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Is Chinese food more difficult to cook?


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A Mr. Wang, co-owner of Legend, a place written up in the NYT...

http://www.nytimes.com/2011/07/27/dining/reviews/legend-bar-and-restaurant-nyc-restaurant-review.html

...says, in the last paragraph, that Chinese food is more difficult to cook than French or Japanese as it's not sauce-based. Each time the chef cooks a dish he/she has to make it from scratch in the wok.

I'd like to hear some eGulleters weigh in on this?

Edited by heidih
Fix link (log)

Maybe I would have more friends if I didn't eat so much garlic?

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My ex and I owned a Korean restaurant for about 9 years and all the food was cooked from scratch. But food was chopped, ahead of time- up to a hour ahead. The "sous chef" ( me often times) would keep the various vegetable trays filled so the chef (MIL) could just get what she needed for the dish and add the meat, fowl or fish which was also prepared ahead of time, weighed and portioned and refrigerated earlier that same day or frozen as was the case with the egg rolls, squid, etc. I would not say it was harder, just different, fresher and efficient.

I know and am friends with a few Chinese restaurant owners and have been in their kitchens. The chef can make a big difference in how one dish or the next tastes and one thing that they have that you don't find in any other restaurants is a special stove for woks that put out a tremendous amount of BTUs. I think that is one of the things that make authentic Chinese food taste the way is does. BTW there is a Chinese restaurant in town that has a lot of Chinese exchange students coming from the next town over to order "real Chinese food" and it is nothing like you see in Chinese restaurants that cater mostly to non Chinese patrons.

Up until a few years ago I think most locally owned, ethnic restaurants worked pretty much like that but recently I have seen huge refrigerated trucks delivering pre made Chinese food to one of the buffet places near-by. So with that development, some of them may become a lot like the truck stops along the highway where a chicken fried steak tastes the same no matter where you go.

Edited by Norm Matthews (log)
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For the home cook the preparation takes the most time, chopping and getting everything ready. Once that is done and all of the ingredients are ready to go, the cooking time is very rapid.

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

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the cooking time is very rapid.

Depends what you are cooking. Much is rapid; not all. One very traditional Chinese dish I make requires around 5 hours simmering.

But I do think the chef quoted is talking nonsense. If you read what he actually says in the article (Joe has slightly misquoted) he contradicts himself. He says that Chinese cuisine is more difficult than French or Japanese because it isn't sauce based then says he makes the sauce from scratch each time. Also, not all French or Japanese cooking is sauce based. He's just puffing up his restaurant.

...your dancing child with his Chinese suit.

 

The Kitchen Scale Manifesto

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There are a lot of Chinese cuisines.

I think executing any cuisine at its highest level is very difficult, but it's probably hard to say for sure (at that level) that one is more difficult than the other. I would put it differently - I would say that Chinese and European cuisines require some fairly different skill sets, as well as some of the same ones. Knife skills, for example, are very important in both, though Chinese knife technique is different from, say, French.

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This is all pretty much inline with my beliefs (food is a religion, right? [ha ha] but I don't think I misquoted, it was late and perhaps I shouldn't have used so many pronouns).

The reason I've asked is because I get a little weary of the locals here constantly taking the attitude that their cuisine is so much more difficult than others. It's changing but I still run into this constantly.

I attribute it to:

  • a natural tendency to believe your culture is superior
  • a lack of knowledge about other cultures and cuisines (McDonald's and KFC are not the extent of western food)*

My response to these superior types, if I'm in the mood to debate, is to show them a photo of my spice collection and point out that as wonderful as Chinese food is (hey, I cook it 80% of the time), there are also a lot of other wonderful experiences and flavors in the world. An oven can add a level of complexity to a cuisine as well.

McGee in "On Food and Cooking" seems to take the opposite stand as Mr. Wang from Legend (I hesitate to imply that these two are at the same level of knowledge or have similar motivations). If I remember correctly McGee states that in French cuisine the chef must build the sauces individually each time whereas in Chinese cuisine the chef can take shortcuts as the soy sauce has been aged (I'm probably misquoting here but I hope I've imparted the just of McGee).

Anyway, thanks for the outlet and I'm looking forward to more comments on this.

* = Speaking of KFC in China, they do a wrap that is awesome. It looks like a big wrap of roast duck and has some of the same condiments inside but with fried chicken substituted for the duck. I could eat that everyday!

Maybe I would have more friends if I didn't eat so much garlic?

