Are you preoccupied by the unending question: “What shall I make for dinner?”
My family’s preference is for Chinese food. I’m not taking about takeout food, which is cooked for Western tastes. In my biased opinion, Cantonese food and village dishes of the New Territories, Hong Kong (foods of my ancestral homeland) are the best in the world for their appealing flavors, fresh ingredients and innovative use of sauces. Think delicious steamed fish and lightly stir-fried leafy Chinese greens.
I didn’t want to lose that part of my cultural heritage when I moved to small town America and began to raise a family. In part, I began to cook because I didn’t have easy access to authentic Chinese food.
I remember the frugal lessons passed down by my parents. Don’t throw away chicken bones; use them to make stock. I put the bones (cooked or raw) in a pan of water, bring them to a boil and simmer for at least 20 minutes and that’s it; Chinese believe in having the flavor of just chicken and nothing else.
To cook Chinese food, you have to have the right ingredients. In my house, we start with these basics:
Seasonings: salt, sugar, cooking oil, light and dark soy sauce, Chinese cooking wine or dry sherry, sesame oil, oyster sauce and corn starch (for thickening). You could stop at these basic seasonings, but, to make authentic dishes, you also need fermented red beancurd, hoisin sauce, bean paste, chili or chili-garlic sauce/oil. Also, in Chinese cooking, we use ground white pepper instead of black because we don’t want to have black flecks in the dish.
Fresh Ingredients: fresh foods can be bought when you know what you’re going to cook, such as tofu, fish and seafood. Basic food stuff you need include: ginger root, garlic, scallions, cilantro, carrots and daikon (for soup and stock), and different Chinese greens (or you can use broccoli, spinach, sugar snap peas, etc.)
Dried Ingredients: rice, dried noodles, such as egg noodles, broad rice sticks, rice vermicelli and glass noodles, and dried shitake mushrooms.
Utensils: a wok with a lid, a metal rack for steaming in wok or a bamboo steamer, an electric rice cooker (useful, as it frees up a ring on stovetop), a pair of wooden chopsticks. Besides these things, you can use your regular pots, pans and heat-proof dishes. If you don’t have a wok, use a heavy-bottomed large skillet.
Essential Dos and Don’ts:
Always use corn or vegetable oil, not olive, to stir-fry. Olive oil burns at a lower heat and leaves a strong residual taste on the food. Sesame oil is a strong condiment, don’t overuse it. A few splashes added at the end of cooking are sufficient.
There’s a taste difference between Japanese and Chinese soy sauces and will affect the flavor of your food. In Chinese cooking, we use Chinese dark soy for color and marinades, and light soy for everyday.
If you want to make good fried rice, steam your rice the day before. Rice that doesn’t stick when fried needs to be cold and dry.
When you steam rice in a saucepan, turn the heat off after 20 minutes and leave the lid on for a further 10 to absorb the water.
Most of us have regular stovetops, not commercial gas ones that generate high heat, so consider stir-frying vegetables in stages. Broccoli needs more cooking time, but bell peppers need only to be “shown the oil,” or else they lose their vibrancy.
Susan Shifay Cheung has turned her hand to many forms of writing in her various roles, over the years, as corporate trainer, management consultant, journalist and writer. You can contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.