Recently, I made the decision to start cooking Chinese food at home. Not only has our cooking lately been horribly boring and repetitive, but we’ve not been getting proper nutrients, and our consumption of greens is dismally low. I think that if I learn to stir-fry properly, this will introduce more greens and veggies into our diet, while providing me with motivation to cook at home (because Chinese cooking is so crazy tasty!) I spent a semester living in China in 1999, it changed my life, and I absolutely adored the food. So! This post will be about sharing my research into how to get started, and the results of my first three dishes!
For starters, I studied a lot of stir-fry recipes online and in books, and made myself a list of the basic pantry items I needed to collect. What I came up with was:
Oyster sauce (Choose one with no MSG)
Fish sauce (Choose an uncloudy amber one)
Sesame Oil (I got one that didn’t mention “Toasted”)
Peanut Oil (The kind in really large bottles or boxes sometimes contain anti-foaming agents, I don’t think that’s a good idea)
ShaoXing Rice Wine (This stuff should actually say “ShaoXing” on it, and it’s an amber color, not clear.)
Rice wine vinegar
Black Chinese Vinegar (If you can find “ChinKiang” vinegar, get that instead.)
Chili Paste (in a smaller container than Chili Sauce, this stuff comes in a lot of different flavors. I tried to get just basic chili paste, with no garlic or sugar, etc.)
Light Soy sauce (“Light” does not refer to low sodium or low fat or anything like that, instead it’s a way to differentiate this soy sauce from “Dark” soy sauce.)
Dark Soy Sauce (This will definitely say “Dark soy sauce” on it. I got a kind that also had added mushroom flavor. Sounded good.)
Shallots (Price these out at both your asian market, and your local grocery to find out which one sells them cheaper.)
Garlic (See above)
Ginger (See above)
Onions (See above)
Dried red chilies (The ones I picked up were about 2.5″ long. )
Chinese Pickled Chilies
Dried Chinese Mushrooms
Star Anise (These smell so good. Even if you do NOT like licorice, get a little bag of these, since they’re called for in several good Chinese recipes. I’ve just gotten proof tonight that the final dish tastes nothing like licorice, so don’t fret.)
White ground pepper
Chicken Stock (Or Chicken Broth, whatever you call it.)
Bean thread noodles
Rice stick noodles
Chinese egg noodles
Sweet Rice (Glutinous)
Long grain rice
So I got all but just one or two of those things, over a period of time (to help with affording all that). The things on my list that should be bought fresh as needed include:
Green Onions (Scallions)
Round Won-ton wrappers (wheat)
Chinese (Garlic) Chives (These smell very potently of garlic, and should be available at your Asian market. They resemble regular chives, except that the leaves are flat, instead of round and pipe-like, like regular chives. Even if they’re not labeled in english, you should be able to use your nose to identify these hummers.)
Young Ginger (Young ginger looks like a weird root-tuber that you’ve probably never seen before, but if you sniff it, it does indeed smell like ginger. Don’t be afraid to pick things up and inspect them!)
Baby Bok Choy (Or regular bok choy. I just think the tiny 5″ tall baby bok choys are so adorable. ^_^)
Napa Cabbage (Chinese Cabbage)
Various greens (Watercress, Chinese broccoli, Kale, etc.)
Tofu (This may be referred to in your chinese recipe book as “doufu” or “Bean Curd, either silken, soft, medium, firm or extra firm”)
[red chili peppers]
[fresh coriander (Cilantro)]
Snow pea pods
[fresh green beans]
And there are many others, but those are the main ones I can think of at this time. [The ones in square brackets are items that should be on the list, but I do not like to eat, so I don’t actually intend to buy those.] Most of these fresh things you should be able to get at your local grocery, but a few are available only at Asian markets. As for the above staple pantry items, you should probably get the sauces and pepper, etc. at the Asian markets as well, they are bound to be cheaper than the ones available at your regular grocery, and more authentic. If you’re brave, you can ask the proprietor of the Asian grocery which brands are best! Be sure to check the labels anyway, though, and choose products that do not contain MSG. Buying the most expensive sauce brand available that does not use MSG is the way to go if you’re into getting the very best. Google MSG if you’re confused by my dislike of it. Not good for your brain, eww.
