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Chinese Food Tips?


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#1 jerobi

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Posted 26 February 2002 - 11:24 AM

I'm interested in giving Chinese food a whirl.  How do you guys prepare it?  Any quick recipes for lo mein and Gen. Tso's chicken?

#2 project

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Posted 27 February 2002 - 03:39 AM

From your mention of "lo mein and Gen. Tso's chicken", by
"Chinese food" it appears that you mean essentially the
food served in the many inexpensive Chinese carryout
restaurants in the US.  And, my experience is that this
food is curiously uniform as if somewhere there were one
book on how to do

    Shredded Pork with Garlic Sauce

    Beef with Broccoli

    General Tso's Chicken

    Beef with Orange Flavor


This food also has some other advantages:

    o    Cost.  It does appear that the ingredients for
         this food are remarkably inexpensive.  So,
         don't need many truffles or much 'foie gras'.

    o    Popularity.  These Chinese restaurants have had
         a good and stable business going for years.  At
         lunch or dinner time, they commonly hand over
         sacks with 1-4 dishes for $5 to $35, one sack
         every minute or so.  Although I live in a very
         rural area of Upstate NY, I can think of at
         least five of these restaurants close to me and
         several more not much farther away.  Curiously,
         I believe I can think of more of these Chinese
         restaurants near me than McDonald's, Wendy's
         and Burger King restaurants combined.

    o    Ingredients.  It does appear that nearly all
         the ingredients these restaurants use are not
         very difficult to get.  These restaurants are
         doing a lot with yellow globe onions, carrots,
         celery, various forms of cabbage, broccoli,
         beef, chicken, pork, eggs, corn starch, soy
         sauce, garlic, ginger, white button mushrooms,
         bean sprouts, canned water chestnuts, canned
         bamboo shoots, canned straw mushrooms, chicken
         broth, hot peppers, cooking oil, and long grain
         white rice, and these ingredients are readily
         available in the US in high quality at low

    o    Novelty.  The food in these restaurants really
         is quite different from other popular food in
         the US.  Maybe the food is not authentically
         Chinese or the same as one would find in Taiwan
         or China, but it is quite different from what
         is in US or European cooking or in
         corresponding cookbooks.

    o    Labor.  It is easy to watch the cooks at these
         restaurants, and they do their work very
         quickly.  Sure, there is prior preparation, but
         the effort is clearly not enormous.  Net, the
         labor required is comparatively small.

    o    Efficiency.  And, beyond just what the
         restaurants do, there is more efficiency in the
         whole 'supply chain':  Clearly the rice is
         easier than the McDonald's hamburger buns.
         And, the soy sauce is easier than the
         McDonald's mustard, pickle, or catsup.  The
         efficiency is not uniform -- wood ears may be
         harder than pickles.  But, generally, there is
         some good efficiency in this Chinese cooking.

Net, this cooking is doing a lot efficiently.

Sure, a suitable heat source would be good, but I believe

    King Kooker
    Manufactured by
    Metal Fusion, Inc.
    712 St. George Ave.
    Jefferson, LA 70121
    (504) 736-0201

    Model No. 88 PKP


    "170,000 BTU CAST IRON BURNER".

I bought at Sam's Club a few years ago has power enough
and is suitable -- outdoors.

So, it would be good to have a good cookbook to show how
to cook such food at home.

And, this objective has been noticed:  E.g., this
objective is mentioned prominently in

    Linda Drachman, '365 Ways to Wok', ISBN
    0-06-016643--6, HaprerCollins, New York, 1993.

But, I don't believe that in this book the author does
very well achieving this objective.

If you find a cookbook that explains what these Chinese
restaurants are doing, then by all means tell the world!
I have been able to find no such book.

The cookbooks want to be more authentic, and perhaps many
of them are, or want to be simplified to provide 'fast,
easy recipes you can prepare quickly and easily to feed
your whole hungry family and that they will all love' or
some such.  Telling people how to do what the restaurants
do seems to be lost somewhere between the woks and the

It is easy to suspect that the restaurants are in
business based on what people think of the food being
sold while the cookbook publishers are in business based
on cover pictures, celebrity authors, various promises of
getting love and approval from happy family members,
etc., i.e., lots of things other than the food itself.
For the next book signing ceremony, I believe I would
like to pass up the signature and, instead, see the
author work directly from recipes in the book; then I
would like to taste the results.

