Student wins award in memory of leading exponent of Chinese cuisine

Doctoral student and food writer Celia Plender is the winner of the 2015 Yan-kit So Memorial Award for Food Writers on Asia

Student wins award in memory of leading exponent of Chinese cuisine

15/06/15

By Naomi Canton

A doctoral student and professional food writer has been awarded the 2015 Yan-kit So Memorial Award for Food Writers on Asia to research regional Japanese cuisine.

Celia Plender is a former chef, professional food writer and is currently in the first year of a PhD in Food Anthropology at SOAS.

The Yan-kit So Memorial Award for Food Writers on Asia was established in 2006 in memory of London-based Chinese cookbook writer Yan-kit So to assist first-time cookery writers who are interested in writing about Asian cuisine. The Award provides a bursary to support travel and research expenses during the time when a proposal is being written and before a publishing contract has been awarded.

Plender will use the Award of £2,500 to fund a trip across nine regions of Japan to learn about regional dishes.

“It has long been a dream of mine to write a Japanese cookbook. Now I have a very strong incentive to get fluent in Japanese,” she said.

Plender first came across Japanese cuisine when she started working at a London sushi restaurant.

“This piqued my desire to learn more,” she said.

So she moved to Japan in 2006 to teach English and took up a part-time job in a high-end Tokyo ryotei restaurant (luxurious restaurant usually staffed by geisha) serving kaiseki ryori (Japanese haute cuisine).

“At lunch times I would serve and in the evenings I would work in the kitchens mainly garnishing. I think they quite enjoyed having me there because I was an oddity behind the counter,” she said.

After staying in Japan for 15 months she returned to the UK and started writing about food for Time Out London and other publications. Now she also contributes recipes to Channel 4 Food and edits cookbooks.

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Goya champuru – bitter melon stir-fry, Okinawa and Okonomiyaki – savoury pancake, Osaka, Kansai – two of the Japanese dishes Celia Plender intends to include in her cookbook. Image credit: photography by Barley Blyton and food styling by Celia Plender

She is also learning Japanese language at SOAS, where she recently completed an MA in Food Anthropology. “This is in order to be able to conduct research into Japanese consumer food co-ops and food producers for my PhD,” she said.

Her proposed cookbook will include the history of Japanese food culture and will feature dishes from both homes and local restaurants in different regions of Japan, as well as seasonal dishes served at festivals. The culture, customs and geography of each region will also be covered.

One of the dishes Celia Plender intends to include in her cookbook. Image credit: photography by Barley Blyton and food styling by Celia Plender

Dashimaki – rolled omelette made with dashi fish stock, Kansai – one of the Japanese dishes Celia Plender intends to include in her cookbook. Image credit: photography by Barley Blyton and food styling by Celia Plender

The 36-year-old, who lives in London, said she wanted to enrich understanding in the West of Japan’s diverse regional cuisines, showing  Westerners that there is more to Japanese food than sushi, tempura and teriyaki.

“A lot of Japanese people will travel for hours just to sample a certain dish. Even the major train stations in Japan stock special bento [packed meal] boxes known as ekiben which showcase the best of the region – it’s always exciting to see what’s inside,” Plender said.

“There will be some sushi in my cookbook but I won’t do nigiri sushi  (raw fish on rice) – it will be stuff like temaki sushi  (rolled sushi) and what you might have at a party at home. I think a lot of the ingredients are available in Britain now. I will list alternatives as well,” she added.

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Temaki sushi is one of the Japanese dishes Celia Plender intends to include in her cookbook. Image credit: photography by Barley Blyton and food styling by Celia Plender

“There is a big interest in Japanese cuisine here in the UK and people are expanding their understanding of it to an extent and there is a lot they don’t know. So this is a nice way to show people different things,” she said.

“I had not heard of Yan-kit So until I came across the Award last year,” Plendey said. “Guy Dimond, Group Food and Drink Editor at Time Out, emailed me last year about it.  But I did not apply as I had just started my MA in Anthropology of Food so I waited for the next Award to come around.”

