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Chinese Cooking : Southern home-style dishes
Author: Trillium Blackmer
While it is not possible to even begin to cover the broad range of dishes cooked at home in the kitchens of families who live or have migrated from the southern Chinese provinces, I’ve chosen dishes that I hope will convey some of the variety of tastes and techniques that are frequently utilized.
The food that goes on the rice (fan in Chinese) has its own broad category, called sung. The sung is seasoned with the expectation that it will be eaten with a significant amount of rice. You may want to cut back on the salty ingredients such as light soya, if you think you’ll be eating it more like a western dish (with less rice, more meat).
Dishes from the southern provinces are seasoned more delicately, and some might say simply, compared to their counterparts to the west and north. For a dish to be successful it relies as much on the freshness and quality of the ingredients as the seasoning. To cook the tastiest southern food you must not only be a good cook, but a superb shopper. Let what looks best at the market drive what you will be eating for supper.
I’ve tried to choose things that are fairly simple in their execution, but reward the cook with a complexity of taste that can be greater than the sum of its parts. Because these are dishes that fall under the category of “home cooking” you can imagine that there will, within the confines of a certain dish, be a multitude of variations within a household and between households. I’m going to tell you how we do it at our house, and suggest variations that we might use depending on mood and availability. This is by no means meant to imply that any other recipes or techniques for the same dish are invalid. In fact, I encourage discussion and instruction from other cooks, during the Q&A session, on variations that I might not have mentioned.
Objective: I hope that by the end of the lesson, the students' appetite for exploring home cooking from the southern provinces will be piqued and they won’t just think of chop suey, broccoli beef, sweet and sour pork and egg foo yung when they think of “Cantonese” food.
Serves 4 – 6 with other dishes
Introduction: Rice is pretty damn important to your southerner. Even 2 or 3 generations removed from the ancestral homeland, many people don’t feel right if they haven’t had rice at least a few times a week. At our house, due to the SE Asian influence, we use jasmine rice as our “everyday” rice and not just any jasmine rice, but one brand in particular, Golden Phoenix. Rice really varies from brand to brand and you may want to try different ones until you settle on a favorite. You’re not going to find a nice selection of brands until you go up to the 25 lb bags. Most households buy their rice in 50 lb bags. Forget the bulk rice in health food stores, it tastes terrible.
• 3 cups long grain rice
• 3 1/4 cups water
I’ve read western instructions for cooking rice and they usually use 1 part rice to 2 parts water. This ratio results in a much wetter and softer rice than most Asian families like to have. We use a rice cooker because the convenience outweighs the slight loss in quality in the cooked rice, but cooking rice Asian style in a pot is not very difficult either. You want something slightly more than a 1 to 1 ratio of rice to water. How much more depends on preference and the age of the rice. Newer rice takes less water. For 3 cups of rice, start out using about 3 1/4 cups of water and adjust to your taste. Bring the rice and water to a boil in a pot that is good for slow cooking. Once it boils, put a lid on it and turn it down to the lowest your burner can go. If you have one, a diffuser works well here. Cook for 15 – 20 minutes. All the water should be absorbed. Turn off the heat and let it sit for another 15 minutes or so to finish steaming. Try not to peek too many times. Fluff with chopsticks before serving.
