China

China

By
Charmaine Solomon
Contains
115 recipes
Published by
Hardie Grant Books
ISBN
9781742701448
Photographer
Alan Benson

China

Imagine a visit to Hong Kong just to sample Chinese specialities and to learn from some of the best Chinese chefs in the business. I consider myself very lucky indeed to have had the chance to do just that. It was an education to see specialist chefs in action, preparing dim sum of many kinds with such speed and nimbleness of fingers that it was obvious that not just knowledge but constant practice contributed to the results.

Chefs who specialise in noodles alone have skills in the kitchen that are more like a magician performing sleight of hand than a chef making noodles. In seconds, lumps of well-kneaded dough were transformed into dozens of incredibly fine strands, stretched to an arm’s length, the ends folded together, then stretched again so that first there was one thick rope of dough, then two, four, eight, sixteen and so on, ending in a veritable curtain of noodles which were then dropped into a bubbling cauldron.

Peking duck with Mandarin pancakes was another of the famous dishes I watched being prepared with its perfectly crisp, deep reddish-brown skin. The secret is in blowing air between the skin and the flesh of the duck until it inflates like a balloon, then tying tightly around the neck and hanging it in a special drying chamber before cooking so that the skin cannot fail to achieve the right crackling crispness.

A visit to the central market in Hong Kong was enough to make my head spin, there was such variety. One can purchase anything, from dozens of different vegetables and fruits to all sorts of meat and seafood including enormous tiger prawns, eels, snakes and live turtles. But this fairly recent experience was not my first introduction to Chinese food. It has always been a part of my life.

I grew up in Eastern countries with sizable Chinese populations and the opportunity to know good Chinese food. To help matters along, the man I married is really keen on Chinese food — not just eating it, but cooking it. He would pursue recipes with the single-mindedness of a bloodhound and so it came about that between us we learned a great deal about a cuisine neither of us was born into. There are many regional varieties of cooking in a country as vast as China, but there are five major styles. The Peking or Shantung style of cooking emphasises delicacy of flavour; Sichuan food is hot and spicy; Honan cooking is spicy, sweet and sour; the Fukien school of cooking is famous for its clear soups, seafood dishes and subtlety of flavouring; and Cantonese cooking, best known in Western countries, is a combination of many styles, with an emphasis on stir-fried dishes and subtle flavours, and is light and digestible because less fat is used than in other cooking styles. It is Cantonese cooking that excels in the steamed dumplings of various kinds that are known as dim sum.

The reason Cantonese food is best known abroad is because in the nineteenth century it was from Canton, in the south of China, that large numbers of Chinese emigrated to America, Europe and South-East Asia and introduced their cooking to these regions. It became immensely popular and has remained so to this day.

A feature of Chinese food is the variety of ingredients used. This is not because the Chinese were in search of exotic foods (though in the palaces this may have been their primary aim), but because they had to be resourceful and use everything edible in order to survive. As a result, they made use of ingredients like dried wood fungus and lily buds, lotus seed and lotus root, fish’s maw and all kinds of meat, seafood and vegetables. Bird’s nest soup is perhaps the most widely known preparation featuring an unusual ingredient. These nests are not made from twigs but from the saliva of tiny swifts and have the reputation of being very nourishing. Because the nests have to be gathered from sheer, almost inaccessible cliffs and require soaking and a lot of careful cleaning, the soup is served as a prestige course at banquets. Its presence on the menu proclaims that the host and his cooks have gone to a lot of trouble. When a special banquet is held it would not be a compliment to the guests if the menu did not include rare and expensive treats. By contrast, everyday Chinese cooking is easy and the recipes in this chapter are within the scope of the beginner cook who does not have all day to spend in the kitchen.

The cooking methods employed by the Chinese are those that are familiar in the West: boiling, braising, deep-frying, steaming and roasting. ln addition, there is stir-frying, which means stirring and tossing ingredients in very little oil over high heat. It does mean that all the preparation must be done before the cooking starts, and all ingredients are cut into evenly sized pieces and shapes. The method was evolved to conserve fuel, and because of the small size of the pieces of food, the cooking time is often only five minutes from start to finish — a delay in preparation while ingredients are cooking could mean a disappointing result. Ingredients are added in a certain order, those which take longest to cook being put in first. With a little practice, this split-second timing becomes second nature. It is better to let guests wait for such a dish, rather than the other way around, because if the food has to wait it will continue cooking in its own heat and the effect will be spoilt. A great deal depends on texture in Chinese food and the vegetables must be crisp and the meat or fish just cooked and juicy, never overdone or dry.

Cheap cuts of lean meat, such as round steak or blade steak may be used for stir-fries, but because of the extremely short cooking time, they should be tenderised by the Chinese method. Shred or slice meat as directed. For every 500 g of meat, dissolve ½ teaspoon bicarbonate of soda in 60 ml hot water. Add to the meat and knead well until the liquid is absorbed. Cover and refrigerate for two hours or overnight, if possible. Proceed with the recipe in the usual way. This method is used in many Chinese restaurants, making cheaper cuts of meat as tender as the choicest fillet.

Serving and eating a Chinese meal

A Chinese meal does not feature one main dish, but a number of dishes of equal importance. A formal banquet is served as a succession of courses with pauses in between for drinking, conversation and playing games, which explains how diners can partake of ten or more courses. At family meals, or informal entertaining, all the dishes are placed on the table at once. This makes it unnecessary for the hostess to leave the table once the meal has started.

