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Q&A -- Chinese Cooking: Southern home-style dishes


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All those dishes look fantastic, especially the clam dish.

The steamer dish looks great -- but what if you don't have a bamboo steamer? Can you use western style steaming methods as well? What's a good source for bamboo steamers if you don't have access to a Chinatown near you?

Jason Perlow

Co-Founder, The Society for Culinary Arts & Letters

offthebroiler.com - Food Blog | View my food photos on Instagram

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All those dishes look fantastic, especially the clam dish.

The steamer dish looks great -- but what if you don't have a bamboo steamer? Can you use western style steaming methods as well? What's a good source for bamboo steamers if you don't have access to a Chinatown near you?

Yes, the clam dish is the most photogenic. In general the homestyle stuff doesn't look very pretty on the plate, but it does taste good!

It's fine to use the steamer insert in a pasta pot set, or pressure cooker, like I mentioned. I hope lack of a bamboo steamer doesn't prevent anyone from trying a steamed recipe or two. I've seen bamboo steamers in high end kitchen shops under the Joyce Chen line, or you could buy one online at places like Sur La Table or Ethnic Grocer. Just make sure to buy one that fits your biggest pot, larger sizes make it easier to steam things on plates. Even smaller places without large Chinatowns should have an Asian grocery, and bamboo steamers are a pretty common item.

regards,

trillium

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Trillium, thanks for the great class. This is a cuisine that I was entirely unfamiliar with. I'm eager to try a couple of your dishes.

I'm trying to convince my wife that I need new toys -- what's your advice on a rice cooker? Is it necessary? Does a cooker to a better or more consistent job? What brands/models do you recommend?

Thanks!

Chad

Chad Ward

An Edge in the Kitchen

William Morrow Cookbooks

www.chadwrites.com

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Trillium, thanks for the great class. This is a cuisine that I was entirely unfamiliar with. I'm eager to try a couple of your dishes.

I'm trying to convince my wife that I need new toys -- what's your advice on a rice cooker? Is it necessary? Does a cooker to a better or more consistent job? What brands/models do you recommend?

Thanks!

Chad

Hi Chad,

I'm glad you enjoyed the class.

The question about whether or not rice cookers "are worth it" is a relative question and old Usenet threads used to go on for days discussing the pros and cons, so excuse the length of my reply. In short, it's not at all necessary but it's very convenient.

I'll try to list why we like them.

It frees up a burner on the stove, which we frequently need, when both of us are trying to get our dishes done at the same time.

It takes the guess work out of cooking rice, you dump in your rice, you fill the water to the line inside the rice cooker (or higher or lesser depending on the rice and your preference), you push the button and come back a half hour later to perfect rice. Since we get home rather late, but still like to cook dinner, the "no brainer" part is appealing. During grad school days, we throw in stuff to cook along with the rice and have a really easy, tasty meal.

The cooker will not do a better job than the stove. Some people find the texture of rice cooked on the stove is slightly better.

Will it be more consistent? It depends on how well you can cook your rice! I was given the rice cooker we have now as a parting gift in college from one of my best friends, who would come over to eat when I made Thai red curry (college style...all from cans, except the chicken, and frozen green beans). She's ethnic Chinese and told me when she gave it to me "this is for all those dinners you cooked for us, the curry was great but you cook rice like a white person". Sometimes it would be soggy and waterlogged; sometimes it would be too crunchy. So back then, it did do a more consistent job than I could. This was about 10 years ago, now I'm much better at doing it on the stove, but I still prefer the ease of the rice cooker. For the other cook in the house, who grew up eating rice 2 or 3 times a day, the rice cooker didn't really do a more consistent job but he likes using it for convenience as well.

On brands, the two best makers are probably National and Zojirushi. That being said, the one we've been using at least 4 times a week for the last 10 years is the Aroma brand. Models are a trickier question; it depends on how much of a gadget freak you are. A basic model would be one that has a "cook" and "warm" function. The warm function keeps your rice warm until you turn it off. In some houses, the rice cooker is on all the time. You can go all the way up to the super fancy Zojirushi fuzzy neuro logic models that are supposed to have the ability to figure out what sort of rice you're cooking and change the cooking and steaming times. I think you can program those as well. The gadget freak in the house has been eyeing them for years, but I'm sentimentally attached to my old, beat-up little rice cooker, so we haven't replaced it. We advised my mum to buy the Zoji basic 10-cup model with the stay warm feature and she's been very happy with it for years. Don't buy the smallest one, if you buy one, buy at least the 6 or 10 cup model, they can handle smaller amounts, but you'll probably end up using the larger amounts more often. You can find online deals nearly anywhere (30 - 35% below list), but most Asian grocery stores will have matching prices.

regards,

trillium

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I noticed that the recipe for Claypot casserole of chicken and salted fish includes MSG as an optional ingredient. What's the point of adding MSG?

