Article first published as Caution: Man At Wok on Blogcritics.
In China it’s really easy not to cook. Especially if you’re a middle-aged white guy whose greatest culinary achievement is the peanut butter omelet. I can exit my front door, walk in any direction, and most likely run smack dab into a restaurant.
For less than 25 kuai I can have the full meal deal and a floor show to boot. Well, not exactly a floor show like, say, Wayne Newton. Who? But it’s always entertaining to watch the people.
Funny thing is, you never know what you’ve got ‘til it’s gone. It wasn’t until I returned to the good old U.S. of A. for an extended hiatus that I realized what an idiot I am. (I heard that!) I should have been paying more attention. When I return to China, I promise to cook more and dine out less. Yeah, right.
In my hometown of Walla Walla they just opened a Panda Express. While it’s definitely a step in the right direction, it’s still not the same. But you knew that already, huh? Too much meat and not enough veggies. Really.
For a former cattle rancher, that seems like a weird thing to say. We Americans are victims of our own success. We want what we want when we want it. That means meat. Big slabs of it. Only right now things aren’t so easy in America. It’s OK – adversity builds character. And maybe even a slimmer waste line. I mean waistline.
So, with that introduction, let’s grab our woks and start cooking. If you don’t have a wok, use what you’ve got. That’s what I’ve been doing. My woks are still in China.
Oops! We’re not ready to cook yet. Put your wok down and grab your Chinese knife. What?? Oh, this is getting ridiculous. Use what you’ve got. That’s what I’ve been doing.
Actually, today we aren’t cooking at all. Today we’re just checking to make sure you’re ready to take the jump to warp speed with some basic principles of cooking the Chinese way. Here they are.
Fresh is best. In China, they still go to market every day. To be fair, it’s a little easier for two reasons: (A) There’s a farmers market in just about every neighborhood. And (B) there are usually more adults around to share the load. Their nuclear family is three generations, not two.
Be prepared. The basic tools are a Chinese knife or cleaver, one or two cutting blocks or boards, and an assortment of dishes to hold the prepared ingredients. If you want to see some REAL gong fu, just watch Nai-nai wield that cleaver!
To everything there is a seasoning. Several basic spices and seasons are mainstays. They are salt, ginger, garlic, sugar, soy sauce, rice wine vinegar, and sesame oil. Other essentials include spring onion, anise, five spice powder, and chili.
Less is more. Meat, that is. Chinese use small bits of meat to complement the vegetables, not the other way around. In addition to vegetables, they eat a lot of fish, fresh fruit for snacks and desserts, and they drink a lot of tea.
Rice or noodles? It’s said that Northern Chinese are noodle eaters and Southern Chinese are rice eaters. This is somewhat true, but all Chinese eat both in great amounts. No, you don’t have to give up potatoes completely. Just mix it up a little.
Chop, chop. Cut all your ingredients into bite-size bits. Pieces should be uniform and small enough to be picked up with chopsticks. Experiment with different ways of slicing up each item –an art form all by itself.
The heat is on. Once your ingredients are prepared, put the wok on the stove and turn it on high. Pour a little oil into the pan and watch for it to start to ripple with the heat. This is the optimum time to toss in your ingredients. Have fun.
Although the Asian diet is probably more healthful than the standard American diet, your family may object to radical changes at suppertime. So, try out a few simple recipes at first. If you don’t have one already, now is the time to buy a Chinese cookbook.
There are a couple more items I want to mention before the bell rings.
Chinese use vegetable oil or peanut oil, but there seems to be a growing trend towards olive oil. I think that’s a good thing. You should probably measure it out rather than just pour.
There are many exotic sauces and other ingredients in the Asian section of the grocery store. I would recommend holding off for now. Once you know the basics, you can make a lot of these from scratch.
You know those cute little paper containers for Chinese take-out? I’ve never actually seen them in China. Come to think of it, I’ve never seen a fortune cookie, either.
I’ll leave you with this last thought. Just as we’ve changed Chinese food to suit American tastes, the Chinese have changed American food to suit them. Next time you go to McDonald’s and they want to know if you’d like a hot apple pie with your order, ask if they have any red bean ones instead.