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

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Wok Solid Education

As I was preparing myself to cook for some of my good friends, I could not help but to think back on last April, when I cooked a Chinese food lunch for 85 church friends.  It was a menu of regular favorites, including a teriyaki chicken, mongolian beef, and kung pao chicken.  With it I served steamed white rice and fried rice.  And there was a LOT of fried rice.  

Fried rice, when serve best, is served fresh.  I was not willing to compromise on the quality of the rice, so while everyone was in line filling their plates, I was cooking batch after batch of fried rice.  I marveled over the fact that my wok was so hot and so perfectly seasoned that I was literally able to pour a fresh batch into a chafing pan, give it a quick wipe, then start the next batch.  There was no residual food stuck on the wok!!

It is almost a science, one that I really enjoy.

WOKS are missing in many new Asian restaurants.  This baffles me, and should baffle anyone who knows that steel cookware withstands flames and heat up to seven hundred degrees Fahrenheit while other pots and pans melt at that temperature.

Traditionalists, and thankfully I am one, are appalled, even horrified. I often wonder how places such as 'The Big Bowl' chain of restaurants out of Chicago can get decent taste, good caramelization, and fine looking Asian food now that they have scrapped their woks.

Martin Yan, who plans to open a couple of hundred sit-down restaurants tentatively called 'Yan Can Fresh Asian Cooking,' says he never plans to scrap using woks in his upcoming restaurants. Yeah Martin! His upcoming eateries are to be in association with Yum Brands Inc., the parent corporation of Kentucky Fried Chicken, Pizza Hut, and Taco Bell. Hope he holds his course on that issue because that small feature can help their restaurants gain some market success.

Woks, known in Chinese as guo, usually come with two handles, both made of metal. A few are made with one long wooden handle, these are called tiao. Both pans are curved at the bottom, somewhat akin to an upside down coolie hat. And, no matter their handle design, they are the most versatile cooking implement known to man.

Woks have been known for at least two thousand years. Some have been found made of pottery; these were buried in tombs even before that. The purpose for putting them in a tomb is to help the deceased cope in their spiritual afterlife. Metal woks were introduced just about when the Han Dynasty began in 202 BCE. Interestingly enough, their early use was to dry grains. The drying of tea leaves came much later than that. An early record of tea drying can be found in Chien Chun Nien’s Cha Phu which was said to be written in 1539.

Stir-frying, something thought ubiquitous with the wok, did not start and become popular until the Ming Dynasty (1368 - 1644 CE). Only one or two sources say there probably was a very small amount of this type of cooking in use in the Han Dynasty (202 BCE - 220 CE). We recently learned that in the sixteenth century, when cookery books were searched, they found only five of every hundred dishes were made using a stir-fry technique while in the eighteenth century, that number increased to sixteen out of a hundred.

Woks do have many different names. These include tsao, kuo, ting, tiang, and of course kuo and guo. What is special and wonderful about them, no matter what they are called, is that a very small amount of oil goes a long way, and foods can be pushed up and out of the liquid to drain away oil or another cooking liquid; and that one can steam, boil, grill, simmer, saute, deep-fry, and stir-fry in them. Most woks are made of iron, their food mixtures often slightly acidic. That makes them a good sources of that nutrient. Other Asian countries have used or adapted woks to their own culinary needs. Some make them smaller, others deeper, and many replace the two handles with others of different shape and materials.

Some people think woks are indestructible. Not so. Just ask any restaurant owner and he or she will tell you differently. Many have to replace one or more each month because they get dented, cracked, or something else happens to them.

