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

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Wok Like a Chinese Guy

If the owner or cook is Chinese, and the cuisine is steak and potatoes, is it Chinese food?

If the owner is named Pepin or Puck, can the restaurant be Chinoise?

If the cook is Latino, can you offer Wok-amole?

Everyone eats and drinks; yet only few appreciate the taste of food.
Doctrine of Man, 4.2 by Confucius

So I just finished the shopping list for Eleyna’s birthday soiree and wow, it was a longer list than we thought it would be.  She decided that she wanted me to make fried rice for everybody, (which is going to end up being around 25 people) and the only way to do it well is to cook it to order, so off we are going, to the market, to act like a little piggy.  I realized that my thought process around making these rice dishes was based on my restaurant style of production, as this was going to be the best way to deliver the freshest and most flavorful meal.  Yeah, I will probably end up doing it restaurant style, with ordering tickets and all to make it a bit interactive… might be fun. 

With that thought, have you noticed that Chinese food and Chinese thinking have a lot to do with each other? Obvious as it may seem, it often takes having to experience a different kind of food and reflect on it to make the clearest comparison In my case, the usual comparison is between China and America.

1. In cooking we don’t have “1 cup”, “1/4 cup”, “1 teaspoon” measurement, we say “a little salt”. Exactly how little is little, it’s all a matter of exposure (to other cooks), exchange (of experience) and experience (of your own practice). While I have often shuddered while watching cooks toss a liberal amount of salt into a pan, I have come to realize that it simply is their preference, and they, after hopefully many years of doing so, have calibrated their hand to be able to “feel” the what right amount of seasoning is.  (For the sake of consistency, if ever trying to deliver the same meal on different occasions, I am a huge proponent of portion control and measurement,  but to stick to the emotional attachment behind doing it the “
Chinese Way

,” even I will revert to hand seasoning.  We don’t have “preheat oven to 425 degrees” either, we say “small fire”, “medium fire”, “”big fire”. Scratch your head and think what these mean. The Chinese mind is similarly conditioned to process such chaotic vagueness with ease and patience.

2. When Americans eat meat, especially here in Texas, it’s usually a huge chunk of steak or a huge rack of ribs.  With vegetables, it’s salad that is made of things strictly from the green kingdom. Not us, we are omnivorous beings! We mix beef, beans, green onions (and in my case liberally applied hot pepper), all together, then stir fry them. It’s supposed to be more balanced and healthy. That’s why my weight has been so consistent for the last 17 years. When we think, we tend to see things as coming together instead of being separate entities. This has bad and good impact on the way we think. Sometimes it causes us to be more analytical thinkers, going fluidly from one thing to another with ease, but there might be risk for sloppy thinking, which I certainly do not encourage. (Such fluid thinking, when done as a child, may be misdiagnosed as Attention Deficit Disorder, when in reality, a young mind is simply moving from one though process to another, in a natural order.)  I think a person can be both holistic and rigorous, or remain rigid and sloppy. In science for instance, some Chinese scientists, if not trained in other methods, tend to see different things at the same time without clearly separating variables. I see this a lot when I review a Chinese journal. These authors add one thing after another into a paper the way we eat from a hot pot. Such ways of thinking can be detrimental (for instance in some quantitative studies) or beneficial (for instance in some qualitative studies), depending on the context. It is similar in medicine. Traditionally (before western medicine took the upper hand) traditional Chinese doctors would frown upon their colleagues who treat a pain in the head by examining just the head (for instance, an MRI of the head). We see the human body as an interconnected whole that is bigger than the sum of all the parts. A Chinese doctor may think, maybe that has something to do with a kidney problem. Open up and say “Aah” so I can check your kidney.

