Joyce Chen, a legend of Chinese cooking, popularized Mandarin and Shanghai-style dishes in America, beginning with her restaurants in Cambridge. Eventually, she had her own public television show, shot on the very same WGBH set as Julia Child’s “The French Chef.” “Joyce Chen Cooks” began airing in 1967, and ushered in a wave of enthusiasm for Asian cooking in American homes.
My own late grandmother, Harriet Balk, was a passionate cook and had a printout of several of Chen’s recipes, autographed by the Chen herself and dated March 25, 1970. Though she died when I was a baby, I came to know my Baba Harriet through her cookbooks, which had their own room in the house my grandfather built in St. Louis.
From classics, like Jacques Pépin’s “La Technique” to vintage curiosities like “Microwave Cooking - On a Diet,” my grandmother’s cookbook library was not just a wealth of recipes, but a way to tour the world through food and to understand how people ate in the past.
Family members can’t agree on an origin story for the document, but there’s no denying the that the recipes are from another time.
Chen won’t send you on a scavenger hunt for a specific kind of noodle or Sichuan pickled greens. She unabashedly uses MSG to boost the savory flavor and isn’t shy about sugar either. The recipes are a reflection of a time when savvy Chinese restaurateurs adapted traditional dishes to bring a diverse American melting pot into the door.
The Joyce Chen printout includes recipes for sweet and sour pork, Chinese celery cabbage and dried shrimp soup, Mandarin moo-shi pork and and chiao-tzu, also known as Peking ravioli, a term that Chen coined to appeal to her first restaurant’s large Italian clientele.
I decided to try my hand at the sweet and sour pork and the Peking ravioli.
Joyce Chen's Sweet and Sour Pork
The sweet and sour pork is the platonic ideal of the Chinese American dish, featuring perfectly crisp battered bites of pork with a shiny, sweet and vinegary sauce. The trinity of carrot, bell pepper and canned pineapple complete the scene.
Though in the TV episode Chen adamantly suggests serving her sweet and sour pork with fried rice, and warns against boiled white rice (not salty enough!), I thought that plain white rice and a little sambal oelek or sriracha on the side to cut the sweetness were perfect accompaniments.
Here's a dictation of the full recipe from the printout
For the meat:
- 1 cup lean pork
- 1 teaspoon dry sherry
- 1/4 teaspoon salt
- dash of pepper
Mix the above ingredients thoroughly in a bowl and allow to set for a few minutes.
For the batter:
- 1/2 cup flour
- 1/4 cup corn starch
- 1/2 teaspoon baking power
- 1/2 cup egg mixture (1 beaten egg plus enough water to make 1/2 cup mixture)
Mix all the batter ingredients into a very smooth paste.
- Dip the marinated pork in the batter to coat completely. Add the coated pork gently (to prevent oil splattering) to the hot oil (1 1/2" to 2" depth of oil at 375-400 degrees) one piece at a time. Deep fry until light golden brown. It is easier to remove and drain the cooked pork all at one time from the hot fat if you use a deep fry basket. Spread drained pork out on absorbent paper and let cool.
- (You may do this in advance for this amount or for larger quantities, and keep the deep-fried pork in the refrigerator for a few days, or in the freezer for future use.)
- For best results for crisply-coated meat, deep fry the cooled pork a second time in hot oil (400 degrees) just before serving.
(For the) sweet and sour sauce:
- 3/4 cup sugar
- 1/3 cup catsup (aka - ketchup)
- 1 tablespoon soy sauce
- 1/4 teaspoon salt
- 1/4 teaspoon MSG
- 2/3 cup water
Add all the ingredients in a 1 1/2 to 2-quart saucepan. Bring to a boil.
- 1/2 cup vinegar (cider vinegar is best)
As soon as it boils again, stir in the cornstarch mixture:
- 3 1/2 tablespoons cornstarch mixed with
- 1/3 cup water
The cornstarch mixture should be thoroughly mixed just prior to its addition to the pan.
When the Sweet and Sour has thickened, mix in:
- 1 tablespoon hot oil from the deep fry pan. This way, the sauce will shine and its beauty is enhanced.
Add the following fruit and vegetables:
- 1/2 cup carrots, peeled, in small chunks or 1/4 inch slices
- 1/2 cup green pepper, seeds removed, in about 1 inch squares
- 1/2 cup canned pineapple chunks, drained well
- First, parboil the carrots in a small saucepan; after about one minute, add the green pepper. Before the water boils again, remove the carrots and green pepper and rinse thoroughly with cold water. This way, the green pepper will retain its green color and crisp texture. This should be prepared in advance.
- Second frying of the pork cubes: (while preparing the Sauce, heat the oil for the second pork frying) When the deep fry oil is hot (400 degrees), fry the once-fried pork cubes, preferably in a basket, until they are golden brown. Drain and put in a deep plate or a very shallow bowl. Pour the Sweet and Sour Sauce on the twice-fried pork in tho plate and serve immediately.