Wok cooking is best done with a specially designed spatula made just for that purpose. Its shape is such that it can get foods parked at the sides of the wok, or toss them to the bottom and up again with ease. Other items that work well with woks are bamboo-handled wire baskets, great for taking small amounts of ingredients out of one, or large and more flat metal strainers that look akin to a flattened colander; their sizes vary.
Woks used for steaming can accommodate any number of steamer baskets topped with a bamboo steamer cover. These are better than metal steamer baskets because they do not sweat, allow steam to escape, and do not need any oil before putting food on them as foods do not stick to them. Should you not have a steamer basket, two pairs of chopsticks making a box shape, that is two in each direction, will hold a bowl or plate of food that needs steaming. Any ordinary pot cover can become a cover for that makeshift steamer basket holder and its contents. No chopsticks in your house? That is OK. Grab a can the size made for tuna fish, remove the contents and remove both top and bottom ends. Then set your bowl or plate on top of that, and your cover on that. This substitute works even in large straight-sided pots.

What cooks best in a wok? Everything! Because of its large surface area, foods cook faster and liquids in them reduce faster when used on a exceptionally hot flame. The texture and taste of any food cooked in a hot wok are sealed in. For those who have no access to gas, and therefore have no flame, hot or otherwise, try a flat-bottomed wok. However, keep in mind that cooking techniques need to change to use them. Because gas temperatures can be reduced with the turn of a handle or knob, flat-bottomed woks on electric burners need to be removed from their electric burner to quickly reduce the heat. Only use a curved wok on an electric stove IF there is a ring set outside the burner for the wok to sit on. And one other thing for safety, when tossing foods in a wok that is sitting on one of those wok rings, be sure to hold the wok handle with a pot holder in one hand to assure that the wok stays put and does not get jostled off the ring.

Wok cooking is by no means limited to stir-frying. This article has already shown that it can be used for steaming. Woks can also be used for stir-frying and deep frying. They can be used for braising and boiling and just about everything else except broiling. Do not purchase one with a Teflon or with another coating. Why not? Because most of the items used to coat pots and pans cannot withstand the heat a wok is exposed to; and many of them might and some do vaporize at those temperatures. A wok made of plain ordinary hammered steel is best. This item of cooking really is best when purchased at the low economic end.

After you buy a new wok, you need to prepare it for use. Wash it well, scrub it with steel wool, dry it well, oil it well, and heat it on a low flame for half an hour or more. Then wash it and repeat this process several times. You will have ‘seasoned’ your wok, as that is called. The better seasoned it is, the better your cooking will be. Unseasoned woks are such that foods stick to their sides. Season yours well, and you will eat well!

For now, Eat Well, Friends...

Enter your email address:

Delivered by FeedBurner

Saturday, January 24, 2015

Chopsticks, Demystified.

In my preparations for hosting dinner for some amazing friends, I was looking through the kitchen cabinets for serving dishes when a thought came to me, "What will we eat with?"

Safest would, of course, be a knife and fork.  However, to try and adhere to the traditional Chinese food meal that we will be having, I would definitely consider presenting chopsticks at the table.  I do, though, want my guests to be able to EAT the food and not spend too much time wrestling with their food before it makes it to their mouth.

CHOPSTICKS, when used properly, are an extension of the fingers. A pair of them is a very versatile set of eating implements. Using them, one can pick up, prod, stir, squeeze, and even tear foods apart. These eating implements have had a long evolution from twigs to their current state, and they were not always the implements of choice for the Chinese. When they did come into use, they were used for serving and getting foods out of pots; they were not intended for eating. That makes sense because their original name, zhu, is a cousin or cognate for one that relates to the word for boil.

Use of early implements in China included fingers and spoons. Ladles, which are really enlarged spoons, were used more for liquids that for solid foods. It was during the Han Dynasty (202 BCE - 220 CE) that chopsticks began lifting solid foods and taking them to the mouth. Spoons were more often used to eat noodles and fingers more often used for rice and other foods. It was not until into the Ming Dynasty (1368 - 1644 CE) that chopsticks became the main eating implement for virtually all solid foods. It was then that the name kuai zi became the word for this pair of sticks.