One of the differences is illustrated by the two dishes
you mentioned "lo mein and Gen. Tso's chicken".  The
first has long been common in the US but is regarded as a
terrible US distortion of some of Cantonese cooking and,
therefore, not worthy of instruction.  Still, "millions"
of orders have been served to customers that return for
more.  For General Tso's chicken, that appears to be a
speciality of the restaurants, and just how they do it
has been regarded as too commercial or some such for the
books.  Still, the dish is darned popular in the

Broadly there are other differences:

    o    Sauce Volume.  The restaurants typically
         include a lot of sauce.  For eating with rice
         the sauce is convenient as a way to flavor the
         rice.  The cookbook recipes usually provide
         much less sauce.  Possibly one reason for all
         the sauce from the restaurants is some
         requirement from their business liability
         insurance:  To be protected, the rule seems to
         be that just before the dish comes from the wok
         the last time, all the solids will be fully
         submerged in boiling water-based sauce.  There
         are some exceptions:  E.g., maybe the chicken
         pieces in General Tso's chicken were deep fried
         and the sauce was boiling and then the two were
         combined.  And, maybe the broccoli was also
         added separately -- but, in my watching the
         cooks, it appears that the broccoli was also
         parboiled separately before being combined.

         Also, we can begin to see that these
         restaurants seem to be moving away from fresh
         pork:  So, they want to provide stir-fry dishes
         where the pork was previously roasted.  Having
         the fresh pork stir-fried in some oil and then
         submerged in boiling sauce should be sufficient
         for all purposes except possibly for convincing
         a skeptical jury -- so, the pork gets cooked
         three times:  (1) roasted, (2) stir-fried, and
         (3) boiled.  So, the pork gets overcooked, beef
         and chicken become more popular, and Sam's Club
         is selling whole pork loins, very well trimmed,
         for 1.99 dollars a pound.  Hmm?

    o    Oil Content.  The cookbooks commonly have us
         stir-frying vegetables in oil, lots of oil,
         even 1 C of oil just for a little broccoli, and
         including the oil in the dish.  While the
         restaurants did get some bad publicity a few
         years ago from using far too much oil, my
         observation is that they have greatly
         reduced the amount of oil to reasonable
         levels and to far below what is in many of
         the cookbook recipes.

    o    Poaching.  Many of the cookbooks seem to ask us
         to stir-fry the vegetables, including broccoli,
         while my observation of the restaurants is that
         they usually parboil the main collection of

So, there is mystery here.  Or, the question millions, or
perhaps at least thousands, of US carryout customers are
asking: "How'd they DO that?".

For just some recipes, there is

    Joyce Chen, 'Joyce Chen Cook Book', J. B.
    Lippincott, Philadelphia, 1962.

The Moo Shi Pork there is easy to do, tastes good,
and is similar to, generally drier than, generally
better tasting than, what is in the restaurants.
But, mostly what the restaurants are doing is not in
this book.

Of course, could go to the people with a high interest in
helping people cook such dishes.  So, we should go to the
Web site of, say, Kikkoman?  Did that.  Found lots of
'fast, easy tasty delicious recipes to perk-up the
lagging appetites of your whole family', lots of roast
ham with maple syrup and soy sauce, Fajitas and soy
sauce, etc., but not a hint about anything that would
keep one of these restaurants in business even for a

Of course, it is easy just to take some soy sauce,
chicken stock, dry sherry, rice vinegar, corn starch,
etc., and start improvising stir-fry sauce.  The
cookbooks say to use dry sherry; it's tough to believe
that the restaurants use any of it; but, I bought some.
Hmm.  My experience is that it is easy to get (1) far too
much salt from the soy sauce, (2) a flavor that is
comparable to but a less good than the average dishwater,
(3) canned chicken broth that is not so good, and (4) a
corn starch thickened sauce the 'breaks', that is, thins
out, soon after the dish is assembled.  The Web site for
Argo gives a long list of reasons a corn starch sauce
will 'break', but I have yet to find any discussion of
sauces breaking or how to avoid it in the Chinese
cookbooks.  I am beginning to conclude that the
restaurants are not using Argo corn starch!  In my last
experiment, my 'stir-fry' sauce thickened with Argo corn
starch was fine in my stainless steel pot, for over 30
minutes -- no evidence of breaking at all.  And, the
sauce had nice color and was glossy.  Then, when I
combined with the stir-fried chicken and the poached
broccoli, BOOM, the sauce leached color from the
broccoli, turned a color a good match for dishwater, got
cloudy, tasted awful, and 'broke' into cloudy thinness.
Flush, slosh, slosh.  The septic tank bugs ate well that

Clearly, for an answer, one solution would be to get (1)
someone good with both English and the Chinese spoken by
the cooks, (2) some of the cooks, (3) a capable careful
Westerner that wants to learn, and (4) a cookbook writer,
and, then, with this crew, teach and practice over and
over until the Westerner can reproduce the dishes and the
writer can describe the work clearly enough for other
Westerners to be able to reproduce the dishes just from
the writing.

Sounds like a book for the series 'Dummies'.  And, maybe
there is one.

Or, maybe the main cookbook has already been written, by
the insurance companies as in "This is what we are
willing to write liability insurance on." which would
help explain why the food is so similar.

