Basics

Basics

By
Fuchsia Dunlop
Contains
0 recipes
Published by
Bloomsbury Publishing Plc
ISBN
9781408869239
Photographer
Chris Terry

You don’t need many ingredients to get started with Chinese cooking. The following is a list of the seasonings that are the staples of the Chinese larder. (For more information on each seasoning and for a full glossary of Chinese ingredients used in the recipes, with their Chinese pronunciation and Chinese characters.) You will also need cooking oil with a high smoke point, such as groundnut or rapeseed. And it’s really useful to have some stock to hand, either bagged-up home-made stock in the freezer, cans of chicken stock or vegetable stock granules.

–Soy sauce (light soy sauce or tamari, and dark soy sauce): One of the essential seasonings of the Chinese kitchen. Light soy sauce is generally used to add flavour and saltiness to food, dark soy sauce for a caramel colour. A good tamari – darker than light soy sauce but richly flavoured – can be used instead of light soy sauce.

–Chinkiang or Chinese brown rice vinegar: A speciality of the town of Zhenjiang (or Chinkiang) in eastern China, the best is made from fermented glutinous rice with charred rice used to give a deep brown colour. It has a mellow, complex flavour and a relatively light acidity.

Chinkiang vinegar can be found in Chinese groceries, while a generic brown rice vinegar is available in some supermarkets.

–Toasted sesame oil: With its dark, nutty colour and intense aroma, this is never used as a cooking oil, but to add fragrance to dishes. Use it in tiny quantities, and add it to hot dishes right at the end of cooking, as heating it for too long will destroy its fragrance.

–Chilli oil: This adds a gorgeous heat and lustre to cold dishes and dips.

–Dried chillies: An essential of Sichuanese cooking. Use larger, milder red chillies, ideally those known as ‘facing-heaven’, rather than smaller, hotter varieties.

–Whole Sichuan pepper: Good Sichuan pepper has a fresh, citrussy aroma and the addictive quality of making your lips dance and tingle. It can be used whole, or roasted and ground.

–A few spices (start with cassia bark and star anise): These are generally used in combination to give aroma and flavour to broths and stews.

–Shaoxing wine: This rice wine is a mild, amber-coloured liquor that is often used in marinades to refine the flavours of meat, fish and poultry. Cheap Shaoxing wines for cooking can be found in Chinese supermarkets; they are not recommended for drinking. Many Chinese shops sell some more expensive Shaoxing wines that can be drunk on their own or used in cooking.

–Potato flour or cornflour: The Chinese use a variety of plain starches to thicken sauces and to give a silky mouthfeel to wok-cooked meat, fish and poultry. If you can, use potato flour, which can be found in any Chinese supermarket. Cornflour is a reasonable substitute.

–Fresh ginger, garlic and spring onions: Used separately or in combination, these three vegetables are what the food-writer Yan-kit So called the Chinese ‘kitchen trinity’.

Planning a Chinese meal

A Chinese meal consists at its simplest of rice, noodles, bread or other grain foods (known as fan or, literally, ‘cooked rice’), served with shared accompanying dishes (known as cai, which literally means ‘vegetables’ or ‘greens’). At their simplest, these other dishes might be pickled vegetables or fermented tofu; at their most extravagant they might include dozens of concoctions made with rare and expensive ingredients. A typical home-cooked meal for most people, however, consists of a few simple dishes made mainly with vegetables, with relatively small amounts of fish, meat or poultry.

Cold dishes are normally laid on the table at the start of the meal, and hot dishes added as they emerge from the stove. A soup may be served alongside other dishes, or at the end of the meal; at home, it will normally be drunk from the same rice bowl used for the other food. Dessert is absent as a concept in Chinese culinary culture. Some sweet dishes may be served alongside savoury dishes at main meals, particularly in places like Suzhou in the east, while sweet snacks are eaten from time to time across China and sugar is used here and there as a seasoning in savoury dishes. Most meals end with fruit rather than sweetmeats.

When I’m cooking Chinese food for friends at home, I never make a pudding, but serve fresh fruit and Chinese tea after the meal, with dishes of chocolates or Middle Eastern sweetmeats on the table for those who crave something sweet.