I'm not trying to elicit a heated debate on MSG -- I'm just curious what it's supposed to add to the dish.

I knew someone would ask! MSG gets put into claypot dishes very often, because it's believed that it heightens the "meaty" and rich taste of the dish. Claypot dishes are supposed to be very mellow and rich tasting, not exciting as much as comforting. It really is an optional ingredient, especially since the dried fish has tons of free glutamate in it anyway. In talking about sapo dishes with friend's mums, one woman insist you can't make claypot dishes without it, but another who thinks MSG is a crutch for lazy cooks. I figured I'd let the reader decide.

regards,

trillium

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When steaming with a bamboo steamer and a wok, is it necessary to have the water come all the way up to the bottom of the steamer?  I have a 14 inch wok and 12 inch bamboo steamer, so that is a lot of water...

No, certainly not! You actually don't want the water to come all the way up to the bottom of the steamer. Usually for quick dishes, 2 - 3 inches is enough. You can always replenish it with more boiling water if it starts to run low. Just remove the steamer with hotpads (don't uncover it), set it aside, and add a little more boiling water if you think you're going to run out.

regards,

trillium

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The question about whether or not rice cookers "are worth it" is a relative question and old Usenet threads used to go on for days discussing the pros and cons, so excuse the length of my reply.  In short, it's not at all necessary but it's very convenient. 

Ah, good old rec.food.equipment! :biggrin:

Great class, Trillium! I have to try some of these now.

As an OT asside, I've "e-known" you for years, and always assumed "Trillium" was your handle. :d'oh!:

--

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The question about whether or not rice cookers "are worth it" is a relative question and old Usenet threads used to go on for days discussing the pros and cons, so excuse the length of my reply.  In short, it's not at all necessary but it's very convenient. 

Ah, good old rec.food.equipment! :biggrin:

And don't forget rec.food.cooking and alt.food.asian...the length of those threads always astounded me. You'd never see such heated discussion about electric mixers vs. handbeaters like you would about rice cookers.

As an OT asside, I've "e-known" you for years, and always assumed "Trillium" was your handle.  :d'oh!:

Don't worry, you're in the majority, everyone is always surprised. But you get bonus points for 1) knowing it wasn't a chemical, 2) knowing it wasn't a character in a Douglas Adam's novel and 3) that because it was a flower, it was likely I was female.

regards,

trillium

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re: the use of salted fish

Is it traditional to rinse the salted fish before using it, or is it done specifically for claypot-type dishes, or was it a personal preference? We've always used it straight, though we always fry it (nothing better than freshly cooked rice and shredded salted fish, except maybe freshly cooked rice, Chinese sausage, and one egg sunny-side up :biggrin: ).

Great class, and great pictures, too!

(Headbutts to the cat--hope she's doing well :smile: )

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re:  the use of salted fish

Is it traditional to rinse the salted fish before using it, or is it done specifically for claypot-type dishes, or was it a personal preference?  We've always used it straight, though we always fry it (nothing better than freshly cooked rice and shredded salted fish, except maybe freshly cooked rice, Chinese sausage, and one egg sunny-side up  :biggrin: ). 

Great class, and great pictures, too! 

(Headbutts to the cat--hope she's doing well  :smile: )

Hi rona

Hmmm. Traditional. I think it varies from house to house, and even inside of a house. I always rinse anything dried, to get off dust, grit, whatever...you know...processing cooties. In this case I also rinse the fish to remove a little bit of the salt, the same as when I'm using salted choys and turnips and preserved black beans. Sometimes the salt is even crusted onto the outside of the preserved thing, and I don't think it adds anything to the dish. I want to be able to add other salty ingredients that contribute flavors besides salt. I also think a little bit of water on the salted ingredient before you add it to the dish helps spread the flavor and also helps the frying, so the ingredient doesn't stick and burn at such hot temps. The other cook in the house doesn't bother, unless I bug him to do it while we're cooking. I hear you on the rice and fried salted fish bit...good stuff.

regards,

trillium

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Thanks for a great lesson! I just finished cooking and eating the first three dishes and thought I'd offer a bravo for your work.

