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Lessons in Chinese Cuisine

by Alison Fong

Chinese Food in the USA

Winter Volume: 2004 Issue: 11(4) page(s): 17 and 18

As an American student at the Culinary Institute of America, Hyde Park’s CIA, I eagerly anticipated attending the Asian Cuisine class where we would learn fundamental cooking techniques and flavor profiles of half dozen Asian cuisines. This three-week class is divided into two or three day sections, each devoted to exploring a single cuisine in Asia. The first region of study was China, a country whose food has impacted numerous cuisines in the Far East.

Having grown up in a Chinese American household, I knew that my experiences in this course would be shaped by my past exposure to Chinese food. The years of rice, stir-fries, and medicinal soups my mother prepared and numerous visits to Chinatown for foods my parents craved from their native Hong Kong had created in me, a palate more Chinese than that of the typical American.

Looking at menus we were to prepare and serve to fellow students, I almost felt like an expert. While students delighted at the exoticism of some dishes, I nodded with recognition at names on the menu such as General Tsao’s Chicken. This is a popular five-dollar lunch special at Americanized Chinese fast food joints. It bestowed its sweet and spicy charm on all students and staff lucky enough to order it before it was sold out. Hailing from Northern China, a dish of braised lamb made it to the menu, reminding all that China is a large country, its food quite diverse.

My group prepared steamed fish, a dish I enjoyed quite often at home. My mother had made it many times, steamed whole with scallions and ginger and a light drizzle of oil and soy sauce. I was no stranger to it. In my mother’s version, the fish was simple and delicious. Here at the CIA, every serving consisted of two fillets of fish, each rolled into little cylinders after they were stuffed with shredded vegetables. The cylinders stood in a pool of soy sauce marinade before the entire dish went into a steamer. The steamed fish was served this way, marinade and all.

Puzzled by this, I asked my chef-professor why we were to prepare fish in a manner I found utterly un-Chinese. As it turned out, fish steamed whole just never left our kitchen as it did not sell to our clientele--the other students and staff. Like every kitchen on campus, menus are selected for several reasons. These can include popularity, cost, and availability of ingredients. It made me wonder if authenticity always takes second place to other factors.

The pace of the kitchen, however, did not give me a chance to ponder for long. Classmates came up to me with jars of condiments and handfuls of vegetables to verify that they had correctly identified the ingredients in their dishes. My group bickered about when we should place our fish in the steamer. During this time, I remembered that I was as much a novice in cooking Chinese cuisine as were my peers. I could count on one hand the number of times I had prepared Chinese dishes myself.

Over the course of my Asian classes, my meager experience in a Chinese kitchen became apparent. While I had seen my mother use her small wok, it was hardly like the enormous and powerful woks used in Chef Cheng’s classes. Each had its own roaring 135,000 BTU burner that easily put stove-top burners to shame. Should a student forget to bring that bowl of Napa cabbage to the wok with the rest of the vegetables, he or she might as well leave them out of the dish. Garlic and ginger sizzling in the wok would char before anyone came back to the cooking station, cabbage in hand. Working with a commercial wok and a commercial burner under it is a true test of preparation and skill, to say nothing of speed.

The use of the Chinese oven was even more of a novelty. Anyone who has wandered through Chinatown has seen the lacquered meats hanging on display at butcher shops. They are a camera-worthy sight for tourists. Here in the Asian cuisine classes, I learned that the deliciously glazed meats actually cook in a hanging position in Chinese ovens. They are displayed that same way in the shop windows. I had always assumed they hung that way for aesthetic reasons along with ease of customer viewing.

The Chinese oven in class stood vertically, a stainless steel rectangular box. The first time I saw it, it reminded me of a magician’s box used in a disappearing act. By the time I made barbeque spareribs, the oven and I were better acquainted. First, I pierced the marinated spareribs with hooks and attached them to bars just below the oven ceiling. Then I filled the oven’s bottom drawer with water to create a bath of evaporation. This would keep the meat moist. Every thirty minutes, I brushed a sweet and savory syrup onto the ribs. Removed two hours later, they gleamed with their characteristic mouth-watering glaze.

