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Cooking with "Stir-frying to the Sky's Edge" (Grace Young)


Chris Hennes
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Again because most of the diaspora is from the Southern provinces, which rely on their excellent fresh produce for flavour? Other regional Chinese food is fantastic too, I always seek it out when I make it into Shanghai. Yunnanese food has cheese but also uses a lot of South-east Asian ingredients; Dongbei is rich in stews, braises - real meat and potatoes stuff; Xinjiang is cumin, lamb, raisins, homemade yogurt...I could go on.

Spices I can buy at the regular supermarket: cumin, fennel, dried whole chilis (two kinds), cassia bark powder and stick; star anise; dried gingerroot (and powdered); Chinese cardamons; those big black poddy things that look like nutmegs; white peppercorns; plus dried tangerine peel and so on.

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That's interesting: I wonder why so little of the Chinese cooking that has migrated here to the US features cumin.

I think it is because most of the Chinese restaurants in the US are Cantonese style. (Because of the migration history.) By and large, Cantonese style cooking does not use cumin or other "heavy" spices in stir-fries.

Edited by hzrt8w (log)
W.K. Leung ("Ah Leung") aka "hzrt8w"
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Cantonese-Style Stir-Fried Pork with Chinese Broccoli (p. 77)

I also wished for more water chestnuts, but that's mostly just my love of water chestnuts talking, no real culinary insight.

With woody broccoli, you can get a bit of a waterchesnut like crunch and shape by cutting the thick stalks crosswise in 1/8 inch coins and giving them only a brief time in the wok.

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Stir-Fried Ginger Beef (p. 71)

This was a very simply-seasoned (but far from bland!) dry-style stir fry. It only has a few basic ingredients: beef, ginger, soy sauce, oyster sauce, and rice wine (apparently the addition of rice wine is not traditional). Young also adds pickled ginger, which I thought was very nice.

Stir-Fried Ginger Beef.jpg

Chris Hennes
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The beauty of Chinese cuisine lies in its flexibility and its openness to being adapted to individual interpretations. Individual cooks can and will do things slightly different than another person to produce the same dish, as long as he does not stray too far from the original recipe. For example, beef and broccoli is still beef and broccoli if you use a dash of soy sauce, a pinch of sugar and a smidgen of msg in place of a missing oyster sauce. My point is not to slavishly follow one author or another's recipes just so you can call the resultant dish authentic.

Having said that, Grace Young's recipes are not my recipes, nor are they exactly the same as those of some of my "homeys" from my village region.I find that Young sometimes plays loose, and sometimes rather fast, with some of her interpretations of "standard" recipes, as familiar as they seem to be. Come on, sesame oil is very very rarely used, if at all, by home cooks of Toysan. Cumin? Ya gots to be kidding! I don't believe that her friends and relatives use those recipes when they are cooking for family (they are Toysanese I believe), and all that "dressing" up is gilding the recipes to make it look more complicated than it is (or should be)...inscrutable?

BTW, the Cantonese term for oil blanching is goh yau, or "pass through the oil", and make that oil hot please, else the meat, fowl or fish would be oil soaked.

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BUT, that being said, are you only serving these dishes alone with rice? Because a dish like that might shine in a meal where you're serving a soup, a spicy dish, a braise, and maybe a pickle alongside. It's more of a counterpoint dish, isn't it? For two people, that's too much, but when I stir-fry dinner I always have a separate green or other veg and a pickle on the table as well, so I can take advantage of the contrasts. A plainer dish like that I'd pair with a spicy daikon pickle and maybe a soft vegetable? Braised pumpkin, say.

Just reading this thread for the first time and I'm surprised no one has followed up on this very good point. In fact I think it's a fundamental point. Personally I don't know any Chinese person who would cook just one of these dishes to eat solely with plain rice. Dishes like these would always be served alongside several others. The last dish of Stir-fried ginger beef looks lovely, if I was cooking it for my wife and I then I would have some veg with it too or maybe stir-fried prawns with broccoli. If there were more people, then I would steam a fish and poach a chicken too. But never would I eat a stir-fried dish like that on it's own with rice, are Erin and I alone here?

