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

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Wok Like a Chinese Guy

If the owner or cook is Chinese, and the cuisine is steak and potatoes, is it Chinese food?

If the owner is named Pepin or Puck, can the restaurant be Chinoise?

If the cook is Latino, can you offer Wok-amole?

Everyone eats and drinks; yet only few appreciate the taste of food.
Doctrine of Man, 4.2 by Confucius

So I just finished the shopping list for Eleyna’s birthday soiree and wow, it was a longer list than we thought it would be.  She decided that she wanted me to make fried rice for everybody, (which is going to end up being around 25 people) and the only way to do it well is to cook it to order, so off we are going, to the market, to act like a little piggy.  I realized that my thought process around making these rice dishes was based on my restaurant style of production, as this was going to be the best way to deliver the freshest and most flavorful meal.  Yeah, I will probably end up doing it restaurant style, with ordering tickets and all to make it a bit interactive… might be fun. 

With that thought, have you noticed that Chinese food and Chinese thinking have a lot to do with each other? Obvious as it may seem, it often takes having to experience a different kind of food and reflect on it to make the clearest comparison In my case, the usual comparison is between China and America.

1. In cooking we don’t have “1 cup”, “1/4 cup”, “1 teaspoon” measurement, we say “a little salt”. Exactly how little is little, it’s all a matter of exposure (to other cooks), exchange (of experience) and experience (of your own practice). While I have often shuddered while watching cooks toss a liberal amount of salt into a pan, I have come to realize that it simply is their preference, and they, after hopefully many years of doing so, have calibrated their hand to be able to “feel” the what right amount of seasoning is.  (For the sake of consistency, if ever trying to deliver the same meal on different occasions, I am a huge proponent of portion control and measurement,  but to stick to the emotional attachment behind doing it the “
Chinese Way

,” even I will revert to hand seasoning.  We don’t have “preheat oven to 425 degrees” either, we say “small fire”, “medium fire”, “”big fire”. Scratch your head and think what these mean. The Chinese mind is similarly conditioned to process such chaotic vagueness with ease and patience.

2. When Americans eat meat, especially here in Texas, it’s usually a huge chunk of steak or a huge rack of ribs.  With vegetables, it’s salad that is made of things strictly from the green kingdom. Not us, we are omnivorous beings! We mix beef, beans, green onions (and in my case liberally applied hot pepper), all together, then stir fry them. It’s supposed to be more balanced and healthy. That’s why my weight has been so consistent for the last 17 years. When we think, we tend to see things as coming together instead of being separate entities. This has bad and good impact on the way we think. Sometimes it causes us to be more analytical thinkers, going fluidly from one thing to another with ease, but there might be risk for sloppy thinking, which I certainly do not encourage. (Such fluid thinking, when done as a child, may be misdiagnosed as Attention Deficit Disorder, when in reality, a young mind is simply moving from one though process to another, in a natural order.)  I think a person can be both holistic and rigorous, or remain rigid and sloppy. In science for instance, some Chinese scientists, if not trained in other methods, tend to see different things at the same time without clearly separating variables. I see this a lot when I review a Chinese journal. These authors add one thing after another into a paper the way we eat from a hot pot. Such ways of thinking can be detrimental (for instance in some quantitative studies) or beneficial (for instance in some qualitative studies), depending on the context. It is similar in medicine. Traditionally (before western medicine took the upper hand) traditional Chinese doctors would frown upon their colleagues who treat a pain in the head by examining just the head (for instance, an MRI of the head). We see the human body as an interconnected whole that is bigger than the sum of all the parts. A Chinese doctor may think, maybe that has something to do with a kidney problem. Open up and say “Aah” so I can check your kidney.

3. A typical Chinese kitchen has bowls, plates, chopsticks, knives, chopping boards, some spoons, not many more beyond that. We use chopsticks for all sorts of things, even to drink soup, if you know how (you pick up your bowl and drink from there and use chopsticks to pick up the solid stuff). Now, sadly, few people do that for fear of impressing people as being not “civilized” (to me it is more a difference in the perception of table manners. In China, you are considered rude if you take the “upper seat” in a table that is reserved for seniors.) American kitchens have all kinds of tools, each dedicated to its special purpose. Most of these purposes are mysterious to me. For instance, there is a long tube-like sucker which I later learned is a tool to suck away extra gravy when cooking turkey. After all these years of dining and cooking, I still don’t distinguish between a regular spoon and a soup spoon. I can recognize only half of the tools in the kitchen. Chinese folks depend less on specialized tools when we think. We now do, by learning from the west.

