Regardless of the type of cuisine, good organisation is the key to success. Good organisation is across the board, from menu planning to procuring the right equipment and tools to assembling the right seasonal ingredients ahead of time. Take time in early preparation such as cutting and marinating. It will save a lot of time, not to mention tension and grief later when your roomful of guests are sitting outside waiting for the feast to commence. Plan the order in which you want to cook your dishes and lay out the tools required accordingly. Many sauces can be made ahead of time and warmed up when the time comes to serve. Cold dishes such as salads should have all their ingredients sliced and diced ahead for last minute tossing and mixing. Start soups and slow braising dishes hours ahead and they will be ready to serve when your quick-cook stir-fries are done. To sum it up, cook ahead, plan ahead, and you and your guests will have plenty of time to enjoy later.
Marinating meat, poultry and seafood before cooking is ‘de rigeur’ in Chinese cooking. The marinating process is supposed to add flavour to your ingredients, not to tenderise them. Personally I always marinate ahead of time and keep my ingredients refrigerated; this will save time when I am ready to cook. Usually 15 minutes of marinating is sufficient. A simple marinade is a mixture of soy sauce, cooking oil, cooking wine, sesame oil, oyster sauce and a bit of cornflour.
Stir-frying is without a doubt the most popular method of cooking in Chinese cuisine as it is a quick, easy and healthy way of preparing food. The secret to a good stirfry dish is high heat, quick motion, a good marinade and ingredients cut to the right sizes. Heat up a wok or large frying pan (preferably one with a curved bottom) before adding in cooking oil and seasonings like garlic and ginger. Next add the main ingredient (meat, poultry or seafood). Cook it in the hot oil and seasonings, turning them rapidly with your spatula. Remove the ingredients, and with the drippings, cook the vegetables. When cooking the vegetables, add the ones that require the longest cooking time, such as carrots, green peppers or onions, into the wok or pan first, then lighter vegetables such as mange tout and bean sprouts. When the vegetables are done, return the meat to the wok or pan and add a little cornflour solution to thicken the sauce. Off with the heat and dinner is served!
Long before the first steam engine was invented in the West, the Chinese harvested steam power in the kitchen. Steaming is a wonderful cooking method for it allows your food to cook in its own juices, thereby retaining its natural flavours and nutritional values. Note that steaming does not add oil or other fat into your dish.
Personally I prefer a traditional Chinese bamboo steamer. Their woven tops allow excess steam to escape without condensing and dripping back to the food. What’s more, you can stack them up, and that frees up other burners on the stove. For those who are ‘bamboo challenged’, I recommend placing a small empty tin (top and bottom removed) inside a large pan as a ring. Add water to about half way up the ‘ring’ and on top of that, place your ingredients in a heatproof dish. Bring water to a slow boil and cover. Instead of a ring, you may also do it the old Chinese way – on top of a pair of crossed chopsticks.
Traditional Chinese cooks often cook with herbs in a double boiler. Double boiling is a form of steaming in which the ingredients (and natural herbs) are placed inside a covered earthenware casserole. The casserole is then placed in a larger pot with an inch of water inside. Cover the large pot and bring the water to a slow, simmering boil. This method requires several hours, giving the broth inside the casserole an intensely rich flavour.
Blanching is a quick and efficient way to cook your vegetables. Blanching is simply submerging your vegetables, cut up to desired proportion, in boiling water for a short period, then extracting them and running cold water over them to stop the cooking process. Blanching the vegetables before stir-frying will shorten the cooking time required. Blanching can also remove that metallic taste from tinned vegetables. In some Chinese restaurants, oil blanching is a common technique to seal the natural juices in meat.
There are many models of conventional and electric deep-fryers available in the market but personally I prefer the old-fashioned wok. To secure it on the burner (safety is the first concern in my kitchen), I put the wok on a ring stand, thus preventing the round-bottomed wok from tipping over during the frying process. I add about 5 to 6 cm (2 to 21/2 inches) of oil, and I heat it up slowly. To control the temperature (usually specified in the recipes), I use a deep-frying thermometer. For the old-fashioned cooks, when small bubbles begin to rise in the oil, it is hot enough. Do not fry the food when the cooking oil is not at the right temperature. If it is too hot, your food will burn too quickly on the outside while leaving the inside uncooked, and if it is not hot enough, your food will take too long to cook, and it will absorb too much oil in the process.
I like to dry-coat my deep frying ingredients with some cornflour or flour. This will absorb any extra moisture and prevent oil from splattering. Slide your food into the oil gently, a few pieces at a time. Too many pieces in the fryer will lower the oil temperature and increase the cooking time. Turn the pieces from time to time to assure even cooking on all sides. When they are golden brown, remove them from the oil and drain them on a paper towel. I usually pat them down further with another towel to soak up excess oil.
Braising, a very popular cooking method in Chinese cuisine, is really a combination of two separate steps. First, the meat is browned (stir-fried) in a wok or a frying pan which seals in the meat’s natural juices. Secondly, the wok is covered, and the meat is allowed to simmer in a liquid. This will make the meat more tender and allow time for it to absorb the flavour of the cooking sauce.
Red Cooking is braising in a ‘red-cooking’ sauce. Different chefs and restaurants boast about their own secret recipe, which is usually a mixture of soy sauce, dark soy sauce, spices and other seasonings. The reddish brown colour of the sauce gave origin to the name ‘red cooking’. Often the red cooking sauce is saved after each cooking process. it will be used as the base sauce for the next red-cooked dish. Chefs will add in a splash of soy sauce here and a dash of seasoning there and off they go with another creation. Like a fine wine, red cooking sauce gets better with age – richer and more flavourful with each cooking.
In Chinese cuisine, roasting is not done over an open pit. Marinated meat is hung on hooks and ‘baked’ inside a vertical roasting oven. in the old days, few homes in China were equipped with a baking oven so roasting is more often done commercially in restaurants or delicatessens. Time has changed and so has technology. Today many Chinese families roast (or bake) their own meat on a rack placed inside a baking pan. As in Western cooking, they haste their meat with a marinade or pan juices from time to time.
Not all smoking is bad for your health. In Chinese cooking smoking is a way of adding flavour to meats, seafood and poultry. Traditional Chinese recipes call for a traditional smoking oven, but you can recreate the effect by using a wok. For smoking ingredients: 1 mix black tea leaves, camphor chips, brown sugar, and some rice at the bottom of the wok. On top of that mixture, I place a rack on which I place the meat (pre-cooked). Simply cover and turn up the heat. in minutes, the smoke inside the wok will permeate the meat, giving it a fragrant smoky flavour.
Technology marches on. A microwave oven is a necessity in today’s kitchen. While it won’t replace your wok or conventional oven (it didn’t mine), it sure makes life easier when it comes to defrosting frozen meat and vegetables. A tip on cutting meat that was frozen – thaw it half way, this makes cutting much easier. The microwave is by far the quickest and most energy- efficient way to go for reheating leftover steamed rice, noodles and stir-fried dishes; selected dishes can also be prepared in the microwave. Place your food in a microwave container, or in a heatproof dish covered by a piece of cellophane.
© Martin Yan and reproduced with his kind permission.