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Chinese Cooking Techniques
Equipment and Techniques
Fall Volume: 1999 Issue: 6(3) page(s): 25 and 27
There are many ways to cook Chinese food. One of the earliest cooking methods was to broil. Called zhi, all that was needed was to put meat over the fire. Scholars believe that they may cooked on heated stones, even learned about steam when dousing them with fire. Later people boiled in a container, the early ones had legs and were set directly in the fire. Using these, may be the origin of chopsticks, sticks of wood to remove the contents.
The earliest of stoves were themselves made of pottery; some found in excavatoins at Hemudu, others in Yangshao. They are some six thousand years old. In ancient times, frying was not known and scholars believe that smoking and steaming were used at least since 5,000 BCE. Since then, there are many different cooking styles and techniques. To prepare excellent Chinese cuisine, one needs basic cooking knowledge and expertise in a wide variety of techniques.
Today, chefs and scholars dispute how many different Chinese cooking techniques there are. This may be because of the way they are described, subdividing one to make a plethora of others. Never mind exact numbers, just learn the basics, good instructors will say.
Clearly understanding the subtleties of the most used techniques can enhance culinary understandings. To aid in that, two dozen basic ones are presented below, not in order of importance, but somewhat in order of use. As no research has yet been done on importance or frequency of use, maybe it is best to describe the order as random. For convenience, they are first listed in alphabetical order with a number following to ease in locating their descriptions. Each of the techniques is titled in capitals, (their name follows in Pinyin) and it is also listed in Chinese characters in the hard copy of this issue.
Blanch and Poach (4)
Cold mix (23)
Deep fry (11)
Dry marinate (15)
Flash fry (3)
Marinate in mash (16)
Multiple-item boil (6)
Pan fry (12)
Quick stir-fry (2)
Quick stew (8)
Salt bake (20)
1) Stir-fry or chao: This particular cookery style requires a minimum amount of oil. It should be put in to a pre-heated wok or deep fry pan. Then, just before the oil smokes, measured in seconds, fragrant ingredients such as garlic, ginger, and scallions are quickly heated until their aroma is released. Next, main ingredients, usually meat, are added putting in those that take the longest to cook first. Never ignore items put into a pan when using this technique. Always stir and toss, the essence of stir-frying. A minute before meat loses its pink/red color, sauces and spices are added, they are tossed and then the meat is removed or sauced. If vegetables are to be added, remove the meat, cook them until correct doneness , then return the meat, heat through, add a thickening ingredient to create a sauce, if desired, and stir half a minute, then serve. Never cook the meat or vegetables until completely cooked through. This is important because the foods are still cooking for a minute or more after they are removed from the wok.
2) Quick stir-fry or pon: This technique is the same as above but the cooking is done in a basic sauce and not in oil.
3) Flash-fry or bao: Somewhat akin to stir-frying, except for this technique the heat is super high and the foods are stir-fried in a flash. Some people refer to this as explode frying. Another difference is that, if using meat, it is coated with egg white or a starch to contain the juices. This technique uses a minimum of seasonings, its purpose is to highlight natural tastes.
4)Blanch, poach or tang: In this technique, foods are put into boiling water or boiling stock. If blanching them, they remain there for a very short time, never more than a minute. If poaching them, they remain in the liquid until the food is completely cooked or it is removed and finished using another cooking technique. Foods can and are also be blanched in oil.
5) Boil or tsuan: This technique uses a boiling water-based liquid. Foods can be marinated in spices before boiling, if/as required. All foods go into the water or stock at once. When they are fully cooked, they are drained then served or finished using other cooking techniques.
6) Multiple-item boil or hui: Similar to boiling, except in this technique, different items are boiled together and if spices or seasonings are used, they are put into the liquid after the main foods are added; then they are stirred. This technique is often used to pre-prepare foods for other cooking techniques. The purpose is to blend food flavors. Sometimes foods are boiled twice then one adds cornstarch, or another starch, and cold water together to thicken them before serving.
7) Stew or shao: This technique, sometimes called fricassee-cooking, begins with foods that have had some form of pre-cooking, usually started with a stir-fry technique in order to give the foods color. Boiling water or hot stock is added and the foods are then stewed on low heat until cooked thoroughly. In this technique, spices if used, are best introduced near the end of cooking. This heightens their flavor. Without soy sauce, some refer to this technique as white-cooking.
8) Quick-stew or keng: In this technique, foods are quickly cooked in boiling water or stock, then a mix of cornstarch or another starch and water are mixed and added in, the mixture is then brought to the boil and after a minute of continuous stirring, they are served. This technique is often used after stir-frying or deep frying.
