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

Friday, February 26, 2010

Back to the Basics

What defines your idea of Chinese cooking?  If your idea of Chinese cooking includes egg rolls, fortune cookies and lemon chicken, you hopefully have received quite a wake up call.

The key to understanding the myriad of options when discovering and trying Chinese, or any Asian cuisine is flexibility.  Understanding that there exists an underlying simplicity behind each dish will help as well.  Because we do not have the rules that require strict adherence to measurements or exacting quantities, you will find that having an open mind will help you learn the magic behind the meal.

Creativity and openness to invention will allow you to create your own version of a delicious meal, and it may even help you to sharpen your cooking instinct to be reflective of the great Chinese masters.  Does what you see on Iron Chef intrigue you?  Do you enjoy the show that Martin Yan puts on?  Such authentic yet original cuisine does not come easily yet with a little effort, even the novice can create something close.  Do you need to be well versed in the fancy cooking techniques? No.  Do you need to buy or have readily available a ton of new, fancy cooking equipment?  Also, no.  Are you willing to follow a few basic guidelines that outline the basic principles behind Chinese cooking?  If your response is in the affirmative, then you are the perfect audience for my diatribe.

The beauty behind the foods is that you do not have to redefine the type of food, or the experience.  Often times, the best way to discover the best recipe is to dissect or deconstruct the food that you may be eating at that moment.  The question that nags lovers of Chinese food is: "Can I create some of these tasty, savory dishes at home?" The answer is: "Very easily, with a little practice." Once your kitchen has been stocked with the key ingredients that I have touched on before, a few basic utensils and an apprentice cook's enthusiasm, it can produce a multi-course meal for half-a-dozen guests at 30 minutes' notice.

The goal in starting out is to try to create the correct balance of flavors and textures in each platter, and throughout the whole meal. Practice definitely makes for Chinese culinary perfection. Start out simply, one course at a time, using any of the better-known Chinese cookery books designed for non-Chinese readers. Most of them are meant to be simple, and thus more easily created. 

All home-style dishes were meant to be quickly whipped up in a wok.  When ordering in a restaurant, most standard a la carte restaurant dishes are also created in a speedy, simple manner. That is partly because freshness and natural tastes are considered fundamental to Chinese cooking.

Nevertheless, it must be conceded that the time a traditional Chinese cook saves on cooking processes is more often than not devoted to the preparation of ingredients, but no more so than in a traditional American kitchen. Convenience in cooking is simply not a form that has been readily adopted by the Chinese. 

However, now, due to the higher percentage of dual income families, many have had to accept convenience. Tins of curried beef, marinated pork trotters, preserved vegetables and other "emergency" rations are standbys. Refrigerated and deep-frozen meals and shellfish are commonly used. For most Asians, however, the "real thing" is still preferred, especially for special family or festival meals. That means the cook must buy the best available market produce.

So, what does one really need to start cooking a Chinese meal? Very little, apart form top-class ingredients.

The "seven essentials" in a traditional Chinese kitchen were firewood, rice, oil, salt, sauce (soy), vinegar and tea. Everything else was bought fresh, twice or three times a daily.

Nowadays, of course, refrigeration means that shopping need not be done so frequently! Although today's cooks tend to stock many more ingredients, those seven essentials of a "well-kept house" indicate the simple style of Chinese cooking.

The "fire" is still the first priority. As so many Chinese, especially Cantonese, dishes depend on super-fast stir-frying and instantaneous heat control, a gas cooker is undoubtedly the best equipment. Use of an electric cooker necessitates a lot of practice in gauging when to adjust the heat level, and an electric place cannot caress a round-bottomed wok in the way that gas flames can. Yet, with practice, an electric cooker and flat-bottomed frying pan can turn out very passable Chinese dishes.

One round-bottomed wok is the only "special" utensil that is needed. Woks designed for electric ranges are available in stores. Be sure to buy a metal wok lid. Purists prefer cast-iron woks, for their fast conduction of heat, but stainless steel woks are just as acceptable. A 14-inch wok is adequate for home cooking.

A long-handled shovel-like metal spatula (wok sang) is more useful than a standard spatula for turning and tossing food. A small wooden-handled sieve is needed for moving deep-fried food to the walls of the wok for draining. The other basic utensil is a steaming stand (which also allows one to cook two dishes simultaneously). Additionally, wooden cooking chopsticks are recommenced cooking tools. (It is assumed most non-Chinese households already possess an electric rice cooker).

