To really get to the heart of Chinese cookery, you have to speak the language. So, just for a moment, let’s go back thousands of years in time. Most characters we use for food and cooking today date back to our earliest ancestors. One of the first pictograms ancient Chinese people drew was this: 人 (rén). It looks like a man, walking, right? And that’s just what it represented: a person.
After man came fire, which almost looks like a man waving his arms: 火 (huǒ).
Once we had fire, we could start to cook. That’s why the Chinese symbol for fire crops up, in different forms, within lots of other kitchen related characters. Can you spot it?
If you’re growing your own ingredients, you might need this: 田 (tián). It means ‘field’ or ‘farm’ and looks a bit like a garden veg patch. Then you’ll be ready to feed all those hungry mouths… 口 (kǒu). So, remember next time you’re cooking up a storm that the language of the food goes back (almost) to the beginning of time.
Marinating is an essential step in Chinese cooking. A good long soak in a flavourfilled marinade can transform virtually any meat or seafood dish. It’s that extra step that can transform your Chinese cooking from the ordinary to the sublime, making meat more tender and succulent and amplifying the flavours of your dish.
If you want to add an extra nutty dimension try adding 1 tsp of pure sesame oil but go easy, its a strong flavour and too much can overpower other flavours in the dish.
You might think you’re too busy to bother but with a bit of forethought you can let the meat rest in the marinade while you prepare the rest of the dish. Even a short time in the flavour bath is enough to make a difference. Once you’ve tried it, you’ll never go back – and your tastebuds will thank you.
One of the most popular and easy marinades in Chinese cooking is Oyster Sauce. Made from oyster extracts, this essential store-cupboard ingredient delivers a deep, umami savouriness with a sweet, fragrant and subtle hint of seafood. It also gives your meat an attractive golden brown colour.
Whether you’re stir-frying, roasting, steaming, barbecuing or deep-frying, Oyster Sauce can really lift your dish. Use 2 Tbsp of Lee Kum Kee Premium Oyster Sauce for 200g–300g of chicken, beef, pork or seafood. Mix well in a bowl – if you don’t mind getting your hands messy you can massage the sauce into the meat for a deeper effect. Leave for 10 to 20 minutes before cooking – or overnight in the fridge for best results.
Chinese meals are often associated with family time and gatherings with friends. Dishes are all shared. To get started, you can consider the following:
A menu offering a mix of different categories of food will give a balanced intake of nutrients, e.g. vegetables, meat, fish, rice, etc.
As a few dishes are normally served in a meal, it is good to off er varieties of taste within the same meal to provide excitement rather than monotony. For example, a meal with some richly flavoured dishes, and some dishes with a lighter taste, or simply a different taste profile works well (beef and broccoli in oyster sauce, black bean chicken). Or, there can be a mix of dishes made with different cooking methods, for example, a stir-fried dish, a steamed dish, a braised dish.
How many dishes you prepare depends on the number of people you’re serving. For example, for four people, plan two to four types of meat, seafood and vegetables – plus some rice or noodles. Or capture the Cantonese spirit and add soup, too.
What links stir-frying, steaming, poaching, deepfrying, stewing and boiling? A wok, of course. Big or small, brand new or a family favourite, a wok puts the soul into Chinese food. We call it Wok Hei or Wok Chi – the ‘breath of the wok’. Technically it’s the thermal radiation from ultra-high stir-fry-friendly heat that’s the restaurant secret to authentic Chinese flavour. But don’t worry if you don’t have a wok, or a high temperature stove. A decent non-stick pan and everyday hob will do the job.
Stick with non-stick.
Use oil with a high smoking point (like groundnut or vegetable) for stir-frying – and always get it ultra hot.
Cut your ingredients into similar bite-size pieces so they cook evenly.
Marinate your meat for 15 minutes before it touches the wok.
First add the ingredients that take the longest to cook. Then add the rest as you go.
Splash in some sauces to season.
Listen for that sizzling sound the whole time you’re stir-frying.
Clean your wok with a dash of boiling water.
A wok is a must for sizzling. But steaming is a big part of Chinese cooking too. It melts away fat, doesn’t need any oil and locks in the fantastic flavours and nutrients of many foods. Plus, steamers are quick and easy to use.
Bamboo steamers are the traditional home for Hong Kong dim sum.
If you don’t have a steamer, all you need is a 4–6 inch metal rack.
Using a rack? Put it in a lidded pan or pot with boiling water coming to just below the rack.
Then pop a plate holding your ingredients on the rack. Job done.
All you really need to get started with Chinese cooking is a good kitchen knife. But if you want to scrub up on your chopping skills, try a Chinese cleaver. It’s wider and heavier than Western ones, making it a textbook tool for shredding, slicing thinly or when you need to give your ingredients a bit of welly.
It takes a bit of practice, but try gripping the blade itself to cut with. If you’re tackling something chunky like ribs or pumpkin, you’ll need to hold the handle like you would a normal knife and use the cleaver’s weight to chop down.
Small and bowl-shaped, this is a super soup scooper. Use it to get every last drop of soup or gravy from a pot.
With a flat blade spatula – or wok charn in Cantonese – you’ll be a stir-fry whiz in no time. A normal wooden spatula is also great. Or, if you’re handy with chopsticks, use those.
Along with stir-frying and steaming, stewing is one of the best ways to capture all the goodness and great flavour in food – especially meat that needs a bit of tender care and longer cooking time. That’s where a clay or sand pot comes into its own.
Chinese families love them because they keep stews and clay pot rice hot even after they come off the stove. If you don’t have one in the cupboard, use a good sturdy casserole or cast iron dish, or even a non-stick saucepan or pot.