Some questions about the rice recipe. Do you believe one should rinse the rice? Also, I was wondering if you had any visual or auditory clues we should use when the rice cooks, because, for me, cooking the rice on the "lowest your burner can go" did not work at all. I have what I guess is a high-end non-commercial stove and it has a "precise simmer" burner that can maintain really low temperatures. When I cooked the rice like you directed there was barely even a wisp of steam, so it clearly wasn't right. I upped it to what for that burner, on that stove, is around medium and then followed your recipe exactly. This turned out I think the best pot of rice of my life. So I'm very pleased to have finally perfected a technique for my unique circumstances, but I'm wandering, as far as general rules go, what should we be looking for? I always thought the rice should steam rather aggressively, or is that wrong?

The stir fried greens were a relevation even though my garlic blackened instantly and I set off the smoke alarm. That extra heat and lack of stirring really does take it to another dimension. The quick cooked, simply seasoned green was the one thing about Chinese cookery I thought I had down, so thanks for opening my eyes.

I loved the steamed beef dish and can see that, with all the untold variations possible (authentic or not) it will become a standard for me (I can already taste the Thai version.) But one question: must I like dried black mushrooms? I've given them a shot, I really have. And I love mushrooms in general. There's something I just can't stomach about that type though. Would I be able to freely substitute, say, fresh cremini? Would they give up too much moisture?

Lastly, I thought I'd share my small equipment breakthrough of this evening - the lobster pot is perfect for steaming. Surprise, right? Okay, maybe not. But what was new to me was the idea of filling the pot with bamboo steamers. I realize that most people don't have or need a lobster pot (I'm talking about the speckle-ware type with two compartments and a spigot), but if you do you'll be happy to know you now have another use for that pot taking up half the guest room. It's great because it will easily hold a stack of the wide steamers shown in your photos.

I'm on to the claypot and black beans recipes. One question re: black beans. What are your feelings on chopping versus leaving whole?

"Tis no man. Tis a remorseless eating machine."

-Captain McAllister of The Frying Dutchmen, on Homer Simpson

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Hmmm.  Traditional.  I think it varies from house to house, and even inside of a house.  I always rinse anything dried, to get off dust, grit, whatever...you know...processing cooties.

Thanks. My mother said she rinses dried salted fish to get off the cooties, too! But we usually use the salted fish that comes in a jar (oil-packed). Another question--how do you feel about the dried stuff vs the oil packed stuff? Do you think there's a difference in quality?

And another question I thought of...Do any of the Chinese ethnic groups steam their rice as Thais do? (You know, water and rice in bowl, steamed in bamboo or other steamer.) Kasma Loha-Unchit says this results in much better rice than the boiling over stove top or rice cooker method. I've never done it, since I'm lazy (when you grow up with a rice cooker, it's difficult to use anything else :smile: ) but I'd be curious to know if other cultures do it, as well, and if there is really a difference in texture between the boiling and steaming methods (guess I'd have to try it myself for the latter question).

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Thanks for a great lesson!  I just finished cooking and eating the first three dishes and thought I'd offer a bravo for your work.

Thanks... it's great to hear from someone who has tried them.

Some questions about the rice recipe. Do you believe one should rinse the rice? Also, I was wondering if you had any visual or auditory clues we should use when the rice cooks, because, for me, cooking the rice on the "lowest your burner can go" did not work at all. I have what I guess is a high-end non-commercial stove and it has a "precise simmer" burner that can maintain really low temperatures. When I cooked the rice like you directed there was barely even a wisp of steam, so it clearly wasn't right. I upped it to what for that burner, on that stove, is around medium and then followed your recipe exactly. This turned out I think the best pot of rice of my life.  So I'm very pleased to have finally perfected a technique for my unique circumstances, but I'm wandering, as far as general rules go, what should we be looking for? I always thought the rice should steam rather aggressively, or is that wrong?

First the rice rinsing question. For most processed rice these days, they don't require rinsing at all, but whether you do it or not depends on personal preference. To tell you the truth, I've rinsed and not rinsed and I'm hard pressed to discern a difference in the rice we eat (jasmine from Thailand, short grain rice might be a different story). My partner, who is ethnic Chinese, grew up not rinsing rice, his father had strong opinions about not rinsing it, and he thought it made the rice less nutritious. Since I can't tell a difference and not rinsing it removes an extra step, I don't bother, with one exception. When we're doing a more Peranakan/Straits Chinese rice dish where you fry the rice before adding liquid (coconut rice or chicken rice), I always rinse it because you need that extra bit of starch rinsed off so you can fry the rice without it sticking immediately when it hits the pan.

