From My Wok to Yours - Taking the Mystery Out of Everyday Dining and Meals!!

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Eating Like a Foo' (Egg Foo Yung)

So I have been invited out to lunch today by Ms. Park, an acquaintance of mine, who wants to take me to this Asian Buffet down the street from my office.  Now, please don't misunderstand.   I like Ms. Park.  She brightens my day, in her eccentric way, and, although she is an 80 year old Korean woman, she feels that we share much in common, despite the decades of differences between us.  She loves my girls, says that they should be her great grand-daughters, showers the family with gifts, talks with a VERY strong accent (even after 74 years here in the United States) and loves to eat.  But she LOVES to eat at the Asian Buffet. (and I am too polite to decline...) 

GRRF... (really, this place serves ENCHILADAS and JELLO...)


San Antonio seems to be the market for Asian Buffets, and they are as populous as Starbucks.  Indeed, there are more Asian Buffet Restaurants here than there are Starbucks, and they are HUGE, sprawling restaurants, designed to pack anywhere from 150 to 200 people in their dining rooms. 

Their food bars are islands which allow the guests to forage, scavenge and fight over the food from both sides of the pan, but heaven help you if you ask for something that is not on the bar.  Hot & Sour Soup?  check.  Egg Drop Soup?  check.  Chicken on a skewer? check...  Jello? check.

It is almost like a DIY Panda Express.  And don't get me started on that place...

When we first moved to San Antonio, I knew I was going to be in a world of hurt, because the first place we went to eat was one of those "Super Buffets" - China Sea, I believe it was called.  While I had transfer orders from the place I was working at in the Bay Area, I even entertained the idea of working at China Sea...until I tried their food.  Yeah.  No.  Not good.  Really.

I have developed a somewhat unpopular opinion of the Chinese food here in San Antonio.  Having been able to enjoy the true taste in the Bay Area, I know that what we have here, with exception to 1 restaurant, is just an "American bastardization of Chinese Food."  The flavors lack the subtleties of true Chinese cuisine, and are often over-salted, or excessively sweet, or simply too spicy.  And people like that?!?!?

Apparently so.  People look at me like I have another arm growing out of my torso when I turn up my nose to The Golden Phoenix, or China Garden, or Wok on Wheels, or Ding How, or Taste of China Super Buffet, or... (the list goes name it...)  because I know better than to go there more than I absolutely have to, which thankfully, is almost never.  If people want to believe that the offerings at those locations are the real thing, I will let them believe so.  But go into the dining room and look around...

(My Dad brought this to my attention.)  If there are no Asian people eating in an Asian restaurant, you are in some trouble.

If you REALLY want to understand the differences between Chinese-American food and what I consider Chinese food, you MUST go to Chinatown in San Francisco or New York, then try the food here in San Antonio. Ask the proprietor to bring three different dishes: Chicken Chow Mein, Shrimp with Lobster Sauce, and Egg Foo Yung. The only stipulation was that each of these dishes be prepared two ways, one for the American palate, and one for the Chinese. The overwhelming majority at many Chinatown restaurants are westerners, and such is the case at the place am being taken to today. The owner of this restaurant should know exactly what you are talking about when ordering the dishes made these ways.

You will be astounded when the Egg Foo Yung American Style comes out as a solid mound with brown gravy on top; whereas the Chinese version resembles scrambled eggs, omelet style. They won't taste too different, but they sure as heck will look different.

As for the Shrimp with Lobster Sauce--the quality of the ingredients should be the same in both dishes. The shrimps should be large, fresh, and cooked just right. The one made for western guests will be swimming in a bland white sauce, while mine will have been made with black bean sauce and garlic. (yumm... I am drooling just thinking of it...)  Of course, any diner worth their salt, with a reasonable palate will favor my dish.

The most obvious difference will be from the Chicken Chow Mein. The western version is everything you'd expect--vegetables with shredded chicken sprinkled on top. I love it, usually thinking it a real treat, since I am generally too embarrassed to order it in this form. The Chinese version, is a wonderful combination of chicken, vegetables, and gravy, all poured over Chinese fried noodles.  This kind of dish can be ordered at Golden Wok, made the right way...

So there is still a gap--though shrinking--between what some perceive as Chinese food for Chinese consumption, and Chinese food for western consumption. This is not true for all dishes--just for the more popular Cantonese dishes--such as the items mentioned above. The question is, how do you know what you will get when you order?

For me it is simple. I order in Chinese (when I can,) and automatically the waiter understands that I want everything made Chinese-style. For most people, the best way around this is to understand that items such as Chow Mein, Egg Foo Yung, Shrimp in Lobster Sauce, Lobster Cantonese, even Chop Suey are prepared differently for the Chinese palate.

Cantonese Chow Mein has yellow egg noodles, Egg Foo Yung is an omelet, Shrimp and Lobster Sauce has black beans and garlic, and Chop Suey is a combination of different sauteed ingredients. Tell the waiter you want it a certain style--the way Chinese people like it, and if the restaurant can make it that way, it generally will be happy to do so. Not all Chinese dishes have a counterpart for the American palate--generally this only exists with the more popular and familiar Cantonese dishes.

According to a good friend of mine, who finally agreed to be interviewed, and who has spent the best part of twenty-five years cooking in what he called the "most expensive chop suey house," differences in the two styles of cooking evolved because of customer preferences. "Americans thought black beans looked dirty," he said, "so we took them out of the shrimp and lobster sauce, and made it in a white gravy."

Gravy is perhaps the greatest difference between 'American' and 'Chinese-style' Chinese food. "Americans like lots of gravy," he continued, "and it has to match the ingredient. Take lobster: Americans like a white gravy, whereas Chinese prefer a drier sauce with black beans."  (Thankfully, his accent was strong enough to mask the scorn that any westerner woudl have otherwise heard dripping from his voice.)