Exactly when chopsticks were used the very first time is still a mystery. Historians believe that occurred before the Shang Dynasty, circa the 16th century. We know they were available around 1200 BC because some were found then southeast of Tali in Yunnan. This and other tomb discoveries from that period include bronze and iron artifacts that included many pairs of chopsticks made out of both of these metals. While we know they had chopsticks during that time period, we do not know if they used them daily and certainly do not know all of their purposes.

One might ask, “Were chopsticks only used for ritual purposes? Were they used only by
those ruling the country? Where they used only for specific holidays and special events? Were they used only to lift food out of one or another kind of cooking pot? And if so, was their use limited to a particular kind of food?”

What is known is that diners used them to take meats, vegetables, and other solids out of soup and stew pots. Also known is that eating with fancy chopsticks became a desirable thing to do soon after the first chopsticks were invented. A king of Zhou is said to have used ivory chopsticks. His uncle chided him and said that next he would want to drink out of jade goblets and eat rare animals and other exotica on special dishes. He probably did.

During their early use, chopsticks were not to transport rice or other grains to the mouth. Fingers remained the utensil of choice for those tasks, and did so for hundreds more years.

Today, we call chopsticks kuai zi, which translates to ‘hasten,’ ‘hurry,’ even ‘quick boys.’ Do you know that this new name is not used in the province of Fujian? There, they still use the ancient word zhu for what began in Neolithic times as the use of twig-or-tong-like tools. They became an item that defines many Asian cultures, certainly the Chinese. Seeing chopsticks, does every person know which cultures are associated with them and which with other Asian cultures? Probably not.

Chinese chopsticks are long and usually square on the top with rounded bottoms. They did range from six to ten inches in length, but now are reasonably standard at ten-and-a-quarter inches long, their rounded lower halves slightly tapered. Japanese chopsticks are close to two inches shorter and round from top to bottom. The length of Korean chopsticks ranges from ten to twelve inches in length, most made of stainless steel. Vietnamese chopsticks are more similar to Chinese ones than Japanese ones. Like both of them, most are made of bamboo.

The elite, starting in the Zhou Dynasty (1046 to 256 BCE), delighted in using chopsticks made of expensive materials. Over the years, they ate with those made of ivory, the preferred material in the Guangdong province. Also popular all over China, were chopsticks made of rosewood and sandalwood, polished bone, lacquer, and others made of amber, jade, silver, gold, even rhinoceros horn. Some of the more expensive non-metal ones were tipped in silver. Why? Because people thought silver turned black at the touch of a poison. (Silver does detect hydrogen sulfide released from rotten eggs, but it does not detect arsenic, cyanide, and quite a few other poisons.)

In earlier times, long chopsticks did remove meats and vegetables from cooking pots. That was the task of long ones that ranged from fifteen inches to two feet. Since the Ming Dynasty (1368 - 1644), shorter ones take foods from plate or bowl to mouth. Now, everyone uses them for rice, noodles, and all foods, and using fingers is not too polite. It is also found to be impolite if one is using one’s chopsticks to take food from a common plate. Restaurants provide service utensils for that. In homes, a family member can use their own chopsticks to take a piece of food from a common plate, but they should not touch any other food. To do so, is considered thoughtless behavior.

How one eats rice correctly is an important social skill. It is correct to lift the rice bowl and place it close to the lips. Also correct is to shovel rice into the mouth with one’s own chopsticks. That requires holding the rice bowl with the left hand and the chopsticks in the right. The Chinese definitely discourage left-handedness. Just think how many would knock the chopsticks out of the hands of others when sitting around a table. In ancient times, that would not be a problem because noodles were eaten with fingers or spoons, and rice was a finger food. Today, both of these are consumed with chopsticks. Imagine how difficult that task is for left-handed people who know that the correct way to eat their noodles is to put the chopsticks in one hand and the spoon in the other. Their chopstick ends do battle with those of the rightie next to them.

