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Fat Guy

American/French v. Chinese Restaurant Ingredients

19 posts in this topic

(Edit: This thread is a split of several posts from the thread on Jean-Georges Vongerichten's new Chinese restaurant, "66," in New York City)

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I'll tell you what I'm hearing, and I bet this is true: you're all talking about technique. That's clearly an area in which Jean-Georges Vongerichten is going to have to play catch-up. I think he can get there -- the guy can do anything -- but that's where he's weak. But here's where he is totally going to kick the ass of every Chinese restaurant America has ever seen: he's going to have the best product. The reality is that most Chinese restaurants -- even the very high-end ones -- get crap-ass product when you judge it by the standards of top-tier haute-cuisine restaurants. I mean, when is the last time you had an excellent piece of beef in a Chinese restaurant? Never, if I may be so bold as to answer for you. It just doesn't happen under any normal set of circumstances. But if Jean-Georges Vongerichten is buying beef, he's going to get it from a serious supplier and it's going to be steakhouse-quality. This is where he's going to be the market leader: ingredients. Now let's see if he can get his kitchen up to speed on cooking those ingredients. If he succeeds at that, will anybody be able to touch him? I don't think so; not until the whole Chinese restaurant community moves into a new era in order to catch up.


Steven A. Shaw aka "Fat Guy"
Co-founder, Society for Culinary Arts & Letters, sshaw@egstaff.org
Proud signatory to the eG Ethics code
Director, New Media Studies, International Culinary Center (take my food-blogging course)

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The reality is that most Chinese restaurants -- even the very high-end ones -- get crap-ass product when you judge it by the standards of top-tier haute-cuisine restaurants. I mean, when is the last time you had an excellent piece of beef in a Chinese restaurant? Never, if I may be so bold as to answer for you. It just doesn't happen under any normal set of circumstances.

Interesting point. I'll buy it for beef, although I can't say I make a habit of eating much beef at Chinese restaurants. Do you think this argument extends to seafood as well, or do you think the better Chinese places source their fish and shellfish from closer to the top of the market?


Chief Scientist / Amateur Cook

MadVal, Seattle, WA

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The reality is that most Chinese restaurants -- even the very high-end ones -- get crap-ass product when you judge it by the standards of top-tier haute-cuisine restaurants. I mean, when is the last time you had an excellent piece of beef in a Chinese restaurant?

I'm not sure I agree with you. As far as an uptown neighborhood take out joint you're on the money, but what about an authentic Chinatown Cantonese that regularly uses:

Fresh killed Chickens, ducks, squabs, and quail - almost always top quality.

Live seafood: lobsters, crabs, clams, oysters, striped bass, spot prawns, frog's legs.

Excellent southern fresh pork, young baby pigs, pork belly, meaty ribs etc.

Top quality greens and other Chinese vegetables.

These are items I find regularly in many of the restaurants I frequent. They may not be found in all of them, but they are widely available and can be excellent products.

Don't forget beef is not a part of an authentic Chinese culinary tradition. Aging especially is a concept foreign to Chinese chefs.

I wouldn't argue with you for a second when you say that JG is going to seek out top drawer products, but to be so blanketly dismissive is giving short shrift to some of what is really going on.

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Fresh killed Chickens, ducks, squabs, and quail - almost always top quality.

Live seafood: lobsters, crabs, clams, oysters, striped bass, spot prawns, frog's legs.

Excellent southern fresh pork, young baby pigs, pork belly, meaty ribs etc.

Top quality greens and other Chinese vegetables.