Joyce Chen's Peking Ravioli
The Peking ravioli proved more of a challenge. The dough for the dumpling wrapper was soft and sticky, difficult to roll out and wrap into neat parcels. I’m ashamed to say that my dumplings were not pretty.
On the plus side, these kuo-t’ieh (the name for the pan fried version of chiao-tzu) were juicy, savory and a huge hit with dinner guests.
I served them with a simple dipping sauce of equal parts soy sauce and rice wine vinegar, plus a splash toasted sesame oil.
Here's a dictation of the full recipe from the printout
(For the) filling:
- 3/4 pound ground meat, beef or pork
- 1 pound Chinese celery cabbage
- 1 1/2 tablespoons soy sauce
- 1 tablespoon dry sherry
- 1/2 teaspoon salt
- 1/2 teaspoon MSG
- 1/2 teaspoon sugar
- 1 tablespoon cooking oil, bacon drippings, or melted lard (If meat is lean, add 1 more tablespoon)
- 1 tablespoon sesame seed oil (if not available, substitute 1 tablespoon cooking oil)
Wash and drain Chinese cabbage and chop very fine. Sprinkle 1 teaspoon salt (not included in ingredients above) on cabbage while chopping. Place the chopped cabbage in a cloth bag or cheesecloth and squeeze out enough liquid to make 1 cup. Discard liquid. Put the remaining ingredients in a large bowl, add the chopped cabbage and mix well. Cover and set aside.
For the dough:
- 2 cups flour (level)
- 2/3 cup water, lukewarm or cold
Mix the flour and water in a large mixing bowl. Knead for 3 - 4 minutes into a smooth dough. (The dryness of the flour may very with the humidity of the room in which it is kept. If it has been kept in a heated room for a long time, add 1 more tablespoon of water.)
Cover the dough with a damp towel and let set for about 30 minutes or more so the dough will be smoother. Chinese say this "wakes up the dough".
For the wrapping:
Put a heaping teaspoon of ready mixed filling in the center of the dough round. Fold in half and pinch edges together tightly to form a half moon. (The edges must be well sealed, otherwise the filling might break out in the cooking and separate from the dough. The best way to seal them is to rub them together between your forefinger and thumb.) It is best to roll a few rounds at a time and then wrap them, alternating this way until they are all wrapped. Keep the formed Chiao-tzu on a well-floured plate until ready to cook. The flour will prevent their sticking together. They may be refrigerated for a few hours before cooking, if desired.
Place Chiao-tzu gently in a large pot with enough boiling water to allow them to swim around freely. Cover and cook over medium high heat until water boils again. Add 1 cup of cold water to the pot, cover and cook over lower heat. As soon as the water comes back to the boil, add another cup of cold water. Cover and when the water comes back to the boil for the third time, remove the pot from the heat. Let it stand with the cover on for 2 or 3 minutes. (This is so the filling will be thoroughly cooked.)
Remove the Chiao-tzu from the pot and drain in a colander or strainer.
Serve drained Chiao-tzu immediately with vinegar, soy sauce, or hot pepper sauce as a dip. For a whole meal, allow about 6 to 15 per person. The Chinese serve the cooking water as a soup.
To pan fry:
In China when the Chiao-tzu are pan-fried, they are called KUO-T IEH.
Heat an 8 or 9 inch skillet until it is good and hot, then grease it thoroughly with 1 tablespoon cooking oil. Starting at the out side of the pan, arrange the uncooked Chiao-tzu carefully in concentric circles, going in the same direction. They should touch each other lightly. Put two Chiao-tzu in the center, facing each other. (About 16 pieces)
Add 1/2 cup cold water to the pan, cover, and cook over medium high heat for 6 to 7 minutes. When the water has evaporated, lower the heat and continue cooking, still covered, for another 2 minutes or until the Chiao-tzu are golden brown on the bottom.
Before removing, make sure they are not stuck to the bottom of the pan. Push them gently with a spatula to loosen them.
To unmold and serve:
Select a serving plate that will just fit into the skillet. Place it, upside down, over the Chiao-tzu, then, holding it in place, invert the pan and give it a little shake so the Chiao-tzu will slip out onto the plate down side up in a nice mold, golden brown on top.
Serve immediately with vinegar, soy sauce, or hot pepper sauce as a dip. This will serve about 4 to 8 Kuo-T ieh per person if used the Chinese way, as a snack.
- I followed the recipes exactly, with the exception of the dry sherry in the sweet and sour pork. Dry sherry is often suggested as an alternative to the once-difficult to find Shaoxing rice wine. I used Shaoxing rice wine, but feel free to use whatever is most convenient.
- Pre-made dumpling wrappers, easy to find in Asian markets, are a perfectly acceptable and convenient stand-in for the Peking ravioli dough.
- Chen includes MSG in all of her recipes. I used it without any ill effects, but if you are sensitive to MSG or just prefer not to use it, the dishes will still be delicious.