Steamed beef with black mushrooms, lily buds and cloud ear
Serves 4 along with other dishes
Introduction: While most people think about stir-frying when they think about Chinese food, steaming is often used to cook food that will be eaten with rice. Sometimes the partly cooked sung is added to the rice pot before the rice is finished cooking and left to steam the rest of the way while the rice cooks. This also imparts the flavor of the sung onto the rest of the rice. Other times the sung is steamed separately and then brought to the table to be placed on the rice by the eaters. For dinners where there will be more than one or two dishes besides vegetables, it’s a nice balance to include as many steamed dishes as stir-fried ones. I strongly encourage anyone interested in Chinese cooking to acquire a bamboo steamer. While you can steam your dish in anything that works (like a steamer insert in a pasta pot set or a pressure cooker), it’s my contention that the bamboo itself will lend a special fragrance to the dishes. The Cantonese, in particular, steam seafood very often. My favorite dish ever is a steamed whole fish, bathed in ginger, scallions, light soya and a little sesame oil. This much-loved dish requires that you start by picking your victim from a tank full of healthy, lively fish, having it killed to order, rushing it home, and steaming it, without ever storing it in the refrigerator. I like sea bass best, and don’t like tilapia at all, so I’ve had some trouble finding a suitable fish to steam where I live. Instead, I’ve decided to show you another classic steamed dish that can be made with beef, pork, chicken or even tofu. This dish is simple enough to be part of your everyday cooking routine but also nice enough to include in a meal with guests.
I’m showing you the way to make this dish with beef, but you can substitute any meat you might like. This is not the time to use beef from the mark-down section of the meat department. Steaming requires that your meat be very fresh, no stickiness or off-odors. Chicken is also good, and if you decide to use the fair fowl please do not use boneless, skinless chicken breasts. Best is a free range, fairly lean, freshly killed chicken that is chopped into bite size pieces while still on the bone and then steamed (see the photo of cut chicken in the claypot recipe). If you must go the boneless, skinless route, use thighs. Black mushrooms come in different grades. I don’t buy the really expensive kind, but I do like upgrading from the cheapest ones with all-brown tops to a higher grade. I usually buy a grade that has a certain degree of flowering or creamy white cracks on the brown tops. This results in mushrooms with a firmer, less chewy texture when reconstituted. Lily buds are a great ingredient to have in your repertoire. They have a subtle, sweet smell reminiscent of dried fruits, and add an interesting textural variation to any dish. Shaoxing wine should not be the kind labeled “cooking wine” on the bottle, its flavor isn’t as good as it could be and you don’t want the additional salt in the dish. Substitute sherry if you must, but it’s worth finding a bottle of non-salted for the larder. The non-salted ones start around $3-4 dollars a bottle and go up to about $10 dollars a bottle, depending on how long the wine has been aged.
• 3/4 lb of flank steak
• 3/4 ounce dried black (dong qwoo or shiitake) mushrooms
• 1/4 ounce dried cloud ears (wun yee) or wood ears (or use fresh – scant 1/4 cup)
• 1/4 ounce lily buds (gum tzum) also found labeled in English as golden needles, tiger lily buds, lily stems
• 1 1/2 tablespoons finely julienned ginger
• 2 teaspoons shaoxing rice wine
• 1 tablespoon oyster sauce
• 2 tablespoons light soya sauce
• 1 teaspoon dark soya sauce
• fresh ground black pepper
• 1 1/2 teaspoons potato starch (you can substitute cornstarch, which gels to a harder consistency, but use a little less)
• 2 green onions, julienned, white and green parts separate
• a handful of cilantro leaves
The mushrooms, cloud ears and lily buds need to be reconstituted in water before you cut them up. If you are a super-organized person, it’s nicer to soak them in cold water for an hour or two. I’m never that prepared, and I opt for the boiling water routine. In separate bowls, cover the mushrooms, cloud ears and lily buds with boiling water. Top with a saucer and let steep for around 30 minutes. The cheaper your grade of mushrooms, the less time you’ll need to soak them.
While you’re waiting, cut the flank steak into pieces about 1 1/2 inch long and 1/4 inch thick, taking care to cut across the grain of the meat. Sprinkle 1 T of the light soya over the meat, and a few turnings of the black pepper. Toss and sprinkle the potato starch over the beef and toss again. Let it sit while you prepare the green onions, ginger and cilantro. I use beef that has been dry-aged. If your beef is more wet, you may want to add a little more thickener if you do not care for a more brothy dish. There should be no pools of liquid, but it should not be completely dry either. Depending on how it looks, I may add a couple tablespoons of the reserved soaking liquid from the mushrooms to the mixture.
