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

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Onward Foodie Soldiers

Last night we made a pick-your-own stir fry for dinner. Yum. The protein was chicken, and only chicken, and there were quite a few vegetables to pick from. I ended up making the prep work a family affair, as everyone wanted in on the action. It ended up working out well, with Madi, our 5 year old, trimming and breaking the green beans and broccoli, Eleyna made the marinade, and Kim cut the mushrooms into quarters and peeled the carrots while I cut the chicken and onions and peeled the snow peas.

I had each person grab a bowl and fill it as high as they wanted with vegetables, and then I stir fried it with a mild honey-soy blend and garlic. (The only thing I forgot to prep was ginger, and its absence was noticed.) With each dish cooked to order, we still managed to eat and finish the dishes before the latest episode of 24 came on.

After having enjoyed such a delicious meal on Saturday and yesterday, and after having scoured the nearby restaurants for a decent Chinese restaurant that did not require me driving halfway across town for lunch today, I realized that my biggest complaint about the business continues to rear its nasty head: The American public does not have a good understanding of what authentic Chinese food is. The information that they do get to disseminate comes from American writers who are not familiar enough with Chinese ingredients and techniques to write about them. As a result, the end result is Chinese cooking with a fusion twist. Where does fusion cooking come into play when one does not truly know the basics?

There is a sudden interest in Chinese food that has brought this issue to the forefront. The most important factor in opening our eyes about the issues is the opening of China itself, making it more possible to import ingredients and cooking knowledge. Thankfully the end of the Olympics did not bring with it an end to the exposure and openness about the Chinese society, and with it the experiences of the Chinese chefs and home cooks who revived the long revered culinary traditions from the many different regions.

In the early 20th century, travel and import of goods across the Pacific was a long and arduous journey, so even though the Chinese rail workers introduced Americans to the early cuisine, the costs and time associated with attaining ingredients was nearly impossible. The result was Chinese food made with substituted local ingredients, as well as rudimentary cooking techniques practiced with tools that were not designed for the trade.

Further exacerbating the problem was the closing of the Chinese borders during the 3 decades after World War II. While other Asian cuisines enjoyed widespread adoptions and exposure, Chinese cooking was limited to those who could travel to Hong Kong and Taiwan.

It wasn’t until the reforms of the 1980’s that Sino-American commerce began again to supply local Chinese markets with more of the authentic ingredients. Unfortunately for a poor soul like myself, those such markets are usually hidden in areas of high Chinese populations or in Chinatowns of the large metropolitan areas.

The local markets here and even the supermarkets are trapped in the endless cycle of serving ingredients for chop suey and cow mein. These grocers must be made aware of our need and demand for some basic authentic ingredients. At a very minimum, the ingredients that I listed on the basic necessities post should be easily obtainable.

It has become apparent to me that in order to improve the quality of the food, as well as the true identity behind the education, more visas need to be issued to qualified chefs who establish an application for that field. Advancement of the authentic Chinese cooking form will not happen without the proper cooking knowledge, and where better to get it from than the source. (There are those, however, who will scoff at my idea of ‘importing’ chefs from China, and they may have a good argument: Seek out the great Chinese food that is already here in the States, then promote the heck out of it, and be willing to pay a little more for the exquisitely prepared, authentic Chinese food, as we are wont to do with Italian, or French cuisines.)

Regional Chinese cooking has been enthusiastically revived in recent years in China. Many chefs in restaurants, as well as home cooks, are going back to their family roots, traditions and recipes. This is a very exciting moment for Americans to learn about these regional cooking. Contrary to many debates, there are indeed eight widely accepted major regional Chinese cuisines (中華八大菜系): Lu (魯 Northeast China), Hui (徽 Anhui), Su (蘇 Jiangsu), Zhe (浙 Zhejiang), Yue (粵 Guangdong or Canton), Min (閩 Fujian), Chuan (川 Sichuan) and Xiang (湘 Hunan). Sadly ethnic divides also tinge this list because it does not include many of the minority people living in the Western, Southwestern and Inner Mongolia areas of China. This is the list of the Han (漢) people, who dominates China demographically and politically.( Though one could argue that those minority regions should probably not be part of China. But that’s a separate political issue.)

During the last few months I have noticed (and read) an increasing number of Chinese food blogs that actively discuss regional cooking. I believe that those who truly understand and are able to translate Chinese should share their knowledge in this type of forum. I will continue to try to do my part, and I call on all Chinese cooks, professional or amateur to help spread the knowledge.

(I can only shudder at the idea of someone taking a trip abroad, visiting China, then coming back with the opinion that “the food wasn’t great. It just wasn’t like the Chinese food I have eaten here…”

Onward, Chinese Food Soldiers…

.Until then, Good Eating, Friends…

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