On the heat question. I gave an initial method that works on my stove, which is the cheapest one our landlord could buy, but it's not too surprising that it didn't work so well on a higher quality stove. The initial method was just a starting point, when it comes to rice, you should tweak it to your preference (and stove). I have to cook rice in a Le Creuset on the smallest burner, turned down as low as it can go, and use a diffuser, or the bottom of my rice will burn before the top is cooked. It sounds like your stove has much more precise controls, so go with what works...best pot of rice of your life sounds like a pretty good pot of rice! For the steam, you shouldn't see a ton of steam escaping from the pot, you want the liquid in your pot to be at a very low simmer, some small bubbles on the surface, but not a boil.

The stir fried greens were a relevation even though my garlic blackened instantly and I set off the smoke alarm.  That extra heat and lack of stirring really does take it to another dimension.  The quick cooked, simply seasoned green was the one thing about Chinese cookery I thought I had down, so thanks for opening my eyes.

Since your stove is more powerful, you probably can cut back a little on the preheat time for your pan...sorry about the smoke alarm! The greens taste the nicest to us when the garlic is mostly dark brown with only a few blackened spots, mostly because the garlic has enough time to flavor all of the oil before you add the greens.

I loved the steamed beef dish and can see that, with all the untold variations possible (authentic or not) it will become a standard for me (I can already taste the Thai version.)  But one question: must I like dried black mushrooms? I've given them a shot,  I really have. And I love mushrooms in general. There's something I just can't stomach about that type though. Would I be able to freely substitute, say, fresh cremini? Would they give up too much moisture? 

Of course you don't have to like black mushrooms! Don't eat something you hate. Have you tried the better grade varieties and not just the cheapie ones? If you have, and you still don't like them, leave them out entirely or substitute away. The texture of a steamed fresh mushroom will be very different, but if you don't have a problem with it, go right ahead. They'll give out more moisture, but you can easily accommodate them by adding a little more thickener (potato or cornstarch). You might like the mushrooms better fresh, as shitake, or if you live in an area that has fresh straw mushrooms you could try those too.

I'm on to the claypot and black beans recipes. One question re: black beans. What are your feelings on chopping versus leaving whole?

That's a matter of personal preference and even mood. For clams, I really love how the whole black beans look stuck on the shells, and I enjoy getting a variety of bites that taste more of clams or more of black beans. When we make bitter melon and beef chow fun, I smash the beans along with the garlic because I like them more evenly distributed throughout the dish. I hardly ever chop them, I'm a lazy cook and they make a huge mess on the cutting board. I usually just use a fork to smash them in the container that I've rinsed them in.

I look forward to hearing your feedback on the next dishes...happy cooking...

regards,

trillium

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Thanks.  My mother said she rinses dried salted fish to get off the cooties, too!  But we usually use the salted fish that comes in a jar (oil-packed).  Another question--how do you feel about the dried stuff vs the oil packed stuff?  Do you think there's a difference in quality? 

None that I can tell, but they're two very different beasts. The oil-packed salted fish is usually mackerel, right? I love that stuff too, but it has a different taste. More fishy, less aged, and more salty is the only way I can think to describe it. The dried fish we use is red snapper, which is a milder fish to start with, I think. You could totally use them interchangably, but you'll have a slightly different dish.

And another question I thought of...Do any of the Chinese ethnic groups steam their rice as Thais do?  (You know, water and rice in bowl, steamed in bamboo or other steamer.)  Kasma Loha-Unchit says this results in much better rice than the boiling over stove top or rice cooker method.  I've never done it, since I'm lazy (when you grow up with a rice cooker, it's difficult to use anything else  :smile: ) but I'd be curious to know if other cultures do it, as well, and if there is really a difference in texture between the boiling and steaming methods (guess I'd have to try it myself for the latter question).

I haven't run into any but that doesn't mean it doesn't happen...for not plain rice the Nonyas usually fry and season the rice (like lemak fan or gai fan) and then boil it. Nonya cooking is known to be some of the most time consuming, but I've never seen the rice steamed (except for "sweet" rice). I'm curious to know how different it is steamed too. I've read what Kasma says but I've been to lazy to try it out myself, the lure of the rice cooker is too strong most nights.

regards,

trillium

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None that I can tell, but they're two very different beasts.  The oil-packed salted fish is usually mackerel, right?  I love that stuff too, but it has a different taste.  More fishy, less aged, and more salty is the only way I can think to describe it.  The dried fish we use is red snapper, which is a milder fish to start with, I think.  You could totally use them interchangably, but you'll have a slightly different dish.