3. A typical Chinese kitchen has bowls, plates, chopsticks, knives, chopping boards, some spoons, not many more beyond that. We use chopsticks for all sorts of things, even to drink soup, if you know how (you pick up your bowl and drink from there and use chopsticks to pick up the solid stuff). Now, sadly, few people do that for fear of impressing people as being not “civilized” (to me it is more a difference in the perception of table manners. In China, you are considered rude if you take the “upper seat” in a table that is reserved for seniors.) American kitchens have all kinds of tools, each dedicated to its special purpose. Most of these purposes are mysterious to me. For instance, there is a long tube-like sucker which I later learned is a tool to suck away extra gravy when cooking turkey. After all these years of dining and cooking, I still don’t distinguish between a regular spoon and a soup spoon. I can recognize only half of the tools in the kitchen. Chinese folks depend less on specialized tools when we think. We now do, by learning from the west.

4. Chinese do not learn cooking by reading recipes. We mainly watch someone (mom, grandma, wife) do it and that’s how we learn. Even now, living in the US, we learn in similar ways, sharing mainly in experience-based oral tradition. For instance we have a potluck together and we exchange ideas on how to cook, say, Kung Pao Pork. (I can’t even remember the last time anyone asked me how to do it, though, as no one in the family seems brave enough to venture out and try to do it.)  We do have recipes, but most of them are useless anyway, as they seem not to have the kind of precision that can help an American to learn, which is better, because otherwise most Chinese restaurants will shut down. Americans cook by reading recipes. If the recipe is lost, the cook goes nuts. This also explains the difference in the passing of expertise in China and in America. In China, people learn more by following experts and try to internalize the expertise through observation, practice, error and mistakes. Americans do that too, but my observation is that people are more used to reading instructions, all the way from putting together a toy to the installation of software. The standard method of training in the restaurant industry, no matter the name, is a four step process: Prepare, Present, Try-Out and Follow Up.  This generalization may be equally related to individual learning styles rather than national differences. However, as someone in the cooking industry, focusing on education, I often find myself going back to my Chinese roots when I hear Americans talk about “cognitive apprenticeship” (learning from your grandma, not a recipe), “peer learning” (learning from discussions in a Chinese potluck party, whereas an American housewife would just ask “could you please give me the recipe?”), etc. While these theories seem leading edge in the US education circles, we have been doing these for thousand of years, without, of course, verbalizing them into theories.

5. When Chinese food is being cooked, salt, sugar, vinegar, and other ingredients and spices and sauces are already added in the food, so good luck getting the food to your taste. Americans tend to make their food more bland to start with, and you “season to taste.”  (There is nothing that drives me more nuts than when someone will liberally douse a meal that I have cooked with hot oil, or chili sauce before even tasting the original dish.  It is almost a suggestion that the food itself lacks enough flavor.  However, you will never witness that kind of travesty in a Chinese home, with food cooked by a Chinese chef.)  When Chinese think, we tend to be more collective in the choice of subjects, perspectives, and topics. You start from the forest and zoom in to the trees if needed. You start basically from a common “whole”. Americans seem to be more individualized in the way they approach things. Such rigid adherence to an approach makes it tough to determine which method is better.

6. As desserts go, Chinese don’t have a tradition of eating dessert. Because desserts are too sweet, often people balance it with something bitter, such as coffee. To have coffee, some have sugar, some have cream, some have vanilla, etc. Life just gets so exponentially complex from there! We just drink tea! Green leaves and hot water. That’s it. You can drink it for hours and sit there, talk about food, stock market, a book, or simply gossip about something or someone. Imagine drinking 10 cups of coffee in a row! You can easily drink 10 cups of tea without upsetting your stomach. Chinese view with caution the extreme sweetness and bitterness as shown in dessert and coffee. We value a more moderate approach to sweetness. Good things are good because there is something not so good in them to show how good the good things are (quite a mouthful). Happiness comes after we have gone through and overcome difficulties. You don’t just take sweetness in its entirety and purity such as a chocolate cake! In terms of thinking, as a general rule, we traditionally value what we call “zhong yong zhi dao” (the way of the golden balance). These are all changing now with people adopting extreme left or right positions. I like American dessert more and more, yet I am not willing to give up my green tea.

So, onward with the preparation, and good luck to me…

Until then, Good Eating, Friends…


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