Chopsticks are never used as knife and fork - that is one in each hand. And, they never are used to stab a food. That is an acceptable in Japanese style, but considered rude by Chinese standards. There are other do’s and don’ts of chopstick use. Some of these include:
       ·        Never stick your chopsticks upright in a bowl because upright sticks resemble incense used to honor the dead.
·        Never take food from someone else’s chopsticks, you get their germs with the food.
·        Never use chopsticks for decor such as in one’s hair because these may look pretty, but this dishonors the food they are intended for.
·        Also, do not cross your chopsticks because that can mean death or ‘the end.’ In some restaurants, chopsticks crossed at a table tell the waiter your meal has ended.
Using chopsticks correctly is a sign of good parenting. The further towards the top they are held, the more gracious and glamorous your eating style. Grasping them too tightly reduces leverage and makes eating less pretty. And, if the bottoms of both sticks are not exactly even, food can slip away and make the eater look sloppy. That is why at a Chinese table, there is lots of tapping as people even the ends of their chopsticks.

People tell fortunes with chopsticks. Those who handle theirs with three fingers are considered easy going. For young women, particularly those in Taiwan, the higher up they are held, the farther away such a woman settles when married. Holding them low on the sticks means the person is conservative; holding them higher up means a more active nature, and higher up also means such a person likes many kinds of food. If they are held with all five fingers means that person is destined for greatness; only four fingers and good omens are ahead. Hold them at the tippy-top and that person is a big risk taker. Young children who use them correctly show and tell theirs is a good brain.

There are phrases about chopsticks that also speak. Borrowing chopsticks speaks of standing in for someone else. Give expensive chopsticks and the message is that the receiver is straight and upright. And there are rules for chopsticks that speak, too. To be proper, never lick your chopsticks. Turn yours around and use the square end to serve food to someone else if no serving chopsticks appear on your table.

Eating, even with chopsticks, has always been serious business to the Chinese. Make sure you never fool around with your chopsticks. Not even with disposable ones.

Until then, Eat Well, Friends!!
Enter your email address:

Delivered by FeedBurner

Monday, January 12, 2015

Tasty Satay!!

I am having some of my good friends over for dinner in a few weeks and I’ve been pondering over the menu.  I am not going to do the “standard Chinese fare,” meaning no broccoli beef, no Mongolian chicken, no kung pao this or teriyaki that.
Let’s say that I’m definitely going to step out of my comfort zone a bit, because stir-fry ANYTHING is a piece of cake.
In perusing my refrigerator for inspiration, I realized that my wife and I eat A LOT of chicken.  I found some skewers, and BINGO!!
Chicken Satay is a favorite of mine.  I used to enjoy it when eating at Tong’s Thai in San Antonio, TX. 

My “it’s in my head and no, I’m NOT going to write it down” recipe combines a marinade and a peanut sauce to create a perfect savory, sweet balance of flavors.  Oh yes, the peanut sauce is over-the-top good. The peanut sauce alone is worth giving this recipe a try.  I just hope it brings rave reviews from my friends. 

Another thing I liked about this recipe is that the marinade and sauce can be made up to a couple of days ahead. With everything made ahead, it was a simple meal to pull together at the end of a busy day.

Do you know how satay sauce gets its tinge of yellow?  Is it curry?  Turmeric?  Wrong!! The beautiful golden brown hue comes from roasted peanuts, which have to be finely ground and boiled to release their true color.

Besides changing the color of the sauce, the finely ground peanuts also enhanced the "satay" flavor.  You know, the special flavor that makes a satay "a SATAY!!"

Because we don’t have a nifty barbecue grill yet, I plan to use the oven's grill function. I know, I know, no charcoal... yet.  Before I am arrested for committing a crime against satay, let me say that the chicen can be very succulent even without basting.  A charcoal fire imparts a wonderful smoky fragrance that, if in the wrong hands, will dry out the meat, especially when basting oils and juices keep dripping onto the charcoal.  If there's a miserly amount of meat on the stick, the heat from exposed flames would be too intense, turning the satay into a chicken jerky of sorts. 