#3 ChocoKitty

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Posted 27 February 2002 - 06:56 AM

OK, had to jump in (briefly) on this one -- sorry it's a little OT from the original post.  I don't know how the restaurants make their sauce, but my Mom (a Chinese immigrant) doesn't really make a separate thickened sauce.  Her usual stir-fry "recipe" involves dusting chicken chunks with cornstarch, making a slurry of soy, sherry, broth or water, sesame oil, and a little more cornstarch, tossing the chicken with the wok with garlic, green onion, and ginger and veggies stir-fried in another pan, then stirring in the slurry at the last minute and stirring until it thickens a bit.

I'll see if I can get more details from her if you'd like, although we all know that Mom's don't measure.

#4 lullyloo

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Posted 27 February 2002 - 08:46 AM

Chocokitty, me and my momma do the same with the cornstarch (I think it keeps the chicken juicier inside, rather than becoming sort of stewed in its own juice) and then it makes a nice gravy when you add it at the end with the other liquids.

#5 project

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Posted 27 February 2002 - 10:39 PM

Watching the cooks in some of the restaurants, I have
seen them poach the vegetables and remove them to drain;
stir-fry the meat and remove it to drain; make a sauce,
bring it to a boil, add the meat and vegetables, heat
through, toss, and serve.

I made the sauce separately partly to try to discover
just when, and, thus, possibly, why my sauce was
breaking.  So, I discovered that the sauce ingredients
per se resulted in a glossy stable sauce and what caused
the sauce to 'break' was from the addition of some of the
solids, the oil on the solids, or some such.  For which
solids, issues of temperature changes, etc., have not
diagnosed that yet.

So, additional investigation would be to make a sauce and
add just poached broccoli and see if the sauce breaks.
Stir fry some chicken, with or without a corn starch
breading, add it to the sauce, and see if the sauce
breaks.  Try something other than Argo corn starch.  Etc.

Thought that maybe the sauce broke because of a salt
concentration problem:  That is, there is salt in the soy
sauce and, thus, in the stir-fry sauce.  And, there is no
salt in vegetables but there is a lot of water in
vegetables.  So, water from the vegetables will diffuse
into the salty sauce in an attempt to dilute the salt.
In this way, the sauce is getting a dose of vegetable
juice AFTER it has formed its thickening structures with
the corn starch.  So, maybe this late dose of vegetable
juice is the problem.

So, one solution might be to poach the broccoli in very
salty water and, thus, get the vegetable juice out before
adding the poached broccoli to the corn starch thickened
sauce -- tried that, and it didn't work.

Or, maybe the trick is to have all the solids boiling in
the sauce, all the juices in the meat and vegetables in
equilibrium with the sauce, and THEN to add the corn
starch to thicken everything that is there and after
equilibrium has been obtained.  I may have tried that --
can try it again.

For measurements, for small quantities of sauce, I tend
to believe that the measurements in many of the Chinese
cookbooks are okay.  But, they use 1 T of this, 2 T of
that, 2 t of some other thing, etc. and, therefore, get a
small volume of sauce.  For a 1 quart serving, the
restaurants seem to be making 1 C or more of sauce.

My trials of just taking the 1 T of this, etc., and
multiplying to get 1 C or 2 C of sauce results in a
wildly too salty sauce.  I read the labels on all the
several different kinds and brands of soy sauce I have,
and the salt content does not vary enormously; so,
changing soy sauce won't seriously reduce this wild
excess of salt.

One suggestion is "for more sauce, just add more chicken
broth".  I don't think that this is a good solution --
there's more to it than that.

So, I just started improvising stir-fry sauce mixtures
using the usual suspects -- chicken broth, soy sauce,
vinegar, sugar, dry sherry, sesame oil, minced garlic,
minced ginger, hot pepper flakes, etc.

I can go back and do some more, but I got off onto to
other projects -- that have been more successful!

And I guess it would have helped if the last time the
canned chicken broth didn't smell like sulphur.

Tried using Kitchen Basics Chicken Stock:  It seems like
a good chicken STOCK -- maybe an excellent chicken stock
-- but not nearly the same as the light chicken broth of
the inexpensive Chinese restaurants.

Also, have wondered what the source is of the several
chickens one of my local restaurants has simmering in
their main broth supply:  They may be using inexpensive
'spent' laying hens -- they will be very lean and very
inexpensive, and possibly have better flavor, but I know
of no sources.

Next time, I plan to make my own chicken broth:  Get an
Oven-Stuffer, remove the breast and thigh meat, toss the
rest into a stock pot, cook until the meat is done,
remove the meat from the bones, toss the bones, skin,
scraps back into the stock pot, simmer for a few hours,
strain, heat to 180 F to sterilize, chill, remove the
fat, and call the result chicken broth.  Use the raw meat
for some purposes, possibly Chinese, and the cooked
chicken for other purposes, possibly chicken soup.

