We’re starting to think that The Flavor Bible was a gentle introduction to James Beard-nominated cookbooks. Maybe it threw us a couple of times by suggesting that we pair lobster with vanilla beans, but we understood it well enough to avoid poisoning friends and family. We’ve even continued to experiment with very positive results. At its suggestion, we made broccoli with anchovies and roasted red peppers the other night. Our family loved it. So, we told them that we invented the recipe using only our deep culinary intuition. Afterward, we felt a little guilty.
But, we recently learned that throwing three unexpected ingredients in a pan and calling it dinner does not prime a budding chef to prepare “haute Chinese cuisine.” Wakiya ripped the training wheels off of our gastronomical bicycle and pushed us into a three lane highway. The only thing we served for dinner was failure.
In retrospect, it all makes sense. We should have known the moment we read Daniel Bouley pontificate about Chef Yuji Wakiya’s boundless understanding of Chinese, Japanese and French cuisine in his foreword that the skill level would fall a shade higher than Food Network-savvy. The Chinese have one of the oldest and most complicated culinary traditions in the world — one where the chef must remain aware of engaging the diner’s five senses and abide by the principles of Chinese medicine. Anyone who has eaten good sushi knows that Japanese food requires an in depth understanding of aesthetics, seasonality and balance. And, finally, the French have a tradition of pompous windbagerry in the kitchen that few cultures top. Clearly, we were doomed from the outset.
Although the book dominated us, it wasn’t all bad. For the record, Chef Wakiya, we learned a lot. In fact, we read the entire book from Bouley’s foreword to the glossary in the back. The ingredients he uses in many of his recipes are so foreign to the western diet that they might as well come from outer space. Shrimp eggs as seasoning. Dried, reconstituted jellyfish and dehydrated scallop flakes. Lily bulbs. We wanted to buy them all from Chinatown, but they were expensive and we didn’t trust ourselves.
We couldn’t get enough of the pictures either (although they might have been the element of the book that intimidated us the most). Masashi Kuma’s shots of murky, cured egg yolks and translucent shrimp add a dramatic visual element to the dining process that a falafel sandwich seriously lacks. Even humble dishes like dumplings and noodle soup (that we normally associate with pools of grease at the bottom of a takeout carton) are completed with such artistic flourish that they look like miniature sculptures.
So, we weren’t ready to use Wakiya for its intended purpose. We’re willing to accept the fact that we may never be ready. Whatever. It makes an amazing coffee table book and raises awareness about a culinary tradition that tends evoke fortune cookies more than artistry in the American mind. We’ll never see Chinese food in the same light again.
This book is completely and utterly impractical. Where in the world is the average home cook going to find a whole shark fin with the skin removed? Many of the dishes also require multiple, meticulous steps like preparing a seasoning called “slurry” or reconstituting your dried jellyfish before using it.
We’re not sure because we never actually cooked anything. But, if we had to guess we give it a high score. While some of the dishes sound suspect (sugar glazed duck liver, anyone?), the pictures makes everything look across the board delicious.
Easy to read (if not to follow) and beautiful.
Wakiya writes passionately about Chinese cuisine. He also adds anecdotes with all of his recipes that range from enlightening to poetic. Apparently, black sticky rice is thought to give the body energy and “Gong Bao” chicken means both “Colonel Ding’s chicken” and “hot and sweet chicken cubes”…
We had to give Wakiya two overall scores. As armchair foodies, we loved it. As actual cooks, we were very, very confused..