Three things I didn’t know about Chinese Cuisine

My mother told me that when I was a baby she used to order Chinese take-out, blend it up, and feed it to me as baby food. She said it made this delightful, aromatic green-colored mush. To this day there is nothing so comforting to me as a Chinese stir fry of chicken and snow peas.

Despite my early introduction to Chinese food (albeit, Americanized Chinese food), as well a ceaseless pursuit of excellent Chinese restaurants, I have rarely cooked any Chinese recipes. I make some mean pork and veggie dumplings, but other than that, I have never owned a wok, never learned the techniques, never grasped the principles…

…until now.

Sweet and Sour Spare Ribs Double fried in a wok and slathered in homemade sweet and sour sauce

Sweet and Sour Spare Ribs
Double fried in a wok and slathered in homemade sweet and sour sauce

Two factors led to this exciting development. First, I moved to Nashville. Alas, there are very few Chinese restaurants in this town. I was just so spoiled living in Chicago with Chinese friends showing me the best Chinese restaurants in Chinatown. These friends even ordered for me. It was heaven. In Nashville, however, I’ve gone without. Second, I listened to an interview on America’s Test Kitchen with cookbook author Fuchsia Dunlop who shared about how easy it can be to make Chinese food at home. Once I heard this, I wanted to try it for myself, so I immediately purchased a wok and “gave” it to my husband for his “birthday.”

I also took out three Chinese cookbooks from the library. These are Every Grain of Rice by Fuchsia Dunlop, The Chinese Kitchen by Deh-Ta Hsiung, and The Modern Art of Chinese Cooking by Barbara Tropp. I am, so far, finding Dunlop’s book underwhelming. The noodle soup and fried rice both lacked flavor. Tropp’s book looks and reads like the Chinese version of Julia Child’s Mastering the Art, complete with picture-less, textbook-like pages detailing technique. I have not yet cooked from this one. Hsiung’s book is an encyclopedia of sorts, with each of the common Chinese ingredients described and used in a recipe. So far, from this one, we have made sizzling beef with broccoli, scallion pancakes, and sweet and sour spare ribs.

Here are three things I never knew before:

1. The Proper Use of Sesame Oil 
I never knew that sesame oil is more of a condiment than a cooking oil. Sesame oil enhances the flavor of a dish and is frequently added in small quantities at the very end of cooking. It is rarely ever heated.

2. Scallions, Scallions, and More Scallions 
This is one of those “duh” moments. Despite all the Chinese food I’ve consumed since infancy, I never noticed how predominant a flavor scallions play in the cuisine. In the few attempts I’ve made at stir fry in the past, I could never figure out why my dish didn’t taste like it ought to. The answer? Scallions. And then more scallions.

3. Not yo’ mama’s soy sauce 
I had no idea soy sauce could differ so greatly. I’ve always bought the Kikkoman soy sauce because that is the one served at the table in restaurants. Cooking Chinese cuisine, however, requires both light soy sauce, or Tamari (the Japanese style), which is both saltier and sweeter than Kikkoman, and dark soy sauce, which is more viscous and less salty. Each brings its own umami flare to enrich the dish.

Stay tuned as experimentation continues!

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