Problems with recipe books.

I really like recipe books. Lots of people do. I can sit and read them, though I suspect this actually causes me to put on weight. But more people buy them and read them than actually try to make the food they describe. If you have more than a couple of recipe books, and have tried very many of the recipes, you will have encountered one or more of the following problems.
  • Photographs that are nothing like the result you get.
  • Ingredients hardly anyone sells.
  • Ingredients that have not been manufactured for years.
  • Disgusting ingredients.
  • Items missing from the ingredients list but in the method.
  • Items in the ingredients list that are not used in the method.
  • Incomprehensible procedures, and obscure terminology.
  • Steps missing from the method.
  • Preparatory steps part way through the method.
  • Method that is just a solid chunk of text.
  • Ludicrous measurements.

Photographs that are nothing like the result you get.

One of the causes of this is that recipe books often have really terrific photography, which takes time. So the food is actually photographed cold, which stops the picture being blurred by steam. And the photographer often constructs a beautiful composition by arranging the food carefully, which is easier if it is very undercooked. I don’t know if this Phoenix Cold Meat Combination was actually constructed by the photographer or the cook. Either way, it looks wonderful, would probably taste very good, and would be far too much like hard work unless you were trying to impress someone.

Ingredients hardly anyone sells.

That delicious-looking phoenix contains a small amount of abalone. If you want that, you are going to have to go to your favourite Chinese Supermarket. They will have it in tins, but it’s less edible than fresh abalone, according to my favourite Chinese cookery book. It costs a fortune, and you will have most of the tin left over. Do you have a recipe that requires three quarters of a tin of left over abalone? Nor do I.

Ingredients that have not been manufactured for years.

When we lived in Hong Kong, in the early 1960’s, we used to buy Daw Sen curry paste, because it was really good. I have been searching for it for the last five years, in every oriental supermarket I have visited, and on the Internet. (This was written over twenty years ago, and I still have not seen any.) I know how to search, and I know how to look at jars in shops. So it is understandable that I become irritated when I see recipes on the web that tell me to use Daw Sen curry paste, because it is so good. Like this one, for instance, quoted from a tediously Messianic vegetarian web site-
This is an excellent winter dish. It has all the flavor of a long-cooked stew, but is quick to make. The Chinese generally use an oil-based curry paste ( Daw Sen brand from Calcutta is good), which can be found in most Asian grocery stores, but a good-quality curry powder will do.
So I asked Bryanna if she really knew where it could be bought, and the reply was an airy “oh, just look in any oriental supermarket”. I politely replied that I had looked, and all my messages vanished from their web site. New ones I send don’t appear.

The fact is that these people have copied their recipes from somewhere else (probably “Recipe Hound”, who also mentions Daw Sen curry paste) without bothering to see if the ingredients are actually available. They have never cooked the recipe themselves, they are only interested in selling their faddy diets to misguided vegetarians in order to make large sums of money. Well, their web sites are long gone, but I’m just getting started…

Disgusting ingredients.

I am reasonably sure I will never want to cook any recipe that contains a “Hershey Bar” or a “Twinkie”, even if I accidentally find out what those things are.

Items missing from the ingredients but in the method.

This is absolutely infuriating. And it is always something you don’t have in the house.

Items in the ingredients that are not used in the method.

This is also quite annoying. At least you now have some of the ingredient in the house. I hope it wasn’t abalone.

Incomprehensible procedures, and obscure terminology.

I know, we all have to learn some time, and then the terminology is no longer obscure. If we are truly committed to this noble art, we must be prepared to learn how to spatch-cock small creatures. Except abalone. But it is annoying to have to stop cooking your steak and find out how to de-glaze the pan.

Steps missing from the method.

What on Earth am I supposed to do with this abalone…

Preparatory steps part way through the method section.

This one is a real pain. Having to stop cooking, take the octopus outside, and whack it against the wall for an hour to tenderise it before you can continue is fairly irritating. When you find out that you must then marinate the octopus for three days, you may wish to tenderise the author.

Method that is just a solid chunk of text.