9) Red-cook or hong shao: When soy sauce and sugar are added at any time during the above process, though usually just after adding the water or stock, this technique changes its name because the liquid in the pot, the contents, too, become red. This technique is very popular in Shanghainese cooking.
10) Steaming or cheng: This technique requires keeping the food above the level of the water boiling below it. If using a wok, a rack works well as do chopsticks placed above the water level in such a way as to suspend the container holding the food to be steamed. A separate steamer or a steamer basket can also be used. The prepared food is placed on the rack, on greens that are put on the rack, or on or in an oiled plate or bowl. They are then steamed the required amount of time. Timing depends upon the thickness of the food and the desired outcome.
11) Deep-fry or cha: This technique requires oil kept at a reasonably high and constant temperature, close to the smoke point or lower, depending upon the desired outcome. Foods must be dry and put into the oil when it reaches the appropriate temperature. They remain in it until golden-brown and crisp. It is best to cook small amounts of food at a time, never putting too much food in at once, and it is best to stir several times during the cooking process.
12) Pan-fry or chien: This technique is best done in a flat-bottomed pan with a small amount of oil. Always heat the pan before adding the oil. Then, when the oil is hot, add the food and slowly fry until it is done, crispy, and fragrant. Stir or turn over, if/as needed.
13) Braise or lu: This technique requires that food, spices or seasoning, and a small amount of liquid be cooked together. The liquid, be it water or stock, is brought to just under the boiling point before the food and spices or seasoning agents are put in. In this technique, all food is cooked thoroughly. Foods can be eaten hot, left to cool in the liquid, or removed and then eaten tepid.
14) Marinate or yen: This technique is usually, but not always, reserved for fruits and vegetables. They are soaked in wine, soy sauce, and/or vinegar along with spices, sugar, salt, and aromatic items such as ginger, scallions, and garlic. Some foods are considered cooked if left long enough in the marinade, others may need additional cooking before they are eaten.
15) Dry-marinate or pan: This is a variation of the above technique. However, dry ingredients are rubbed on the food items (usually meats) and allowed to permeate them. If left for a long time, these foods that are dry marinated must be refrigerated. Other ingredients can be added during the process or they can be added later. Foods made this way almost always require additional cooking.
16) Marinate-in-mash or tsao: This technique, somewhat akin to ordinary marinating, puts foods into a fermented grain mash that remains when making wine. Most common is to allow meat to stay a day or two in a red rice material, called lees. This is a popular technique in Fujianese cooking. Almost all foods marinated in a mash need to be cooked.
17) Pickle or pao: This is a procedure usually reserved for vegetables. They can be left whole, but more often are cut into small pieces then put into a crock with a little wine and/or vinegar, and with salt and spices. Boiled water that has been chilled is poured over them and the foods are left in the liquid for a day or two; they can be left longer. It is best to refrigerate these foods if not used in an hour or two.
18)Wine-steep or tsui: This is marinating in wine. It is usually left in it for long periods of time. Some foods need to be marinated and/or cooked before wine-steeping can be done, others are wine-steeped and then cooked. This technique is not used for preservation, just for flavor.
19) Roast or kao: To use this technique one needs special equipment. Usually, meat is prepared then hung above a fire or placed in a very, very hot oven. The food must be seared by the flame or the splash of fat dripping from it. This is difficult, even dangerous, to do in an oven, as uncontrolled flame-spattering can cause fires. It is best done outdoors in a barbecue or done in a special oven designed for this purpose.
20) Salt-bake or chu: This technique requires a food that has been prepared and rubbed with spices. It is then wrapped in a thick layer of hot salt, with or without leaves under and/or around the salt. It is then baked in an oven, directly very near a fire, or even on heated rocks. If the item is large, additional cooking in an oven may be required to be sure that the food is thoroughly.
21) Smoke or hsun: Any meat, fish, or vegetable can be cooked over wood, rice, tea, nut shells, or other fuel that provides a fragrance to the finished product. The foods cooked using this technique are almost always marinated in wine with or without soy sauce and often with some seasoning items such as sugar, salt, or spices added to the wine before smoking. Foods can also be smoked first and cooked later.
22) Jelly or tung: Cooked foods using this technique are allowed to solidify in a substance that gels when is it chilled. Then they are kept at cold temperatures until used. The foods can be made and kept in their own or in other concentrated soups or stocks.
23) Cold-mix or lu ban: Foods using this technique are usually scalded or blanched, then cooled, and finally mixed and set aside for a few hours or a day or two in the refrigerator for their flavors to meld.
24) Pound or pai: This is a pre-cooking technique where foods are pounded, often with the flat side of the cleaver; and if small pounded with the end of the handle of the cleaver. This technique tenderizes and prepares foods for other cooking methods.