When the dried ingredients have plumped in the water, squeeze the mushrooms dry, reserving the soaking liquid (for use in this or other recipes), and remove the stems. Thinly slice the caps. Remove the hard bits from the cloud ears and thinly slice. Squeeze the lily buds, discard the soaking water and cut them in half crosswise (see photo).
Hopefully you have better ones than what I could find…these started out faded and brown, but they’re best when they’re a brighter gold color.
Spread the meat in a Pyrex pie plate and sprinkle on the mushrooms, cloud ears, lily buds, ginger, shaoxing, oyster sauce, the rest of the light soya, dark soya, and the white part of the green onions. Place in the steamer, taking care that no sides of the dish are touching the sides of the steamer.
Place over about 2 inches of boiling water and steam on medium-high, 10 minutes for medium rare beef, 15 for well done. Removing things from the steamer can be tricky, but since this dish does not have a lot of liquid, it’s a good one to practice with. Using potholders, tilt the steamer while grabbing the side of the pie plate as seen in the photo.
Sprinkle with the cilantro and green parts of the green onions and serve.
You can omit the ginger, or instead of ginger, you can use a couple of tablespoons of preserved mustard greens (hum choy – usually sold in the refrigerated section) that have been rinsed and chopped, or the same amount of Teo Chew- preserved mustard and olives (blackish-green, oily and very savory concoction, usually in glass jars in the “pickle” section). A tablespoon of aged, dried tangerine peel (chun pay) that has been soaked in cold water and julienned is also a nice addition, use it by itself or with the ginger, but not with the preserved vegetables.
Serves 2 – 4 with other dishes
Introduction: One of our favorite parts of the meal are the stir-fried greens and the variety of different greens available to stir-fry are seemingly endless. We generally choose whatever looks best to us at the farmers' market and then use it during the week. Sometimes we’ll have gai lan (Chinese broccoli), or Shanghainese bok choy, spinach, dau gok (long beans), ong choy (water spinach), dau miu (pea shoots), long cabbage (Napa), or even just plain old bok choy. What you’ll see in the photos goes by the name choy sum, flowering Chinese cabbage or yu choy. Some people have trouble telling it apart from gai lan when it gets older. In general, it will have yellow flowers while gai lan has white ones. These were so young they had no flowers at all.
While the home cook cannot mimic the feet-tall flames of the restaurant stoves used to stir-fry vegetables and impart that delicious smoky “breath of the wok”, we’ve come up with something that comes very close. We use a flat bottom frying pan because our home stoves do not have a large enough output to use a wok. There are a few tricks to getting this right, and it takes a little practice, but it’s a very satisfying pursuit. The first trick is to make sure your greens are as dry as possible. If you don’t think to wash them hours before you’ll use them, spin them several times in a salad spinner and then lay them out on a towel. The second trick is to be fearless when it comes to how hot your pan is, both during the preheating stage and when you heat up the oil. We're talking a minute short of a grease fire, here…keep the lid handy in case you wait too long and remember, oil fires need suffocating! Do not pour water on an oil fire. You need an oil suitable for hot temperatures, preferably peanut oil, or if you don’t want to use that, then safflower oil. Please don’t use canola oil, it tastes like crap and makes your house smell bad when you heat it up this high. For the garlic, it’s worth hunting down the smaller, purple, hard necked type. We’re buying a Korean one from the farmers' market that is just great…lots of spicy garlic goodness.
I’ll also note that I may be advising you to let your pan get hotter than the manufacturer recommends. We feel it’s worth replacing a pan in 10 years to have delicious vegetables. You may feel differently. The last trick is to be very fast. I’ve timed what we show in the photos below, you may find that your stove needs more or less time to preheat your pan enough to get the desired flavor.
