03- Chinese Cooking: The Spirit and the Essence

Serves: 5



In the western world, French cuisine is considered the highest. Yet gourmets who have sampled the best of the Chinese rank it with the French. This is not surprising. They have much in common. The Chinese and the French are skillful cooks. Both seek simplicity as their final goal-not the simplicity of short cuts-but the simplicity that comes with diligence, the simplicity of art.

The Chinese and the French also recognize that second-class ingredients (no matter how manipulated) can never produce first-class dishes that one gets out of a dish only what one puts into it. They know that fine cooking begins not in the kitchen but at the market that to cook well is to buy well, and to buy well is to select ingredients, not for cost as such, but for freshness and quality. These ingredients (whether commonplace or rare) must then be prepared so that they are beautiful to look at, yet with flavor never sacrificed to appearance. Flavor, as both the Chinese and French know, brings joy to eating. It is the essence of good cooking. Nothing can take its place.

CHINESE COOKING IS AN AESTHETIC EXPERIENCE: Food to the Chinese is a total experience designed to please all the senses. Certain foods are combined because their fragrances blend into memorable aromas. Others are named "ruby" or "jade" to please the ear and linger in memory. (A soup made with strips of ham and mustard cabbage becomes "golden tree branches with jade leaves," while another with alternating slices of ham and duck becomes "gold and silver broth.") The Chinese also delight in color. They love the clear gold of chicken broth, the whiteness of rice, the bright green of vegetables. They combine, blend and contrast color with the practiced eye of the painter. So color-conscious are they that hostesses have been known to include tomatoes in a dish just to match a red dress, and cooks to substitute white mushrooms for black to keep a soup lighter and more delicate in color.

The Chinese are unsurpassed in their ability to combine and contrast textures. They love to set crunchiness against smoothness: to combine crisp water chestnuts with the creaminess of bean curd to surround crisp, tender vegetables with exquisitely smooth sauces. They also constantly stimulate the senses with contrasting tastes. Many of their greatest delicacies may seem neutral at first, almost colorless and odorless. Yet the purity of their taste, the interest of their texture are always in subtle contrast to the stronger and more decisive ingredients they are combined with.

The Chinese have a passion for creating contrast and variety in every possible way. They will play hot dishes against cold, tiny ingredients against big ones, dry dishes against those with gravies. Sweets are contrasted with salts, bland foods with those that are highly seasoned, rich dishes with light, delicate ones. Yet, despite this vast variety, the Chinese do not believe in saying too many things at once. Each dish has its own proportion, its own dominant elements. Each contributes to the coherence and essential harmony of the meal.

THERE IS NO MAIN DISH: With their passion for variety, the Chinese could never limit themselves to one main dish. Instead they prefer to dart from one dish to another, to take a few mouthfuls here, a few mouthfuls there to change at short intervals from one taste to another, to sample at the same meal something sweet-and-sour, peppery, bitter and salty. So instead of having one main dish and several subordinate side dishes, they will serve several dishes all considered equally important. In this way, they enhance the appetite and avoid monotony and the feeling of stuffing oneself that comes from eating the same foods in comparatively large quantities.

CHINESE COOKING CALLS FOR MAXIMUM PREPARATION, MINIMUM COOKING: Although the combined preparation and cooking time is roughly the same for Chinese and American dishes, the Chinese spend more time preparing and less cooking. With their quick-cooking techniques many dishes need less than 15 minutes on the stove, more often less than 10. With practice and experience, it is possible to prepare and serve a complete and excellent Chinese meal in less than an hour.

THE STARTING POINT IS THE INGREDIENT, NOT THE COOKING METHOD: The Chinese housewife never begins with the idea of a stew or a roast. She begins with what she finds at the market. It may be a vegetable in season, a cut of meat, some poultry, or fish that looks particularly good. The next step is to match the cooking method to the ingredient. If it's duck, she'll want to compensate for its dry, fibrous texture by slow simmering until it's moist and tender. If it's fish, she'll steam it briefly to preserve its delicacy. In each case, her goal is to retain the ingredient's original flavor, enhance its piquancy, mask its less desirable qualities. With this individualized approach, every ingredient is made highly palatable. Meat is never tough, but exceedingly tender poultry never dry but always savory and juicy vegetables never overdone but crisp and crunchy and rich dishes not too rich and never greasy.

INGREDIENTS ARE USUALLY COMBINED, SELDOM COOKED ALONE: Chinese cooking is a kind of matchmaking: ingredients are combined to bring out the best in each other (or to compensate for each other's shortcomings). They are combined to emphasize freshness, strengthen flavor or offset richness. The possible combinations of meat, poultry, seafood and vegetables are inexhaustible, the variety infinite. The blending of these ingredients produces a strength and flavor unknown in any other type of cooking. (Even commonplace ingredients such as beef and tomatoes become transformed when cooked in combination Chinese style.) The higher the level of cooking, the more superb and perfect this blending becomes. Yet within a given dish the individuality of each ingredient is never lost its taste and texture are always retained, its individual flavor always brought out.

THE COOK, NOT THE DINER, SEASONS THE FOOD: Chinese seasoning is most effective when added during the cooking process. Heat sets off a chemical reaction between the condiments and other ingredients, enabling the seasoning to permeate each and every piece of meat, fish or vegetable. Seasonings so added perform a number of functions: they bring out natural flavors and aromas, suppress unwanted tastes (such as the fishiness of fish, the strong taste of liver) and form a bond between dissimilar foods. Chinese seasoning is always subtle: the condiments never betray themselves, never overwhelm or overpower the taste of other ingredients. (There is one exception: plain-cooked meats are not seasoned by the cook, but are served with various dips such as plum sauce, soy sauce and hot mustard, which the diner himself adds.)

THE COOK, NOT THE DINER, CUTS THE FOOD: To the Chinese, knives are barbaric instruments, suitable for the kitchen but not for the table. All cutting, therefore, is done in the kitchen. (The diner needs only a pair of chopsticks and a soup spoon to manage an entire meal.) Meat and vegetables are either cut into bite-size pieces or cooked to such a tenderness that they require no cutting at all. Even when poultry and fish are served whole, chopsticks are sufficient to pick the tender meat right off the bones. As for roast meat and poultry, these too are always carved in the kitchen with the slices cut small enough to be picked up comfortably with chopsticks.

The Thousand Recipe Chinese Cookbook. ©1994 by Gloria Bley Miller.

This 03- Chinese Cooking: The Spirit and the Essence recipe is from the Thousand Recipe Chinese Cookbook Cookbook. Download this Cookbook today.

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