The best books on Chinese food

Jonathan Clements Author Of The Emperor's Feast: A History of China in Twelve Meals
By Jonathan Clements

Who am I?

Jonathan Clements is a historian specialising in East Asia, and the author of A Brief History of China, The Art of War: A New Translation, and Confucius: A Biography. Several of his books have been translated and published in Chinese. He has presented three seasons of Route Awakening (National Geographic), an award-winning TV series about icons of Chinese culture. From 2013-2019, he was a visiting professor at Xi’an Jiaotong University, China.


I wrote...

The Emperor's Feast: A History of China in Twelve Meals

By Jonathan Clements,

Book cover of The Emperor's Feast: A History of China in Twelve Meals

What is my book about?

Jonathan Clements tracks the diverse history of China through its food and drink, from the sacrificial cauldrons of the Bronze Age to the contending styles of a modern Chinatown. He outlines how changes in politics, technology, and ingredients have altered “Chinese” food over the centuries, as the nation copes with new peoples, crops, and climate conditions.

Clements focuses on the personalities connected to Chinese food – the drunken priest-kings of the Shang dynasty; the Tang noblewomen experimenting with tea and lychees; the stand-off between Mongols and Muslims over halal meat. Later chapters carry the impact of Chinese food out of its homeland and around the world, as migrant communities cater to local tastes and encounter new challenges. “Chinese” food is different, yet again, depending on if you eat it in small-town Canada, a Mumbai mall, or a Singapore street market.

The books I picked & why

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Shark's Fin and Sichuan Pepper: A Sweet-Sour Memoir of Eating in China

By Fuchsia Dunlop,

Book cover of Shark's Fin and Sichuan Pepper: A Sweet-Sour Memoir of Eating in China

Why this book?

The first westerner to study as a Sichuan cook in China, Dunlop has an overwhelming passion for Chinese food. She flings herself into any situation where she can learn about ingredients, recipes, or techniques, she elbows her way into kitchens and market stalls, and she even tries, without much success, to interest the Chinese in Western food. Love for China and the Chinese spills out from every page, along with charming anecdotes and mouth-watering recipes.

Shark's Fin and Sichuan Pepper: A Sweet-Sour Memoir of Eating in China

By Fuchsia Dunlop,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked Shark's Fin and Sichuan Pepper as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Award-winning food writer Fuchsia Dunlop went to live in China as a student in 1994, and from the very beginning she vowed to eat everything she was offered, no matter how alien and bizarre it seemed. In this extraordinary memoir, Fuchsia recalls her evolving relationship with China and its food, from her first rapturous encounter with the delicious cuisine of Sichuan Province to brushes with corruption, environmental degradation, and greed. In the course of her fascinating journey, Fuchsia undergoes an apprenticeship at China's premier Sichuan cooking school, where she is the only foreign student in a class of nearly fifty…


The Banquet Bug

By Geling Yan,

Book cover of The Banquet Bug

Why this book?

Released in my native Britain as The Uninvited, Yan’s novel offers an unexpected angle on Chinese food by presenting the banquet as the place in China where alliances are forged, deals are done, and palms are greased. Her hero is a member of the Beijing underclass who somehow finds himself gate-crashing big society feasts. Pretending to be a journalist ready to be “entertained”, he discovers food he never dreamed of, but also comes to develop a sense of social responsibility. He starts to inhabit the part he is playing, and becomes not an uninvited guest, but a crusader on the behalf of the downtrodden. Or does he…?

The Banquet Bug

By Geling Yan,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Banquet Bug as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Geling Yan captivates readers once more in her breakthrough novel. This is the fantastical tale of Dan Dong, an unemployed factory worker whose life takes a series of unexpected twists after he discovers that, by posing as a journalist, he can eat exquisite gourmet meals for free at state-sponsored banquets. But the secrets he overhears at these events eventually lead Dan down a twisted, intrigue-laden path, and his subterfuge and his real identity become harder and harder to separate. When he becomes privy to a scandal that runs from the depths of society to its highest rungs, Dan must find…


Slippery Noodles

By Hsiang Ju Lin,

Book cover of Slippery Noodles

Why this book?

Thick with Chinese-language citations, and seasoned heavily with recipes from the pages of history, Lin’s book is a real insider’s view of how it feels not only to taste Chinese food, but live inside the world it creates. She retells famous stories from the history of food in China, and quotes extensively from manuals that are otherwise unavailable to English-speaking readers. A wonderful buffet of a book, that you can pick at and graze upon for days.

Slippery Noodles

By Hsiang Ju Lin,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Slippery Noodles as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

China is a big country and its cookery is one of the world’s greatest. In the last century all nations everywhere have been introduced to its tastes, flavours and cooking methods. But an understanding of Chinese food history is hard to come by: the country is large and the history is long. Hsiang Ju Lin has interrogated the written record, some of it dating back to the 5th century BC, and most recently from books current in the People’s Republic today; she has translated it and set it into culinary context and thereby allows the modern reader to enter into…


From Canton Restaurant to Panda Express: A History of Chinese Food in the United States

By Haiming Liu,

Book cover of From Canton Restaurant to Panda Express: A History of Chinese Food in the United States

Why this book?

It was hard finding just one book out of the many that have been written about Chinese food’s fortune’s abroad, but Liu ably chronicles a love-affair that is as old as the United States themselves, which begins with would-be rebels throwing chests of Fujian tea into Boston harbor. Liu points to the long history of Chinese in America, and the impact they have had as laborers, miners and cooks, particularly for low-income groups who welcomed the rarity of the warm hash dishes that came to be known as chop suey. This is a book that allows the reader the chance to appreciate the degree to which “Chinese” food in America is in a world, and a class, all of its own.

From Canton Restaurant to Panda Express: A History of Chinese Food in the United States

By Haiming Liu,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked From Canton Restaurant to Panda Express as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

From Canton Restaurant to Panda Express takes readers on a compelling journey from the California Gold Rush to the present, letting readers witness both the profusion of Chinese restaurants across the United States and the evolution of many distinct American-Chinese iconic dishes from chop suey to General Tso's chicken. Along the way, historian Haiming Liu explains how the immigrants adapted their traditional food to suit local palates, and gives readers a taste of Chinese cuisine embedded in the bittersweet story of Chinese Americans.

Treating food as a social history, Liu explores why Chinese food changed and how it has influenced…


How to Cook and Eat in Chinese

By Buwei Yang Chao,

Book cover of How to Cook and Eat in Chinese

Why this book?

First published in 1945, and reissued in many later editions, Chao’s book was immensely influential on the spread of American food in China. An academic and medical professional who fell into Chinese food-advocacy by accident, she presents a series of everyday recipes, “things for folk like you and me” that were nevertheless impossibly exotic at the time she was writing. Her book is a fascinating time capsule of attitudes and assumptions in the era before America could boast of a Chinese restaurant in every suburb, but also a no-nonsense cookbook for the beginner.

How to Cook and Eat in Chinese

By Buwei Yang Chao,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked How to Cook and Eat in Chinese as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

How to Cook and Eat in Chinese [Paperback] Buwei Yang Chao (Author)


5 book lists we think you will like!

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