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One point with Chinese cooking - timing is more important. Because many things are cooked quickly in the wok then the margin for error is much lower. Or if you are steaming a whole fish, for example, there is a much narrower window between what the Chinese would deemed undercooked and iredeemably overcooked.

Which Western cooking does sautee big lumps of protein from time to time, a lot of the saucing can be built up in advance, and there is a whole gamut of roast and braised food where timing is less of an issue. Chinese cuisine also has some braised dishes but very little that is roasted or cooked in the oven.

Not saying this is more difficult, but the skills required are different.

J

Edited by Jon Tseng (log)
More Cookbooks than Sense - my new Cookbook blog!
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I think you're being too soft on the "tendency to believe own culture is superior" statement.

At the risk of drawing the wrath of other egulleteers, I think most Chinese are raised to believe that the Chinese culture is far superior to all others. In every way. The sleeping dragon whose destiny it is to rise to great glory, etc etc.

So really, it's not about the food----it could be anything. Furthermore, there's no use debating about the merits of another culture's food, because if it isn't Chinese, it just doesn't really matter---they probably aren't all that interested. They may be interested in learning ABOUT another culture, but not too interested in respecting it as on par with their own. Hot pot is still going to be intrinsically better than broth fondue, or even better----broth fondue was created by the Chinese and then stolen by the West! Potstickers are always going to be better than ravioli. After all, the Chinese invented pasta and gave it to Marco Polo, right?

I'm sorry if this sounds too harsh. I'm American-Born Chinese (ABC, as we say,) if that puts things into perspective, with a typically Asian Tiger mother. For the first decade of my life I probably believed everything I was told by my grandparents and aunts and uncles: Westerners are lazy, Westerners as a whole are not smart, Westerners are creative but not disciplined and who cares about creativity anyway? Then I woke up and eventually married an American. Oops!

To be fair, I do encounter plenty of Americans who believe that their culture is the only "right" one. That's what's so interesting to me----I hear Chinese people speak of what is better, and Americans speak of what is right.

Sorry for the tangent, Joe. My point is, there really isn't much of a point in debating, because the other side is not interested in learning or listening. I'm sorry it's frustrating!

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bwv554 - as a Chinese who was born in Hong Kong, moved to the US at 11, and after 25 years, moved to Australia, I can't say I agree with you. Yes, I know some Chinese people who feels that their culture is superior (and people from many cultures also feel that way about their own cultures). I, for one, don't. And I know other Chinese people who feel the same way.

Not interested in learning about other cultures? Again, maybe the Chinese people I know are just...not typical. I love learning about food from different cultures. I love both ravioli and pot sticker and don't feel that one is better than another. And I love cheese fondue just as much as I love Chinese hotpot, though I do crave them at different times.

Oh, the Asian Tiger mom thing. Seriously, I've worked in schools for many years (as a teacher, a youth worker and a counselor) and frankly, for every one Asian "tiger" mom I encountered, there are a handful of Asian non-tiger moms.

Anyway, back to the OP's question. I think the restaurant owner said what he said because he wants people to think what he does is difficult, and that people should appreciate his style of cooking. I don't think there is a right or wrong answer to this. It's really about that person's feeling or perception.

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FWIW, in my experience (working with international students primarily from mainland China), there's a huge difference in attitudes between mainland-China born and HK-born Chinese. HUGE. And they all have so-called Tiger mothers. Of course, if they didn't, they probably wouldn't be studying abroad.

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I am in the same position as Rona as I teach both mainland-China born and HK-born Chinese. Their tastes and opinions about food are quite different. The HK students will go out and try different foods, even eat cafeteria food! :rolleyes: The mainland Chinese will bring their lunches everyday, and I don't see anything difficult about what they cook: stir-fried veg. and rice, tomato - egg, etc. What they prefer to eat is hotpot every possible day. The prep.takes time, but it certainly isn't difficult.

I cook all kinds of food but mostly Chinese. There are certainly simple dishes and difficult ones in all cuisines, but I don't think one is more difficult than another.

Dejah

www.hillmanweb.com

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and I don't see anything difficult about what they cook: stir-fried veg. and rice, tomato - egg, etc. What they prefer to eat is hotpot every possible day. The prep.takes time, but it certainly isn't difficult.

You're comparing apples and oranges. Home cooked meal - something quick and easy for lunch. I imagine that even in France, your average Jacques (esp. a college student) does not bring a Michelin 2 star lunch to school.