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Admittedly I do sometimes serve just the stir fry with rice, especially when the stir fry incorporates roughly equal amounts of protein and vegetables. In the case of something like that ginger beef, however, I served it with a side of snap peas (you can just see one peaking into the frame in the lower left). I haven't been discussing or showing them because I'm not using recipes from the book in those cases.

Chris Hennes
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chennes@egullet.org

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I agree with Ben Hong. This is the only Chinese cookbook I have seen which uses cumin in a recipe. It stood out to me because I cannot stand neither the taste nor the smell of cumin. Between "Stir Frying To The Shy's Edge" and "The Breath of the Wok" I think the latter may be the better book.

The recipes in "Breath..." may be a bit more authentic, made mainly by her family and friends.

'A person's integrity is never more tested than when he has power over a voiceless creature.' A C Grayling.

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I agree with Ben Hong. This is the only Chinese cookbook I have seen which uses cumin in a recipe. It stood out to me because I cannot stand neither the taste nor the smell of cumin. Between "Stir Frying To The Shy's Edge" and "The Breath of the Wok" I think the latter may be the better book.

The recipes in "Breath..." may be a bit more authentic, made mainly by her family and friends.

I think cumin is plenty authentic, although I've usually seen it paired with beef or lamb, as I pointed out.

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Vinegar-Glazed Chicken (p. 136)

Stir-Fried bean Sprouts with Chili Bean Sauce (p. 200)

As luck would have it, Prawncrackers, tonight's meal plan did in fact include two recipes from the book: good timing! Well, sort of good timing, as the bean sprouts were a bit past their prime. I bought them yesterday and meant to use them last night, but didn't end up stir-frying for dinner. I also, for no apparent reason, purchased soy bean sprouts instead of normal (mung?) sprouts. So I won't say much about that recipe since I was not pleased with the ingredients. The vinegar-glazed chicken has a pretty heavy dose of Sichuan peppercorns, which I love the flavor of. I find that I can't seem to grind them fine enough to completely eliminate a slightly gritty texture, however. Is this normal, or do I need to try harder with my grinding? Also, this dish is finished with a Chinkiang vinegar glaze, but I'm not really that fond of the vinegar I have on hand. I think I just chose it at random from the available brands: what are the brands I should be seeking out?

Vinegar-Glazed Chicken.jpg

Stir-Fried Bean Sprouts with Chili Bean Sauce.jpg

Chris Hennes
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chennes@egullet.org

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... The vinegar-glazed chicken has a pretty heavy dose of Sichuan peppercorns,

.....

Which Chinese style(s) are those recipes in her book, Chris? It seems to me, such as this one, it is Cantonese yet not quite Cantonese, Sichuanese yet not quite Sichuanese. Are those all the author's own creations?

Sichuan peppercorn: The most potent ones are stored in whole, and relatively fresh. The numbing effect degrades over time in storage. Ground powders retain less potentness than the whole spices. I suppose you can buy and use the ground Sichuan peppercorn if you don't like the grits.

Bean sprouts: if you have the soy-bean sprouts but the recipe calls for the mung-bean sprouts... just clip off the heads (the bean) and use the stems. The stems taste no different. :)

W.K. Leung ("Ah Leung") aka "hzrt8w"
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..... But never would I eat a stir-fried dish like that on it's own with rice, are Erin and I alone here?

I think it depends on the family situation (or dining situation).

I cook for myself and my wife. No kid. So it is quite common to have only one stir-fried dish for dinner. Though I typically like to make some vegetable stir-fries (only salt and garlic).

If the dinner party is any bigger, I would make 2 to 4 dishes.

The cook of the family may make more, as an everyday affair, if the family size is bigger... e.g. 4 to 6 dishes or more. But... typically... wouldn't be all stir-fries. Likely some will be steamed dishes, some braised dishes, some cold-appetizers, or some BBQ items (chopped chicken, BBQ pork, roast pork, etc..) The reason is to try to have all the dishes ready at the same time. If you have to stir-fry 6 dishes, by the time the 6th dish is done, the first one is already cold.

W.K. Leung ("Ah Leung") aka "hzrt8w"
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Which Chinese style(s) are those recipes in her book, Chris? It seems to me, such as this one, it is Cantonese yet not quite Cantonese, Sichuanese yet not quite Sichuanese. Are those all the author's own creations?