Compared to some satay that looks two-dimensional because the meat is so thinly sliced, my version will of generous proportions – definitely plus size! There won’t be any drama from leaping flames, dancing sparks or furious fanning, but there will be plenty of juicy, succulent meat.

I will continue my menu prep and keep you all updated.

Until then, Eat Well, Friends!!

Enter your email address:

Delivered by FeedBurner

Saturday, January 10, 2015

Chinese Food: Evolution or Demise?

Lisa and I went to have lunch a couple of days ago, and much to my surprise, she requested Chinese food.  I gladly agreed to meet at Golden House Restaurant, a full service restaurant just a few minutes away from the office.  To me, a visit to that restaurant reminds me of my youth, days spent in Chinatown in San Francisco, eating at the now closed Golden Dragon.  I soaked in the environment of the dim sum carts being rolled around and ordered, somewhat haltingly, my regular favorites in the most American Chinese I could muster up.  It was a return to the ways of dining that I truly enjoyed.  Nowadays, such an opportunity is mostly lost on diners who look for the fastest, cheapest or most popular meal.

Golden House Asian Cuisine on Urbanspoon

Like me, most Americans older than thirty can recall the recent metamorphosis of the Chinese restaurant business in this country. The pseudo-Chinese Chop Sueys of our youth have given way to Chinese food that is somehow more foreign. One restaurant owner I spoke with recently said of foods that used to pass: “We do not serve Chop Suey; we do not serve Egg Foo Yung; but some people still think these are Chinese food.”  Thanks to the rise of the ubiquitous Panda Express, and the growing popularity of P.F. Chang, more and more traditional restaurants are losing their popularity or attraction to the new diner.

Often the dishes served these days are spicy, made with what many consider more exotic ingredients. They are altogether unlike the bland bean sprout and Chow Mein noodle dishes to which Americans were accustomed. Sichuan and other regional fare have entered Chinese restaurant menus and are, for most Americans, standard Chinese food. The evolution represents, in part, a regional shift in Chinese immigration. No longer are Chinese immigrants primarily from regions in and around Guangzhou (Canton). In addition, from 1965 to 1984, the Chinese community transformed itself from sixty-one percent American-born to sixty-three percent foreign-born, and is still changing.

My father always used to say that if a Chinese restaurant did not have any Chinese people in it, he would stay away.  Now, restaurants, a crucial tourist draw in the Chinatowns where many early immigrants settled, provide visitors and Chinese clientele alike with Cantonese-style cuisine. As Chinese restaurants have increasingly attracted non-Chinese diners, and proliferated outside the boundaries of Chinatowns, menus have accommodated to the American palate and marketplace. The process of negotiation and transformation largely carried out by newer Chinese immigrant retauranteurs, entails creating and offering a product recognizably and exotically Chinese, and yet acceptable to their non-Chinese customers. Their dishes are symbolically loaded with multi-faceted connotations of ethnicity and authenticity.

When I owned and ran my own Chinese restaurant, I saw myself primarily as a businessman, and the food as a kind of mutable commodity. I developed my own pragmatic philosophy of culinary acculturation; if the customer likes Kung Pao Chicken with cashew nuts instead of peanuts, I had no objections.  I would not necessarily be able to comply with such a request, however I had no cultural objections to it.

This type of culinary transformation in ethnic restaurants seems inevitable. Chinese food in the suburbs needs to be prepared and served differently to American customers if businesses are to survive. In Chinatown, where greater numbers of Chinese diners are expected, a separate Chinese-language menu is often featured, and often with ingredients not offered to non-Chinese clientele. For most Americans, snake or fish lips would be considered unacceptable food. (There has been a recent trend toward greater experimentation and a certain authentic cachet is awarded the non-Chinese diner who adventures on the Chinese side of the menu.)