Some of the dishes in the rice, noodle and dumpling chapters can serve as entire meals on their own, with perhaps just a salady cold dish as an accompaniment. Otherwise, the dishes in this book are intended to be served with bowls of rice or noodles, as part of a fuller Chinese meal.

When deciding what to cook, try to ensure that you have a variety of colours, flavours and textures on the table, because much of the pleasure of a Chinese meal lies in dipping back and forth between contrasting dishes. A spicy stir-fry can be balanced by a gentle soup; a ruddy, full-flavoured Sichuanese braise with a fresh green vegetable; a dry dish with something sauced. If you have several lightly flavoured dishes on offer, try to include one that is either salty or spicy or soy-rich (strongly flavoured dishes go particularly well with plain steamed rice).

Do try to avoid constructing a meal consisting entirely of stir-fries that you will have to cook at the very last minute, which can be exhausting. When feeding a party of six, for example, try to include a slow-cooked dish that you can prepare well in advance and warm up slowly on a backburner, as well as one or two delectable cold dishes to serve as appetisers, so there is less for you to do at the last minute. Chinese people also like to serve a soup with every meal, which may be as simple as some good-quality stock with a few vegetable leaves and a little tofu, but Westerners don’t regard it as essential, so only include it if you want to.

A great advantage of the Chinese meal is that different dietary requirements can easily be accommodated with grace and ease. I often find myself cooking for diverse groups of people in which, for example, one person is vegetarian, one doesn’t eat any pork and so on, and it’s simple to keep everyone happy, because individuals just help themselves to those dishes that agree with them and avoid those that don’t. And, of course, dairy products are entirely absent from the vast majority of Chinese dishes. If you use tamari soy sauce, most dishes won’t contain any wheat either, so catering for friends who have these common food avoidances is no problem at all.

One other useful tip is that some Chinese dishes mix more than happily with dishes from other culinary traditions. I sometimes serve Sichuanese red-braised beef with mashed potatoes. A Chinese soup can be enjoyed at the start of a non-Chinese meal, and there’s no reason why you can’t serve the leftovers of a European stew, or a salad, as one dish of a Chinese meal. (I’ve even, on occasion, eaten cubes of Roquefort instead of fermented tofu with my breakfast congee!) The essence of the Chinese way of eating lies in the overall structure of a meal, with its grains and shared dishes, rather than in any particular dish or ingredient.

I’ve included a few suggested menus, which may be useful as a guide.

Serving quantities: Because Chinese dishes are normally shared by everyone at the table, serving quantities are worked out differently from the way they are in Western cuisines. Basically, you need to make sure there’s at least enough rice for everyone to eat their fill, and then the quantities of the other dishes are flexible. A single dish of meat or tofu and vegetables may suffice for a very casual meal for two (though adding another simple vegetable dish won’t take long and makes more of a spread). On the other hand, if I’m making a quick lunch when I’m at home on my own and using up leftovers, I may end up eating three or four small dishes with my rice: yesterday’s soy bean salad, perhaps, one egg stir-fried with a single tomato, a little spinach stir-fried with chopped garlic, and so on.

In planning a meal, I suggest you think in terms of serving rice or noodles with one accompanying dish per person and perhaps one extra. So, if you are cooking lunch for one, a bowl of noodles with one or two dishes will do; for four people, five dishes is perfect. For a special occasion, increase the number of dishes, especially cold appetisers that can be made in advance. And if you suddenly have an extra, unexpected guest, it doesn’t matter: just add another rice bowl and pair of chopsticks to the table and the dishes will go further.

At the Chinese table: For simple home-cooked meals, a table setting will consist of just rice bowls and chopsticks. The rice bowl is used to hold rice and other dishes, as well as soup, which may be drunk directly from the bowl.

For more formal settings, a small plate is laid underneath each rice bowl. The plate can be used to hold pieces of food taken from the common dishes in the centre of the table. It may also be used to hold bones, shells, whole spices and other unwanted bits and pieces.