The one we used most often was yellow grouper (or was it yellow croaker?) but it has become very difficult, if not impossible, to find. Most of the jarred ones on the market today are mackerel, as you said, but sometimes we can find others. Today I found red snapper in a jar but did not buy any. The last dried fish we bought was in Thailand, so I don't know which fish it was. We brought some back but can't find it now. Oops!

One of these days I'll try steaming rice, too. I can't see it happening anytime before our rice cooker dies, though. Rice cooker=good :smile: .

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  • 2 months later...

Question 1: Are you in Sac or SF? (referring to a previous post on buying orange bitters, I believe... Conti Bros. vs. Tower Market?)

I happen to live in both places, on a rotating basis.

Q2: Do you know any good sites or references on asian seafood ID, especially including flavors, chinese names, general usage? (i.e. what it is similar to, etc.) Pictures seem easy enough to come by, but not English-Chinese translations and salted fish ID and such. You find both names in your typical asian market, but never on the same fishes, it seems.

Beef, bitter melon, and black beans is really good, but funny, I just kinda made it up (fridge-raiding style) and never had it with noodles (only rice), care to give your recipe for that?

Also, the steamed rice is the *ONLY* way I make it anymore. straight off Kasma's website. Trust me. It rocks. Even though I originally did it just to get away from the same bottom-burning problem you described. Also second the Golden Phoenix recommendation.

Anyway, great lesson.

--Paul

Jus' a po' ign'ant white boy :raz:

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Question 1: Are you in Sac or SF? (referring to a previous post on buying orange bitters, I believe... Conti Bros. vs. Tower Market?)

I happen to live in both places, on a rotating basis.

Neither actually. Right now Portland, OR is home base, but I visit friends and family in SF and Sacto often.

Q2: Do you know any good sites or references on asian seafood ID, especially including flavors, chinese names, general usage? (i.e. what it is similar to, etc.) Pictures seem easy enough to come by, but not English-Chinese translations and salted fish ID and such. You find both names in your typical asian market, but never on the same fishes, it seems.

I don't, sorry. The best guides I've found have been for vegetables, not seafoods.

Beef, bitter melon, and black beans is really good, but funny, I just kinda made it up (fridge-raiding style) and never had it with noodles (only rice), care to give your recipe for that?

Beef, bitter melon and black beans are a classic combination. I think it's more much more common to eat it on rice than with noodles. You can get beef and black bean chow fun all over the place in SF, but you have to ask for fu gwa (bitter melon) to be added. You'll only get it about 50% of the time. I don't have an exact recipe for it like I did for the dishes in the lesson, but I can tell you briefly what we do and if you have specific questions I'd be happy to answer them.

The beef (usually flank or tip sirloin roasts I've cut along the muscle lengths and then thinly cut along the grain) is marinated in dark and light soya, shaoxing wine and a little potato flour. The bitter melon is cut in half, the seeds and pith scooped out and cut crosswise (a little thicker than the beef) and very briefly blanched in boiling water. You could skip this step if you're a diehard bitter melon fan, the blanching removes some of the bitterness. I think we use about 1 large or 2 small melons per lb of beef. We basically want equal weight from each thing, but that's personal preference. Prepare the black beans as mentioned in the lesson for the clams, except I like to smash them up with garlic and a little minced ginger instead of leaving them whole. I think for 1 lb each of melon and beef I would use around 3 - 4 tablespoons of dau see (black beans) because it will end up on 1 lb of rice noodle, but again, it's to taste. I like to have two pans going to cook the noodles and the stuff that goes into them in seperate pans at the same time. My stove sucks and I don't have enough fire power to do it all together and get that nice smoky wok hay going. Frying fresh rice noodles at home can be a little tricky, there are good tips in this thread. The noodles hit a really hot cast iron or steel pan/wok with some hot peanut oil, get stired around a little and some dark and light soya added. The bean/garlic/ginger gets stir-fried in another pan (very hot, again) and then the beef is added, tossed around, and little more shaoxing splashed into the pan, more tossing, and the the bitter melon. This happens really quickly, and before you start the noodles, your aim is to have the noodles slightly fried and softened at the time the beef is done, then you toss 'em together in one of your hot pans to let the noodles finish cooking.

Also, the steamed rice is the *ONLY* way I make it anymore. straight off Kasma's website. Trust me. It rocks. Even though I originally did it just to get away from the same bottom-burning problem you described. Also second the Golden Phoenix recommendation.

Hmmm. I guess I better try this one of these days.

regards,

trillium

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  • 3 months later...
  • 2 weeks later...
Hi Trillium - That was a nice class. I am thinking of doing the winter melon soup and I have a question about the melon. Is this normally available all year round or - just in winter? Thanks for the wonderful class.

