

By January I'm always ready to take my diet in a fresh, new direction. Perhaps you can relate.

Indeed, if your diet in recent weeks has been organized around what I consider to be the Basic Four December Food Groups — eggnog, fudge, Christmas cookies and hors d'oeuvres — your system's in for a shock.

I mentioned this to a friend, and she said, "I know what you mean. Last night I tried to slice fudge into my salad."

So if you've been eating too many naughty things, it's time to start being nice to your body. Within reason, of course. The diet pendulum needn't swing wildly in the other direction. You simply need to approach the process in a sensible manner: a little more fruit, a lot less cake.

For me, this has involved reaching high up onto my bookshelf and dusting off one of my favorite old friends, "The Thousand Recipe Chinese Cookbook." It's a hefty book, both in weight (over 4 pounds!) and content (1,000 recipes — hello!). It's also somewhat of a publishing phenomenon, having remained in print for more than four decades and counting.

Author Gloria Bley Miller wrote what I consider the Chinese cooking equivalent to Julia Child's "Mastering the Art of French Cooking." It's that expansive in scope, distilling centuries of Chinese recipes and techniques into concise and easy-to-follow directions for everything from egg-drop soup and drunken pork to sizzling rice and delicate wontons. In the chicken section alone, there are more than 150 recipes, plus dozens of variations on pork, vegetables, noodles and rice.

Miller began her journey during a visit to San Francisco in the mid-'50s, over a dozen years before the publication of the book. As she describes in her forward, "I was introduced by friends to architect Roger Yuen Lee and his wife, Rena. As we talked about the things a visitor might see and do in that city, the conversation naturally turned to restaurants and food. The Lees asked if we would like to join them for a Chinese meal at a nearby restaurant the following evening. The answer, of course, was 'yes.'

"The restaurant looked to me like many others, including the on-and-off neon sign outside that read 'Chop Suey.' I had expected something special, but this place seemed ordinary. The dining room was full of Westerners having wonton soup, egg rolls, chow mein and the other familiars on the bill of fare.

"We were led through the dining room into a quiet back room. The waiter gave Roger Lee a menu, a pad of white paper, a pencil. He wrote the order, handed the slip of paper to the waiter. The waiter read it, looked at us, shook his head doubtfully. He said something in Chinese that sounded like a protest. Roger Lee translated. The waiter, it seemed, thought we wouldn't like the authentic dishes that were ordered. He thought we would find them too 'foreign.'

"The waiter was mistaken. When the meal came, it was memorable. After all these years I can still recall the succulence of the black mushrooms, the crispness of the duck, the green freshness of the vegetables, the delicacy of the fish. It was a whole new world and a wonderful one. That was the beginning for me. I wanted to be able to cook these marvelous dishes myself. I wanted to learn everything I could about Chinese food."

Miller pursued this knowledge in many ways and places. She ate in elegant and humble Chinese restaurants, haunted Chinese grocery stores, tracked down every scrap of literature on the subject, compared notes with Chinese friends and, of course, constantly cooked and experimented.

What she discovered was that Chinese cooking had a beautiful simplicity and logic to it and that, given a few fundamentals, a beginner could produce authentic Chinese dishes without difficulty — and do so in an ordinary kitchen with ordinary utensils.

In the process, Miller became familiar with the five major regional styles of Chinese cooking. She shares them all in the book, along with a vast array of Chinese cooking techniques such as steaming, stir-frying and braising.

There are only a few points that Miller wants you to keep in mind as you explore her book:

  • It is based on the premise that you know little or nothing about the preparation of Chinese food, but you harbor a lively curiosity and an interest in good eating.
  • That this is not one book but two: a basic handbook "answering many questions on the who, what, when, where and how of Chinese cooking, as well as a diversified collection of authentic Chinese recipes that are within the scope and skills of the average cook."
  • That Chinese cooking takes no more time than ordinary cooking; that it is more a matter of method, of mastering fundamental techniques, which will lead to the preparation of delicious and distinctive meals.
  • And finally, that Chinese cooking is "a live and adventurous art, a remarkable combination of aesthetics, nutrition, surprise, mystery and delight."

In her concluding remarks of the foreword to the book, Miller said it best: "The Chinese have many sayings about good cooking and good eating ... as those who live near water come to know the nature of fishes, as those who live near mountains become familiar with the melody of birds, so those who remain close to the kitchen acquire the knowledge of good food. This book was written for those who remain close to their kitchens."

I'm including three basic recipes that should intrigue and inspire the inner cook in us all. If you want a larger dose, you'll have to find your own book. It might be a bit of a journey. Start with your public library and local bookstore for both new and used books. If the book isn't in stock, they can most certainly order it. I've also found it online through and other sources for new and used books, such as

Jan Roberts-Dominguez is a Corvallis food writer, cookbook author and artist. Readers can contact her by e-mail at or obtain additional recipes and food tips on her blog at

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