Chopsticks may, in a more formal setting, be laid on chopstick stands. Spoons are offered for drinking soup and for eating soft ingredients such as silken tofu. China spoons are most traditional and their shape makes them very suitable for using with rice bowls, but metal spoons may also be used.

At home, people normally help themselves with their own chopsticks to the shared dishes in the centre of the table; in more formal settings, shared ‘public chopsticks’ or serving spoons may be offered alongside each dish. It’s a good idea to provide serving spoons if your guests are not confident chopstick-users.

It’s perfectly polite, in a Chinese context, to raise your rice bowl to your lips so you can push rice into your mouth or drink your soup. It is also polite to spit bones on to your saucer, gently and quietly, and to place choice morsels of food into other people’s rice bowls. It is not polite, in a Chinese context, to rummage around in a shared dish, or to touch food with your chopsticks that you don’t intend to eat.

After the meal

Rather than dessert, the Chinese usually serve fresh fruit at the end of a meal. In a smart restaurant, you might be offered iced platters of beautifully cut watermelons, pineapples, oranges and apples; at home, whole fruit may be served with little paring knives for peeling.

My favourite place for after-dinner fruit is the Dragon Well Manor restaurant in Hangzhou, where they always serve the best of the season, often gathered earlier the same day from the farms that supply their kitchens. There might be small, crisp peaches, pale green and just blushed with pink; orange loquats, their juicy flesh a little tart and arresting, their flavour reminiscent of passion fruit; or fresh jujubes, mottled and crunchy as apples. Once they gave me a full, ripe peach that had been stewed with crystal sugar, served in its sweet broth in a china pot.

At home in London, I also like to serve my guests fruit after dinner. I love offering some of the more unusual Chinese fruits they may not know, such as longans or ‘dragon eyes’, whose dull brown shells encase delicately sweet, jade-white flesh; loquats from my local Turkish supermarket; or ripe persimmons that can be sliced open and eaten with a spoon, like soft-boiled eggs. There are also the better-known Chinese fruits, such as lychees, with their dragon-like pink and scaly skins and shiny secret stones. The luxuriant sweetness of this fruit is associated with the decadence of the northern Tang Dynasty court, because of the legend that the Emperor Xuanzong ordered relays of horsemen to carry lychees all the way from southern China to please his beloved concubine Yang Guifei. Peaches are the favoured fruit of the mythical Immortals (steamed buns in the shape of peaches, their white dough dusted with pink colouring, are served at birthdays in parts of China, as symbol of longevity). The golden skins of mandarins make them an auspicious fruit for the Chinese New Year.

With fruit and sweetmeats, Chinese tea makes a beautiful postscript to dinner. Sometimes I’ll serve Dragon Well green tea, with its spear-like leaves and nutty fragrance; sometimes a honeyed oolong, brewed in a small clay pot and served in tiny porcelain bowls. Or perhaps soothing pu’er, made in a pot and poured into rough earthenware bowls, which is the perfect digestif. And if people prefer something herbal before sleeping, I might give them chrysanthemum tea, made from tight knots of dried yellow flowers that ‘bloom’ in the hot water and have a delicate, almost artichoke-like scent. This tea looks lovely when brewed in tall glasses, with a few gouqi berries to add a splash of colour.

A note on drinks...

–Tea: The classic accompaniment to the Cantonese dim sum breakfast, Chinese teas or herbal infusions (such as chrysanthemum tea) may also be served alongside other meals.

–Beer: Light bottled beers are popular accompaniments for more casual meals.

–Grape wines: Red wine is now fashionable in Chinese cities, but whites tend to be a better match for Chinese food. Rieslings, Grüner Veltliners and Pinot Gris go well with spicy dishes; Champagne is often delicious with gentler flavours; oaky whites are best avoided. If you prefer to drink red, pick lighter, fruitier wines, not those with heavy tannins (Pinot Noirs are a good bet).

–Chinese wines and spirits: Shaoxing wine is served with food in eastern China, while fiery grain vodkas are more common elsewhere. Grain alcohols are always served with dishes, never with rice or noodles.

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