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

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Fundamental Cooking Techniques

I am considering attending the local Asian Cuisine class at the community college down the street from my house, where I could learn “fundamental cooking techniques” and flavor profiles of half dozen Asian cuisines. This three-week class is divided into two or three day sections, each devoted to exploring a single cuisine in Asia. The first region of study is to be China, a country whose food has impacted numerous cuisines in the Far East.

Having grown up in a Chinese American household, I know that my experiences in this course would be shaped by my past exposure to Chinese food. The years of rice, stir-fries, and medicinal soups my mother prepared and numerous visits to Chinatown for foods my parents craved from her native Hong Kong had created in me, a palate more Chinese than that of the typical American.

Looking at menus that the class is to prepare and serve to fellow students, I almost feel like an expert. While some students may delight at the exoticism of some dishes, I smile in recognition at names on the menu such as General Tsao’s Chicken. This is a popular five-dollar lunch special at Americanized Chinese fast food joints. It has bestowed its sweet and spicy charm on all students and staff and locals who don’t crave a more authentic dish. Hailing from Northern China, a dish of braised lamb has also made it to the menu, reminding all that China is a large country, its food quite diverse.

Another lesson is to prepare a steamed fish, a dish I enjoyed quite often at home. My mother had made it many times, steamed whole with scallions and ginger and a light drizzle of oil and soy sauce. I am no stranger to it. In my mother’s version, the fish was simple and delicious. In this college class, every serving consists of two fillets of fish, each rolled into little cylinders after they were stuffed with shredded vegetables. The cylinders are to stand in a pool of soy sauce marinade before the entire dish goes into a steamer. The steamed fish is then served this way, marinade and all.

Puzzled by this, I asked my potential chef-professor why we were to prepare fish in a manner I found utterly un-Chinese. As it turns out, fish steamed whole just never leaves our kitchen as it did not sell to the less adventuresome clientele--the other students, staff and locals alike. Like every kitchen on campus, menus are selected for several reasons. These can include popularity, cost, and availability of ingredients. It made me wonder if authenticity always takes second place to other factors.

The pace of the kitchen, however, will not give me a chance to ponder for long. Classmates are instructed to come up to their peers with jars of condiments and handfuls of vegetables to verify that they had correctly identified the ingredients in their dishes. Groups may bicker about when fish should be placed in the steamer. Such dialogue often reminds me that I was as much a novice in cooking Chinese cuisine as were my peers. I could count on one hand the number of times I had prepared Chinese dishes myself.

Over the course of these Asian classes, my meager experience in a Chinese kitchen may soon become apparent. While I had seen my mother use her small wok, it was hardly like the enormous and powerful woks used in some of the restaurants I have worked in, or owned. Each had its own roaring 135,000 BTU burner that easily put stove-top burners to shame. Should a student forget to bring that bowl of Napa cabbage to the wok with the rest of the vegetables, he or she might as well leave them out of the dish. Garlic and ginger sizzling in the wok would char before anyone came back to the cooking station, cabbage in hand. Working with a commercial wok and a commercial burner under it is a true test of preparation and skill, to say nothing of speed.

The use of the Chinese oven is even more of a novelty. Anyone who has wandered through Chinatown has seen the lacquered meats hanging on display at butcher shops. (yum…) They are a camera-worthy sight for tourists. Through conversations with the professor, I learned that the deliciously glazed meats actually cook in a hanging position in Chinese ovens. They are displayed that same way in the shop windows. I had always assumed they hung that way for aesthetic reasons along with ease of customer viewing.

The Chinese oven stands vertically, a stainless steel rectangular box. The first time I saw it, it reminded me of a magician’s box used in a disappearing act. Hopefully, by the time I work up my own barbeque spareribs, the oven and I will better acquainted. First, I will pierce the marinated spareribs with hooks and attach them to bars just below the oven ceiling. Then I will fill the oven’s bottom drawer with water to create a bath of evaporation. This will keep the meat moist. Every thirty minutes, I will then brush a sweet and savory syrup onto the ribs. Removed two hours later, they will gleam with their characteristic mouth-watering glaze.

Before I end up attending this class, I am sure that, I will find myself at the school library thumbing through Chinese cookbooks. Book after book will have varied styles of dishes and regional specialties I have never heard of before.

As I look through one book’s familiar pages, I am sure I will find a picture of fish fillets, rolled and stuffed, sitting in a steamer basket. The recipe: Rolled Fish with Oysters, just to stare at. There, in clear color will be proof on the page. This, despite what I believe, that Chinese cooks do not fillet and roll their fish.

The time I have spent lately dreaming about attending this Asian Cuisine class has served to ignite my hunger to learn more about Chinese cuisine. There is a lot more to food than I had realized, even in a cuisine I professed to know something about, after having spent years working with it.

The next question I should ponder is which region or regions of China roll their fish filets? Following that could be, what other Chinese cookbooks have recipes for rolled fish? I am sure many other questions will follow, including how many different fillings do Chinese cookbooks provide for the rolled fish filets? I look forward to learning answers to these and the many other questions I do and will wonder about.

Until Then, Good Eating, Friends…

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