Sorry for the late reply, I don't check for questions that often anymore.

Winter melons get called winter melons for the same reason winter squash do in a western setting. It's not so much that they're only available in winter, but more that you harvest them in late summer/early fall and can store them all winter long. Whether or not you can find it all year kind of depends on your location, but I think they disappear most places in the height of summer. You can easily use another gwa (melon/squash) in place of dong gwa or winter melon. Loofas, smooth or angled (sui or see gwa), or fuzzy melons (cheet or mao gwa) make fine substitutes. Bitter melon (fu gwa) doesn't, unless you are accustomed to eating really bitter stuff. Avoid a winter melon that is mushy or yellow in the rind, and look for the smallest, furriest fuzzy melons if you go that route. You can peel the skin off, or just scrap off the fuzz. For angled loofa, I just scrape off the sharp ridges but leave on the rest of the skin.

regards,

trillium

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  • 2 weeks later...

Hi,

Loved the course. I do have two questions regarding the bamboo steamers:

- How do you clean them? I've been wanting the 3-level bamboo monsters from Chinatown for awhile, but have always worried about getting them squeaky clean.

- I have a huge wok (14" I think). Am I right in assuming that I won't have to get a cover for it, if I leave the cover for my bamboo steamer on?

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you can boil the steamers or run boiling water over them, then air dry them.

don't worry about food bits as you're sterilising them with the boiling water.

"Coffee and cigarettes... the breakfast of champions!"

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you can boil the steamers or run boiling water over them, then air dry them.

don't worry about food bits as you're sterilising them with the boiling water.

Thanks for the reply. I guess it's just another hangup that I'll have to get over (it took me over a year to get myself to trust the cleanup process :smile:)

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      I'm going to start with some of the simpler issues - later it may get ugly!

      1. Chinese people eat everything with chopsticks.
       

       
      No, they don't! Most things, yes, but spoons are also commonly used in informal situations. I recently had lunch in a university canteen. It has various stations selling different items. I found myself by the fried rice stall and ordered some Yangzhou fried rice. Nearly all the students and faculty sitting near me were having the same.

      I was using my chopsticks to shovel the food in, when I noticed that I was the only one doing so. Everyone else was using spoons. On investigating, I was told that the lunch break is so short at only two-and-a-half hours that everyone wants to eat quickly and rush off for their compulsory siesta.
       
      I've also seen claims that people eat soup with chopsticks. Nonsense. While people use chopsticks to pick out choice morsels from the broth, they will drink the soup by lifting their bowl to their mouths like cups. They ain't dumb!

      Anyway, with that very mild beginning, I'll head off and think which on my long list will be next.

      Thanks to @KennethT for advice re American-Chinese food.
       
       
    • By liuzhou
      Your wish is my command! Sometimes! A lot of what I say here, I will have already said in scattered topics across the forums, but I guess it's useful to bring it all into one place.
       
      First, I want to say that China uses literally thousands of herbs. But not in their food. Most herbs are used medicinally in Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), often in their dried form. Some of the more common are sold in supermarkets, but more often in pharmacies or small specialist stores. I also often see people on the streets with baskets of unidentified greenery for sale - but not for dinner. The same applies to spices, although more spices are used in a culinary setting than are herbs.
       
      I’ll start with Sichuan peppercorns as these are what prompted @Tropicalsenior to suggest the topic.
       
      1. Sichuan Peppercorns
       
      Sichuan peppercorns are neither pepper nor, thank the heavens, c@rn! Nor are they necessarily from Sichuan. They are actually the seed husks of one of a number of small trees in the genus Zanthoxylum and are related to the citrus family.  The ‘Sichuan’ name in English comes from their copious use in Sichuan cuisine, but not necessarily where they are grown. Known in Chinese as 花椒 (huājiāo), literally ‘flower pepper’’, they are also known as ‘prickly ash’ and, less often, as ‘rattan pepper’.
      The most common variety used in China is 红花椒 (hóng huā jiāo) or red Sichuan peppercorn, but often these are from provinces other than Sichuan, especially Gansu, Sichuan’s northern neighbour. They are sold all over China and, ground, are a key ingredient in “five-spice powder” mixes. They are essential in many Sichuan dishes where they contribute their numbing effect to Sichuan’s 麻辣 (má là), so-called ‘hot and numbing’ flavour. Actually the Chinese is ‘numbing and hot’. I’ve no idea why the order is reversed in translation, but it happens a lot – ‘hot and sour’ is actually ‘sour and hot’ in Chinese!
       