Clusters of choice ingredients here and there, yes. But who is comprehensively sourcing that list of ingredients and presenting them on the menu available to any customer off the street? If you go down a 150-item menu at even the best Cantonese place in Chinatown, what percentage of the dishes are going to be made with ingredients on that level? And are they getting pork of Niman Ranch or Eden Farms quality? Chicken at the D'Artagnan level? Are any Chinatown Chinese restaurants sourcing vegetables from the Union Square Greenmarket in season? I'm asking, because I just don't see it happening and maybe I'm missing it -- I certainly don't have the range of Chinese-dining experience you do. What's the average food cost at the best Chinatown restaurants? Does it really allow for provisioning at the level of a Jean-Georges establishment? You never have to sit in a Jean-Georges restaurant and say, "I better not order the ___ here because it's likely to suck." At least not on the basis of the product.


Steven A. Shaw aka "Fat Guy"
Co-founder, Society for Culinary Arts & Letters, sshaw@egstaff.org
Proud signatory to the eG Ethics code
Director, New Media Studies, International Culinary Center (take my food-blogging course)

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Eatingwitheddie:

Please name some of the Chinatown places you're describing.

The live fish and seafood are pretty standard, but the top-quality fresh-killed poultry is interesting to me.

I have to say that I'm not very excited about your or Ruth's review. I don't want to pay that much extra for what sounds like watered-down Chinese food as an answer to watered-down Thai at Vong. Nor for a 2-star place, when JoJo used to be a wonderful 3-star, and didn't present cuisine that routinely sells for $25-and-under, deliciously, even if there's dispute here, now, about the quality of some of the ingredients.

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Grand Sichuan on Ninth Avenue has freshly killed ("not long time refrigerated") chicken. It's quite good.


Steven A. Shaw aka "Fat Guy"
Co-founder, Society for Culinary Arts & Letters, sshaw@egstaff.org
Proud signatory to the eG Ethics code
Director, New Media Studies, International Culinary Center (take my food-blogging course)

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Fresh killed Chickens, ducks, squabs, and quail - almost always top quality.

Live seafood: lobsters, crabs, clams, oysters, striped bass, spot prawns, frog's legs.

Excellent southern fresh pork, young baby pigs, pork belly, meaty ribs etc.

Top quality greens and other Chinese vegetables.

Clusters of choice ingredients here and there, yes. But who is comprehensively sourcing that list of ingredients and presenting them on the menu available to any customer off the street? If you go down a 150-item menu at even the best Cantonese place in Chinatown, what percentage of the dishes are going to be made with ingredients on that level?

I think that your point is well taken to an extent. I would love to see '66' use outrageously good product and I certainly don't want to be an apologist for the NYC Cantonese status quo, but a few more points make sense as well.

How much better is the Niman ranch pork than the southern Lundy's which is the brand most often found in NYC Chinese butchers? And how critical is it in order to make a really good quality product? I would argue that the quality of a Cantonese roast meat for instance, is going to be more dependent on the recipe/cooking than the pork, assuming that the product you're starting with is good in the first place. Not that the Niman ranch product doesn't have a more porcine old-fashioned flavor, and not that all things being equal it would taste just that much better, but the Lundy's pork is really quite a good product. Not nearly as different as two very different qualities of beef for instance. This is especially true once it's marinated with soy, sugar, hoisin etc.

I have been a big-time supporter of the farmer's market. There's rarely a week when I'm not there shopping for my own consumption. But 1) Artisanally grown isn't necessarily better. I find it necessary to be a discerning consumer at the greenmarket just like I am in my local Korean veg store. 2) There are not too many Chinese food apporpriate vegetables in the greenmarket, and often when there are, they aren't necessarily so good. That being said it's totally true that fresh dug garlic, just picked scallions, etc. make a real difference. But often the Nappa I see is yucky, and the snow peas are often too stringy.

Yes, of course I agree with you that it would be great to have a Chinese kitchen that sources and prepares great sought out products and we would expect JG to do just this.

But don't forget the price points of '66' are relatively modest. Main dishes were $12-32 with most being at the low and mid points. I suspect that many of the artisanal products will be on the too expensive side. And yes I'm certain that JG will be ordering a better grade of protein and veg.