That same chef advised that he prepares a darker gravy for beef to match the coloring of the meat, and a lighter colored gravy for chicken. He also said that it was common for waiters to specify whether the dish is for an American or a Chinese customer. This he advised would determine how he prepares the dish.

Sweet & Sour sauce, in its red form, for westerners, is prepared with ketchup as its base.  The TRUE Chinese taste will  be able to recreate the flavors using plum sauce, mirin, brown sugar, light soy, vinegar and salt. 

Differences in the way foods are prepared tend to be more common in the Chinatown setting, where there is, on balance, a large community of Chinese patrons. Outside of Chinatown, restaurants tend to prepare their dishes for western tastes unless otherwise specified.

Certain restaurants (such as the local Asian Buffets) have built a reputation on serving a predominantly western crowd, others cater mostly to Chinese taste. Neither is necessarily better than the other; it is more a question of the kind of food the customers want to eat. Those serving mostly western tastes would probably make better Chicken Chow Mein, Egg Rolls, or Spare Ribs. Those with more Chinese patrons tend to offer different types of dishes, such as tripe in clay pot. How you figure out which kind of restaurant is which, is not always easy.

"Americans enjoy Chinese food, but they appreciate items they find pleasing to the palate that are familiar to them," the owner went on, "but it is different from what we eat. For instance, Cantonese people love white meat chicken--but it has to be cooked just right, so the meat is silky, but the inside of the bone still hints of blood. But if you serve chicken that way to American customers, most would feel it undercooked." This gentleman also advised that "anyone coming in and saying that he knows Chinese food who then proceeds to order Sweet and Sour Fish, obviously does not. The Cantonese like their fish steamed, so the flavor can be savored, rather than deep fried. It takes six minutes to steam fish--the meat should be smooth, and easily removed from the bone. Fish, too, can be overcooked, and one of the first things cooks learn, is how to properly steam fish."

Whether it is New York, San Francisco, or any other major city, the possibility of getting the kind of food Chinese people are accustomed to is far greater in the Chinatowns of those cities than outside of them. The point is, the Cantonese dishes--which most Americans eat, and think of as Chinese food--very often are prepared differently for Chinese customers than for the Americans; even though the names of the dishes are the same. It is not a question of restaurants not wanting to serve the authentic stuff. Rather what is served to western patrons, has evolved though the years because of customer preference.

As western patrons learn more about good Chinese cooking, they have become more demanding, willing to experiment, and willing and wanting real Chinese food. The rise in popularity of Szechuan and Hunan cooking over the last fifteen years is evidence of this.

Furthermore, the two-tier styles of cooking--for western versus Chinese tastes--does not exist for these two regional styles of Chinese cooking. That is because they were popularized overnight, and unlike Cantonese cooking, have yet to be 'Americanized.

Perhaps Szechuan and Hunan cuisine won't undergo the same evolution as Cantonese did in this country. Today, American tastes and understandings about Chinese food are much more sophisticated than they were eighty years ago. Americans are eating more Chinese food than ever before, and many want to try something different. They are and they find that they are enjoying it. Of course they are, because real Chinese food is absolutely wonderful!

Until later, Good Eating, Friends...

Crispy Chrysanthemum Fish in Sweet and Sour Sauce
Chinese Style

Makes: 4 servings

1 lb. firm white fishfillets, such as catfish or Tilapia

1 tsp. salt

1/4 tsp. ground white pepper

1/8 cup Shaoxing wine

1/4 cup tomato paste

1/4 cup rice vinegar

1/4 cup chicken broth

3 Tbsps. plum sauce

2 Tbsps. light brown sugar, packed

1 Tbsp. vegetable oil

1/4 cup minced celery

1/4 cup sliced carrots

1/4 cup minced onion

1/4 cup minced green bell pepper

vegetable oil for deep-frying

1/4 cup cornstarch

1. Lay one of the fillets on a cutting board with the tail end facing you. Working with a thin-bladed knife and holding the blade parallel to the cutting board, cut through the center of the fillet starting at one of the long sides. Do not cut all the way through the fillet: the idea is to ‘butterfly’ it, so it opens up like a book. Close the fillet back up and cut it crosswise—through the uncut side—into 1/2-inch wide strips. Sprinkle fish filets with salt and pepper. Let stand for 15 minutes.

2. Prepare the seasonings: Whisk the ketchup, vinegar, plum sauce, chicken stock, and brown sugar together in a small bowl until well blended.

3. Heat a 2-quart saucepan over high heat until hot. Add oil and swirl to coat the bottom. Add the celery, carrot, onion and bell pepper and stir-fry until vegetables begin to soften, 2 to 3 minutes. Pour in the seasonings, bring the sauce to a boil, and then reduce the heat to low to keep the sauce warm.

4. Pour enough vegetable oil into the wok to a depth of 3-inches. Heat over medium-high heat to 375 F. Dust the fish strips with cornstarch to coat them lightly and shake gently to remove any excess. Hold one of the fish strips by the uncut end and slowly lower the cut end into the oil. Gently move the fish constantly as you lower it so the cut ends begin to curl. When the ends begin to curl, release the fish into the oil. Repeat with as many of the remaining fish fillets as will fit into the oil without crowding. Cook until golden brown, about 2 to 3 minutes. Remove the fillets with a slotted spoon and drain on paper towels. Repeat with the remaining fillet strips.

5. Arrange the fried fillets on a warm platter with the curled ends facing up. Spoon the sauce over the fish and garnish with steamed bok choy. Serve immediately.

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