In the larger social context such culinary transactions are not only unacceptable; they can create a cultural gulf between the two groups. Countless ethnic slurs invoke foreign eating habits; early Chinese immigrants were often denigrated as rat-eaters. If a menu is too intimidating, the result is a loss of business. This is true even with ordinary food items such as fish. Americans want the filet, no bones, heads, nor the sense of eating a whole animal. The Chinese, on the other hand, want to see the whole fish and do eat every part of it, especially the head.

In Chinese culture, whether Taoist, Buddhist, or Confucianist, food is inextricably entwined in almost every aspect of our life. Food marks cultural change, family events and social transactions. We do not eat simply for nourishment or pleasure. To us, foods have an intricate network of meanings, particularly medical significance. Some beliefs are shared with American culture; spinach is good for blood, carrots for the eyes. Others are more specific to the Asian culture, such as the definition of foods as hot (jeh or cold liang, or Yin or Yang. Persimmon, for instance, is not to be eaten with crab because crab is a 'cold' food. Food balancing is central to Chinese cuisine. Fundamental to this philosophy is the precept that fan (the rice or starch staple) is the center of the meal, linguistically synonymous with 'food.' Tsai (the vegetables, meat and sauce), are accompaniments. Americans tend to reverse this balance, eating in what the Chinese would refer to as banquet or festival-style dining, using the rice as a side.

Alterations in the composition of the dishes and configuration of meals are not the only accommodations restauranteurs make. When serving their foods, the manner of eating is also transformed from Chinese style to Chinese-esque American style. Individual Americans prefer individual plates while Chinese diners traditionally share from a common bowl and do not think: This is yours, this is mine; they just think this is ours!

Duck sauce and fortune cookies were among American inventions and appear on restaurant menus to appeal to American customers. Restaurant owners are finding themselves responding to an increasing array of special requests. My belief is that every dish can be modified but that some people go too far. For example, Chicken with Broccoli is a white sauce dish. I would not object if Garlic Sauce is substituted, but feel that Black Bean Sauce is inappropriate and distasteful. Some of these entreaties concern taste preferences and some respond to the intense concern with health and diet.

One recent event which dramatized the effect of culinary misapprehensions on the restaurant business was the release of a report by the 'Center for Science in the Public Interest.' It revealed putative dangers in eating Chinese food, especially sweet-and-sour and batter-fried dishes and recommended that diners eat more rice and less of the oily, salty, sweet entrees, essentially counseling Americans to eat exactly the way Chinese diners would. In appearing to demonize the cuisine instead of the behavioral choices of the consumer, the report offended many Chinese restaurant owners. There was also a marked increase in such special requests as: 'No oil, no soy sauce, no sugar, no MSG. But I want it to be tasty.' Customers want foods steamed, sauce on the side, but expect gustatory experience to be unaltered.

I have often said that I can tell from what is ordered if there is knowledge of Chinese food or not. If the order includes Sweet and Sour Chicken, I believe that the customer does not have the hang of real Chinese cuisine. If those same customers were to order traditional Chinese dishes and eat them in traditional Chinese configurations and combinations, the result would be far from unhealthy. As I have heard, many times, “Look at Chinese people, on average, they are skinny and they are healthy.”

Perhaps American audiences feel the need to modify Chinese cuisine more than foods of other, less exotically intimidating cultures. Dishes have been invented, altered, and recombined in an ongoing process of negotiation with the sometimes voracious, sometimes apprehensive dominant culture. Chinese restaurant owners continue to market a cuisine which is both highly structured and fairly adaptable, a diet which is alternatively vilified and canonized, and dishes which strive for authenticity, palatability and profitability in serving the eclectic American palate.

I am looking forward to continuing this journey with you.

Until next time, Good Eating, Friends...

Enter your email address:

Delivered by FeedBurner