From the dish description:

This is a typical Hunan family-style stir-fry. Traditionally this dish is made with dried red chilies, but this recipe has been simplified with the use of red pepper flakes.

(I'm not sure how that substitution really simplifies anything, but OK) It's funny, I bought the book and have been cooking from it because I am skeptical that any of the so-called "Chinese food" available to me here in Oklahoma, USA is even remotely Chinese. But it sounds like I'm not really getting any closer with these recipes.

Chris Hennes
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chennes@egullet.org

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I find that I can't seem to grind them fine enough to completely eliminate a slightly gritty texture, however.

Grind and then run through a fine meshed sieve. You'll find that the grit comes from the hard husks which contribute nothing to the flavor. I normally grind ~6 months worth of peppercorns at once and keep the rest whole. Also, toast before you grind for deeper flavor.

PS: I am a guy.

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I've only glanced through Young's "Breath" book, but I don't know if I'd necessarily call the recipes contained within "authentic" in that they don't necessarily represent what you'd actually find in China. Rather, I think the book does pretty well to give a sense of the type of the homestyle cooking found in the Toisanese immigrant communities in America.

I have no idea what type of cooking the recipes in "Sky's Edge" are supposed to represent, but cumin is something that you'd never find a Toisan/Cantonese kitchen.

Edited by sheetz (log)
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I find that I can't seem to grind them fine enough to completely eliminate a slightly gritty texture, however.

Grind and then run through a fine meshed sieve. You'll find that the grit comes from the hard husks which contribute nothing to the flavor. I normally grind ~6 months worth of peppercorns at once and keep the rest whole. Also, toast before you grind for deeper flavor.

I think you have got it the other way round, the grittiness does not come 'from the hard husks which contribute nothing to the flavor'. From what i understand and from my own experience, the 'husk' (which is not hard or at least when compared to the seed) is where almost all the flavor is. The shiny black and very hard little seeds contribute very little to the flavor (and some would even claim it contributes an undesirable bitterness). The seeds together with the pieces of prickly stem leftovers, are what causes the grittiness.

Some 'fanatics' of Sichuan Peppercorn would insist that the seeds should be removed before use. For anyone with all the patience, or access to slave-wage help :-), this can done by hand, one peppercorn at a time, just press on it and the husk should separate from the seed. What i do is to first remove the stem leftovers, and then lightly 'bruise' the rest in a pestle and mortar (or even a rolling pin and pastry board), just enough to split the husks from most of the seeds. Put the result onto one end of a sheet pan, tilt it slightly just so that when you tap on the sheet pan, the seeds (being heavier and round) will roll to the other side. The result is not perfect, but then you could clean up the rest by hand, one peppercorn at a time. Or design your own home 'winnowing' technique. Have fun.

For anyone wanting to do an experiment, try separating the husk and seed, grind each separately and do a taste and texture test.

Has anyone been able to buy Sichuan peppercorns with only husks and no seeds? Perhaps someone should get onto this potentially profitable venture?

One easier alternative, to have absolutely no grit, is to make Sichuan peppercorn oil - use any flavorless oil and i believe any recipe for flavoring oils will do. As 'regular' hot chilli peppers are commonly used together with sichuan peppercorns, this could be added to the oil as well. The only disadvantage for some is that flavored oils do not have the 'freshness' of the peppers or flavoring agents. Oh well, we cant have it all?

It's dangerous to eat, it's more dangerous to live.

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I've only glanced through Young's "Breath" book, but I don't know if I'd necessarily call the recipes contained within "authentic" in that they don't necessarily represent what you'd actually find in China. Rather, I think the book does pretty well to give a sense of the type of the homestyle cooking found in the Toisanese immigrant communities in America.

I have no idea what type of cooking the recipes in "Sky's Edge" are supposed to represent, but cumin is something that you'd never find a Toisan/Cantonese kitchen.

