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- Publié sur Amazon.com
(Full disclosure: I received a free copy of this book for review at the publisher's behest.)
I've taken to reviewing cookbooks lately because I like the challenge. I can be rather lazy when it comes to cooking, and tend to procrastinate to the point where my only choices for dinner are last night's leftovers - or a pita bread pizza. Making unfamiliar dishes, on the other hand, requires planning and flexibility - my culinary arch nemeses! Enter: the cookbook review. Since publisher-provided review copies usually come with a deadline (albeit self-imposed, but then I'm always my own biggest critic), they provide just the right amount of motivation to keep me on track.
So when Penguin USA offered me a free copy of THE CHINESE VEGAN KITCHEN (Donna Klein, 2012) for review, I jumped at the chance. Though I love (some) "Chinese food," my experiences up until now have been limited to the occasional takeout and prepackaged vegan egg rolls found at the local supermarket's "meals to go" cooler. Before last month, I'd never so much as made my own lo mein - let alone assembled egg rolls from scratch!
The same time I was working my way through the recipes in The Chinese Vegan Kitchen, Salon featured an interview with English Fuchsia Dunlop in which she "explain[ed] Western misperceptions about one of our favorite culinary imports": There is no "Chinese cuisine". In a country as large and diverse as China - more the size of a continent than a nation - to speak of one common culinary style amounts to an "over-simplification." Chinese food, says Dunlop, is at once "varied and multi-faceted," yes shares certain cultural elements.
Luckily, chef and food writer Donna Klein - whose library includes several previous regional cookbooks (VEGAN ITALIANO, THE MEDITERRANEAN VEGAN KITCHEN, THE TROPICAL VEGAN KITCHEN) - seems to know her stuff. Having lived in China for a year, Klein begins THE CHINESE VEGAN KITCHEN with a brief explanation of China's regional cuisines. The recipes which follow are reflective of China's diversity, with dishes from Hunan, Sichuan, Hainan, Shanghai, Yunnan, Tibet, and Northwestern China, to name just a few.
Prior to writing this review, I made about a dozen different recipes:
Velvet Corn Soup (page 35)
Roasted Carrots with Sesame and Ginger (page 155)
Stir-Fried Bok Choy & Shiitake Mushrooms (page 152)
Baked Vegetable Eggless Egg Rolls (page 12) with the Basic Dipping Sauce (page 9)
Roasted Sesame Green Beans (page 160)
Hunan-Style Baked Sweet Potato "French Fries" with Chili Sauce (page 161)
Pantry Lo Mein (page 98)
Microwaved Sichuan Green Beans (page 160)
Instant Ramen Noodle Soup with Vegetables (page 45)
Country-Style Vegetable Stew with Tofu Puffs (page 43)
Chinese Corn Flour Flatbread (page 6)
Sichuan-Style Lo Mein with Sesame and Garlic (page 100)
Sesame-Mustard Vinaigrette (page 60)
I would have liked to have tried a more diverse selection - including at least one seitan and several more rice dishes - before publishing this review, but I also wanted to get it up in time for the holiday shopping season. If you're still shopping, look no further: THE CHINESE VEGAN KITCHEN would make an excellent gift for the Chinese food afficionado/aspiring chef in your life - vegans, vegetarians, and omnivores alike!
Nearly all of the recipes I tried were winners. Among the standouts are the Baked Sweet Potato Fries (which we enjoyed as part of our Thanksgiving dinner); the Instant Ramen Noodle Soup (with a very high taste-to-effort ratio); the Velvet Corn Soup (different!); and the Roasted Carrots with Sesame and Ginger and Roasted Sesame Green Beans (which I bet would taste amazing together!).
Though I had some trouble here and there, most of it concerned obtaining the right ingredients for the job. For example, I was unable to find vegan egg rolls, so I had to swap them out for spring rolls when making Baked Vegetable Eggless Egg Rolls. Since the filling is rather saucy - and the spring roll wrappers, thinner than their egg roll counterparts - this resulted in not a little leakage during baking. Still, the rolls were super-delicious and I've no doubt that my results will only improve once I'm able to get my hands on some proper egg rolls.