• 1 lb of greens, washed, cut or torn to manageable sizes and dried
• 3 – 4 cloves of garlic, smashed
• 1 1/2 tablespoons of peanut oil
• light soya to taste
Heat a large frying or sauté pan over high heat. For the aluminum pan shown, we heat it for 3 1/2 minutes on full blast. A cast iron pan would take longer. Add the oil to the pan and heat it until it just begins to smoke, about 2 minutes further. Add the smashed garlic and stir it around while it browns and blackens, as shown in the photo.
Add the greens all at once and do not stir. Wait 30 seconds, pressing down on the greens to let as many come in contact with the pan as possible. This is your best chance at getting that nice smoky flavor. The rest of the greens that come in contact with the pan later will not sear because the greens will begin releasing liquid. Begin to stir and toss, about 1 minute for these, a little longer for more mature greens.
Once they have mostly wilted, splash in soya sauce, stir for 40 seconds and then put on a plate, fast!
As you might have noticed, it takes longer to preheat the pan than it does to stir-fry the greens. Don’t worry if a few pieces of your vegetable are black or dark brown that means you’ve done it correctly.
For things with thicker stems, tear off the thick, outer leaves until you get to the heart. Remove the very thick and tough bottom pieces. For cabbage, cut into 2 inch squares. Vegetables like gai lan or dau miu may need to be very briefly blanched in boiling water and then dried off before stir-frying, depending on their toughness. I tend to prefer not to do this, because I think the flavor is diluted, but many other cooks like to use this method. You won’t have as much smoky flavor. You can also use other aromatics such as ginger or chillies in addition to, or in place of, the garlic.
Claypot casserole of chicken and salted fish
Serves 4 with an additional vegetable dish
Introduction: The claypot, sandpot or sapo, a pre-iron age cooking vessel, is inexpensive, and is available in almost any Asian grocery store. Like other cultures who prize claypot cookery, southerners use it for long, gentle cooking. These pots need to be brought up to heat very gently, and not subjected to abrupt changes in temperature (like heating one up and then dumping something very cold into it. I lost my first pot doing that). Chinese grannies believe that things cooked in a claypot are more nourishing than the same dishes cooked in metal pots. However, if you do not wish to go to the trouble of finding and caring for a claypot, please do not let that stop you from making claypot dishes. Use an enameled casserole pot or anything suitable for slow and low cooking. Claypot dishes are true comfort food, they’re not usually very pretty but are delicious and homey, perfect for cold evenings.
Salted fish (hum yue) is used a lot by the Hakka peoples, and we’re pretty fond of it at our house, too.
Well, we’re fond of almost any form of salted, preserved fish (baccala, anchovies, sardines, ikan belis, you get my drift). It’s a wonderful match with chicken. It has a very pungent taste and needs to be used with restraint or it can overpower a dish. The long simmering in this recipe mellows the fish and adds a wonderful rich taste to the dish. If the thought of dried fish repels you, you can use preserved soya beans in its place (Yeo’s is a good brand) but do try it with the fish. A classic fried rice dish is also flavored with chicken and salted fish. If you like this dish, you might try that as well. Use fresh tofu packed in water for this dish, Nasoya or Sunshine are good brands.
• 14 oz package of firm tofu cut into 1 inch cubes and pressed down to drain (see photo)
• 3/4 lb Chinese cabbage, about a half of one. Cut in half lengthwise and then sliced into 1/4 – 1/2 inch pieces.
• 2 legs, 2 thighs and 2 wings from a chicken (use the breast for the soup recipe)
• 3 tablespoons minced salted fish, rinsed
• 1 tablespoon of chicken fat or lard (homemade lard only, not the disgusting non-refrigerated store-bought kind) or safflower oil
• 3 –4 cloves of garlic, sliced
• 1 slice of ginger (1 inch wide, 1/4 inch thick)
• 3/4 cup chicken stock or water (store bought, low sodium is ok, homemade is ideal)
• white pepper and salt
• 1 tablespoon of light soya sauce
• 1 teaspoon of sesame oil
• 1/8 teaspoon MSG (optional)
• 1.7 ounce packet of mung bean or cellophane noodle
• potato or corn starch (optional)
• 2 green onions, julienned
Chop the chicken into pieces with a cleaver. Set aside the wingtips for use in stock.