The author cannot be bothered to make things easier for you with a clear layout. Numbered steps would have been a start. Increasingly, recipe books are “step by step”. Mostly they have four photographs, each with some text underneath. Perhaps some day they will use a sufficiently large number of small steps…

Ludicrous measurements.

I know most American recipe books use cups as the only way to measure things, and I don’t mean to offend the authors very much, but how big is a cup? Also, let us not even talk about recipes where some things are measured in “cups”, unless everything in the recipe is in the same units. Then we can at least determine the volumes of the various ingredients by ratio.

Also, let us calmly throw away recipes that say silly things like “three tablespoons of butter”. Would that be level, heaped or a big block of butter balanced on the spoon? How big is a tablespoon? We have several sizes.

Mixing pounds, grams, cups and tablespoons in a recipe? Hanging is too good for ’em.

So what do I suggest?

I had been re-writing some of my favourite Chinese recipes using a format of my own devising, twenty years ago, intending to use them on some recipe pages. I devised the format when I was trying to write a book with the working title “How to Cook Like a Computer Programmer”. It never got finished, and I have some doubts about whether it would ever have been accepted by a publisher.

The basis of the format is the TV cooks’ ready prepared containers of ingredients, but I found it just wasn’t general enough for every recipe you might want to cook. However, it did work well for most Chinese food, where many (but by no means all) dishes are cooked rapidly from carefully prepared ingredients.

You need a number of containers. Cleaned yoghourt pots are acceptable, but lots of small plastic food containers or glass dishes will be easier to maintain in the long run.

The ingredient list is pretty much the same as everyone else’s, except that I organised it according to which pot the ingredient went in.

The preparation proceeded in a number of discrete steps, each of which resulted in a prepared container of food. These can include cooking steps.

Finally, the containers are all combined during the cooking process, using a method much like the other recipes have.

Sometimes, you have things in your cupboard that no recipe requires…

I was given this tin by my brother Stephen. Eventually, I ate the contents. If you see a tin like this, you might wonder what the contents taste like. I am unable to describe them. They were drier than I expected, and less piquant than I had hoped.

Blowing up ducks, and other matters.

Long, long ago, I lived in Hong Kong for three years, with my parents and the rest of our family. Every so often, we ate meals in really good restaurants there. Some of the meals we ate were so good that I can still remember what the food looked and tasted like.

Later, when I was back in England, I ate in Chinese restaurants, but with very few exceptions, they were a huge disappointment. The stuff the Chinese takeaways sold was almost always even more disappointing.

When I visited Hong Kong later, while working for the Blue Funnel Line, we had some food cooked on a bicycle, and that was good too.

I thought it quite odd that a man with a fire in an oil drum, in the street by Stanley harbour, could cook up better food than people in England with well equipped kitchens. He did not have anything more to work with than a very hot fire, a wok that was utterly black, and very fresh ingredients. His kitchen was mounted on a bicycle, and he had a few basic items prepared. We used to walk past and give our order, and go up to the flat. Five minutes later, he would be at the door with the food. He clearly was doing something very different from the restaurants in England. Thinking about it, I would say the major differences were that he cooked each dish from raw when it was wanted, and that he did it very fast to conserve his fire. His other strength was that he only had a few things on the bike, so the number of possible dishes was very limited.

Most Chinese restaurants in England have lots of dishes on the menu, and I suspect the components for these sit in the kitchens for a long time. There is usually a slow flow of customers, all ordering the same range of dishes they feel safe with. The restaurant in England that I remember for being better than the rest is one of the huge ones in Soho, where they serve thousands of meals a day, and the waiters are notorious for trying to rush your choice of food.

A lot of Chinese food is cooked fast, from fresh ingredients. Why? Well, if you don’t bump your chicken off before you want to eat it, it will be bigger when you get to it. And fresher – worth thinking about if nobody has invented refrigerators yet. And there was a history of fuel shortage in China. The wok is a very efficient device, and it works best with a big fire for a short cooking time, which requires you to have the food in small pieces and keep it moving all the time. That is why the steak just isn’t a Chinese dish.