This isn't to imply that all - or even most - of the recipes in THE CHINESE VEGAN KITCHEN include hard-to-find items. Most of the necessary ingredients are available in Asian markets, if not the Asian section in your local grocery.
With few exceptions, the recipes are simple and easy to follow, though the degree of difficulty varies. The egg rolls, for instance, proved a little tedious and time consuming. The result was delicious, though probably this is one food that I'll mostly enjoy as takeout in the foreseeable future. On the other end of the spectrum, I was pleasantly surprised to find how effortless a dish lo mein can be. Why pay a premium when you can make it at home?
Many of the dishes are a little (okay, a lot) on the spicy side, with fiery ingredients like five-spice powder, Chinese hot oil, jalapeno peppers, and chili paste. Luckily, it's easy to take it down a notch by reducing or eliminating some of the hotter spices.
For the most part, Klein's directions are clear and concise - though I'd appreciate a little more visual instruction in some areas. The foods which require folding, for example - the Scallion Pancakes and Eggless Egg Rolls come to mind - left me scratching my head. Since I'm not a very visual thinker, a sketch or diagram would have come in handy. As it just so happens, though, the egg (spring) rolls did include drawings on the packaging - and the husband swears that he understands the directions for the scallion pancakes - so at the end of the day, no harm, no foul.
If you like a ton of pretty photos and glossy pages in your cookbook, you might be disappointed by THE CHINESE VEGAN KITCHEN - save for the cover, there's not a photo to be found. Personally, I don't mind the lack of photos, since it helps keep costs down. The convenience of the internet also helps render pricey, full-color cookbooks unnecessary (or less so, anyway), when you can oftentimes find photos from both the author and fellow readers online. Start a flickr group for your own favorite vegan cookbook and get sharing!
For the newbies like me, Klein includes a glossary of ingredients that, while helpful, isn't quite as complete as I'd like. During my first foray to the Chinatown Food Market, I quickly discovered that a number of the ingredients (particularly tofu items) have different names. Tofu Puffs, for instance, also go by the more descriptive term "Fried Tofu." Essentially, this is precisely what Tofu Puffs are - chunks of fried tofu - but beginners, of course, aren't apt to know this!
Likewise, I found the index similarly frustrating to use. Returning again to tofu, the dishes containing tofu (some of them, anyway) are listed under a single heading ("tofu dishes"), with additional entries for individual tofu recipes appearing throughout the index (organized alphabetically by title). Entries for the more unusual tofu products - "tofu skin" and "tofu bamboo" - simply direct the reader to the glossary. Considering the variety of tofu items - "regular" tofu, silken tofu, fried tofu/tofu puffs, tofu skin, etc. - more specific entries would be most helpful.
True story: once I purchased the tofu puffs, I had trouble figuring out which recipe I'd bought them for! I only happened to stumble upon the Country-Style Vegetable Stew with Tofu Puffs while flipping through the cookbook. (In the index, this dish is listed under "C" for "Country," but doesn't make an appearance under "tofu dishes." Go figure!)
All in all, I'm happy that I agreed to review THE CHINESE VEGAN KITCHEN. I learned how to make some of my favorite Chinese dishes and, better still, discovered a number of new favorites too. A few minor complaints aside, I'd definitely recommend it to anyone who likes "Chinese food." Though it's a bit of an exaggeration to say that you can toss all your takeout menus - we all need some fast comfort food from time to time - THE CHINESE VEGAN KITCHEN will give you the knowledge and inspiration to make many of these foods yourself, in the comfort of your own home and tailored to your own specific tastes. All-vegan, too, without the unpleasantness of grilling the waitstaff!
A strong 4 1/2 stars, rounded up to 5 where necessary. (Amazon, why no half stars?)