From my single meal there I can tell you that the shrimp they were using may have been fresh or frozen it was hard to tell. They certainly didn't have any off flavors, but their flavor didn't come out and jump at you either. Plus I can guarantee that the shrimp I ate certainly weren't swimming just before dinner. The frog's legs (which I didn't sample) came from a fresh supplier in Florida (JG and I discussed this), but what about all those live bullfrogs available in Chinatown markets, the ones we enjoyed at our Chinese New Years banquet. Wouldn't you think those might be preferable? The point is that these are very sophisticated operators who know that this is a business where one needs to run a good (low) food cost to make money. I'm certain they will use superior products and I'm certain they will have an eye on the bottom line as well, if you get my drift.

I'd like to see them use some of the fresh vegetables that are brought in from Asia. Fresh bamboo shoots, shitake 'flower' mushrooms and waterchestnuts were all in the Chinatown market today.

For sure I'll be keeping an eye out and report more of what I see. There's a substantial learning curve here. Like you, I have a lot of faith in and expectation of Chef V. It'll keep things interesting.

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Are we to assume that produce one buys at Union Square Market is very good or at a very high level?

I have found the produce mediocre for the most part.. some fruits are good... the tomatoes can be excellent.. not always again... and some of the hot peppers are nice.

Most often, if I find enough energy in the NY Summer, I would much rather go to Chinatown where I find the produce to be of a much better quality.

Certainly meats and poultry and beef will be of much better quality or at least consistently so if sourced from a reputable vendor as the names FG suggests, but I am not sold on the Union Square inclusion.

In fact, the farmers market in Brooklyn often has better fruit and veggies than Union Square. And I discovered that after Ed Schoenfeld once made me taste some of the stuff he had purchased there one Saturday. Going to the farmers market is an ongoing chore for me most year round. But especially in the summer.

I go there more for the entire experience than for finding the best produce in town. Also I find it clean and more accessible to our home. Being the neat freak that I am... Chinatown is always somewhat more of a task for me.

PS: A friend on the UES of Manhattan introduced me recently to a produce store that is called Farmers Market or some such curious name.. this store is in the 90s.. and again, some of the things I saw in that store in the winter, were of better quality than what one would find in the Union Square Market in the summer.

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Late risers never get good stuff at the Greenmarket! :laugh:

Seriously, though, I'm using the Union Square Greenmarket as a metaphor. Most New York restaurants don't actually shop there even if they use the produce; they just get deliveries from the same purveyors that show up at the various greenmarkets on a rotating schedule of days. So for example if Daniel Boulud is going to include tomatoes from Tim Stark and Eckerton Hill Farm in Pennsylvania -- which during their short season really are just about the best tomatoes being grown on the planet -- I doubt he sends someone down to Union Square to pick them up. Tim no doubt makes a delivery, and it wouldn't surprise me if Boulud gets the cream of the crop; not that Tim has any bad product, but in the case of some purveyors the restaurant delivery is a lot better than what shows up at the market, which is in turn a lot better than what's left at the market after 9:00am, while what's there after 12:00pm is unrecognizable as the same product. No, the Greenmarket doesn't have the best of everything, and there's plenty of dreck there, but at the same time it does have the best of some things at some times. The best restaurants know what's good when and they grab it. Which is all my long-winded way of saying that I've never heard of any Greenmarket purveyor making deliveries to a Chinese restaurant. There are some good Chinese supply lines, to be sure, and there's a lot of turnover and price advantage -- once you buy in Chinatown it's hard to pay uptown prices for the same or inferior merchandise. But it's a limited universe of product and it caps out below the super-premium level on most ingredients. That, at least, is my experience.

The live versus dead fish debate, we've had elsewhere a couple of times. I should dig up those links.