      The peppercorns are essential in dishes such as 麻婆豆腐 (má pó dòu fǔ) mapo tofu, 宫保鸡丁 (gōng bǎo jī dīng) Kung-po chicken, etc. They are also used in other Chinese regional cuisines, such as Hunan and Guizhou cuisines.

      Red Sichuan peppercorns can come from a number of Zanthoxylum varieties including Zanthoxylum simulans, Zanthoxylum bungeanum, Zanthoxylum schinifolium, etc.
       

      Red Sichuan Peppercorns
       
      Another, less common, variety is 青花椒 (qīng huā jiāo) green Sichuan peppercorn, Zanthoxylum armatum. These are also known as 藤椒 (téng jiāo). This grows all over Asia, from Pakistan to Japan and down to the countries of SE Asia. This variety is significantly more floral in taste and, at its freshest, smells strongly of lime peel. These are often used with fish, rabbit, frog etc. Unlike red peppercorns (usually), the green variety are often used in their un-dried state, but not often outside Sichuan.
       

      Green Sichuan Peppercorns
       

      Fresh Green Sichuan Peppercorns

      I strongly recommend NOT buying Sichuan peppercorns in supermarkets outside China. They lose their scent, flavour and numbing quality very rapidly. There are much better examples available on sale online. I have heard good things about The Mala Market in the USA, for example.

      I buy mine in small 30 gram / 1oz bags from a high turnover vendor. And that might last me a week. It’s better for me to restock regularly than to use stale peppercorns.

      Both red and green peppercorns are used in the preparation of flavouring oils, often labelled in English as 'Prickly Ash Oil'. 花椒油 (huā jiāo yóu) or 藤椒油 (téng jiāo yóu).
       

       
      The tree's leaves are also used in some dishes in Sichuan, but I've never seen them out of the provinces where they grow.
       
      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.
    • By liuzhou
      An eG member recently asked me by private message about mushrooms in China, so I thought I'd share some information here.

      This is what available in the markets and supermarkets in the winter months - i.e now. I'll update as the year goes by.
       
      FRESH FUNGI
       
      December sees the arrival of what most westerners deem to be the standard mushroom – the button mushroom (小蘑菇 xiǎo mó gū). Unlike in the west where they are available year round, here they only appear when in season, which is now. The season is relatively short, so I get stuck in.
       

       
      The standard mushroom for the locals is the one known in the west by its Japanese name, shiitake. They are available year round in the dried form, but for much of the year as fresh mushrooms. Known in Chinese as 香菇 (xiāng gū), which literally means “tasty mushroom”, these meaty babies are used in many dishes ranging from stir fries to hot pots.
       

       
      Second most common are the many varieties of oyster mushroom. The name comes from the majority of the species’ supposed resemblance to oysters, but as we are about to see the resemblance ain’t necessarily so.
       

       
      The picture above is of the common oyster mushroom, but the local shops aren’t common, so they have a couple of other similar but different varieties.
       
      Pleurotus geesteranus, 秀珍菇 (xiù zhēn gū) (below) are a particularly delicate version of the oyster mushroom family and usually used in soups and hot pots.
       

       
      凤尾菇 (fèng wěi gū), literally “Phoenix tail mushroom”, is a more robust, meaty variety which is more suitable for stir frying.
       

       
      Another member of the pleurotus family bears little resemblance to its cousins and even less to an oyster. This is pleurotus eryngii, known variously as king oyster mushroom, king trumpet mushroom or French horn mushroom or, in Chinese 杏鲍菇 (xìng bào gū). It is considerably larger and has little flavour or aroma when raw. When cooked, it develops typical mushroom flavours. This is one for longer cooking in hot pots or stews.
       

       
      One of my favourites, certainly for appearance are the clusters of shimeji mushrooms. Sometimes known in English as “brown beech mushrooms’ and in Chinese as 真姬菇 zhēn jī gū or 玉皇菇 yù huáng gū, these mushrooms should not be eaten raw as they have an unpleasantly bitter taste. This, however, largely disappears when they are cooked. They are used in stir fries and with seafood. Also, they can be used in soups and stews. When cooked alone, shimeji mushrooms can be sautéed whole, including the stem or stalk. There is also a white variety which is sometimes called 白玉 菇 bái yù gū.
       

       

       
      Next up we have the needle mushrooms. Known in Japanese as enoki, these are tiny headed, long stemmed mushrooms which come in two varieties – gold (金針菇 jīn zhēn gū) and silver (银针菇 yín zhēn gū)). They are very delicate, both in appearance and taste, and are usually added to hot pots.
       

