From My Wok to Yours - Taking the Mystery Out of Everyday Dining and Meals!!

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Cooking According to Colin, Part 1

Tomato Basil Soup* from La Madeleine. Sounds like it should be good, right?  Hot, steaming soup, with sourdough bread to dip in it...

Why did I allow myself to build it up, only to be let down?  The soup was on the tart side, and creamy it was not. It seemed to lack substance, as if it was the soup skimmed off the top of a huge vat, with all the wholesome goodness still sitting at the bottom.  I kept stirring my soup in my bowl trying to find the hidden treasure of bold flavor that for some reason never showed up.

THIS is why I believe I specialize in Chinese food.  It is a taste that I understand, and a taste that I can easily replicate.  Understanding and loving the food gives me a glimpse into the nation's (and my) heritage and culture. The many different kinds of cuisine include Szechuan, Shandong, Guangdong and Hunan cuisine, which then morp into 8 styles, and more afterwards. The beauty of learning about cooking in this style is that Chinese cuisine is changing.

The Primary Influences to Chinese Cooking and Flavors

Because the mainland is so large, and there are so many different climactic variances in the country, there are marked differences in techniques and ingredients, due primarily to the availability of core ingredients, between the main cooking styles.

Little by little we will open up the world of Canton style cuisine, with the freshness of its ingredients and the subtle but dinstinct contrast of flavors and textures, Szechuan style cuisine, with its fiery reputation, Hunan style cuisine, a detailed and extravagant form of cooking, Shanghai style cuisine, which offers a diverse yet refined taste profile, and, of course, of the delicate Mandarin style cuisine, where presentation is key, knowing we are catching only a glimpse into a very sophisticated world of food preparation.

Let the Globe-Trotting begin.

The Art of Dining, Chinese style

Chinese dining traditions date back thousands of years and in some of the more traditional Chinese households, many of the customs are still held to a high standard. Such customs are a blend of practicality, superstition and social inertia. The naivete of those unschooled in the Chinese customs is almost to be expected, but the willingness to learn then follow them will make for an enjoyable new experience and bring pleasure to a gracious host.

Chinese dining etiquette begins at the table and specifies in what order diners are seated. Customs even dictate when diners eat or drink and how and go as far as who leaves, and in what order. Despite the social disciplines that accompany the traditions, a Chinese meal allows for fully partaking of the benefits of the excellent food and enjoying the companionship of your fellow diners.

At many Chinese meals there is a guest of honor, whether it be a wedding couple, an anniversary couple, or a couple of centenarians. Even when the occasion is of a somber sort, and far from any sort of official function or special celebration, one diner may still be the focus of the gathering. The honoree is seated at the head of the table, across from the host.

Even if the event doesn't call for an honored guest, there is still a social hierarchy that is recognized and followed. The most respected diner, often the father or the eldest male, is seated first. As he plays host to others he will serve guests, which is not considered a servile role.

The host eats or drinks first, but he will pay careful attention to his guests' comfort and pleasure. He'll ensure that their tea cup is filled and their palette satisfied. A good guest in turn will sample each dish offered and show open appreciation for the fine dishes prepared.

After the host serves the dishes from a central plate, the guests are expected to thank him for it.

When at a table where there is no head a good diner will serve another before himself. Dishes containing food are placed in the center of the table so that each option is available to all. The dishes are left there and food moved to a diner's plate. It is impolite to move a serving dish to one's one plate and shovel food onto it, then replace the dish. Unlike Western culture, however, it is not considered impolite to reach across another diner to get to the serving dish.

A cardinal sin in dining in the midst of the Chinese culture is applying any other seasoning or flavor to the main food dish at the center of the table.  A host may, in a self-deprecating way, criticize the flavor, or lack thereof in a particular dish, usually the feature dish.  At this point, all the fellow diners are expected to chime in with reassurances that the food tastes excellent, and that it needs no enhancement.  (Should you feel that a dish may be slightly bland, additional seasonings can be added ON YOUR OWN PLATE.)

This brings to mind an occasion when I was at my Mom's house with a new girlfriend who I wanted to introduce to the family.  My mother, being the perfect host that she is, cooked an extravagant meal, featuring many of her favorite dishes in honor of the introduction.  Upon presentation of the last dish, she said that she did not believe that the Shrimp dish did not have enough seasoning.  My girlfriend in an attempt to reassure her, said "Oh, that's okay, I am sure it just needs a little soy sauce" and, to the horror of all of us at the table proceeded to take the nearest bottle of soy sauce and DROWNED the dish in it.  Needless to say, she was never invited back.

Guests will please their host if they have a second helping, though the final result should leave some food on the plate. A host may be saddened if the guest cleans the plate bare, since this is a sign that not enough food was provided. Likewise, it is inappropriate to take the last of any food from the center.