Steven A. Shaw aka "Fat Guy"
Co-founder, Society for Culinary Arts & Letters, sshaw@egstaff.org
Proud signatory to the eG Ethics code
Director, New Media Studies, International Culinary Center (take my food-blogging course)

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Late risers never get good stuff at the Greenmarket! :laugh:

Seriously, though, I'm using the Union Square Greenmarket as a metaphor. Most New York restaurants don't actually shop there even if they use the produce; they just get deliveries from the same purveyors that show up at the various greenmarkets on a rotating schedule of days. So for example if Daniel Boulud is going to include tomatoes from Tim Starck's Eckerton Hills Farm in Pennsylvania -- which during their short season really are just about the best tomatoes being grown on the planet -- I doubt he sends someone down to Union Square to pick them up. Tim no doubt makes a delivery, and it wouldn't surprise me if Boulud gets the cream of the crop; not that Tim has any bad product, but in the case of some purveyors the restaurant delivery is a lot better than what shows up at the market, which is in turn a lot better than what's left at the market after 9:00am, while what's there after 12:00pm is unrecognizable as the same product. No, the Greenmarket doesn't have the best of everything, and there's plenty of dreck there, but at the same time it does have the best of some things at some times. The best restaurants know what's good when and they grab it. Which is all my long-winded way of saying that I've never heard of any Greenmarket purveyor making deliveries to a Chinese restaurant. There are some good Chinese supply lines, to be sure, and there's a lot of turnover and price advantage -- once you buy in Chinatown it's hard to pay uptown prices for the same or inferior merchandise. But it's a limited universe of product and it caps out below the super-premium level on most ingredients. That, at least, is my experience.

The live versus dead fish debate, we've had elsewhere a couple of times. I should dig up those links.

True, very true. It is all about timing.

Thus, some of us cycle their way to the Greenmarket before going to bed. :biggrin:

I do that a lot in the summer. I am up writing all night.. and at 6, just as most vendors are settling in... and before some have opened up fully, I find myself there and most often, those are the worst days for me... One cannot be too early.. or too late... One has to know the precise or near precise timing for the real goodies.. and there are plenty... and some of the vendors have family and friends helping that are very generous and very caring.. and have been known to be very nice to us eGulleteers. :smile:

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Eatingwitheddie:

Please name some of the Chinatown places you're describing.

The live fish and seafood are pretty standard, but the top-quality fresh-killed poultry is interesting to me.

Most Cantonese restaurants in Chinatown standardly use fresh killed chickens, ducks, squabs, and quail. Virtually all those roasted critters hangin' in the windows qualify as fresh killed.

In all these restaurants when you order duck, squab, and quail what you getting is fresh killed. When you order chicken, you're getting a fresh killed product if it's an 'on the bone' sort of dish. If you order a saute made from boneless chicken, diced, sliced, or shredded, you're probably eating meat that's been fileted from a large roaster which is often a very good tasting product in its own right.

Places to check out the birdies might include:

Tai Hung Lau -- 70? Mott - 1/2 price Peking Duck on Monday - Yum

Pings - 22 Mott

Sweet & Tart - 20 Mott - Crispy Chicken w Garlic

Dim Sum GoGo - Chatham Sq. on E. Bway - Crispy Chicken w. Garlic

Joe's Shanghai - Baby Chicken w Ginger Sauce

Sun Lok Kee - Main St. Flushing - Fried Chicken (formerly @ 13 Mott)

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This discussion among the mods is an interesting one, but is sort of evading what I see is the main issue. Ethnic cuisine to me, is dependent on not having what we will call, high end, or terroir driven ingredients. It's the technique they are selling more then anything. Ed said it himself when he talked about the roast pork preparartion. But one of the things that has set the "great" restaurants apart is their use of ingredients at the high/terroir level. So if J-G relies on that level of ingredient, will it kill the food? It certainly hasn't helped Floyd Cardoz any to have that level of ingredient in his restaurant. So is this possible it might be an instance where "better" isn't better?

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The other big question is whether the clientele he attracts will support authentic-tasting Chinese food in the long run or prefer things that are watered-down fusion, and I have my doubts, given past track record.