A few notes about fish sauce. At the Asian market I visited, there were no fewer than 14 brands of it available. They ranged from a benign looking clear amber liquid, to a mottled thick pasty stuff, to actual teeny tiny fish packed tight inside a bottle, staring out at me. I asked the owner of the store about what would be a good fish sauce to choose if I was just getting started, and he pointed out a few of the clear amber kinds. I chose the one that came in the smallest bottle, and edged away from the bottles of tiny staring fishes. =)
Then I turned to the library’s website, and reserved a boatload of Chinese cookery books that sounded good. I dropped by later and picked up my large stack of them. The very best one I’ve read so far is entitled “My Grandmother’s Chinese Kitchen” (http://tinyurl.com/bh3t4s). It is very very good. The recipes are great, and her narrative style really takes you back to rural China the way it used to be, and explains the dishes within that context. I highly recommend it.
So, I’ve tried three dishes, now! Jiao Zi (Potsticker-type dumplings that I ate a lot of in China), Hong Shao Rou, or Red Braised Pork, which was fantastic, and also a Thai noodle dish with peanuts and chicken. Not really Chinese, but very tasty. ^_^
So, I’ll start at the beginning! I used this recipe to make the Jiao Zi: http://tinyurl.com/atxryl Here’s a few too many pics of the assembly process:
The recipe calls for you to mince the cabbage, then toss it with one teaspoon of salt, and let sit for 30 minutes. The salt will cause the cabbage to shed a lot of its water. Then squeeze out as much water from the cabbage as you can, with your hands. Now, I was a mite skeptical. I knew that salt had this effect on cooking veggies, but I’d never heard of it on uncooked vegetables just sitting on the counter. So I expected a mild effect. But WOW, there was nearly 3/4 cup of liquid that drained out of this one cabbage. I was impressed!
So I’d had a few dumplings like these in the past where the cabbage was not chopped finely enough for me. So I decided to err on the side of “More finely chopped”, and used my food processor on the scallions, ginger, and cabbage. Turns out this kind of ruins the texture of the filling! ^_- Now, if I’d thought that through, I probably would have realized that, but this way, I guess I got to prove it. The filling benefits from the slight segmenting that the chopped cabbage brings. I’ll leave it just “finely chopped”, next time.
The filling, after mixing! Looked kind of gloppy and thin, so I added more cornstarch, as the recipe suggests.
So I got square dumpling wrappers, since round wasn’t available (Or I couldn’t find them) when I was buying wrappers. So I had to get a bit creative when deciding how to wrap these babies. This was my first attempt. A bit too elaborate, I needed something easier. But I thought maybe I should try a few different methods, about 5 dumplings, of varying structural integrity, and boil them to discover to what extent the filling would hold together / try to escape.
Turns out, the cornstarch really did its job, even the sillier dumplings that half-unwrapped during boiling didn’t spew filling all over, the filling really held together well. So I decided that the structural integrity of the wrapper wasn’t really of utmost importance, just getting it wrapped up in a way that was easy enough that I wouldn’t want to commit ritual suicide after doing 40 of them in a row. Here’s the method I settled on:
Huzzah! I forgot to take pictures after they were all cooked, but they held together fine, and were tasty enough to eat a meal of them. Lots of room for improvement in the flavor and texture of these, and I look forward very much to fine-tuning the recipe to my liking, this was one of my favorite dishes in China. I also intend to try rice-based wrappings instead of the wheat ones. All in all, a very good first try, many lessons learned!
Next thing I tackled was a Thai noodles with Chicken and Peanuts dish. I don’t intend to learn a lot of Thai recipes, but peanutty noodles with chicken is one of my hubby’s favorite foods, and mine too, so this seemed like a good one to learn. I used a recipe out of a book I checked out from the library, and the main thing I remember about it was that it contained a goodly amount of fish sauce. I am unused to cooking with fish sauce, and I must say the smell of it is going to take some getting used to. The final dish, however was of course, really yummy, and we enjoyed it quite a bit. Here’s a pic!
When cooking raw chicken breast at home, (like for an Italian noodle dish, for example) my main complaint is usually that the chicken becomes tough and overcooked, and this is very difficult to for me to avoid, it seems. With this recipe, it called for the strips of chicken to be pan-fried in a whole cup of peanut oil, heated up very hot. As soon as the chicken had completely changed color, I was to remove from the oil, and set aside. Then the seasonings were stir-fried and the liquids added to the pan, and when those were ready, the noodles and chicken were added back in to warm up and soak in the sauce. The chicken was tender and juicy, –perfect! It was great, and I had so much left over (I doubled the recipe) that we’re taking some to some friends’ house tonight to eat the leftovers, yummy!