4. Chinese do not learn cooking by reading recipes. We mainly watch someone (mom, grandma, wife) do it and that’s how we learn. Even now, living in the US, we learn in similar ways, sharing mainly in experience-based oral tradition. For instance we have a potluck together and we exchange ideas on how to cook, say, Kung Pao Pork. (I can’t even remember the last time anyone asked me how to do it, though, as no one in the family seems brave enough to venture out and try to do it.)  We do have recipes, but most of them are useless anyway, as they seem not to have the kind of precision that can help an American to learn, which is better, because otherwise most Chinese restaurants will shut down. Americans cook by reading recipes. If the recipe is lost, the cook goes nuts. This also explains the difference in the passing of expertise in China and in America. In China, people learn more by following experts and try to internalize the expertise through observation, practice, error and mistakes. Americans do that too, but my observation is that people are more used to reading instructions, all the way from putting together a toy to the installation of software. The standard method of training in the restaurant industry, no matter the name, is a four step process: Prepare, Present, Try-Out and Follow Up.  This generalization may be equally related to individual learning styles rather than national differences. However, as someone in the cooking industry, focusing on education, I often find myself going back to my Chinese roots when I hear Americans talk about “cognitive apprenticeship” (learning from your grandma, not a recipe), “peer learning” (learning from discussions in a Chinese potluck party, whereas an American housewife would just ask “could you please give me the recipe?”), etc. While these theories seem leading edge in the US education circles, we have been doing these for thousand of years, without, of course, verbalizing them into theories.

5. When Chinese food is being cooked, salt, sugar, vinegar, and other ingredients and spices and sauces are already added in the food, so good luck getting the food to your taste. Americans tend to make their food more bland to start with, and you “season to taste.”  (There is nothing that drives me more nuts than when someone will liberally douse a meal that I have cooked with hot oil, or chili sauce before even tasting the original dish.  It is almost a suggestion that the food itself lacks enough flavor.  However, you will never witness that kind of travesty in a Chinese home, with food cooked by a Chinese chef.)  When Chinese think, we tend to be more collective in the choice of subjects, perspectives, and topics. You start from the forest and zoom in to the trees if needed. You start basically from a common “whole”. Americans seem to be more individualized in the way they approach things. Such rigid adherence to an approach makes it tough to determine which method is better.

6. As desserts go, Chinese don’t have a tradition of eating dessert. Because desserts are too sweet, often people balance it with something bitter, such as coffee. To have coffee, some have sugar, some have cream, some have vanilla, etc. Life just gets so exponentially complex from there! We just drink tea! Green leaves and hot water. That’s it. You can drink it for hours and sit there, talk about food, stock market, a book, or simply gossip about something or someone. Imagine drinking 10 cups of coffee in a row! You can easily drink 10 cups of tea without upsetting your stomach. Chinese view with caution the extreme sweetness and bitterness as shown in dessert and coffee. We value a more moderate approach to sweetness. Good things are good because there is something not so good in them to show how good the good things are (quite a mouthful). Happiness comes after we have gone through and overcome difficulties. You don’t just take sweetness in its entirety and purity such as a chocolate cake! In terms of thinking, as a general rule, we traditionally value what we call “zhong yong zhi dao” (the way of the golden balance). These are all changing now with people adopting extreme left or right positions. I like American dessert more and more, yet I am not willing to give up my green tea.

So, onward with the preparation, and good luck to me…

Until then, Good Eating, Friends…


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Monday, January 7, 2013

For the Beginner - Chinese Food in a Teacup

China cuisine culture, also called Chinese food culture is an important part of China culture in the aspect of cooking and leisure. Chinese food has a long history. Chinese cuisine was largely shaped through the early periods such as Xia, Shang and Zhou periods. Peng Zu, the immortal figure of Taoism, was a famous cooking master. He was specially treated by King Yao, one of Three Kings before Three Periods due to his special talents in cooking and delicacies he presented. Peng Zu was one of the founders of China's cultural cuisine. Yi Ya was the second figure of Chinese cuisine culture. Yi Ya origianlly was a slave, and King Shang Tang prefered his dishes. During one meeting between the two, Yi Ya expressed his political opinions via cooking, and his famous words describe the relations between cooking and politics. Chinese cuisine culture is as sophisticated as the history of China. In the Qing and Han Dynasties, Palace cuisine became the excellent show of Chinese cuisine culture. In Tang and Song Dynasties, Cuisine was an important part of Chinese elitist culture. It was the must-have element of palace banquet, national rites and imperial parties, even the preconditions of the literary creations. Many famous talented figures like Su Dongpo and Yuan Mei were all the first-class gastronomists. In many famous classics of ancient China, many poems, essay amd stories are closely connected or themed with cuisine. In Hong Lou Meng, The Dream of Read Mansion vividly shows the traditional culture of cuisine in different chapters. The related party tradition and rituals embody the culture of China cuisine.