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What is the Michelin 2-star equivalent in Chinese cuisine (note this is not rhetorical, all I ever seem to see is basically home cooking except maybe full pigs BBQ'd and that sort of thing, but my exposure to chinese food may be limited)

There are many Chinese cuisines (if you consider the size of China, the mix of ethnic groups, and the length of time the culture has been around, it is a bit unfair to lump all Chinese food together), but overall, I think different things tend to be valued in most Chinese cuisines. And unless you're in Asia or maybe Vancouver, you will most likely not find (m)any Chinese restaurants executing at that kind of level. This is mostly because there isn't enough demand for these places elsewhere, and also probably because the best chefs can make more money doing it over there. Food is usually served family style (other than at places trying to do a slightly more modern style presentation), and the presentation style (and pacing) tend to be different from how it is in European cuisine.

I think it's fair to say that texture is usually an important component, including textures which many westerners don't prefer (extremely chewy foods, for example). Unusual or exotic ingredients (regardless of how un-PC they may be) are common. Variety is also important - whether banquet style or not, there will usually be lots of different dishes, and usually a number of different cooking techniques. Knife skills, whether it's "fire-exploded" kidney, or simply perfectly uniform dice between all ingredients in a stir-fry. Whether you would find a high-end Chinese meal on a par with a high-end French meal is kind of besides the point, because I would bet that many Chinese would similarly not enjoy many things about the French meal (Fuchsia Dunlop's article about bringing some chefs from Sichuan to various high-end places in the US is worth a read if you haven't seen it already, as well as her article about bringing European cheeses to Chinese chefs).

http://www.gourmet.com/magazine/2000s/2005/08/frenchlaundry

http://www.fuchsiadunlop.com/cheese-for-chinese/

And there are, in fact, Chinese restaurants which have 2 Michelin stars.

Edited by Will (log)
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Thanks, Will, that is some help. But I guess what I was really asking is, if we took the top 10 restaurants in China (putting aside regional differences here), what would distinguish those from the more run-of-the mill restaurants, cuisine wise? I have some grasp what sets aside a western Michelin 2-star restaurant from my local chain, but I don't have a grasp what that might entail in China. For example, on those textures that the Chinese enjoy, are people willing to pay an order of magnitude more to get it perfected?

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Thanks, Will, that is some help. But I guess what I was really asking is, if we took the top 10 restaurants in China (putting aside regional differences here), what would distinguish those from the more run-of-the mill restaurants, cuisine wise? I have some grasp what sets aside a western Michelin 2-star restaurant from my local chain, but I don't have a grasp what that might entail in China. For example, on those textures that the Chinese enjoy, are people willing to pay an order of magnitude more to get it perfected?

I think the quality of the ingredients is one thing, and the skill of the chefs; also the service, though maybe not to the same extent as at a high-end Western place. So in that sense, similar things to what makes a high-end restaurant expensive here. Certain ingredients are rare or expensive (sharks fin, for example), and so ordering them at all tends to be expensive anywhere you go. As far as Cantonese style seafood, a lot of places will also stock live fish. For fish, a lot of Chinese preparations tend to be simple (steamed, maybe with some aromatics on top), and served whole with the head on. I think across the board there's also a broader acceptance of nose to tail eating - of course there are folks here who like to eat pig intestine or cow tongue, but I think there are proportionally more Chinese who will eat these things with gusto. And as far as chickens, pigs, etc., while most Chinese folks I've met aren't too concerned about animal welfare, they do seem interested in eating gamier tasting meat, which tends to mean heritage breeds which have spent time outdoors and moved around.

Of course, China has a lot of new wealth, and there are folks who will pay more just to impress their guests. In some cases, the money being paid may be justified by the quality of the food, and in other cases, maybe not.

I don't claim at all to be an expert, but I think the political and economic situation of the past 60 or so years, as well as the widespread use of flavor enhancers such as MSG may have helped to somewhat diminish Chinese cuisines as a whole. But with the growing wealth of the country, and the growing middle and upper middle classes, I think we'll see more interest in bringing back some older techniques, and an interest in finding safe, naturally grown ingredients, in a country where this is increasingly hard. Better certification and less corruption will probably be important for this. One other Fuchsia Dunlop article which I think is really interesting, and kind of touches on the amount of work it takes to source clean ingredients (even if this guy is exaggerating a little about the lengths he goes to, it's definitely hard to ensure you're getting what you're paying for):

http://www.newyorker.com/reporting/2008/11/24/081124fa_fact_dunlop

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Methinks bwv544 needs to get some life experience.

