Monday, November 26, 2007

Chinese food and Chinesesque food

I've been looking forward to Chinese food day for a long time. I was hoping to learn some fundamentals about Chinese cuisine that I probably already knew, but didn't know I know... you know? I had hoped today would be one big "ah ha!" moment for me.

I really enjoyed listening to Helen Chen this morning. I thought she was a great teacher and gave us a helpful overview of Chinese ingredients, and how to buy/find them. Like Leo Romero, she also touched a bit on the different regional cuisines that could be found in Chinese culture. I though her well organized and thoughtful in her approach to teaching us as much useful information as possible in such a short period of time.

My favorite part of it all was her explanation of why things were done the way they were. From wok shapes to why we stir-fry and why we don't eat beef. I don't know exactly if her theories were necessarily historically accurate, but I thought her point of view to be an reasonable assessment of what probably happened.

The dish (twice-cooked pork) she made for us didn't translate correctly into the name she gave it (chungking pork) which I thought was a little weird and pointless, but it turned out pretty good. Jenny took far bigger issue with it than I, but that's one of the reasons I find her so entertaining. Helen cooked the dish quickly in front of us, explaining each step and seasoning as she went. I'm glad she went through the effort of explaining the differences between the actual Chinese use of cornstarch and what western cuisines think is how the Chinese use it. Nearly every chef that's come in and talked about thickening agents with us said that Chinese food often uses a cornstarch slurry to thicken sauces, but, I've mostly noticed that in Chinese-American food restaurants, rather than in authentic food. Most dishes do include some cornstarch, but it's not in the form of a slurry, rather it is dusted over the protein part of the dish to help keep the meat tender and juicy.

When Helen talked about her mother's cooking legacy, I was reminded of my own family's recipes. I'm pretty sure we don't have any recipes for anything written down. I can only vaguely remember the recipe for my family's food and it's been years since my mom's cooked anything. My grandmother, the only remaining cook in the family, isn't one for recipes, she just knows instinctively. I think if I asked her about her food and to give me approximate values of ingredients, she'd just ignore me. It's just not done, but I'd hate for it to be gone when she passes away.


The afternoon, however, wasn't at all what I expected. After the morning session, I assumed that there would be a continuation of the general theme, but I think the afternoon session of cooking was geared more towards Chinese-American food. Most of the recipes were distinctly Americanized food, which is fine, but not what I was hoping or expecting from the afternoon.

The recipes for the day were beef lo mein, sui mai-pork dumpings, stir fry vegetables and fresh Vietnamese spring rolls. Breaking into four groups, we each did one recipe--we did the dumplings.

Dumplings are a catch all phrase used to describe most Chinese food in a wrapper concoctions, but it isn't at all accurate and I was hoping that Bik would talk about it a bit. The differences between steaming, panfrying, boiling and in a soup, because every single one has different properties beyond cooking methods, but in the make up of the stuffing and the shape and thickness of the dumpling skins. Bik kind of lumped all of them together in class today. I admit I might be a little picky because my family takes dumpling making (and eating) fairly seriously.

Just so that we're all clear though, a quick run down:

Dumplings (mandarin: jiao-zi): standard term for meat-filled round wrappers that can be pan-fried to make pot-stickers (mandarin: guotie) or boiled/steamed in water (mandarin: sway-jiao) and served without a broth, but with a dipping sauce. Generally, wrappers are folded in half (some may have a special crimping or something), skins are slightly thicker than wonton wrappers to stand up to the pan-frying.

Wontons (mandarin: whun-dun): refers to meat-filled square wrappers, boiled and served in a soup or broth. Fried dumplings are a Chinese-American food, not a traditional cooking method for Chinese wontons. Generally, wonton wrappers, like dumplings, are folded in half (some have special crimping), but wonton skins are generally thinner than dumpling wrappers.

Siu-mai (mandarin: siao-mai): meat-filled wrappers that look like open purses. These are steamed and sometimes served with a dipping sauce. Unlike dumplings and wontons, the skins of these are not closed to seal in the filling, rather they are gathered at the top and the filling is exposed. Not a traditional meal food, but rather apart of dim sum (which has lots of different types of dumplings.

I'm all business when I talk about dumplings, I think I get it from my mom. But it's important that people know the difference and not use the term interchangeably, nothing frustrates me more.

I'm not particular about filling because there is no right answer, it's purely personal. I ended up teaching my group (and the whole class, I think) how to fold dumplings and wontons. It was a lot of fun and from the way it turned out, probably one of the easier dough-related crimping techniques we learnt. Even Catherine, notoriously uncoordinated in such matters, made pretty dumplings and wontons.

Everyone was anxious to eat the dumplings, so we started to cook them. The recipes only called for the dumplings to be steamed, something I very rarely do, I only ever make pot-stickers or have them boiled in water, so it was good to gain some experience there. The class wanted to see how pot-stickers were made so, I demonstrated for everyone. I don't like steaming dumplings and wontons because I find the skins end up sticky and tacky, a very unpleasant texture and taste. Either way, I hope I helped the class learn a little more about dumplings, wontons and sui-mai.

We watched as Bik made the rounds to all the groups and did a demo of the food. I've never known what lo mein and chow mein was in Americanized Chinese food, so it was interesting to see beef lo mein being made. I can't imagine what the original Chinese version of that was, but there was the Americanized one, for better or worse. I thought this pretty vile and avoided it. It was too salty, too thick and too goopy for my tastes, Chinese food or not.

Stir-fry vegetables were pretty standard fare until we got to the sauce for the dish. I should have asked Bik why she wanted to us to include oyster sauce in the dish. I know that oyster sauces is used in cooking, but I wondered why it was needed here and what it did to the flavor of the food. I wish I had remembered to ask her.

The Vietnamese spring rolls were my favorite dish of the afternoon, likely due to it not being a Chinese dish and my love of all things Vietnamese. The filling seemed to be a variation on a Chinese roll, but the mint, cilantro and dipping sauce helping bring the flavors of Vietnamese food out. I'm happy to have the recipe for that dipping sauce now, I'd seen it done before, but completely forgot the recipe. It's the best cultural condiment I've ever come across and will always have a home in my kitchen.

Overall, I was a little disappointed with today. I would have found it more accurate to call the afternoon session, Chinese-American food, because all it was to me was food found in bad Chinese restaurants across the US. Mike jokingly said to me that he learnt more from me today than from the teacher. Whether or not that's true, I feel like this afternoon could have been better spent on something else.