Clean off any bone chips, and sprinkle with salt and white pepper. Allow to sit while you prepare the rest of the ingredients. If you do not like chopping legs and thighs bone-in, try it with 1 lb of wings instead, they’re easier to cut. If you prefer to use boneless chicken, use about 3/4 lb, but again, please do not use boneless, skinless breasts, thighs are nicer.
Preheat the claypot on very low, using a diffuser if you have one, for about 10 minutes. Brown the chicken in a frying or sauté pan in about a teaspoon of the chicken fat or lard on as many sides as you have the patience for. When you’re done, put the chicken in a bowl, pour the fat into the claypot, deglaze the pan with a little water or stock and pour it on top of the resting chicken. Add more fat to the claypot to make about 1 tablespoon. Turn the heat up under the pot to medium and fry the garlic and ginger until it begins to brown. Add the chicken and the deglazing liquid, the stock or water, sesame oil, light soya, dried fish, white pepper to taste, MSG, and cabbage to the pot. Put the lid on and allow the pot to come to a simmer. This will take some time because the cabbage takes a while to wilt down and start to cook. Cook until the chicken is tender, about 20 - 30 minutes after it reaches a simmer.
Soak the mung bean noodle in cold water until it is pliable, and then cut it into 2 – 3 inch lengths. At this point you should have quite a bit of liquid from the cabbage in the pot. If you don’t, you could add some water and let it come back to a simmer. Add the mung bean noodle, let it heat for 5 minutes with the lid on, and then add the tofu. Stir it in gently so you don’t break it up too much.
Allow the pot to come back to a near simmer. If you like, you can stir in a couple of teaspoons of a slurry made from 4 parts water to 1 part potato or cornstarch to slightly thicken the liquid, but it’s optional. If you do, stir it in gently and allow 5 minutes or so for it to thicken. Sprinkle with green onions and serve.
Winter melon soup with peas and chicken velvet
Introduction: Soups can play many roles in southern Chinese cooking, especially to the Cantonese. They can be a snack, such as ground roasted black sesame soup, lightly sweetened and thickened with rice flour, a medicinal health tonic, such as those containing ginseng and other herbal medicinals, or as a soothing part of the family meal. The best writing I’ve read on the role of soup in Cantonese eating was in a Usenet post by Timothy Ng.
Winter melon (doong qwa) is very favorably considered for medicinal soups, fancy banquet soups presented in carved melons, or in a soup for the family dinner. Unlike a medicinal soup where the whole melon is used, peel, seeds and all, we’re going to peel and remove the seeds for ours. You can usually find pieces of winter melon cut for home use in the refrigerated section of the produce area in an Asian grocery. Many cooks believe that the more white powdery coating a melon has on its peel, the better it is, so I always look for that coating on the pieces I pick out. Avoid melon pieces that have been cut for too long, they’ll start to be soft and transparent near the rind. I’m giving a recipe for a fairly large amount of soup, because the pieces I can buy are quite large, but it scales down very nicely. The stock should be clear and light, made from meat, feet and bones that have not been cooked or roasted previously. I like to make mine with just a little salt, although some people add a few slices of ginger to theirs. Avoid adding any other aromatics, you’re going for a clear stock full of chicken “essence” and not much else.
• 4 1/2 cups homemade chicken stock (store bought is not an option for this)
• 3 lbs winter melon
• 14 oz frozen peas, thawed
• 1 recipe for chicken velvet
• salt and white pepper to taste
The easiest way I’ve found to prepare the melon is to de-seed it, cut it into 1/2 inch slices, slice it off the peel and then cut the slices into pieces about 1/4 inch thick (see photo).
If you want it to be prettier, you can peel it whole and cut it into cubes. Heat the stock to a light simmer and add the melon pieces.