China food also has a worldwide reputation due to its wide-spread exposure from China to the other regions of the world. The most well known China provinces in different countries are primarily known by their special service of Chinese food. Some famous western foods originated from Chinese food in the process of the spread of China food. Currently, Chinese food is easily found in every corner of the world, and it has become an impressive and influential symbol of Chinese culture. Many westerners similarly say the direct impression on China is Kung Fu and Chinese Cuisine when asked about China.

Main Styles of China Cuisine

Chinese food, in general, is healthy and nutritious. Chinese people often have soy-bean milk
(豆浆), deep-fried dough sticksYou Tiao, 油条), steamed bunsMan Tou, 馒头) or congee(粥) as breakfast.

In most of 3 star, 4 star and 5 star hotels, you will be offered with both western and Chinese breakfast for you to choose from. For lunch and dinner, rice, noodles, vegetable, meat (mainly pork, chicken, duck, beef and mutton), eggs, fish and soup are the main choices.

Food varies within China. Traditionally there are eight main streams of Chinese cuisines, which are known as Anhui Cuisine
(徽菜), Canton Cuisine(粤菜), Fujian Cuisine闽菜), Hunan Cuisine(湘菜), Jiangsu Cuisine苏菜), Shandong Cuisine鲁菜), Sichuan Cuisine(川菜) and Zhejiang Cuisine(浙菜).

One important thing to take note of, even for people who eat a lot of Chinese food back home, is that in China most Chinese dishes are served in a boiling soup to keep the contents hot for longer, which alters the consistency and the flavor of their meals. Below are four main cuisine categories :

Cantonese Cuisine

Canton (Guangzhou) is the provincial capital of Guangdong in southern China, bordering Hong Kong and Macao, the Cantonese cuisine is actually a great combination of north and south. Originated from northern China, wonton noodle is a dish of small dumplings that shrimp and pork with vegetable wrapped in thin flour skin, and then cooked in soup with noodles.

Dim sum (literally "touch of heart") is another specialty in Guangdong Province, it is actually a kind of Chinese snacks : shrimp dumplings, wo tip (pot-sticker), siu maai (small steamed dumplings with pork inside a thin flour wrapper) and then baked or steamed buns filled with preserved meat (cha siu bau). Some Chinese restaurants there start serving dim sum as early as five in the morning.
Steamed beef balls and Chinese spare rib are delicious dim sum meat dishes, turnip cake and lotus leaf rice can be eaten in breakfast and at dinner respectively. Moreover, sweet dishes such as jin duei (a chewy dough filled with red bean paste, rolled in sesame seeds and deep fried), sweet creamed buns and Malay steamed sponge cake are very attractive. There are some other Cantonese varieties such as roast suckling pig, dog meat pot and preserved pork with taros.

Beijing Cuisine

has been the nation's capital in many dynasties and is the center of politics, economy and culture, so Beijing Cuisine traditionally represents the flavor of the ancient imperial court. Due to its special stature in history, many ethnic minorities from northern China lived in the city.  As a result Beijing cuisine has absorbed their specialties into local cooking technique. By this combination, Beijing cuisine becomes a specialty that is very different from other styles, it has always been loved by gourmets throughout the world. Beijing cuisine mainly consists of the cooking styles of Muslim, imperial recipes from the Ming and Qing Dynasties, seafood from the Tan family cuisine and specialties from some northern provinces.

Muslim cuisine is quite popular in Beijing, with its main ingredients of beef and mutton. The famous "Lamb Feast" uses almost all parts on a lamb that can make about a hundred kinds of recipes. Roast and stew mutton are the delicious Muslim dishes in Beijing as well. Imperial recipes of the Ming and Qing Dynasties are having great importance in Beijing cuisine, the notable dishes are fried fish pieces and yellow fish with dried meat pieces. Peking roast duck is loved by gourmets at home and abroad. The dish is prepared by crispy fat duck and chufa and served with steamed buns. Local family style noodle dishes are excellent also, because noodles are more popular than rice in Beijing.