Getting back to the original premise asserted by the bragging restaurant operator, every cuisine, art form, school of philosophy, national literature, etc. has it's simplistic forms and it's complicated constructs. Outwardly a piece of fish on a bit of sweet rice is easy to make, but it takes literally years to learn how to make good sushi.

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Depends what you are cooking. Much is rapid; not all. One very traditional Chinese dish I make requires around 5 hours simmering.

But I do think the chef quoted is talking nonsense. If you read what he actually says in the article (Joe has slightly misquoted) he contradicts himself. He says that Chinese cuisine is more difficult than French or Japanese because it isn't sauce based then says he makes the sauce from scratch each time. Also, not all French or Japanese cooking is sauce based. He's just puffing up his restaurant.

I absolutely agree on you liuzhou. I think it really depends on what you are cooking. And yes, not all French and Japanese cuisine are sauce based.

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Some good opinions here from some learned people, no Chinese chefs to weigh in? I guess they're too busy learning their craft to learn another language as well which is totally understandable.

I've been living here in Beijing for awhile (longer than I'd care to admit, ha ha). I don't eat at the high-end places often. Sometimes I will go to the mid-range places and the canteen at work is definitely low-end so that's the basis of my comparision. Also, I've been trying to work on my cooking skills for the past couple of years, mostly American standards (comfort food) a little Mexican and Chinese. Ok, that's enough background.

There's a definite difference between low and mid-priced restaurants normally, and it's similar to what you would expect in the west; better ingredients and cooked with more care. Also, the fancier the place the more little restaurant tricks they throw in to elevate the food. I'm particularly thinking about little flavors that are hard to identify and not something you'd probably bother to source and prep if cooking at home.

I believe that there is a high-level of technical proficeny that can be required in some dishes regarding sauce building (melding the oil, spices, etc. at exactly the right time) and time in the wok.

I don't feel it's more difficult than other cuisines but is definitely different. The fact that the languages and dialects of China are so different from 'ours' doesn't help in understanding their cuisines. I haven't been doing it that long and I can cook better than the low-end places, although my repertoire is limited. Some people here on eGullet have been very helpful in that regard. Mid-range here I come! That's what I love about food, always something else to learn. I'd prefer to stay out of the cultural arena but some valid points have been raised I think.

Edited by Big Joe the Pro (log)

Maybe I would have more friends if I didn't eat so much garlic?

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      In order to promote tourism to the city, the local government organised a food festival featuring an event named "10,000 people eat luosifen together." (In Chinese 10,000 often just means "many".)
       
      10,000 people (or a lot of people anyway) gathered at Liuzhou International Convention and Exhibition Centre for the grand Liuzhou luosifen eat-in. Well, they gathered in front of the centre – the actual centre is a bleak, unfinished, deserted shell of a building. I disguised myself as a noodle and joined them. 10,001.
       

       
      The vast majority of the 10,000 were students from the local colleges who patiently and happily lined up to be seated. Hey, mix students and free food – of course they are happy.
       

       
      Each table was equipped with a basket containing bottled water, a thermos flask of hot water, paper bowls, tissues etc. And most importantly, a bunch of Luosifen caps. These read “万人同品螺蛳粉” which means “10,000 people together enjoy luosifen”
       

       
      Yep, that is the soup pot! 15 meters in diameter and holding eleven tons of stock. Full of snails and pork bones, spices etc. Chefs delicately added ingredients to achieve the precise, subtle taste required.
       

       
      Noodles were distributed, soup added and dried ingredients incorporated then there was the sound of 10,000 people slurping.
       

      Surrounding the luosifen eating area were several stalls selling different goodies. Lamb kebabs (羊肉串) seemed most popular, but there was all sorts of food. Here are few of the delights on offer.
       

      Whole roast lamb or roast chicken
       

      Lamb Kebabs
       

      Kebab spice mix – Cumin, chilli powder, salt and MSG
       

      Kebab stall
       

      Crab
       

      Different crab
       

      Sweet sticky rice balls
       

      Things on sticks
       

      Grilled scorpions
       

      Pig bones and bits
       

      Snails
       
      And much more.
       
      To be honest, it wasn’t the best luosifen I’ve ever eaten, but it was wasn’t the worst. Especially when you consider the number they were catering for. But it was a lot of fun. Which was the point.
       
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