Ed: If the pigs, duck, and chickens hung up in the window are fresh-killed, I see your point. That's really a standard thing in many Chinese restaurants the world over. I remember the pork hanging in our favorite restaurant in Kuala Terengganu, Malaysia, back in the 70s.

I guess New York Noodletown is also a "fresh-killed" place, by your description.

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The other big question is whether the clientele he attracts will support authentic-tasting Chinese food in the long run or prefer things that are watered-down fusion, and I have my doubts, given past track record.

Ed: If the pigs, duck, and chickens hung up in the window are fresh-killed, I see your point. That's really a standard thing in many Chinese restaurants the world over. I remember the pork hanging in our favorite restaurant in Kuala Terengganu, Malaysia, back in the 70s.

I guess New York Noodletown is also a "fresh-killed" place, by your description.

You got that right

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Seriously, though, I'm using the Union Square Greenmarket as a metaphor. Most New York restaurants don't actually shop there even if they use the produce; they just get deliveries from the same purveyors that show up at the various greenmarkets on a rotating schedule of days. So for example if Daniel Boulud is going to include tomatoes from Tim Stark and Eckerton Hill Farm in Pennsylvania -- which during their short season really are just about the best tomatoes being grown on the planet -- I doubt he sends someone down to Union Square to pick them up. Tim no doubt makes a delivery, and it wouldn't surprise me if Boulud gets the cream of the crop; not that Tim has any bad product, but in the case of some purveyors the restaurant delivery is a lot better than what shows up at the market, which is in turn a lot better than what's left at the market after 9:00am, while what's there after 12:00pm is unrecognizable as the same product. No, the Greenmarket doesn't have the best of everything, and there's plenty of dreck there, but at the same time it does have the best of some things at some times. The best restaurants know what's good when and they grab it.

Steven, why don't you come down to the market this summer and check it out for yourself. The market is a lot of fun; I like the mornings because it's not as hot and crowded.

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Toby, I visit the Union Square Greenmarket on occasion -- maybe four or five times a summer -- and I've had Tim's tomatoes from the stand, at Daniel, at Gramercy, and maybe at some other restaurants. They're great. I just happen to get my summer produce supply mainly from the Yorkville CSA so I'm not much in the farmer's market loop.

It occurs to me, though -- a lot of this material should be migrated to the Chinese Cuisine forum. I'm going to play with the thread a little and start a new one on this ingredients point later. Let's go back to 66 here and I'll set up the other thread today.


Steven A. Shaw aka "Fat Guy"
Co-founder, Society for Culinary Arts & Letters, sshaw@egstaff.org
Proud signatory to the eG Ethics code
Director, New Media Studies, International Culinary Center (take my food-blogging course)

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This is becoming a dizzying debate. Eddie is right on the mark when he lauds the quality of the ingredients used in the better Chinese restaurants. Anyone who knows me also knows that I am ready to go uptown, downtown, east side and west side, plus Queens and Brooklyn, sometimes on a single day, to find the best quality ingredients. I haunt the Union Square greenmarket in the summer and fall but I still do more than half my shopping at Chinese markets. In my view there is no better poultry or foie gras than at Bo Bo's (Williamsburg). I am always able to find fresh fruit and vegetables (including young garlic when in season) in Chinatown. Many Chinese markets sell live fish and the fish served, for example, at Ping's on Mott Street is always of superb quality. Jean-Georges may be using Niman ranch pork but the meat was dried out so perhaps the technique is the most important factor!

I think what I would have liked to see at 66 was something more along the lines of what Ming Tsai does in Wellesley, Ma. Ming Tsai approaches western food from a Chinese angle. If Jean-Georges were to do the same in reverse I think his food would be far more interesting.


