A Chinese children fable called “Spring Bamboo Shoot and the Pebbles” (春筍與亂石) tells a story of a spring bamboo shoot aspiring to burst through the soil, but is halted by a group of pebbles above him. He politely asks the pebbles to let him through but to no avail. With shear determination he pushes through between the pebbles and grows out of the soil. The pebbles are so impressed that they start celebrating him as a superstar. I’m actually not quite sure what the moral of the story is. But “success through determination” is so typically Chinese and very tiger-mom like. Regardless of the moral though, the story does tell of how bamboo shoots surge forth every spring to produce one of the most delicately delicious ingredients in Chinese cooking.
A month ago Sabino from Baltimore submitted a comment on the Red Cooked Pork Redux post. It was a comment like I have never seen before. Not only was it voluminous it was also very insightful. He asked detailed questions on cooking and serving red cooked pork. I’m gratified that my readers are actually making authentic Chinese food and are sharing their experiences along the way. I feel compelled to devote an entire post to address the issues brought up in his comments. So here I am writing my third post on the subject of red cooked pork.
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?
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.
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.
After ranting about the lack of accuracy and authenticity in Chinese cooking articles by Western food writers in my previous posts, I have to point out there are exceptions. Occasionally I come across some insightful articles and eagerly study them. One such example was “The Glory of Red Cooking” in the March 2007 issue of Saveur magazine by Grace Young. The article meticulously retells the tradition and background of red cooking, and includes some very practical recipes. This article inspired me to embark on recording many Chinese cooking techniques I researched and used in my kitchen. One of the results of this pursuit is what I will be offering you during the next two weeks: The meaning of stir-fry.
My neighbor, Kim, had a revelation the other night while observing me make a stir-fry of blooming chives with tofu. She noticed while I spent a bit of time chopping and preparing the ingredients, it only took me about 10 minutes to finish the dish stir-frying it.