Shanghai Cuisine

Sweet taste, rich in sauces and blending of styles are the primary elements of the Shanghai cuisine's characteristics. The cuisine is mainly derived from the rural cooking methods in neighboring Zhejiang and Jiangsu Provinces with a little bit influence of the Western style. The outstanding features in Shanghai cuisine are the methods of braising and stewing, with rich sauces and cured meat used also. The good taste and the beautiful color of the dish is done by controlling the cooking time and the intensity of the fire, "Shanghainese braise fish" is an excellent example of this. Shao Xing Yellow Wine is a produce in Shao Xing County in Zhejiang Province. Its aromatic taste adds much fragrance to many dishes, especially fish. Use of brown vinegar is very popular also.

Sichuan Cuisine
Sichuan cuisine has a long history and it is very famous throughout the world. The cuisine originated in ancient Ba and Shu states, and then became widely developed during the Tang and Song Dynasties. Sichuan style includes the tastes of Chengdu, Chongqing and some other places in the province. The typical characteristics of the style are hot, spicy and sour, thus giving the tastes of dishes that are very strong.
The strong chili taste is to stimulate the taste buds and appetite in hot and humid weather during summer, as well as to make people feel warmer during miserable winter in Sichuan Province. Well known Sichuan recipes are Sichuan beef and re-cooked pork, which is a dish of pork, cooked in boiled water, and then stir-fried in a very hot pan with cooking oil and sauces added last. Cold noodles mixed with peanut sauce is a favorite snack in Chengdu and Chongqing. It can be served either spicy or not. Ma-Po bean curd is very mouth-watering that is commonly eaten with rice. It is mainly made of fine bean curd cut to small pieces and cooked with slices of pork and peppers and chilies. The taste of the dishes, of course, is very hot.

Apart from these four categories, there are some specialties in the northwest, e.g. the kebab and beef noodles in Gansu Province, dumpling banquet and rou jia mo (a kind of Chinese style sandwich that looks like a hamburger) in Xi'an and Xinjiang's lamb grill.

There is so much more to tell.  I get over-excited when I think about it all!!
So for now, Good Eating, Friends...


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Sunday, January 6, 2013

New Year's Resolutions

New Years resolutions are already being broken.  What are the most popular ones to break?  (By "POPULAR" I mean the easiest.  Besides working out more regularly.)

Resolutions that deal with healthier food or better care for your body and diet. 
So I ask:  What are YOU doing to take better care of yourself this year? How will you change your diet the most?
Many people believe that better food is flavorless food.  This couldn't be further from the truth.  There are MANY ways that great tasting Asian foods can be made with less oil and be just as tasty.  (My biggest suggestion, while not my favorite is to use a non-stick pan, which will allow you to use less oil.)
  1. Avoid dishes with heavy sauces, such as red-cooked dishes that are simmered in dark soy sauce and sugar.
  2. If you're trying to decide which regional cuisine to try, Cantonese is generally the best choice. Cantonese dishes tend to be light, using fresh ingredients.
  3. Reduce the amount of oil you use for stir-frying. If the food starts to stick, add water or broth. The broth also adds extra flavor.  This should be done as close to the end of the cooking process as possible, or else your meat will become tough.
  4. When deep-frying, make sure that the oil is at a high enough temperature before cooking. Deep-frying food at too low a temperature makes it greasy. Be sure not to overcrowd the wok with food, as this will also lower the temperature. When properly done, deep-fried dishes retain only a small amount of oil.  If frying in multiple batches, be sure to give your oil enough time to recover to the highest required temperature.
  5. Try other cooking methods besides stir-frying and deep-frying, such as steaming and baking.
  6. Try partially freezing meat. This will make it easier both to remove the fat and to cut the meat into thinner slices. Always trim the fat off meat before cooking.
  7. Reduce the amount of meat in your meal. The average Chinese daily meal is grain and vegetable based, with meat playing a secondary role.
  8. Author Stephen Wong notes that fat does serve the useful purpose of dispersing flavor. To make a low-fat dish more flavorful, he suggests increased use of healthy seasonings such as ginger, garlic, and cilantro.
  9. Stick to noodles that are lower in fat. For example, a cup of cooked rice noodles has 0.352 grams of fat, while the same amount of chow mein noodles has a whopping 13.842 grams of fat. (Source: USDA)
  10. Finally, if a recipe calls for coconut milk, try one of the skim or low-fat versions.
Enjoy, and until then, Good Eating, Friends...

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Friday, January 4, 2013

Wow!! Thanks to your readership, my blog is being read in all 50 states (and Washington DC) and in 149 more countries!! It ranks in the top 15 food blogs on (It was in the top 5 for a while, but with the explosion of food blogs, readership is being spread thin.)

Please feel free to share the blog and this page with your friends!!
Also, please feel free to go to the facebook fanpage and "Like" it!! More good things are on the way!!

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