Betty Yao, the Founder and Administrator of the Yan-kit So Memorial Award for Food Writers on Asia congratulates the 2015 winner Celia Plender.

Betty Yao, the Founder and Administrator of the Yan-kit So Memorial Award for Food Writers on Asia, congratulates the 2015 winner Celia Plender

Until the 1960s few British people cooked Chinese cuisine at home. The cuisine was popularised first by Kenneth Lo, a grandson son of Sir Lo Feng-Lu, a former Chinese Ambassador in London, who wrote his first book on Chinese cooking in 1955. He then went on to publish 40 Chinese cookbooks rising to fame in the 1970s. Then the second person to influence its popularity was Yan-kit So in the 1980s.

One of eight children, Yan-kit So Martin was born in 1933 in Zhongshan in Guangdong Province, Southern China, raised in Hong Kong and then moved to England.

She never trained in cookery but always watched what was happening in the kitchen of her wealthy Hong Kong home.  Her father Yin-Mo So was very particular that the food served to the family was correctly cooked and presented.  After studying History at Hong Kong University she got a place at SOAS in 1956 to do a PhD in 19th Century Sino-Burmese border issues.

It was whilst doing research at the India Office Records of the British Library in London that she met an American scholar of Indian History called Briton Martin Jr.

They married and moved to the USA where they had a son, Hugo E. Martin, in 1965. Two years later her husband died whilst lecturing in India. Left as a widow with a young son so in the 1970s, she made it her mission to build up awareness about Chinese food among the British public and Westerners generally.

It was in 1984 that she published her first cookery book, Yan-kit So’s Classic Chinese Cookbook, with Dorling Kindersley, a book of Cantonese recipes, which became a bestseller.

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The original cookbook with a picture of Yan-kit So on the front.

It is so popular that it is still in print and remains one of the top English-language Chinese cookery books in the UK. This was around the same period that Ken Hom OBE was promoting Chinese cooking on TV.

It won two major food awards: The André Simon Memorial Fund Annual Food and Drink Book Award in 1984 and the Glenfiddich Food and Drink Award in 1985.

“This book established her. It stood the test of time,” explained Betty Yao, Founder and Administrator of the Yan-kit So Memorial Award for Food Writers on Asia. “The standard and knowledge of Chinese food was very low then in the UK and it was not considered haute cuisine. Her market was the West – UK, Europe and the US. She soon became renowned for her tried and tested recipes, with photos of all the dishes, easy-to-follow step-by-step instructions, ingredients available in the UK, background on Chinese food culture, and her comprehensive knowledge of food in China.”

Some of the recipes inside Yan-kit's Classic Chinese Cookbook

Some of the recipes inside ‘Yan-kit’s Classic Chinese Cookbook’

Yan-kit So later published Wok Cookbook in 1985 and in 1988 Yan-kit’s Chinese Cookery and also Party Eats in 1989 in partnership with corporate and private caterer Paul Bloomfield, who caters for Asia House. Then in 1994 she produced another hit, Classic Food of China, published by Macmillan, which explored the historical and cultural context of Chinese food in more depth, containing more than 150 recipes covering different regions.

“She started with Cantonese recipes and then developed recipes for regional dishes,” Yao explained.

She also wrote many articles and restaurant reviews. He books explored the seasons and role of food and importance of meals in Chinese culture.

“Her books have endured because she used her training and skills as a historian and an academic researcher and applied it rigorously. So her recipes are very thoroughly tested. She would test and test them so many times. They really work. There is lots of context and history in her books. The recipes are for traditional dishes and she made sure the ingredients were available in the West,” Yao said.

Yan-kit So was a member of many gastronomical societies including the Oxford Symposium on Food and Cookery, an intellectual gathering of food lovers, academics, cooks, independent scholars, and enthusiasts, all passionate about food. She was often consulted by academics and journalists and was friends with Egon Ronay.

“The food she prepared was always amazing. Not just the taste but the presentation was also was stunning.  She served the food on an eclectic range of dishes including rural crockery from the villages. It was a feast for the eyes as well,” Yao said.

