Wednesday, February 14, 2007

REVIEW: Los Altos Town Crier

Home cooking all around the globe

By Eliza Ridgeway,
Town Crier Staff Writer
February 2, 2007

photos by Joe Hu/Town Crier

Diana Chan's "Easy 'n Healthy Cooking" offers illustrated, step-by-step instructions for Asian fusion dishes such as a light, fruit-filled crab salad, above.

When Los Altos Hills resident Diana Chan's son and daughter-in-law asked her for a handful of "starter" recipes a few years ago, she compiled recipes for five dishes with beginners in mind. What began as a modest family venture has spun into a grand endeavor as Chan puts the finishing touches on a cookbook containing 150 family favorites. The recipes are selected to please both the novice and the expert Chinese chef in search of gourmet options.

Acting as writer, photographer and publicist, Chan received a crash course in taking a book from idea to finished product as she developed "Easy 'n Healthy Cooking" (Easy 'n Healthy Cooking Publishers, 2007).

As a child growing up in Hong Kong, Shanghai and Brazil, Chan was often left with a governess when her parents traveled abroad. One of her favorite pastimes was observing the family's chef.

"(The governess) didn't mind that we went to watch (the chef)," Chan said. "He was really something - very, very talented. Here was a guy who was totally illiterate but had hundreds of recipes in his head. You learned a lot just by watching."

After she came to the United States, Chan worked as a vocational counselor and a social worker in Boston and Menlo Park, then as a homemaker, before she began the cookbook project.
Once she started, Chan found herself analyzing food, studying how to reproduce effects she liked and adding innovations of her own. Tasting stuffed prawns at a Mexican restaurant, for instance, inspired her to create a crab-stuffed prawn appetizer with a yam base.

"Now when I go out, I'm more critical, … trying to zero in on dishes I really enjoy," Chan said. "In the process of trying to reproduce ideas, you come across great innovations."

Chan enjoys telling the stories behind some of the dishes and their names, which are informed with a background in art and cultural history. A docent-in-training at the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco, Chan fleshes out the cultural origins behind dishes like "Buddha Jumps the Wall" and "Buddha Vegetarian Delight."

"Some people just read cookbooks," Chan said. "The notes on where recipes came from and when they are usually served brings in the cultural aspect that appeals to certain readers."
Illustrations of special ingredients introduce newcomers to the cuisine through some of the basic staples, such as dried mushrooms and sauces they will want to acquire for the recipes. The recipes themselves come with step-by-step pictures showing, for instance, how to assemble medallion chicken, an elaborate fusion dish that puts a Chinese spin on the classic Boeuf en Croƻte. Chan stuffs chicken with a dim sum-type filling, then bakes it encased in pastry. She adds shiitake mushrooms and chestnuts to Beef Wellington and offers variants on a classic rum cake among the desserts.

Chan uses olive oil in many of her dishes. She embraced Cantonese-style cooking - known for its light, healthful flavorings - after being introduced to it by her husband. Chan grew up cooking Shanghainese, which included frying a lot of fish and braising it in a rich brown sauce.
The Cantonese style uses lighter seasoning, she said, such as a little rice wine, scallions and vinegar for the fish. Using chicken broth and mushroom seasoning to add flavor without fat, Chan describes her style as a new genre of Chinese cooking.

Chan plans to hold a book-signing in March at Main Street Cafe & Books in Los Altos. Lee Kum Kee, a maker of soy sauces from Hong Kong, has donated sauces for attendees to sample and win in a drawing.

Chan plans to stock "Easy 'n Healthy Cooking" at Main Street Cafe & Books, Borders, Kepler's, Books Inc. and the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco. The cookbook will be available in March.
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