Ruth Friedman

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This discussion among the mods is an interesting one, but is sort of evading what I see is the main issue. Ethnic cuisine to me, is dependent on not having what we will call, high end, or terroir driven ingredients. It's the technique they are selling more then anything. Ed said it himself when he talked about the roast pork preparartion. But one of the things that has set the "great" restaurants apart is their use of ingredients at the high/terroir level. So if J-G relies on that level of ingredient, will it kill the food? It certainly hasn't helped Floyd Cardoz any to have that level of ingredient in his restaurant. So is this possible it might be an instance where "better" isn't better?

I firmly believe if you start with better ingredients you get better products. Simple as that. The last word as far as I'm concerned.

That being said, I think you must also say that whatever you're cooking also needs to be properly prepared. It may be that ethnic cuisines tend to make the most out of the least, but it's the mark of a really fine chef to recognize inherent quality and find a way to let that shine through. To my mind sometimes knowing when to prepare something simply and bring out it's essence is a most high-minded and delicious approach, and something that I always enjoy and am delighted by.

From my experience, top-quality ingredients can be found in all sorts of venues. Chino Farms in Sancho Santa Fe, Calif. may have the most unique, delicious and fantastic fruits and vegetables I've ever seen (they supply Chez Panisse 600 miles north), but those white donut peaches that I bought along an Amman roadside were outrageous, as are the fresh shitake 'flower' variety mushrooms from China that are $3/lb retail in Chinatown today. They kick the sh-- out of the $45/lb. fresh porcini that Dean & Deluca was selling on Thursday. Not that I would have thrown the porcini out of bed.

Bottom line is that I agree ethnic cuisine may not be driven by 'terroir' quality ingredients but it certainly makes old-fashioned common sense that any chef who integrates great ingredients into their cuisine, no matter their origin, will be taking a logical and appropriate approach to maximizing food quality and experience. 'Terroir' type foods are simply one of the many arenas where interested cooks can find great quality product. You know those disgusting partially rotted gingko nuts that fall to the ground and stink up my block every year can be pretty terrific if you know what to do with them. You just have to speak with the little old Asian women who come each Fall with brooms to harvest the nuts clinging to the lower branches. By the way, they market them under the Park Slope Estates brand! Not!


Edited by eatingwitheddie (log)

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All agreed Eddie. But I think the underlying question goes beyond mere quality to the following. I can go to Le Dome in Paris and have a Sole Meuniere where both the fish, as well as the butter and salt used in the dish, come from very specific locations in Normandy and Brittany. And the entire success of this particular preparation is dependant on the unique qualitites of those ingredients. We can extrapolate this example out and see that much of French cuisine is based on this concept. Now Chinese cuisine, from my vantage point, seems to lack this level of specificity in terms of ingredients. Now is this something that has just been missed by Chinese restauranteurs, or is Chinese technique really paramount to the equation in a way where this type of emphasis would end up detracting from the result? Because when you say that J-G is going to use Niman Ranch pork, well that might be an improvement that could detract from the end result because as Ruth said (or maybe it was you,) it's the technique people are buying and the best pork is the one that best compliments the technique. Which would be backwards from my Le Dome example where the chef is trying to apply a technique that tries to express the unique qualities of the ingredients. Does this make sense?

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      Here is a sample page.
       

       
      Unlike in most western cookbooks, recipes are not listed by main ingredient. They are set out in six vaguely defined chapters. So, if you are looking for a duck dish, for example, you'll have to go through the whole contents list. I've never seen an index in any Chinese book on any subject. 
       
      In order to demonstrate the breadth of recipes in the book and perhaps to be of interest to forum members who want to know what is in a popular Chinese recipe book, I have sort of translated the contents list - 187 recipes.
       
      This is always problematic. Very often Chinese dishes are very cryptically named. This list contains some literal translations. For some dishes I have totally ignored the given name and given a brief description instead. Any Chinese in the list refers to place names. Some dishes I have left with literal translations of their cryptic names, just for amusement value.
       
      I am not happy with some of the "translations" and will work on improving them. I am also certain there are errors in there, too.
       