“She was very socially active, hosting her renowned dinner parties, being a patron to museums, learning languages and attending concerts and operas. Her lifelong passions were travel and food and she had a lifelong interest in the tastes and varieties of Chinese cuisine.

“She ate in fancy restaurants and socialised in the foodie scene. She was a patron of the British Museum. She helped introduce Chinese people to the Museum and also helped with Chinese banquets and entertainment of VIPs.”

Betty Yao was the Programme Director at Asia House at that time and she invited Yan-kit So to give a a talk at Asia House to introduce different Chinese festival foods.

In 2001 Yan-kit died aged 68. At the time she was preparing to lead a gastronomic tour of China for the British Museum showcasing the history and source of the various foods on offer.

So, Yao launched a memorial lecture at Asia House in her memory. In 2003  David Thompson, famed for his modern Thai restaurant Nahm, spoke about Thai street food in a three way partnership between the British Museum, Asia House and Nahm. This was followed by servings of Thai food. The next lecture was in 2004 when Claudia Roden spoke about Middle Eastern food, then in 2006 cookery writer Fuchsia Dunlop spoke.

“We first advertised the Yan-kit So Memorial Award  for Food Writers on Asia in 2006 and the first winner in 2008 was Meihou Shao who travelled to China. Then the 2013 winner was Mirabelle Lý Eliot, who travelled to Vietnam. After that we did not do any more memorial lectures and  it just became the Award,” Yao said.

“Yan-kit So’s two passions were food and travel, so we decided to give it to unpublished cookery book writers.  Yan-kit So would be really over the moon about it as it’s just really unusual to have this combination of an award that combines her two passions, food and travel,” she said.

Chinese cookery writer Fuchsia Dunlop, one of the judges of the 2015 Yan-kit So Memorial Award, was a friend of Yan-kit So’s. “Even before meeting her I had made her Sichuanese dish of Fish in Chilli Bean Sauce,” Dunlop said. “Then I got to know her when I started writing Chinese restaurant reviews for Time Out London in the mid 1990s. By that time I had been to chef school in China and when I came back I wanted to write about Chinese food and I met Yan-kit So. I think what made her dishes work was that she combined being an excellent cook, having a really good palate and a scholarly approach,” she explained.

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A recipe inside ‘Yan-kit’s Classic Chinese Cookbook’

“She was an amazing hostess and her dinner parties were always full of interesting writers and artists,” she added.  She said she had many of Yan-kit So’s books, as well as some of her cooking equipment –  such as a claypot and steamer – as Hugo had donated them all to her.

Caterer and chef Paul Bloomfield, who does much of the catering at Asia House, befriended Yan-kit So at a Guild of Food Writers event he was catering for and ended up working for her. She taught him Chinese cuisine and he started catering for her private parties. “She was increasingly frustrated by what she considered to be appalling Chinese food in London in the 1980s,” explained Bloomfield. “There were only two she rated – Fung Shing on Lisle Street in Soho and Golden Chopsticks in South Kensington. So she decided to start cataloguing all her mother’s recipes. She was a not a trained cook, she was self-taught and otherwise she was an academic.

“Guests at her parties would include the likes of Anton Mosimann OBE and Claudia Roden. I remember she asked me to make miniature versions of her Chinese dishes and we were the first people to make miniature spicy rolls in London,” he said. He then created Party Eats: Delicious Food from the East and West (1989) with her, which has a combination of Eastern and Western and fusion canapés.

Yan-kit So’s Classic Chinese Cookbook was and still is a definitive book on Chinese cooking in the UK, he said. “It is an encyclopaedia of accuracy on Chinese food. She was a great educationalist and in all of her books she was a teacher that is what sets her apart from other writers about Chinese food,” he added.

naomi.canton@asiahouse.co.uk

To read the press release on the announcement of this year’s winner click here.
For more information about the Yan-kit So Memorial Award for Food Writers on Asia click here.
To find out about upcoming events at Asia House click here.