The book does not claim to represent a single region of China, though for each recipe Young typically gives some regional indication. For example, the recipe with cumin in it is said to be "a signature Hunan-style robust stir-fry of beef with cauliflower, carrots, and tomatoes, seasoned with cumin, garlic, and red pepper flakes." And I haven't even started delving into the dishes like "Chinese Jamaican Stir-Fried Beef and Carrots" (seasoned with Matouk's Calypso Sauce), "Chinese Peruvian Stir-Fried Filet Mignon" (heavy on the potatoes), or "Chinese Trinidadian Chicken with Mango Chutney" (lots of mango chutney in Chinese stir fries?). There is clearly a lot of fusion going on here.

Chris Hennes
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chennes@egullet.org

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The book does not claim to represent a single region of China, though for each recipe Young typically gives some regional indication. For example, the recipe with cumin in it is said to be "a signature Hunan-style robust stir-fry of beef with cauliflower, carrots, and tomatoes, seasoned with cumin, garlic, and red pepper flakes." And I haven't even started delving into the dishes like "Chinese Jamaican Stir-Fried Beef and Carrots" (seasoned with Matouk's Calypso Sauce), "Chinese Peruvian Stir-Fried Filet Mignon" (heavy on the potatoes), or "Chinese Trinidadian Chicken with Mango Chutney" (lots of mango chutney in Chinese stir fries?). There is clearly a lot of fusion going on here.

Did she learn those dishes from Chinese residents of those countries? Plenty of long-term ethnic Chinese residents in the Caribbean and South America, so for them to have melded their home and adopted countries' cuisines would be natural. Or are they dishes of her own creation?

I like how she uses "style" in her description, indicating (to me) that the dish is not pure Hunanese, but rather a dish with Hunanese influences.

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Right on all counts, prasantrin. Some of the recipes seems to be her own adaptation, some are from Chinese expats living abroad, and some are from second- or third- generation Chinese immigrants in the US. Not to mention the fact that China is a pretty big country! It sounds like there are plenty of people who have never heard of cumin in Chinese food, although clearly it's present in some regions.

Chris Hennes
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As luck would have it, Prawncrackers, tonight's meal plan did in fact include two recipes from the book: good timing!

Just making sure you get a balanced meal Chris, gosh I'm turning into my mother! If you have meat you must have some veg with it too etc etc :smile:

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      A note on my use of ‘Sichuan’ rather than ‘Szechuan’.
       
      If you ever find yourself in Sichuan, don’t refer to the place as ‘Szechuan’. No one will have any idea what you mean!

      ‘Szechuan’ is the almost prehistoric transliteration of 四川, using the long discredited Wade-Giles romanization system. Thomas Wade was a British diplomat who spoke fluent Mandarin and Cantonese. After retiring as a diplomat, he was elected to the post of professor of Chinese at Cambridge University, becoming the first to hold that post. He had, however, no training in theoretical linguistics. Herbert Giles was his replacement. He (also a diplomat rather than an academic) completed a romanization system begun by Wade. This became popular in the late 19th century, mainly, I suggest, because there was no other!

      Unfortunately, both seem to have been a little hard of hearing. I wish I had a dollar for every time I’ve been asked why the Chinese changed the name of their capital from Peking to Beijing. In fact, the name didn’t change at all. It had always been pronounced with /b/ rather than /p/ and /ʤ/ rather than /k/. The only thing which changed was the writing system.

      In 1958, China adopted Pinyin as the standard romanization, not to help dumb foreigners like me, but to help lower China’s historically high illiteracy rate. It worked very well indeed, Today, it is used in primary schools and in some shop or road signs etc., although street signs seldom, if ever, include the necessary tone markers without which it isn't very helpful.
       

      A local shopping mall. The correct pinyin (with tone markers) is 'dōng dū bǎi huò'.
       
      But pinyin's main use today is as the most popular input system for writing Chinese characters on computers and cell-phones. I use it in this way every day, as do most people. It is simpler and more accurate than older romanizations. I learned it in one afternoon.  I doubt anyone could have done that with Wade-Giles.
       
      Pinyin has been recognised for over 30 years as the official romanization by the International Standards Organization (ISO), the United Nations and, believe it or not, The United States of America, along with many others. Despite this recognition, old romanizations linger on, especially in America. Very few people in China know any other than pinyin. 四川 is  'sì chuān' in pinyin.
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