None of the utensils is expensive, including the key utensil, the chopper, or cleaver. It should be so sharp that one could shape or even cut one's nails with it (as is done by "pedicurists" in old-fashioned Chinese bath-houses!). The chopper is handled with great care by Chinese cooks, only raised high above the chopping block when one's second hand is well clear, and is never allowed to come near one's fingers. Instead, one should only present knuckles towards the blade's side when chopping or dicing food.

Wooden chopping blocks (usually cross-sections of soap wood tree trunks) are favored by most people because they do not blunt the chopper as quickly as other types. Modern considerations for hygiene have led to the widespread use of special plastic boards. However, as plastic boards can easily slip, the good heavy wooden blocks are still recommended, for safety's sake. Be sure to scrub and rinse (never soak) the board after every use.

Additional Chinese kitchen utensils such as bamboo steamers and earthenware cooking pots can be purchased when the apprentice cook moves onto more complex dishes. These items are well worth considering, once the basic techniques have been mastered, for bamboo steamers allow excess liquids to drain away from a steaming dish, and earthenware pots add an indefinable richness of flavor to soups and hot pots. There is one more thing that is essential, as you will soon discover, and that is an efficient exhaust fan to extract the steam!

When working with vegetables, a couple of quick lessons will have you cooking a dish of which the flavor, vitamin content and very color will amaze any guest used to old-fashioned over-boiled vegetables! The following basic steps are suitable for any cabbage, spinach, kale or other green vegetable, and will introduce the apprentice cook to the fundamental Cantonese cooking technique of stir-frying.

Wash and drain the vegetable leaves, chopping them into manageable lengths of about four inches. Chop the stalks too, if necessary. Then, thoroughly heat the wok.

Pour a little cooking oil into the pan. The amount will depend on how much and what type of vegetable leaves you are cooking. The idea is to have the vegetables lightly coated with the oil, with no excess oil lying in the pan, so a practice run or two will soon give you an eye for the appropriate amount.

You will only need to wait a moment until the oil is hot and starting to steam at the edges, then swirl it up the walls of the wok with the wok sang. Make sure that all the vegetables are coated. You will see them starting to cook, the inner core of the stems will change color, and an inviting aroma will rise from the wok.  A quick glance and sniff is enough to tell when the vegetables are ready for seasoning. Add a seasoning such as salt, sugar or chicken stock, and then a little water or stock. The liquid produces the steam in which the final cooking process is carried out. After quickly agitating the wok's contents with the wok sang, place the lid on the wok and wait a few minutes until there is only a little liquid left in the wok (experience will tell you precisely when).

Lift the lid and, presto! You have vibrant green fresh vegetables. The hot oil has sealed in all their natural juices, yet the steaming will have ensured that the vegetables are not oily. At this point, turn the heat down and taste the vegetables to see whether extra salt should be added. You can also add a sauce now, such as oyster sauce, sesame oil or wine, depending on the vegetable.

The same stir-frying techniques are applied to meat, and to such other vegetables as eggplant. If you plan to add a garlic, ginger or other garnish to the dish, add it in the initial stage, after the oil has been heated. Just remember the 18th c. counsel of Yuan Mei: "The eyes and the nose are neighbors to the mouth and act as middlemen. A good dish strikes the nose and eyes first.

With practice, you will discover how variations in this basic cooking technique can change the texture and taste of foods. In general, good quality cuts of meat warrant cooking in hot oil that has not started to smoke, while seafood and battered foods should be fried in a very hot pan in oil that has started to smoke, and larger pieces of meat or whole meats are best immersed in oil that has started to smoke at a lower temperature.

Shallow frying, say for fish, should be done over high heat until the fish has begun to brown, when the heat should be reduced to a minimum. You will know you judged it correctly when the fish does not stick to the wok or pan!

There are possibly a hundred more Chinese methods of "applying heat to food," as cooking has been described. Every region of China has its special cooking techniques, and the adventurous cook will enjoy discovering the variety of methods used for boiling, simmering, stewing, frying, smoking, marinating, etc.

Simplicity is the key to Chinese cuisine, despite the apparent complexities of Chinese restaurant menus. Maintaining and enhancing an ingredient's natural flavor is the name of the game. The game's second rule is that foods deserve to be flattered by complementary tastes and textures. Thus, one can create a personalized Chinese "nouvelle cuisine" by combining meats and vegetables in new ways, in a stir-fried dish, a soup or some other appetizing way.

So do take a small pad and pen with you when you dine in Hong Kong's fine Chinese restaurants so that you can take down the English names of dishes that were particularly pleasing, find the names in your cookery books at home, and get ready for fun in the kitchen.

Until then, Good Eating, Friends…

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