Purchasing Frank Oliver’s Chinese Cooking at The Title Page, Beverly Potter’s hypnotically wonderful bookstore in Bryn Mawr today, was one of those precious moments that the passing of independent booksellers is making increasingly rare. (Soon those moments will be permanently vanished like the dinosaurs; all that will be left are EBT Cards and breadlines for you and Maseratis for them. You know who they are.)
The yellow cloth boards, red embossed letters and Andre Deutsch spine imprint called out to me from the shelf. The price was right and I took home the old, pre-“food revolution” cookbook in order to learn what this Sinophile, oenophile gourmet wished to express on the subject of Chinese cuisine, as it existed both before and after their revolution (one that really deserved the name).
It’s a fine volume containing varied and interesting recipes that were as genuine as the author could render them for 1950s still-recovering-from-rationing Londoners.
I’ve selected to excerpt here Oliver's preparations for Roast Duck, Steamed Flounder and Steamed Bread. The first two I chose because Kevin Ayers always said that the way to tell a good Chinese restaurant was the care they showed with these dishes and long experience confirms the accuracy of Kevin’s statement.
I remember once on the southern New Jersey shore watching a Chinese restaurant staff greatly enjoy a meal consisting of exactly these two items, which were actually only available to employees and not included on patrons' menus. (Flounder at the shore, where they thrive and teem in local waters, is really heaven-by-the-sea.) Steamed bread was Janie’s baby favorite in China and later at home. These buns can be mixed with aromatic and savory additives like scallion or chives, but infants like it with butter and honey.
1 ½ lbs. fillet of flounder
1 cup chicken stock
½ green pepper
1 tablespoon cornflour
1 teaspoon salt
1 spring onion
1 tablespoon oil
1 teaspoon soy sauce
Cut the flounder across the grain in half-inch slices and place these in a baking dish. Blend together the oil, cornflour, and soy sauce and sprinkle it over the fish. Chop the onion finely and chop finely enough green pepper to make a heaping tablespoon and sprinkle these over the fish.
Beat the eggs and then stir in the stock, with salt and a dash of pepper. When thoroughly mixed, pour over the fish. Cover tightly. Half fill a roasting pan with water and put the dish containing the fish in it on a rack and cook in the oven for about an hour. The dish can also be placed over a saucepan of boiling water and steamed on top of the stove for 1 hour.
Roast Duck I
4 teaspoons honey
¼ cup chicken stock
4 teaspoons sugar
1 tablespoon soy sauce
1 teaspoon salt
Mix well together the sugar, honey, soy sauce, salt and chicken stock. Clean the duck thoroughly and place in the mixture. Soak the duck for 40 minutes, turning frequently. Then place on a rack in a roasting pan with a little water in the pan and cook in a moderate oven for about an hour and three-quarters for a 5-lb. duck. Serve immediately.
Steamed Bread (Man T’ou)
3 cups flour
1 cup water
4 teaspoons baking powder
Mix the baking powder into the flour thoroughly and then add the water slowly. Knead the dough well and leave for 2 hours to allow it to rise. Knead it again lightly, cut into pieces and shape like buns. Rub with flour lightly and steam for 20 minutes.
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