Often, somebody will claim to have a wok, and it will turn out to be some sort of wide pan with a flat bottom. Or it will have a coating of Teflon. Well, I hope they are happy with their purchases. Those things may be very nice, but they are not woks.

Woks have round bottoms, so you can use a small pool of oil to fry the food. They have bare metal surfaces. If you treat them wrongly, they go rusty. You can buy a real wok from a Chinese supermarket. There’s a high probability it will actually have been made by a company in London, called Hancock’s Woks. I can heartily recommend their woks. It will be oily, to stop it rusting. Scrub the oil off the wok, as it is not cooking oil. This should be the only time you use detergent on your wok, and you must ensure you rinse it all off. Put the wok on the gas ring, and turn the gas up high. Do not forget to light the gas. If you do not have a gas cooker, move to a different house.

Heat it for ages, then a bit longer. Add ground-nut oil, and spread it all over the cooking surface with kitchen towel. There will be a lot of smoke. Heat and oil again, if you like. You just created a non-stick surface NASA would envy, if they didn’t love Teflon so much.

Now, in the unlikely event that anything sticks to the surface you just created, scrape it off with a wooden spatula. Cleaning is done with a damp cloth, and is followed by heating and oiling. If you use your wok at really high temperatures, the food will rarely stick, and you can use metal implements without worrying about scratching the wok.


Here we go. You cannot cook Chinese food by starting something cooking, and going round the kitchen finding things to add, then peeling them and chopping them before adding them. It all needs to be ready to go, the way you see the television cooks do it. Like this…

These are the ingredients for a four course Chinese meal, part cooked in some cases, and all ready for final cooking. From left to right, we have –
  • Sweet and sour pork.
  • Chicken and walnuts.
  • Chicken and sweetcorn chowder.
  • Beef and black beans with green peppers.
Can you spot what is missing from the photograph? The third column should have had a small tin of sweetcorn in it. I took the picture over twenty years ago, I have to admit, and it’s too late to change it now.

Carefully cleaned plastic food containers are useful, but these days I prefer proper dishes. Three of the tubs contain meat that has already been part cooked in the wok. The shorter the delay before finishing the cooking, the better. So you get it all ready like the picture. And you check everything is present… 

The tubs at the front contain carefully prepared garnishes. Too fancy? I don’t think so, and ten minutes extra work will have your guests amazed by how good the food looks, as well as the taste.

Confession and recipe

This was all taken from my (very) old web site, and I never finished typing all the recipes in. Most of our recipe books are currently in storage, so all I’m going to put here is how to make the Chicken and Sweetcorn Chowder, which is a very popular dish. I served it third in the meal this is about, because the soup doesn’t have to be at the beginning…

Start by making spring onion brushes, as they need to sit in iced water until they open up and look pretty.

In your saucepan, put –
  • 2 Tablespoons of groundnut oil
  • 900 ml Chicken stock
  • 2 Teaspoons of Chinese rice wine (Shao Xing)
  • 350g Can of sweetcorn, drained
Don’t start cooking yet! In your first little dish, marinate these things –
  • 50g Uncooked boneless chicken breast meat, finely chopped
  • 1 Teaspoon of ginger juice
  • A few drops of Sesame oil
  • 1/2 Teaspoon of sugar
  • Salt and pepper
In the second little dish, mix up 3 or 4 teaspoons of cornflour and just enough water to make it into a fairly thick paste.

In the third little dish, put a beaten egg.

Now you can start cooking! This is going to be quick, so have your serving dishes, spoons and spring onion brushes ready.
  1. Bring the contents of the saucepan to the boil.
  2. Stir in the marinated chicken, and keep stirring for a minute, at most.
  3. Stirring continually, pour the cornflour paste in slowly. Stir until it has thickened.
  4. Keep stirring, and pour the beaten egg in as slowly as you can, so that the egg forms long, thin strands.
  5. Stop stirring, and serve the chowder, garnished with the spring onion brushes.