Everything I know about Chinese Food Pt.1

Jan 18, 2019 | Cooking Tips

To say that there is a big difference between what we think of as Chinese food and what is actually Chinese food is an understatement. First of all China is a massive place with a variety of climates and regions. The over 1.3 billion people who live there don’t survive on egg rolls, General Tso’s chicken, and sweet and sour pork.

Despite the fact that Chinese food isn’t really Chinese food, it’s still delicious, it’s still tradition here if not there. And although you likely wouldn’t find a single dish from a North American Chinese restaurant anywhere in China, it doesn’t mean that it’s not good and that we shouldn’t embrace it.

The Chinese food that I grew up eating is likely almost identical to the Chinese food you grew up eating. Vegetables stir-fried with soy sauce. Fried rice with onion, peas, egg and pork or chicken. Chicken balls drenched in that thick red sweet and sour sauce. And egg rolls, oh the egg rolls with the ever popular plum sauce. Sound familiar?

Today, I am going to tell you…

Everything I know about North American Chinese Food

As I have said before, my very first job was in a Chinese Restaurant. Because of that, Chinese food holds a special place in my heart. It was also a favourite of my mothers. I remember here throwing together these massive, homemade Chinese Food Feasts.

Alright, enough chit chat, let’s get too it.

Sauces

One of the main aspects of North American Chinese food (hereby refereed to simply as Chinese Food) is the sauces. From sweet and sour sauce, to orange chicken sauce, to General Tso’s, they are all pretty much the same.

Most Chinese food sauces have four different components. They have the base which imparts the main flavour of the sauce. They have sugar. They have vinegar. And they have a thickener which is always corn starch. There are other ingredients present in the sauces but these make up the main components.

The Base –

The base of a Chinese Food sauce could be a lot of things. In the case of Orange Chicken sauce the base is orange juice. For sweet and sour sauce, the base is actually the vinegar and the sugar. For General Tso’s the base of the sauce is more difficult to pinpoint because it doesn’t have one main forward note; it has many. Soy sauce, ginger, garlic, chili, all of these make up the base.

So why am I telling you this? Well, because if you know the base of the sauce, and you know it has vinegar and sugar in it, and you know it’s thickened with corn starch, you might be able to make it. At least a rough approximation of it.

Vinegar and Sugar

Once you’ve identified the base of the sauce the next question is how sweet is the sauce and how acidic is it? That will tell you how much sugar and vinegar will be needed. For most of these sauces it’s a lot of sugar and a bit of vinegar. The exception is sweet and sour which has a lot of both.

Actually, let’s talk about sweet and sour sauce for a minute. I make a version which is really just equal parts sugar, vinegar, water, and maraschino cherry juice. To this I add a slurry of corn starch and water and cook it until it’s thick. Pretty easy right?

Orange Chicken sauce is pretty similar. 3 parts orange juice, 2 parts sugar, 1 part vinegar, to that I add a bit of soy sauce, ginger and garlic, and then thicken it with a corn starch slurry. You can get more complex with the sauces and add a pile of ingredients but you don’t have to. This will get you pretty close.

Batter

A lot of meat in Chinese food is battered, especially the three dishes we have been talking about so far. The batter is generally made of corn starch, egg, and water. Pretty straight forward.

The meat is simply cut into bite sized pieces, dipped in the batter and then deep fried on 350°f until it’s crispy. Generally, big batches of this would be done in advanced and then be refried to order. You can do this at home too.

Once the meat is cooked and the batter is crisp it is drained of any excess oil and then tossed with the sauce. Sometimes vegetable or whole dried chilies will be added as well depending on the dish.

Chef Ben Kelly Orange Chicken Recipe

Fried Rice

One of my favourite Chinese dishes is also the simplest. Fried rice. Really all it is is day old rice stir-fried with onion, sometimes carrot, often peas, soy sauce and an egg. To this bits of pork or chicken may be added as well.

The key to it is getting just the right amount of soy sauce and getting the egg cooked throughout the rice. Other than that it’s pretty straight forward.

Chef Ben Kelly Fried Rice

Using a Wok

Okay, the next thing we are going to talk about here is using a wok. A wok is the main cooking vessel used in Chinese Cooking. Becoming acquainted with it with help you master homemade Chinese food.

The idea behind a wok and stir-frying is that high heat is used and food is cooked quickly. At home, it is often difficult to reach the temperatures needed to keep the wok hot enough to cook as quickly as they do in Chinese restaurants. But that’s okay.

When using a wok at home the key is heat management. You want to start with the wok very hot. Smoking hot. Everything you add to the wok is going cause the temperature of it to go down. So, every time you add something, you have to wait for the temperature to return to what it was before you add anything else.

At home, if you try and rush through cooking with a wok you will end with a bunch of liquid pooled in the bottom. This is because the wok wasn’t hot enough to evaporate the liquid coming out of the food. So, this liquid pooled in the bottom of the wok, cooled it down even more so that more liquid came out of the food. And, instead of stir-frying the vegetables to a tender crispness, you just boiled them.

Every time you add something to the wok, wait at least two minutes for the heat to recover before adding anything else.

Conclusion

While writing this I realized that I have way too much to say about Chinese food than can be said in one post. Because of that, I am going to stop here and pick it back up next Friday.

So, next Friday, in part 2 we will talk about egg rolls, noodles, vegetable dishes and more.

I’ll see you then.

2 Comments

  1. Michelle

    I have heard it said many times that Chinese food is not like the food in China. Having never been to China, what are some of the major differences? What do they eat? Do you find it hard to cook “north american” chinese gluten free?

  2. Chef Ben Kelly

    Hello Michelle,

    Thank you for your comment.

    Right off the bat one of the main differences between North American Chinese food and Chinese Chinese Food is the sauces. Our Chinese food is laced with thick, sweet sauces. These simply don’t exist in China. Neither to fortune cookies or egg rolls.

    China is a big country with diverse terrain, climates, and people. The food differs largely from north to south and east to west.

    Like any culture, the traditional food of China is largely based on the ingredients that have been available throughout the centuries. These ingredients change based on the region of the country.

    For example Sichuan, is province in China that is famous for it’s use of chili in food. No other region of the country really uses chilies at all. What’s more is that chilies weren’t even introduced to China until the 17th or 18th century.

    The real difference between our Chinese Food and real Chinese food is flavours and textures. Their palates are used to different flavours and textures than ours are.

    They enjoy or sour and bitter flavours, as well as sweet. And they are used to more chewy and gelatinous textures which we find fairly odd, especially in savoury dishes.

    Chinese food as we know it was developed by Chinese immigrants at the turn of the 20th century. They took things they knew, used local north american ingredients, and adjusted their recipes for the north american palate.

    I know I went off on a few tangents there but I hope this helped to answer your question.

    Thank you again for your comment Michelle.

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. Everything I know about Chinese Food Pt. 2 – How To Not Burn Sh!t - […] Last Friday in part one of this post I talked about cooking with a wok, fried rice, basic Chinese…
  2. Everything I Know About Chinese Food PT. 3 – How To Not Burn Sh!t - […] I will be talking about won tons, soup, and vegetable dishes. If you haven’t checked out part one and…

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