Cookbook Mania! Inaugural post: The Chinese Cookbook, by Craig Claiborne and Virginia Lee

by Sarah on October 25, 2009

My name is Sarah and I am an addict.  An addict of vintage cookbooks.

And not any old vintage cookbooks.  I have a great and undying love for cookbooks written in the 50’s and 60’s about the beginning of haute cuisine and a real interest in good food in America.  The awakening of the American palate, if you will.  I don’t know why or how this has happened.  I suppose it began with my burgeoning interest in French food.  I started dabbling in preparations at home, using the old standby, Mastering the Art of French Cooking by Julia Child, et al.  I was warmed up by good old Jacques Pepin, on PBS on Saturday mornings.  Then the mania began in earnest.  I began stalking the cooking section at Beers Books here in Sacramento.  When in Portland, I’d scout forgotten tomes in the bookstore holy grail, Powell’s Books.  I really hit the jackpot, though, when I discovered eBay and I acquired my first Visa debit card.  From Julia, I read about James Beard.  From James I learned about Craig Claiborne.  From Craig I got a goldmine of information:  Pierre Franey, Henri Soule, Andre Soltner, Richard Olney, Paul Bocuse, and the Troisgros brothers.  And so on.  At last count, I was up to 120+ cookbooks and collections of food writing.  Not to mention every issue of Gourmet since I first subscribed in the 80’s.  And I’m still searching.

What I’m getting at is that I have an enormous and undying love for these pioneering chefs and writers, so much so that I think I will begin sharing this with you.  I’m hoping this can become a weekly post, but as I hope to give you some background on the chef, or on the book, it may be more like bi-monthly.


I thought we’d get started with Craig Claiborne and Virginia Lee’s book, “The Chinese Cookbook”.  Craig Claiborne met Virginia Lee in 1970 while he was still writing and reviewing for the New York Times.  Mrs. Lee had begun giving cooking classes out of her apartment and Claiborne was one of her early students.  Right away, Claiborne knew he was hooked and agreed to collaborate with Mrs. Lee on a cookbook.  Together, they tested recipes and wrote at Claiborne’s East Hampton house and two years later “The Chinese Cookbook” was born.  “For many Americans, [The Chinese Cookbook] opened the door to a world beyond
chop suey and egg foo young.”   Sadly, the book, first published in 1972, is now out of print, but you can still find it in used book stores, like I did, or on the internet.

I realize I’m starting with a pedestrian recipe, but it’s a good ‘un, and I was making it tonight anyway.  Fried Rice.  Actually, it’s titled “The Best Fried Rice”.  The book states “Fried rice is, of course, one of the best-known of all Chinese dishes.  If it is frowned upon as commonplace, it is because the run-of-the-mill fried rice served in most Chinese restaurants is precisely that.  This fried rice is a bit of a masterpiece.”  I have to take a couple of liberties with it, because I don’t have any Chinese sausage or bean sprouts.  I’m going to put a little bacon in it instead and see how that goes.

This all stuff that was already in my house.  I love fried rice for that–you can put anything in it.

I had some of Mr. Bledsoe’s dynamite bacon, so that’s what I’m frying up here.

The recipe calls for raw shrimp, but again, I’m improvising–I didn’t feel like making the trek to the store, so I utilized what I had.  In a bowl, add a teaspoon each of salt and soda.

The look a little odd, but never mind that.  Let sit for 15 minutes.

Rinse the shrimp thoroughly, then pat dry on paper towels.

Now, when you are getting ready to stir-fry anything, it’s easiest to have everything ready nearby.  Believe me, when the stuff starts flying, you don’t want to stop and chop some onions.  All the stuff in the wok would burn.
Heat up about 5 Tbsp. vegetable or peanut oil, until it’s about at the smoking point.
Put the shrimp in.  If you are using raw shrimp, cook until shrimp are opaque, stirring constantly.  If you use cooked ones, only heat them through because they will get overcooked quickly.
Strain the shrimp over a bowl.
And return the oil to the wok.  I’ve never heard of doing this, but it makes sense to keep the seasoned oil.
Add the bacon–or the chopped Chinese sausage and warm through.  Stir in the rice.
Stir constantly until heated through, but not browned.
When the rice is hot, make a well in the center of the wok.
Add the beaten eggs.
Stir the eggs slowly, like you are making scrambled eggs.
When they look like soft scrambled eggs, stir them into the rice in a circular motion.
Sorry, this is blurry, but it’s me adding the oyster sauce.  Add the peas at this time too.
Next comes the shrimp.
and last, the green onions.
Looks good, doesn’t it?  But was it really the BEST fried rice?

Damn straight, it was.

From ‘The Chinese Cookbook’, by Craig Claiborne and Virginia Lee, 1972

Craig Claiborne and Virginia Lee's Best Fried Rice


  • 5 cups cold cooked rice--cooked at least one day in advance
  • 1 cup raw small shrimp--peeled, deveined and split in half lengthwise
  • 1 tsp baking soda
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 5 Tbsp vegetable or peanut oil
  • 2/3 cup cubed Chinese sausage (2 small) or cooked ham (or bacon!)
  • 3 eggs
  • 1/2 cup cooked fresh or frozen green peas
  • 1 Tbsp salt, or to taste
  • 2 Tbsp oyster sauce
  • 1 cup fresh bean sprouts
  • 1/2 cup chopped green onion


  • Flake the rice so that the grains do not stick together. Set aside.
  • Combine the shrimp with the salt and the soda and let stand 15 minutes. Rinse thoroughly in cold water and pat dry on paper toweling.
  • Heat the oil in a wok or skillet until it is almost smoking and add the shrimps. Cook, stirring quickly and turning them in the oil until they turn pink, about 30 seconds. Remove them to a sieve fitted over a mixing bowl and let them drain well. Return the oil from the drained shrimps to the pan.
  • Add the sausages or ham to the pan and cook just to heat through, stirring. Add the rice, stirring rapidly, and cook until thoroughly heated without browning.
  • Do the following quickly: Make a well in the center of the rice and add the eggs, stirring constantly. When they have a soft-scrambled consistency, start incorporating the rice, stirring in a circular fashion.
  • When all the rice and eggs are blended, add the peas and the tablespoon of salt, stirring. Stir in the oyster sauce and the cooked shrimp, tossing the rice over and over to blend everything. Stir in the bean sprouts and cok, stirring and tossing, about 30 seconds. Add the scallions and serve immediately.
  • Yield: 8-12 servings.

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