       

       
      Then we have these fellows – tea tree mushrooms (茶树菇 chá shù gū). These I like. They take a bit of cooking as the stems are quite tough, so they are mainly used in stews and soups. But their meaty texture and distinct taste is excellent. These are also available dried.
       

       
      Then there are the delightfully named 鸡腿菇 jī tuǐ gū or “chicken leg mushrooms”. These are known in English as "shaggy ink caps". Only the very young, still white mushrooms are eaten, as mature specimens have a tendency to auto-deliquesce very rapidly, turning to black ‘ink’, hence the English name.
       

       
      Not in season now, but while I’m here, let me mention a couple of other mushrooms often found in the supermarkets. First, straw mushrooms (草菇 cǎo gū). Usually only found canned in western countries, they are available here fresh in the summer months. These are another favourite – usually braised with soy sauce – delicious! When out of season, they are also available canned here.
       

       
      Then there are the curiously named Pig Stomach Mushrooms (猪肚菇 zhū dù gū, Infundibulicybe gibba. These are another favourite. They make a lovely mushroom omelette. Also, a summer find.
       

       
      And finally, not a mushroom, but certainly a fungus and available fresh is the wood ear (木耳 mù ěr). It tastes of almost nothing, but is prized in Chinese cuisine for its crunchy texture. More usually sold dried, it is available fresh in the supermarkets now.
       

       
      Please note that where I have given Chinese names, these are the names most commonly around this part of China, but many variations do exist.
       
      Coming up next - the dried varieties available.
    • By liuzhou
      According to the 2010 census, there were officially 1,830,929 ethnic Koreans living in China and recognised as one of China’s 56 ethnic groups. The largest concentration is in Yanbian Korean Autonomous Prefecture, Jilin Province, in the north-east bordering - guess where – North Korea. They have been there for centuries. The actual number today is widely believed to be higher, with some 4 to 5 thousand recent refugees living there illegally.
       
      Anyway, what I have just taken delivery of is this Korean blood and glutinous rice sausage from Yanbian. I am an inveterate blood sausage fiend and always eager to try new examples from as many places as possible. I'll cook some tomorrow morning for breakfast and report back.
       

       

    • By liuzhou
      Note: This follows on from the Munching with the Miao topic.
       
      The three-hour journey north from Miao territory ended up taking four, as the driver missed a turning and we had to drive on to the next exit and go back. But our hosts waited for us at the expressway exit and lead us up a winding road to our destination - Buyang 10,000 mu tea plantation (布央万亩茶园 bù yāng wàn mǔ chá yuán) The 'mu' is  a Chinese measurement of area equal to 0.07 of a hectare, but the 10,000 figure is just another Chinese way of saying "very large".
       
      We were in Sanjiang Dong Autonomous County, where 57% of the inhabitants are Dong.
       
      The Dong people (also known as the Kam) are noted for their tea, love of glutinous rice and their carpentry and architecture. And their hospitality. They tend to live at the foot of mountains, unlike the Miao who live in the mid-levels.
       
      By the time we arrived, it was lunch time, but first we had to have a sip of the local tea. This lady did the preparation duty.
       

       

       
      This was what we call black tea, but the Chinese more sensibly call 'red tea'. There is something special about drinking tea when you can see the bush it grew on just outside the window!
       
      Then into lunch:
       

       

      Chicken Soup
       

      The ubiquitous Egg and Tomato
       

      Dried fish with soy beans and chilli peppers. Delicious.
       

      Stir fried lotus root
       

      Daikon Radish
       

      Rice Paddy Fish Deep Fried in Camellia Oil - wonderful with a smoky flavour, but they are not smoked.
       

      Out of Focus Corn and mixed vegetable
       

      Fried Beans
       

      Steamed Pumpkin
       

      Chicken
       

      Beef with Bitter Melon
       

      Glutinous (Sticky) Rice
       

      Oranges
       

      The juiciest pomelo ever. The area is known for the quality of its pomelos.
       
      After lunch we headed out to explore the tea plantation.
       

       

       

       

       
      Interspersed with the tea plants are these camellia trees, the seeds of which are used to make the Dong people's preferred cooking oil.
       

       
      As we climbed the terraces we could hear singing and then came across this group of women. They are the tea pickers. It isn't tea picking time, but they came out in their traditional costumes to welcome us with their call and response music. They do often sing when picking. They were clearly enjoying themselves.
       

       
      And here they are:
       
       
      After our serenade we headed off again, this time to the east and the most memorable meal of the trip. Coming soon.
       
       
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