To accompany our very competitive, NCAA-style tournament of cookbooks, we asked you—our readers!—to get in on the fun and test and review 15 cookbooks dubbed Piglet Community Picks. Read on for some of our community's reactions to China Towns by Jean-Francois Mallet—and keep up with all the reviews here.
I admit China Towns was not at the top of my “cookbooks I’m lusting after” list. I had no idea who the author was and even after some Googling, all I could find was a short snippet of information:
French chef Jean-Francois Mallet turned into a globetrotting food photographer after having worked with Joël Robuchon, Michel Rostang, Michel Kenever and Gaston Lenotre and has been a contributor to magazines such as Saveur, Gourmet USA, Elle a Table and Etoiles.
There are several books listed under his Amazon profile: It appears he’s gotten the most attention for his recent work titled Simplissime: Le livre de cuisine le + facile du monde, which roughly translates to Simple: World Cooking. But what about China Towns? No reviews to found.
The bright red volume weighs over 3 pounds and contains 416 pages, many of which are adorned with gorgeous pictures—an Instagram-worthy collection of images that transport you to the kitchens, tables, and streets of Chinatowns worldwide.
Mallet captures his subject so well you can almost hear the clanking of dishes and the chatter in a busy kitchen, feel the heat emanating out of sizzling woks, and see steam rising up from a heaping bowl of soup. This was coffee table book for sure, but would his recipes deliver an authentic dish? Would my efforts turn out as good as these photographs?
The book is broken down much like a typical Chinatown menu: starters, dumplings, soups, meats, seafood, vegetables, rice, noodles, drinks, and desserts. Best of all, there’s a chapter titled “Weird & Wonderful,” which begins with a page titled “Is it Edible?”—a phrase I have uttered in my head many times when adventuring in a Chinatown.
As I began looking past the pictures and reading the recipes, I felt uneasy. No breakdown of the necessary kitchen gear, no guide for hard-to-find ingredients or tips on how to source them. Also, due to its voluminous size, the book doesn’t lie flat for easy recipe reading. Finally, the recipes themselves are very simplistic and matter of fact. At this point, I whispered to myself “Stay calm and Google on.”
With power of the internet at my fingertips, I decided to jump right in and make spring rolls. After several failed attempts and many clumped up rice paper wraps, I managed to roll two that I was proud of. I realized after the fact that my spring roll wrappers were too small, so heed my advice: Bigger is better!
The sauce was a combination of lime, garlic, sugar, fish sauce, hoisin and chili paste, which was nothing short of miraculous. I’ll be making this dish again in the form of a Vietnamese bun cha bowl, sans the rolling but with all the great sauce!
Next, I made Grilled Pork Chops with Lemongrass, an easy dish of pan-fried pork that’s been marinated overnight in a combination of garlic, coriander, lemongrass, fish sauce, soy sauce, sugar, and five-spice. It’s topped with pieces of canned pineapple and served over rice. I will make these again—but on the grill.
I still have many recipes flagged and hope to continue cooking from China Towns in the year to come—perhaps I will even try something from the “Weird & Wonderful” section! Novices like me will need to refer to Internet Oracles, Google and YouTube, to successfully cook from the book. But you don’t have to try the recipes to hold onto this book‚ it’s a gorgeous anthology of Chinatowns around the globe.
"Pekinese Soup reminded me a bit of the hot and sour soup that always made its way onto our carryout order, so this seemed like a good place to start. I was reluctant to add all of the soy and vinegar called for in the recipe, but felt obligated to stay true to it, and I am so much better for it. At first taste, my fingertips ached and my eyes welled up a bit (a somewhat odd, involuntary reaction I have to things that surprise and delight me).
The soup had a perfect balance of hot, sour, salty, sweet. The broth was light, without any cloying viscosity. Crunchy bamboo shoots, chewy mushrooms, tender chicken, and pillows of tofu kept things interesting. And, it was immensely restorative. One dinner, and then breakfast, lunch, and dinner again the next day, and it was gone. So simple and easy to put together. So good. I will honestly never order hot and sour again."