8 fantastic cookbooks for celebrating the Lunar New Year
Here are the top cookbooks my Asian friends and I swear by.
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Though Lunar New Year traditions may vary among the different Asian American communities in the U.S., food is always a main element of festivities. 2021 celebrates the Year of the Ox, the second animal on the Chinese zodiac, which is an auspicious sign of strength, hard work, and determination.
In the Chinese household that I grew up in, we celebrate the month-long Spring Festival with a combination of going out to restaurants and eating homemade meals with relatives. However, dining out may not be an option for most people this year and many Chinatown businesses across the country are on the verge of closing down due to the impact of COVID. (Of course, a great way to help is to order takeout from your favorite eateries.)
There are also some fantastic cookbooks that my friends and I have used and highly recommend. Here are eight cookbooks to help you celebrate the Lunar New Year.
1. Xi’an Famous Foods Cookbook
Among the restaurants that earned Anthony Bourdain's stamp of approval, the story of Xi’an Famous Foods is unique because of its humble beginnings. Having started out as a small vendor at a food court in Flushing, Xi’an Famous Foods quickly expanded to include ten locations with a massive fan base from all over the U.S.
I’ve personally gone to the restaurants multiple times, and I can confidently say their hand-pulled noodles and cumin lamb burgers are so authentic that it felt like I was teleported to the city of Xi’an. The Xi’an Famous Foods cookbook not only incorporates popular dishes from the restaurant, but it also tells the story of the Wang family’s journey to the U.S. However, if sourcing ingredients and cooking aren’t your strong suit, you can order Xi'an Famous Foods meal kits online.
2. The Nom Wah Cookbook
Not only is Nom Wah Tea Parlor a must-visit spot for New York’s dim sum enthusiasts, but the century-old restaurant serves as a living time capsule for the vibrant community that is Manhattan’s Chinatown. In this cookbook, Nom Wah’s executive chef Wilson Tang tells of a journey that began in Toishan in southern China, by way of Hong Kong, and finally put down roots in the bustling city of New York.
I’ve never cooked dim sum dishes myself, but I still own this book simply because I’m fascinated by the restaurant’s rich history. The good news is, you can order Nom Wah’s mouth-watering dishes on Goldbelly no matter which state you live in, so you have something to munch on while you peruse the book’s gorgeous pages.
3. Wok Wisely
The biggest misconception that many outsiders have about Chinese cooking is that there aren’t many traditional vegetarian dishes. For thousands of years, monks and other devout Buddhists at temples throughout the country have been using ingredients such as mushrooms, various types of tofu, and more to cook dishes that resemble the taste, texture, and fragrance of pork, beef, chicken, and shrimp.
My personal favorite is the vegetarian Kung Pao Chicken, which uses bean curd and king oyster mushroom to mimic the texture of chicken.
4. All Under Heaven
Cookbook author Carolyn Phillips spent decades learning and cooking Hokkien dishes while living in Asia. Her clear affinity for the cuisine and deep knowledge of its culinary techniques make her one of the most prominent voices when it comes to authentic Hokkien home cooking.
In her cookbook, she thoroughly explains the steps, and even offers notes on sourcing ingredients. If you’re looking for a more comprehensive guide into the broader concept of Chinese diaspora cooking, this is the one to get.
5. Double Awesome Chinese Food
Boston-based siblings Irene, Margaret, and Andrew Li grew up eating foods prepared by their Chinese immigrant parents, whose ingredients and techniques are influenced by both traditional Chinese cooking and American comfort food. This hybrid culinary upbringing gave birth to Mei Mei, a food-truck-turned-restaurant that serves American Chinese food that quickly gained popularity in Greater Boston.
This cookbook documents the siblings’ journey, as well as some of the restaurant’s widely popular signature dishes such as Scallion Pancakes and Red Curry Frito Pie. If you’re too intimidated to try these recipes alone, Mei Mei offers virtual classes that cover a range of cooking basics, including stir fry skills, noodle-making, and dumpling folding.
6. Mister Jiu’s in Chinatown
As a person who shares similar cross-cultural experiences, I’ve found author and chef Brandon Jew’s story particularly resonant. San Francisco’s Chinatown has a special place in the history of the American Chinese community, as it’s the end point of the transcontinental railroad that many early Chinese immigrants helped to build.
Many railroad workers wound up settling down and building their own community in the Bay Area, making Chinatown the focal point of their American experience. Jew wants to tell his story—one that connects his American identity with Chinese roots—in hopes that it’ll inspire other bicultural immigrant children across the country.
7. The Food of Sichuan
When it comes to explaining authentic Sichuan cuisine to a western audience, no one has done a better job than the award-winning cookbook author Fuchsia Dunlop. Her journey in Sichuan cooking began in the 1990s when she was the first westerner to enroll as a student at Chengdu’s Sichuan Higher Institute of Cuisine. Fluent in Mandarin, Fuchsia’s approach to Sichuanese cooking has always been centered around the people, from Sichuan peppercorn growers to chili oil vendors.
My mother-in-law once told me that while Sichuan cuisine is among the most widely-represented regional cuisine in the U.S., it’s hard to bring the style of cooking home because there haven't been good cookbooks about it. The Food of Sichuan fills this gap and its beautiful photography takes your mind on a journey before you even touch the stove.
8. My Shanghai
Unlike many other cookbooks, Betty Liu’s My Shanghai organizes her recipes loosely based on seasonality, which is exactly the same relationship my family has with food. Whether it’s vegetables or seafood, our menu changes regularly depending on the availability and seasonality of the ingredients that are grown locally.
As an international metropolis, Shanghai cooking has, more so than most Chinese cuisine, been influenced by traders from around the world—particularly those from Russia, France, and Germany. This is one of the few cookbooks that is dedicated to Shanghainese cooking, which includes regional dishes like Nanjing Salted Duck and Lion’s Head from the neighboring Yangtze river delta.
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