Hong Shao Rou is the most recent recipe I tried. It’s a dish not often served in Chinese restaurants in the west, and one person surmised that it was probably a bit too “Rustic” or “Homestyle” for western folks to be interested in. It’s really quite a treat, though. What it is, is a slab of pork belly, skin on, cut into large cubes 2″ square. (Pork belly, or Pork side, as it’s sometimes called, is the same cut of meat they make bacon from.) The cubes are lightly stir fried, then chicken stock, chinese sauces, Scallions and Ginger are added. This is left to simmer slowly for a couple of hours, and the result is that the liquids reduce into a thick and tasty dark glaze that coats the meat. Here’s some pictures, first a professional one, and then ones of my own preparation.
I ended up taking a nap during cooking, so I set my hubby to stirring every 30 minutes. Then I didn’t want to get up after two hours, so it cooked for around 2.5 hours. Hence the lack of sauce, and the accumulation of oil you can see in the bottom of the skillet. I fished out the pieces with tongs, letting the excess oil drip off before plating.
When I decided to try this dish, I wasn’t at all sure what to expect as far as edibility. I knew the sauce would likely be good, but I wasn’t sure how much Anise flavor would be in it, how weird that might be, or how I’d go about eating the meat itself. Since it was pork belly, there were generous layers of fat, with what seemed like a modest amount of meat. The Chinese poetically call this cut “Five Flower Meat” referring to the layers. I’m usually not too keen on just straight up eating big hunks of fat, so I wasn’t sure what to expect from the finished product, here. Turns out my fears were unfounded! The fatty portions melted away to a certain degree, and the remaining amounts were either appetizing, or easily gotten around. I used my fingers to eat, while hubby got along fine with a fork.
The thick glaze was dark black and potently flavorful, with a wonderful exotic taste that I can only compare to Balsamic Vinegar in western cuisine. The star anise pod provided not a licorice flavor, but instead a certain “je ne sais quoi” quality that turned the sauce into a fantastic and authentic-tasting glaze for the tender/crispy pork. As it cooked, the house was filled with a completely foreign cooking smell, one that I definitely remember coming from restaurant kitchens while in China. It was not disagreeable, just very, very different from western cooking aromas.
In conclusion, I’m definitely making this again, the next meat I’ll try with it is Country Pork ribs (boneless). Those also have a good deal of marbling in them, but nowhere near as much fat as pork belly. =) I also noted that this is THE recipe I’ve been searching for, for chicken wings. My favorite chicken wings have always been the type where the chicken wing is bathed in a thick dry glaze, potent in flavor, with the fat of the chicken skin having been mostly melted away. This preparation would produce that EXACT effect on chicken wings, and I will be looking forward now to my very first excuse to prepare them this way. Oh baby.
Here’s the recipe I used:
Hong Shao Rou (Red Braised Pork)
One piece of Pork Belly or Pork side, skin on, about 1.5 lbs. (Check your Asian market)
3 T peanut oil
3/4 t salt
2 c Chicken stock
3 scallions, cut into 3 or 4 chunks each
2″ ginger, unpeeled
1 T dark soy sauce
4 T ShaoXing cooking wine (or a dry sherry)
1/2 Star anise Pod (4 sections)
3 T brown sugar
Blanch the pork, whole, in boiling water for 3 minutes, remove and rinse with clean water. You may skip this step if you’re in a big hurry.
Dry pork thoroughly with paper towels.
Cut the pork up into 2″ squares.
Heat the Peanut oil in a nonstick skillet or pot until it just barely begins to smoke, then add pork and stir fry for a couple minutes. (Might want to use a spatter cover!)
Add the chicken stock, and all the rest of the ingredients to pot, stir to combine.
Allow to cook uncovered on the lowest simmer possible for about 2 hours, stirring every 30 minutes.
When the sauce is as thick as you prefer, serve with rice or as part of a Chinese meal.
So there we have it! My first foray into Chinese cooking, and I am loving it SO MUCH already. If anyone has questions about getting started with it, feel free to message me, I’d be happy to share the little that I know so far! ^_^