Chicken soup will deserve a chicken STOCK complete with
onions, carrots, celery, leeks, etc., but it may be
possible to add those to some of the broth later.

#6 Niall

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Posted 28 February 2002 - 12:01 AM

Theres a couple of useful sites for this Chinese recipes...

http://lifestyle.nin.../aww....e_1.asp This one is a bit commercial with product recommendations etc..http://members.ozema...go/chinese.html Wait 'til you hear this..
http://www.sh.com/dish/delicacy.htm Full of instructions like "Kill and clean the chicken, cut off its feet".
'You can't be a real country unless you have a beer and an airline - it helps if you have some kind of a football team, or some nuclear weapons, but at the very least you need a beer.'
- Frank Zappa

#7 jerobi

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Posted 28 February 2002 - 08:15 AM

Wow, great replies so far!  Thanks guys :)
Nifty News & Decent Deals - where I'm always listing more kitchen stuff than average people want to see...

#8 jhlurie

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Posted 28 February 2002 - 08:54 AM

project sort of already asked this... but are we talking about "American Chinese"--in other words that list of dishes mostly Cantonese in origin, but even in the cases where they are NOT they've been filtered down to us via Cantonese immigrants?

jerobi, there's nothing wrong with those... but from what I've come to undersand true Chinese cuisine is a literally bottomless well.  Although most of the technique is common, the iterations are almost infinite.

So I guess I'm asking for you to be more specific.  Are Lo mein and Gen. Tso's chicken really your exact objectives?
Jon Lurie, aka "jhlurie"

#9 jerobi

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Posted 28 February 2002 - 12:55 PM

To start, yes.  I was just interested in cooking some dumbed-down Chinese food in a similar fashion to how they do it in the States.
Nifty News & Decent Deals - where I'm always listing more kitchen stuff than average people want to see...

#10 Wilfrid

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Posted 28 February 2002 - 01:41 PM

I was thinking about jerobi's original post.  I eat Lo Mein, but have never made it or read a recipe.  However, it seems an easy dish to break down into its conceptual parts and reassemble.  Here goes:

Go to a Chinese food store and buy some dried noodles of the right kind of thickness.  While you're there, pick up a tin of bamboo shoots and a tin of water chestnuts.  Boil your noodles until they're soft as you like them, and set them aside in a colander to drain thoroughly.  Meantime, gently fry some chopped onions and minced or crushed garlic in vegetable oil (or maybe sesame oil).  Why not add some fresh grated ginger root, or a pinch of ginger powder?  When the onions are cooked, but not brown, add your protein: finely chopped chicken, shrimp, some good ham, whatever.  Let this start to cook in the oil.  Now add some soy sauce (a light one I would think).  Then add the noodles, together with a few bamboo shoots and water chestnut slices - not too much, just to add a bit of crunch.  Check the seasoning (may not need salt, as the soy sauce is very salty).  Toss all together.  Throw in a few peas if you like.  The noodles should take on a very light brown colour from the sauce.

I should have thought that gives you a decent Lo Mein.  I haven't written in the proprtions of ingredients, because I demonstrate that by making shapes with my hands and fingers, and can't figure out how to get that into a message. :smile:

#11 tommy

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Posted 28 February 2002 - 01:44 PM

Wilfrid, no corn starch?

#12 Rachel Perlow

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Posted 28 February 2002 - 01:57 PM

In lo mein?!

#13 tommy

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Posted 28 February 2002 - 02:03 PM

In lo mein?!

ummm, no?  well, yeah!  i mean, how else can you get that think sauciness that i suppose doesn't exist in lo mein (i don't remember the last time i've had it, so i'm probably thinking of something else).

damn you people, you *know* i don't know anything about chinese food!  why am i ever here?!?!?!?!  i'm going back to the other thread to argue about Never Mind the Bullocks with Wilfrid.

#14 Rachel Perlow

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Posted 28 February 2002 - 02:06 PM

I'm sorry tommy. I forgot you are ignorant. :raz:
The "sauce" on lo mein gets its slickness from the starch of the noodles. Once you stir the noodles into the other ingredients it'll naturally thicken a little without having to add cornstarch.

#15 Wilfrid

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Posted 28 February 2002 - 02:35 PM

Remember, I'm just guessing how to make lo mein.  I think cooking down the onions and stuff with the soya sauce would add a little stickiness too.

Now, what's Tommy got against the Sex Pistols?

#16 tommy

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Posted 28 February 2002 - 02:37 PM

Remember, I'm just guessing how to make lo mein.  I think cooking down the onions and stuff with the soya sauce would add a little stickiness too.

Now, what's Tommy got against the Sex Pistols?

let's just say i like the sex pistols more than chinese food generally speaking.  number 1 though?  pu-leeze.  :wink:

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