How to Cook–How to Really Cook–Chinese Food at Home

How to Cook–How to Really Cook–Chinese Food at Home 900 675 David Rosengarten

Rosengarten Classic. Originally Published: ROSENGARTEN REPORT, April 2002.


Yes, you bought a wok. Maybe even two woks! Yes, your cabinet is filled with the Chinese pre-mades of choice: soy sauce, sesame oil, hoisin sauce, etc. Yes, you’ve got on your shelf all the cool cookbooks on the subject of Chinese food, with hundreds of recipes at your disposal.

And yet, if you’re like me—or like I was for many years, before discovering The Secret—the Chinese stir-fries you make at home taste more like Bar Mitzvah food than Chinese restaurant food. (If you’ve never been to a Bar Mitzvah, substitute “wedding food”.) Where is that magical taste, and those magical textures, that every neighborhood Chinese take-out place—not to mention every Chinese restaurant of quality—seems to so effortlessly produce?

And then there’s a related issue. At the restaurant, you’re used to being served, say, three stir-fried dishes all at once—the classic Chinese table grazing, with every diner’s chopsticks wandering excitedly over the tablecloth. At home, it’s always a Chinese meal in freeze frame—one dish at a time, and rarely more than one dish altogether. Somehow, the fun of Chinese dining is deflated when the extra options are removed. But no one ever dreams of multi-plattering at home, because it takes too much time to cook each dish. Right?

I say not right. I say that if you’re cooking Chinese food correctly—or at least as they do it in restaurants—you can easily bring to the table three hot stir-fried dishes simultaneously. And, if you follow the precepts below—they’ll taste startlingly Chinese, to boot.

Here are the crucial things you need to know:

*Chinese stir-fries do not taste Chinese if you crowd the wok.

Crowding a wok causes the food to stew, not to fry—and that stew-y taste is the first clue that you’ve got wedding food on your hands. The best way to defeat crowding is to buy a large wok. Restaurants, of course, use enormous ones that wouldn’t even fit on our home ranges. But you should buy, for your home, a wok that measures at least 14″ across the top. Next tip: re-adjust your notions of how much food you can cook in that wok. You cannot make a stir-fry for 8 people at home! I always use 2 cups of total ingredients, or less, in any stir-fry I make in my 14″ wok. Of course, I turn out three of those low-volume stir-fries quickly, so everyone has plenty to eat.

*Chinese stir-fries must be cooked over high heat.

Chinese stir-fry chefs speak of “the taste of the wok”—by which they mean a sear, a burn, a charring that stir-fried ingredients get from a hot wok. Even if you’ve followed the first precept and not crowded your wok, if you cook your ingredients over low or medium heat you won’t get the restaurant taste. Now restaurants, of course, have huge infernos under their woks, which is great for the food. If you have a cool, quasi-commercial range at home—like a Garland, or a Viking with larger than normal burners—you’ll be fine. If all you have is the regular old puny household ring of fire—which I had for many years—you”ll still be fine. Just remember to put your large wok over the highest flame available to you—and let it sit there for a few minutes before you start adding anything. If you think your heat’s on the low side, you’ll have to adjust the quantity of food downward; perhaps a cup of ingredients is all your wok can handle.

*Authentic Chinese cooking often features multiple cooking processes in the same dish…for the same ingredient!

It is a myth that stir-fries are simply fried food that’s stirred. If you sneak into a Chinese restaurant kitchen, you’ll observe that many of the ingredients going into the stir-fry have been initially cooked in another way! Sometimes food is steamed, or boiled, or roasted before it goes into the wok. Most often, food is deep-fried (without batter) before it gets combined with the other ingredients in a stir-fry. Doing this confers several advantages. First of all, the additional cooking processes often lend texture interest to the wok-destined ingredients. But another implication of pre-cooking is absolutely crucial for the home cook: with many of your ingredients pre-cooked, the wokking takes no time at all.

*In Chinese restaurant cooking, so many dishes can be turned out so quickly because all of the ingredients—including lots of par-cooked ones—are lined up and within 1-2 minutes of being finished.

Most Chinese cookbooks teach you to chop, dice, mix in advance, to have your ingredients ready to go before you stir-fry. But by taking that one step further—that is, by having all of your prepped ingredients within 1-2 minutes of being finished in the wok—you can line up three sets of ingredients, for three separate dishes, cook them, and have them all on the table within 3 minutes of each other!


Photos Via: BigStockPhoto

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