Iron Chef Chen’s Knockout Chinese
by Chen Kenichi
Publisher: Vertical, Country: US
ISBN: 9781934287460, Year: 2009
Link to publisher’s page or site
This review is the personal opinion of the reviewer.

Overview

Iron Chef Chen’s Knockout Chinese is a charming, lightweight book from a Japanese master of Sichuan cooking, and one of the original Iron Chefs. For better or for worse, this first translated work skips the traditional, authentic fare and goes straight for the innovative and personal recipes (with a few classics thrown in). The organization is strange and some things are lost in translation, but the recipes are often simple and inviting enough for most people to pick up immediately.

Full review

About the author

Chef Chen Kenichi is better known to Western audiences as “Iron Chef Chinese” in the original run of Iron Chef in Japan. Though born in Japan, his parents are Chinese and he followed in his father’s footsteps as a master of Sichuan cuisine in Japan. He owns several restaurants and though this is his first cookbook published in the United States, he is the author or co-author of at least 20 cookbooks in Japanese. Iron Chef Chen’s Knockout Chinese is a translation of one of his previous works (Honnede Tsukuru Bokuno Ryori, published in 2000), and was nominated for best Japanese cookbook of the year at the 2010 Gourmand World Cookbook Awards. Kenichi is also only the second of the original Iron Chefs to publish a cookbook in English (the first being Masaharu Morimoto).

Structure of the book

There are 69 recipes in 10 chapters:
Simply delicious sides (11 recipes),
Quick meals and light lunches (10 recipes),
Creative concoctions with leftovers (7 recipes),
Chinese the Chen way (11 recipes),
Intercultural treats from my mother’s kitchen (4 recipes),
Chinese classics: fried rice and soups (6 recipes),
Refreshing fruit dishes (4 recipes),
Scrumptious seasonal stir-fries (9 recipes),
Light and luscious Chinese desserts (5 recipes),
and Twenty-first century recipes (2 recipes).

All of the recipes have a large full-color picture and some have small step-by-step pictures. This book is a light paperback and doesn’t lie flat.

How is this book interesting/special/new/useful?

Chinese food in the Western world seems to be a dichotomy between the safe, sticky sauce-coated breaded chunks of meat and vegetables and the strict recreations of traditional dishes that have a surprisingly small number of seasonings and sauces. Knockout Chinese falls somewhere in between this spectrum, never really adhering to any classic recipe but still using relatively exotic flavors and cooking methods. As it was originally meant for a Japanese readership, it liberally uses ingredients that may be hard to find like tianjiangyou (sweet soy sauce), zha cai (preserved Sichuan vegetable), doubanjiang (chili paste), chili oil, tianmianjiang (sweet noodle sauce), and hua jiao fen (ground Sichuan pepper). Kenichi allows the substitution of Hoisin Sauce for tianmianjiang and has a recipe for making your own tianjiangyou. He also has pictures and the names of these ingredients written in Chinese in the index.

The innovations that Kenichi presents in this book attest to his experience as a master of Chinese cooking. He torches octopus, combines broccoli with zha cai in spaghetti, serves chicken with breaded Muscat grapes and shrimp with cherries, serves up a mild version of Mapo Tofu, and presents a soup version of Tan Tan Noodles as his father’s Japanese customers preferred. Some of these dishes may sound strange but browsing through the book, all the recipes would feel right at home at your favorite Chinese restaurant. You get a sense that Kenichi knows all the rules and now has the license to break them as he sees fit.

There are two versions of Mapo Tofu, the quintessential Sichuan dish, and the “genuine” version he includes in the book is an exercise in pantry completeness but a delight to eat. There are a few more recognizable dishes, such as Chicken and Egg Soup, several versions of fried rice, Crunchy Pickled Daikon, Almond Pudding, two versions of Tan Tan Noodles, Boiled Dumplings, Chili Shrimp, and Pork Cutlet Donburi. The instructions are always clear and straightforward, though perhaps lacking for some of the more difficult recipes like Treasure-Stuffed Chicken. Most of the unfamiliar dishes are still inviting, especially as they come so quickly together (usually through stir-frying) and even if it turns out not to be your thing, barely any time or ingredients are wasted, as you end up using the Chinese sauces for something else in the future.

What problems/flaws are there?

The book has one major shortcoming: for some of the recipes, one or two ingredients listed don’t make it into the instructions. It’s not entirely clear if the translator or Kenichi himself was at fault, but it becomes frustrating for the inexperienced cook to realize he prepared something that by the end still sits on the counter unused, wondering if the ingredients or the instructions were wrong.

I would have preferred for some of the recipes to have more of a background. For his famous dishes, there are usually a few short sentences about his inspiration (or some reassurance that the dish actually works), but more often the title jumps straight into the recipes without any story of what makes the dish special. One other minor nitpick is that the recipes and chapters are arranged so unintuitively. For example, among the four dishes included in the “Refreshing Fruit Dishes” chapter, one is a dessert and the others are mains. There is a separate chapter for classic Chinese dishes cooked in his unique way, and also another containing only fried rice and soup. The last chapter, “21st Century Recipes,” has only two recipes – Treasure-Stuffed Chicken and Braised Spiny Lobster, though these recipes have been around for a while.

Who might enjoy/use this book most?

There is a wide range of difficulty in this book, but anyone with a passion for modern Chinese cooking will appreciate this charming and inexpensive book. As a true Iron Chef, Kenichi prioritizes flavor, balance, and interest over convention and authenticity.

This is an original review for The Gastronomer’s Bookshelf.
Main rating: 3. Recommended – some flaws
Visual appeal: Okay
Suitability as a gift: If the person is really interested
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