Chinese Food – Some Insights & Musings

I want to dispel the myth that you have to own a whole arsenal of specialized cooking equipment and ingredients to cook Chinese food. However, there are a few must-haves.

I stir fry a lot and I own 2 woks…that I don’t use. Why? Ahhhh, I knew curious minds would want to know. Woks don’t perform well with most ranges in American because, for safety reasons, they lack sufficient BTUs (British Thermal Units) to maintain the necessary heat, so your stir-fry results more in a stir-boil. Woks simply do not remain hot long enough to sear the food—the essence of stir-frying. See, in Hong Kong, our stoves were powered by kerosene and became very hot, while the stir-frys turned out delicious, many near disasters were barely averted. We didn’t have fire extinguishers, either, but that’s another story. After years of struggling with getting a wok extremely hot, being assaulted by sizzling oil spatters once I added the ingredients, only to cool to tepid until the food was cooked, I finally decided to think outside the box. On a particularly dark day of less than crispy veggies, I had an epiphany, why not try a cast iron Dutch oven? And never looked back. With its superior heat retention properties, it easily compensates for the meager BTUs, cooking meat to a beautiful brown sear and veggies to a delicate crunch.

With most Chinese recipes, the following applies to the called for ingredient: light1 soy sauce-no substitution, get Pearl River Bridge or some authentic Chinese if you possibly can; oyster sauce is a must have, 80% of Chinese dishes call for this2; condensed chicken broth, Shao Xing3 cooking wine is optional, but adds a nice dimension; toasted sesame oil imparts a distinctive Asian flair; fresh ginger—NEVER substitute the ground dried stuff, while that is great for baking, your stir fry will be ruined, as there is scant resemblance between the fresh and dried; granulated garlic is almost as good as fresh; onion powder works OK, but not as good as fresh; and fresh green onions give a nice bright flavor. That’s all you really need.

Caveat: woks are great if you’re only cooking a very small portion.

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