Weeks after these Asian classes ended, I found myself at the school library thumbing through Chinese cookbooks. Book after book had varied styles of dishes and regional specialties I had never heard of before. My favorite Chinese cookbook, The Chinese Kitchen, by Eileen Yin-Fei Lo, was there on the shelf. I own a copy of it and use it as my reference guide for Chinese cooking.

Looking through this book’s familiar pages, I found a picture of fish fillets, rolled and stuffed, sitting in a steamer basket. Having surely seen this picture before, I found myself dumbfounded. I turned to the recipe, Rolled Fish with Oysters, and stared at it. There, in clear color was proof on the page. This was despite what I had believed, that Chinese cooks do not fillet and roll their fish.

The three days I spent preparing Chinese food in the Asian Cuisine class, served to ignite my hunger to learn more about Chinese cuisine. It had eventually led me to discover page number 264 in Mrs. Lo’s book. It showed me that there is a lot more to food than I had realized, even in a cuisine I professed to know something about.

The next question I should ponder is which region or regions of China roll their fish filets? Following that could be, what other Chinese cookbooks have recipes for rolled fish? I am sure many other questions will follow, including how many different fillings do Chinese cookbooks provide for the rolled fish filets? I look forward to learning answers to these and the many other questions I do and will wonder about.

The first recipe below is Fong based upon Fong's experiences in the Chinese segment of Asian cooking at CIA and things she learned reading Chinese cookbooks. The second is provided by Chef/Professor Shirley Cheng of the CIA.
Thanks are due to both Alison Fong and Chef Cheng. And, be advised that Alison Fong recently finished her first year of culinary education at the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, New York, and that Shirley Cheng was her teacher for Asian foods. Fong grew up in Boston and currently lives in New York City doing her work experience–-part of the CIA’s externship--at Asia de Cuba on Madison Avenue between 37th and 38th Streets. It is a stone’s throw from Grand Central Station. so stop by and try their fine food which she helps to prepare. Also, visit her website/foodblog/journal www.foodobsession.com
Alison's Steamed Fish Rolls
8 small flounder fillets
1 carrot, finely julienned into two inch lengths
1 red pepper, finely julienned into two inch lengths
small nob of ginger, about the size of a quarter, very finely julienned
salt and pepper, to taste
1 and 1/2 cups of light soy sauce
4 Tablespoons of vegetable oil
4 Tablespoons of sesame oil
1 scallion, sliced thinly into rings
1. Rinse and dry the flounder and check for any bones. Then place the fillets skin side down and horizontally across a large plate.
2. Lightly season with salt and pepper.
3. To assemble a fish roll: Grab a small pinch of carrots and red pepper, and a very small pinch of ginger. Arrange them neatly in a vertical stack, and put this at one end of a fish fillet so that the vegetables stick out slightly on top. Roll the fish tightly, and repeat for the rest of the fillets.
4. Stand the rolls, vegetables side up, in a casserole dish just large enough to accommodate the fish.
5. Mix the marinade ingredients and pour them into the casserole. Cover with plastic wrap and place in the refrigerator for one hour; then remove and discard the plastic wrap.
6. Put the casserole in a steamer for fifteen minutes or until the fish is cooked through, then serve.
Chef Cheng's Fish with Ginger
12 whole flounder or American plaice, each less than a pound
1 cup soy sauce
1 cup Shaoxing wine
1/2 cup sesame oil
4 teaspoons ground black or white pepper
8 ounces dry-cured ham cut in fine julienne
1 ounce fresh ginger, cut in fine julienne
8 scallions, each cut into two inch pieces
one teaspoon salt
1. Wash fish and dry, then score flesh one-quarter inch deep at one-inch intervals. Sprinkle each one with salt and pepper.
2. Mix soy sauce, wine, and oil in a bowl. Put fish in one layer into one or several ceramic dishes, and pour soy sauce mixture evenly over them.
3. Sprinkle ham, ginger, and about six of the scallions over every fish, then cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate until half hour before use or until at room temperature.
4. Preheat steamer and put ceramic dish or dishes on its racks and cook for about twelve minutes or until thickest end of the fish is 140 degrees F.
5. Remove cooked scallion pieces, if preferred, and scatter uncooked ones over the fish, as garnish. Serve the fish and not its marinade.

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