Rice is always the basis of the meal — steamed plain white rice, either short or medium grained, is cooked without salt. Fried rice is not usually served with meals, but is a snack in itself, composed of cold cooked rice and other ingredients. Utilising any leftover plain rice is ideal.

Each place-setting includes a bowl, chopsticks and porcelain spoon, cups for wine or tea and a small plate which doubles as a saucer under the eating bowl and also acts as a bone plate. It is considered quite polite to extricate bones from the mouth, using chopsticks, and put them on a bone plate. A small sauce dish is also part of the individual setting for meals that require a dipping sauce.

When first choosing a menu for a Chinese meal, do not attempt more than one stir-fried dish. Instead, choose a braised dish, perhaps a cold starter, a roasted dish, soup and a cold main dish, such as chicken with oyster sauce. Desserts are not a part of Chinese meals for everyday eating, but a special meal finishes with a sweet, such as almond jelly or fresh fruit.

Utensils

A Chinese kitchen usually has a ‘bench’ fireplace along one wall, with holes in the bench top to hold the woks above the direct heat, most often supplied by wood fires. In restaurants they use fierce gas jets to provide the quick and flexible heat required in many Chinese cooking methods. Almost every Chinese dish can be prepared in a Western kitchen using Western equipment, but here I would urge that you acquire a wok, rather than make do with a frying pan or saucepan, because it is really a remarkably versatile utensil.

You may use a good kitchen knife, but once you have become accustomed to a razor-sharp Chinese chopper, you’ll never want to use anything else. Choppers may look clumsy with their wide blade, but the corner of the blade can do anything the point of a knife can do. A chopper is the best thing for slicing, shredding, chopping or dicing. As an extra bonus, its big blade can be used to carry cut ingredients from chopping block to cooking pan. It is wise to have both a chopper and a cleaver, the cleaver being thicker and heavier and intended for chopping through bones, a technique used widely in Chinese cooking, while the chopper with its thin blade does the more delicate jobs with ease and precision.

Use the chopper and cleaver on a wooden block or board. I do not recommend laminated chopping boards, whatever kind of knife you use — when you get down to serious cooking there’s nothing to take the place of a solid wooden chopping board. Wood is safer too because the surface is not smooth and slippery.

The Chinese use steamers of bamboo and aluminium, but these are not strictly essential because it is easy enough to improvise a steamer. Steaming can be done in any covered pan large enough to accommodate a plate placed on a rack or a bowl to hold it well above the level of the boiling water. The plate should be of a size that will allow free circulation of steam around and above it. The food to be cooked is put on the plate, the pot covered with a well-fitting lid, and there you have a perfectly adequate steamer.

Chinese bamboo steamers are particularly suitable for steaming buns or dumplings, for the natural perforations of the lid allow excess steam to escape and not gather inside (as they do on a metal lid) and drop back on to the buns, making them wet and spoiling their appearance. Overcome this problem by putting buns and dim sum on a perforated rack over boiling water, cover the pan with a clean cloth folded into a double layer and then a lid. The cloth prevents steam gathering on the lid and falling back onto the buns.

Chinese ladles and frying spoons (wok chan) are useful but not strictly necessary if you have other utensils that will do the job. Any kind of ladle can be used for dipping out stock, and I have found that the curved, slotted spatula is ideal for tossing and stir-frying and for lifting food from deep oil.

Chinese skimmers, frying spoons of finely twisted wire mesh, are useful. So too is a large wire spoon that can cope with a whole fish, lifting it out of oil with ease — a consideration if you like cooking whole fish. Long wooden cooking chopsticks are also useful, especially for separating noodles as they cook, and for a variety of other purposes from beating eggs to stirring ingredients.

Fresh ingredients

In addition to the ingredients listed below, which have a long shelf life, there are the essential fresh ingredients that give flavour to Chinese food — fresh ginger, garlic, fresh coriander and spring onions. When required for special dishes, fresh bean sprouts and snow peas can be bought and stored in the refrigerator for up to 1 week. Tofu is a popular source of protein. Chinese sausages (lap cheong) are also useful. Spring roll wrappers and won ton pastry keep well in the freezer.

Your Chinese shelf

—agar-agar powder

—arrowroot

—baby corn

—bamboo shoots, tinned

—black beans, salted, tinned

—chestnut flour

—chestnuts, dried

—chilli oil

—chillies, large dried red

—Chinese barbecue (char siu) sauce

—Chinese chilli sauce

—Chinese chilli bean sauce

—Chinese ground bean sauce

—chow chow preserves (substitute ginger in syrup or bottled Sri Lankan chow chow preserve)

—cornflour

—five-spice powder

—hoisin sauce

—lily buds, dried

—lotus nut paste, tinned

—lotus root, frozen

—oyster sauce

—peanut oil

—plum sauce

—preserved melon shreds

—sesame oil

—sesame paste

—shiitake mushrooms, dried

—sichuan peppercorns

—soy sauce, light, dark and mushroom

—star anise

—straw mushrooms, tinned

—tapioca flour

—walnuts

—water chestnut starch

—water chestnuts, tinned

—ginkgo nuts, tinned

—wood fungus, dried

Featured Recipes in this Chapter

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