Last Wednesday The New York Times published an article by Kim Severson about “Recipe Deal Breakers.” In it she asked if there is an ingredient or a technique that would stop you from using a recipe. The article was humorous and light-hearted, which I enjoyed immensely. However, that didn’t stop a firestorm of reactions from spreading all over the culinary blogosphere. Michael Ruhlman joined in the fray with his blog post the next day. Kate Hopkins at Accidental Hedonist continued the discussion with a poll. Now it’s my turn to ask a similar question. What is a deal breaker for creating authentic Chinese food in an American Kitchen?
Category Archives: Techniques
Many Chinese vegetables are known to Americans as bok choy or simply Chinese cabbage. Although there is a wide variety of these “Chinese cabbages,” they all have a very similar, neutral, non-threatening taste recognizable to the American palate. But don’t be fooled, not all Chinese vegetables are bland and blah. There is also a large selection of mustard greens, not commonly known by Americans, that have much more distinct bitter and spicy flavors.
Yes, you can make red cooked beef. But the recipe is slightly modified from red cooked pork so as to add extra spices for reducing the gaminess of beef. Well, the Chinese do consider beef gamey. In fact they think “foreign savages” who eat beef and consume dairy products smell like stale butter. Yet many areas in China have large repertoire of beef dishes, especially in the Northern and Western regions. Go figure!
A month after I started my blog Bev Sansom posted a comment wanting to know how Asian stocks are made. I was pleased to know that readers like Bev are interested in proper cooking techniques.
Photography by Ron Boszko
When I order live fish at a restaurant in China it is customary for the kitchen staff to present the live fish tableside for inspection in a basket or plastic bag. (And sometime on an elegant silvery stainless platter in upscale restaurants.) The fish invariably flips and flops, and gasps for its last breath. The Asian and European diners amongst us would nod approvingly except of course for the Americans. They would shake their heads in disbelief. Twenty minutes later a beautifully fried or steamed fish is served, and everyone ooohs and aaahs except for the Americans. By this time they are so completely revolted they’d just sit and smile politely, believing PETA evangelists are about to materialize and surround the table with police tape. The different reactions remind me of what I recently read in The Fortune Cookie Chronicles by Jennifer 8. Lee. She wrote that Americans don’t want their food to look like real animals. Here lies the root of the culinary culture difference.
It is an invaluable tool in a Chinese kitchen: a plate lifter. Steaming is one of the most common techniques in Chinese cooking. A plate or a bowl is often buried deep in a steamer to cook food. This tool can safely lift a hot container out of the steamer without burning your hands.
I was living in Boston in the 1970’s when there was a sudden craze for dry wok stir-fry. I didn’t quite understand how the Boston public became such sudden converts of dry wok stir-fry. Possibly it was the result of a very aggressive marketing campaign by a certain Chinese restaurant in Brookline Village then known as Hunan Wok. Dry wok stir-fry was touted as a “healthy choice” just when people were becoming aware of the importance of eating right. Personally I think it is not just the technique but also the selection of fresh ingredients, and vigilant use of healthful oil and sauces that make stir-fry a wholesome cooking choice. In this conclusion of the stir-fry series let me show you why dry wok stir-fry should be part of your regular cooking repertoire.
If plain stir-fry is the least known stir-fry variation in America, then moist stir-fry is the best known. The gooey, tasteless sauces in “Chop Suey” and Moo Goo Gai Pan found in so many Chinese-American restaurants all rely on this technique. Whoever created these recipes obviously had a special affinity for this common technique and used it ad nauseum.
We take for granted that stir-frying is just combining a bunch of ingredients, frying them in a wok, and seasoning them appropriately; that is partially accurate. What is rarely understood is that there are variations in stir-frying technique. Broadly classified the variations are 1) plain stir-fry (清炒 or QingChao), 2) moist stir-fry (滑炒 or HuaChao) and 3) dry wok stir-fry (煸炒 or BianChao). In this third part of Stir-fry Fortnight series post let me show you how simple it is to make plain vegetable stir-fry.
Photography by Ron Boszko
My neighbor, Kim, has been stir-frying, ever since I convinced her to move her wok from cold storage to stovetop. (She inherited a great wok, completely seasoned and beautifully charred black, from a friend years ago and once used it as a planter!) Now she regularly stops on her way to the market to consult with me about what ingredients to buy for that night’s stir-fry. With so many ingredients to choose from, it can seem daunting. I used to have the same problem matching ingredients until I started writing down and analyzing classic combinations. There is a logical method to the madness of ingredients selection.