Why our China book nearly overwhelmed its authors
Chan Kei-lum and Diora Fong Hui-lan talk the South China Morning Post through an epic journey of discovery
What sort of biographical “ingredients” would you expect to find in the author of our new authoritative cookbook, China? A lifelong devotion to China’s native cuisine, of course, as well as a refined palate, sometop flight cookery skills, and a curiosity to learn more about the country's highly varied regional specialties, certainly; maybe some experience collecting dishes around the country, perhaps; oh, and a good way with words - English ones, as that’s the language our new book is published in.
Fortunately, that’s more or less an exact description of the Hong Kong couple who’ve overseen our new title. Yet when they were presented with our proposal, Chan Kei-lum, 75, and his wife, Diora Fong Hui-lan, 65, refused – twice – to take it on, overwhelmed by the prospect of summing up the Middle Kingdom in 650 recipes.
“Initially, Phaidon asked us to talk about the eight regional cooking styles plus a few others, and we said that doesn’t represent China, only parts of it,” Chan tells the South China Morning Post. “So we decided to do some really remote areas of China like Xinjiang and Tibet, that people don’t have much knowledge about. Because if you want to write a book that has China on the front cover, we have to represent all of China. So we decided to cast our net wider than the eight major styles and cover all areas, including places like Taiwan and Mongolia.”
Chan, the son of a Hong Kong newspaper editor and food columnist, inherited a parental love of food and its preparation; “He said you have to cook with your heart, not with your hands,” the chef and writer tells the paper. “That has stayed with me over 60 years and this is the motto we put in our cookbooks.”
The couple, who worked in the steel and computing businesses, often collected recipes while travelling around China, and began to write Chinese-language cookery books seven years ago.
Chan tells the paper that reducing their initial list of 1,200 recpies down to just 650 was painful, and that, in order to make that cut, the authors removed recipes that required special equipment or didn’t taste especially good. “Sometimes we refined the recipe to make it more tasty,” Fong tells the paper.
And, while that editing process might have been painful for our authors, the recipe testing delighted Fong and Chan’s friends, as the couple were unable to eat all their trial dishes.
“We ask our friends to come and take it. We tell them to come at 5pm and bring their own boxes,” Chan says.