You’ll hear them hiss as they are warmed in the stock. Simmer covered until the melon is transparent, depending on the melon and the size of your pieces it can take 15 – 30 minutes. Add salt to taste, around 1/2 teaspoon, and a few turns of white pepper. You have two options with the chicken velvet: you can add some warm stock to it to thin it out and then stir it in, which will result in a more refined texture, or you can just put it in straight and stir it as it cooks, to break it into the larger pieces. You can see these larger pieces in the finished soup in the photo. What I do depends on mood and occasion. After you’ve added the chicken, stir in the thawed peas, let them warm, and then serve the soup with fresh ground white pepper on top.
Chicken velvet (adapted from Yan Kit So’s Classic Chinese Cooking)
• 1 whole chicken breast, about 1 lb, cut into rough chunks
• 1/2 teaspoon salt
• 1 egg white
• 2 teaspoons ice water
• 2 teaspoons cornstarch
Put all of the above into a food processor or blender and puree.
Instead of peas, you can top your soup with finely minced Yunnan ham. Country hams (like Smithfield Virginia ham) or prosciutto are substitutes for Yunnan ham. Instead of chicken, you can add 1 cup of fresh bamboo, julienned, and top with a little roasted sesame oil and green onions. Fresh bamboo can usually be found already prepared in tubs of water in the produce section in Asian groceries in larger cities. For smaller cities, look for cryovac packages where you find tofu. You can use fuzzy melon (mo qwa) in place of winter melon if you can’t find winter melon.
Stir-fried clams with black bean sauce
Serves 4 with other dishes
Introduction: This is such a classic combination I couldn’t resist including it here, although you can probably find it in just about any Chinese cookbook. I like all of the saltiness to come from the black beans. If you find their flavor too strong, you may want to use only 3 tablespoons and substitute 1 tablespoon of dark soya for the rest. I don’t like to eat leftover clams, so I’ve halved the recipe for the photo shoot. If there are only 2 people eating, you may want to do the same.
• 3 lbs clams, scrubbed well and rinsed, discard any that do not close when you wash them
• 4 Tablespoons preserved black beans (dau see)
• 1 teaspoon of peanut or safflower oil
• 4 Tablespoons of ginger, finely julienned
• 4 large cloves of garlic, finely minced
• 4 green onions, julienned, white parts separate from the green parts
• fresh red chilli, thinly sliced on the diagonal (optional… we’ve used way more then a normal Cantonese cook would in the photos, call it the Singaporean influence)
• 2 –3 tablespoons shaoxing wine
• 1/2 - 1 cup chicken stock or water (use water if you don’t have homemade, otherwise it will be too salty)
• 2 teaspoons of potato flour stirred into 2 tablespoons of water (or use 1 1/2 teaspoons of cornstarch)
Rinse the black beans in several changes of water and set aside. If they are very dry, leave them with a little water. If they were moist to begin with, pour out all of the excess rinsing water. Heat your pan until it’s very hot, about 5 minutes for cast iron, less for aluminum. Put in the oil, swirl it around and add the garlic, ginger and white part of the onions. Stir-fry until they begin to color, about 30 seconds. Add the black beans and stir-fry until they stick a little. Pour in the clams and toss them around in the sauce for 30 seconds.
Splash in some shaoxing wine, about 2 –3 tablespoons. Flip the clams around and when the wine stops sizzling, add the stock or water. If the clams do not open after a minute or so, then cover them briefly to allow them to steam open. When 3/4 of the clams are open, stir in the green parts of the onion and the chilli. Toss and add the potato flour and stir until the sauce is thickened. If your sauce is too thick, don’t panic, just splash in a little more water and stir. Put into a warmed bowl and eat with plenty of steamed rice.
Further Reading on Chinese home-style cooking:
The Wisdom of the Chinese Kitchen: Classic Family Recipes for Celebration and Healing - Grace Young
Every Grain of Rice: A Taste of Our Chinese Childhood in America - Ellen Blonder and Annabel Low
Classic Food of China - Yan Kit So
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