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Cooking Chinese Food is all about the oil

My (very basic) understanding of Chinese Cooking goes like this:
  1. Always make sure the wok is already smoking before you add oil.
  2. When you think you’ve added enough oil, add two more teaspoons. Or heck, a ladleful while you’re at it.
  3. Soy Sauce is salty. Oyster sauce is sweet
  4. You can never have too many green scallions (roughly chopped into 1-inch pieces)
  5. Dongbei food is heavy (think dumplings and 锅包肉), Yunnan Food is heavy on the spices, Shanghainese food is sweet (think lotus roots stuffed with sticky rice), Xinjiang food has the highest likelihood of giving you diarrhea (but the 大盘鸡 and the cumin-scented lamb are worth it), and Yangshuo food is, well, disgusting.

Last weekend, on our trip to Guilin, we took a Chinese cooking class, which involved a visit to a Chinese ‘farmer’s’ market (the kinds I tend to avoid in Shanghai). Actually farmer’s market may not be the proper term, now that I think about it. It wasn’t quite as twee as the ones in New Haven or Union Square. There wasn’t a Caseus truck doling out oozing grilled cheese sandwiches, no such thing as organic yogurt purveyors or bakeries selling sun-dried tomato tarts for that matter. After getting thoroughly scarred at the market (but more on that in a bit), we spent two hours cooking garlic eggplant, beer-battered fish, and pork dumplings, to varying degrees of success.

Back in the Elmhurst, I used to cook almost every single day, and in Shanghai, I constantly tell myself that I should cook more. The thing is – my cooking instincts aren’t particularly Chinese, so when I do cook, the food always ends up Western (or mildly Eastern European, as I discovered while braising an entire head of cabbage last night). To be honest, I feel much more comfortable with paprika and Old Bay than I do with white pepper or sesame oil. Give me a package of lentils and I’ll make a stew. Give me mung beans? Well, I’m not quite sure what I would do with them (but that’s what a rice cooker is for, right?) While not as insightful as I would have liked (yes, I know what a ‘dice’ looks like), the cooking class helped me rediscover what persimmons, bitter melon, winter gourds, Chinese eggplant and celery (ew) could do in the kitchen.

Before the class though, the lady led us through one of those vegetable ‘farmer’s’ markets I’m deathly afraid of in Shanghai. She seemed a little too gleeful to tell us about eating dogs (okay, totally thought that wasn’t a thing in China) and with an inappropriate amount of pep pointed out that the high-pitched squeals of an animal being slaughtered were indeed those of a dog, her eyes gleaming (with appetite?).

Either way, we had already spoiled our appetite by getting caramel popcorn on the way over.



0 thoughts on “Cooking Chinese Food is all about the oil”

  • I could not live there with that sort of attitude to animals. I just couldn’t cope with squealing dogs. Does oyster sauce really have oysters in it? I know it’s an odd question, but I’m sure I’ve had local takeaways try to convince me that it’s vegetarian before and that I’ve never quite believed them even when it’s on their vegetarian menu.

    • Hmm.. You know, I think some ‘oyster’ sauce comes from ‘Oyster Mushrooms’, and in the purest sense it’s all actual fermented oyster, but I’ve discovered that most is just fermented fish and a combination of artificial coloring with sugar.

      • To me the phrase oyster sauce just sounds vomit inducing. If they’d have said mushroom I’d have been fine and completely unsuspicious with that. As it is I guess I was right to be cautious then and shall continue to steer well clear.

      • No, all very easy here as everything is labelled (even if you have to sometimes search) and you’re accommodated for everywhere. Just about. The oyster sauce thing is in Chinese takeaways.

        I did have an incident in a carvery, which must be going back a bit now but was humorous so it sticks in the memory, where I asked for the vegetarian option to be offered fish. I asked the employee to try again and they offered me a potato. Eventually it turned out they did have something for the troublesome vegetarians as I suspected.

        Although saying all this my experience, and stories I’ve heard, is that it’s hard work in most of mainland Europe. My Mum told me she saw “vegetarian” soup packed full with bonus floating meat. But then you lived or stayed in Paris so you must have a better idea than me.

        What’s worse (for us) is that my baking is also heading the wheat-free way (which I think you said was your thing too) as my Dad is having issues. So I’m exploring the options open to make food more palatable. Problem is he’s given up most of dairy too. All experimental for now. It does look a hard life.

        • I’ve had a lot of issues with labeling in China, especially because soy sauce has gluten, so I’ll have pretty bad reactions to it.

          If you’d like some tips on gluten-free baking, let me know, I’ve been experimenting with Chickpeas and chickpea flour considerably lately, since it’s pretty high in protein and can be used without the cumbersome things like Xanthan Gum

      • Thanks, but for now my Dad is going through a process of avoiding all sorts of different things so I’m dealing with multiple lists of things to avoid and it’s all very confusing at the moment. Something he’s probably benefitting from, that you might not have access to, are products aimed at the gluten free market.

        I will look into chickpea flour, so thanks for that, as at the moment I’m using special gluten free flours which are made up (if you check the ingredients) of rice, potato, buckwheat, tapioca, and maize. So far I’ve made biscuits and a cake and they taste OK, but a bit like they’ve got sand in them. I’m guessing that’s the tapioca or the rice.

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