Queen of the Orient

Food - Bee Wilson celebrates the life of Yan-kit So

The comfort of food can take many forms. Sometimes, especially in cold weather, it is immediate: the consolation of syrup sponge and custard; the nursery solace of boiled eggs and soldiers; soothing soups, eaten alone; real hot chocolate; bread sauce; fish cakes with parsley sauce; chicken pie; oxtail stew; and anything buttery with mashed potato. Sometimes, though, comfort food is more cerebral: meals imagined and meals remembered. In the case of Yan-kit So, an interest in food helped her recover from a prolonged slough of depression after her second husband, the love of her life, suddenly died, just five years after she had married him. In the process of rescuing herself from grief, she became the most authoritative writer in Britain on the subject of Chinese cooking.

Chinese New Year seems a good time to remember Yan-kit So, who herself died of cancer just before Christmas, aged 68. "At last a Chinese cookbook that works," exclaimed Derek Cooper when she published Yan-Kit's Classic Chinese Cookbook in 1984. The book went on to win both the Andre Simon and Glenfiddich awards (it is still available, republished in 1998 by Dorling Kindersley). Cooper's praise might imply she was some kind of Chinese Delia Smith. But Yan-kit So was distinguished not just for the precision of her instructions, although these are indeed precise to a wonderful degree (a typical recipe of hers might contain exactly 22.5ml soy sauce mixed with 7.5ml Shaoxing wine and 37.5ml sugar). Her prose had beauty and clarity in equal measure and she was also a trained and perceptive historian of China, something that came out more clearly in a later book, Classic Food of China (1992), where legends of gourmandising Chinese men of letters enlighten and augment the recipes.

Yan-kit So was born in China and brought up in Hong Kong. Her father traded in tea. She later described the delicious taste of the tea made from her father's special 50-year-old Pu'er blocks as "so silkenly smooth and soothing that whenever I serve it to family and friends, we can't help but roll it around our tongues before swallowing". She graduated from Hong Kong University with a starred First in history, before travelling to London, where she completed a doctorate on 19th-century Sino-Burmese border conflicts. Had you met her then, you would not, perhaps, have marked this promising historian down as a potential food writer.

But, after one failed marriage, Yan-kit met and fell in love with an American historian called Briton Martin Jr. They married in 1962 and had a son. By this time, she was already an excellent cook. She writes of cooking for Briton's family in Philadelphia, and how "it always filled my heart with pride and joy to see everybody having seconds and thirds of such things as braised ox tongue, steamed sea bass or blue fish and stir-fried chicken with cashew nuts". But in 1967, while still in his thirties, Briton died. It would be more than a decade before Yan-kit began to emerge from her affliction. When she did, it was writing about food that saved her.

These are some of the thoughts that saved her. She is very funny on the Cantonese love of Heinz tomato ketchup, and of Worcester sauce, comforting herself and us with the story of friends who are served a particularly delicious and mysterious Chinese dipping sauce for dim sum while dining in Hong Kong and beg to be told what it is, only to confront a lip-puckering, economy-sized bottle of Lea & Perrins. Yan-kit So has another bizarre tale to tell of Peking duck, whose invention resulted from a shopkeeper in 1864 consulting a feng shui guru and being told to set up a restaurant serving duck. On the subject of monosodium glutamate (the ubiquitous flavour-enhancer found in food from Chinese restaurants), she is both vituperative and characteristically scholarly. "In the 1960s," she writes, "the phrase 'Chinese restaurant syndrome' was coined in the United States to describe the symptoms suffered by some people eating Chinese food . . . whilst eating they would have a heating sensation in their temples which would be followed later by an extreme thirst and then a headache. Some would even feel chest pains or heart palpitations." But, she tells us, this unhealthy powder, which bestows "a meaty sweetness to food", was originally formulated in Japan to mimic the properties of healthy kombu seaweed. It only became cheap in China, and therefore popular, in the 1940s.

For the reader, much of the comfort of Yan-kit So's writing is in her delectable recipes - butterfly prawns with red bean curd cheese, for example, or Shandong chicken drumsticks, a slightly tricky dish to cook, but which will leave you remarking, with pleasure: "It has been worth it!" She also gives a recipe she is fond of for Chinese New Year pudding made with glutinous rice flour, commenting that it is meant to symbolise wealth and the physical growth of one's children, but that "symbolism aside, I love the viscous texture half sticking to my teeth". Which makes me think, what weird things comfort us in food. And thank God they do.

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