      Back in 2008, the Chinese government issued a list of official dish translations for the Beijing Olympics. It is full of weird translations and total errors, too. Interestingly, few of the dishes in the book are on that list.
       
      Anyway, for what it is worth, the book's content list is here (Word document) or here (PDF file). If anyone is interested in more information on a dish, please ask. For copyright reasons, I can't reproduce the dishes here exactly, but can certainly describe them.
       
      Another problem is that many Chinese recipes are vague in the extreme. I'm not one to slavishly follow instructions, but saying "enough meat" in a recipe is not very helpful. This book gives details (by weight) for the main ingredients, but goes vague on most  condiments.
       
      For example, the first dish (Dezhou Braised Chicken), calls for precisely 1500g of chicken, 50g dried mushroom, 20g sliced ginger and 10g of scallion. It then lists cassia bark, caoguo, unspecified herbs, Chinese cardamom, fennel seed, star anise, salt, sodium bicarbonate and cooking wine without suggesting any quantities. It then goes back to ask for 35g of maltose syrup, a soupçon of cloves, and "the correct quantity" of soy sauce.
       
      Cooking instructions can be equally vague. "Cook until cooked".
       
      A Bite of China - 舌尖上的中国- ISBN 978-7-5113-3940-9 
    • By liuzhou
      Introduction
       
      I spent the weekend in western Hunan reuniting with 36 people I worked with for two years starting 20 years ago. All but one, 龙丽花 lóng lì huā, I hadn’t seen for 17 years.  I last saw her ten years ago. One other, 舒晶 shū jīng, with whom I have kept constant contact but not actually seen, helped me organise the visit in secret. No one else knew I was coming. In fact, I had told Long Lihua that I couldn’t come. Most didn’t even know I am still in China.
       
      I arrived at my local station around 00:20 in order to catch the 1:00 train northwards travelling overnight to Hunan, with an advertised arrival time of 9:15 am. Shu Jing was to meet me.
       
      When I arrived at the station, armed with my sleeper ticket, I found that the train was running 5 hours late! Station staff advised that I change my ticket for a different train, which I did. The problem was that there were no sleeper tickets available on the new train. All I could get was a seat. I had no choice, really. They refunded the difference and gave me my new ticket.
       
       

       

       
      The second train was only 1½ hours late, then I had a miserable night, unable to sleep and very uncomfortable. Somehow the train managed to make up for the late start and we arrived on time. I was met as planned and we hopped into a taxi to the hotel where I was to stay and where the reunion was to take place.
       
      They had set up a reception desk in the hotel lobby and around half of the people I had come to see were there. When I walked in there was this moment of confusion, stunned silence, then the friend I had lied to about not coming ran towards me and threw herself into my arms with tears running down her face and across her smile. It was the best welcome I’ve ever had. Then the others also welcomed me less physically, but no less warmly. They were around 20 years old when I met them; now they are verging on, or already are, 40, though few of them look it. Long Lihua is the one on the far right.
       

       
      Throughout the morning people arrived in trickles as their trains or buses got in from all over China. One woman had come all the way from the USA. We sat around chatting, reminiscing and eating water melon until finally it was time for lunch.
       

       
      Lunch we had in the hotel dining room. By that time, the group had swelled to enough to require three banqueting tables.
       
      Western Hunan, known as 湘西 xiāng xī, where I was and where I lived for two years - twenty years ago, is a wild mountainous area full of rivers. It was one of the last areas “liberated” by Mao’s communists and was largely lawless until relatively recently. It has spectacular scenery.
       
      Hunan is known for its spicy food, but Xiangxi is the hottest. I always know when I am back in Hunan. I just look out the train window and see every flat surface covered in chilis drying in the sun. Station platforms, school playgrounds, the main road from the village to the nearest town are all strewn with chillis.
       

       

       
      The people there consider Sichuan to be full of chilli wimps. I love it. When I left Hunan I missed the food so much. So I was looking forward to this. It did not disappoint.
       
      So Saturday lunch in next post.
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