Using chopsticks is becoming more and more optional, but in a traditional Chinese meal it is a strict necessity. Diners unfamiliar or unpracticed with Chinese chopsticks -which differ slightly from their Japanese cousins- can quickly come up to speed. A knowledge of the proper technique and a little practice will soon make them proficient. (Remember never to place them upright into a bowl of rice, since this resembles incense sticks burned after a dear one has departed this life.)

Participation in the wonderful tradition of following dining customs won't bring calm to the chaos that preceded your sitting at the table, and not understanding them, or failure to fully follow them will not cause a social rift. But an attention to traditional mores can lead to a pleasantly different experience and bring a smile to a grateful host.

Working for Your Food - otherwise known as
Mastering the Art of Chopsticks

As anyone who has been to a Chinese restaurant knows, chopsticks are the traditional implements for eating Chinese dishes. But far from being difficult and inefficient, they're actually very versatile. They require a moderate amount of technique and practice, but in short order anyone can learn to use them well.

Chopsticks have been in use for over 3,000 years. They receive a mention in The Book of Rites dating from the Shang Dynasty that ruled China from 1600BC – 1100BC. In that time they've been made of ivory, bronze, bamboo and many other materials. Decorative designs may employ gold, silver, ceramic enamel or lacquer and other compounds. The Kuaizi Museum in Shanghai has collected over 1,000 pair, many of them centuries old.

Chinese chopsticks are usually about 8-10 inches long and often thickened or blunt at the ends. Both sticks are the same. Japanese chopsticks, by contrast, have narrowed ends, more pointed than their Chinese cousins.

To use Chinese chopsticks, place them both into one hand. Clamp them between the index finger and thumb, then move one to between the index and middle finger. The ends should be at the same point and both should lie in the same plane. In using Japanese chopsticks one stick protrudes slightly out from the other and they may be slightly twisted.

The trick is to have both a firm grip on each while being able to swivel one into the other in a pincer-like movement. That motion is performed by moving the index finger and thumb just slightly, opening and closing the pincer. You should be able to tap one end into the other and make an audible sound without losing grip on either.  Do not allow your chopsticks to cross or become an X either in front of or behind your fingers.  Some restaurants offer "Kid's Chopsticks" which are little more than a piece of plastic that functions as hinge into which users can clip their chopsticks and not worry about them falling.

Chinese dishes are prepared with the knowledge of the eating tools in mind. Instead of whole steaks, or whole legs or breast of chicken, meat is made bite-sized. Dumplings and dim sum are made so that they can easily be grasped between the chopsticks. The weight and size make it simple to hold them without opening the pincer too wide or falling out too easily. Rice can be scooped into the mouth by bringing the bowl up to the lips. Slurping soup is not considered rude in Chinese dining, in fact, it is considered a compliment  A satisfied belch at the end of the meal, (something that my daughters have perfected,) is considered the ultimate compliment.

Despite the name, no stabbing or chopping is required or expected. In fact, in Chinese dining etiquette, such actions would be considered socially unferior and uneducated. There are several other traditional customs in the proper use of chopsticks, as well.

Sticking chopsticks vertically into a bowl of rice is considered poor taste. They resemble the incense sticks that are placed in rememberance of the dead. Unlike some Western circumstances, the Chinese don't generally mix meals with mourning. In Chinese culture, eating even an ordinary meal is a celebration. Instead, rest them on the side of the bowl or plate.

Waving chopsticks in front of someone else's face or at other diners, or playing with them in the mannerism of swordplay is of equally poor taste. One should not suck on the tips or lick the length of the chopstick. They are not meant to be used to pull a food dish toward one. Chopsticks may be provided in or with a central dish to scoop food onto one's plate. Use them instead of your own.

While Chopsticks may present a challenge to the unexperienced diner, the art and perfection of eating with them will help many diners gain an added appreciation for the work that went behind the preparation of the meal.

Until then, Good Eating, Friends...

Tomato Basil Soup a la Colin


4 cups fresh tomatoes, cored, and chopped (8-10)

4 cups vegetable stock (chicken stock can be used as well)

12-14 basil leaves, washed fresh (dried basil can be used if allowed to soak in the vegetable stock for about an hour)

1 cup heavy cream

1/4 lb sweet unsalted butter


1/4 teaspoon cracked black pepper


  • Combine tomatoes, seasoning and stock in saucepan.

  • Simmer 30 minutes.

  • Puree contents together with basil

  • Return to stove and combine with heavy cream and butter, stirring until hot.

  • Garnish with grated parmesan cheese and chopped basil

  • Serve hot with your favorite bread

Enter your email address:

Delivered by FeedBurner

, , , , , ,

No comments:

Post a Comment