Chinese Cooking – A Primer (Or how to cook Chinese food without really trying)

There is a Taiwanese dish called “San Bei Ji” – literally, “Three Cup Chicken”.

The recipe for “Three cup Chicken” is not what this post is about.

The back story to this dish is that some low status individual had to prepare a meal of chicken for a high status (or at least highly regarded) individual. But all he had was a cup of wine, a cup of sesame oil, and a cup of soya sauce.

Well, making do with what he had, he cooked the chicken with these three cups of sauces/ingredients. And the dish was a hit!

[Spoiler alert: he had other ingredients. Or at least the modern versions of it has other ingredients – sugar, garlic, ginger, etc.]

Anybody can “cook” if you start from a recipe, have time to go to the store, hunt down all the ingredients, and have the resources to buy EVERY SINGLE ingredient.

Real-life cooking (or everyday cooking) is often just a matter of walking into the kitchen, peering into the fridge, and making do with what’s available.

The other point, san bei ji can illustrate is… the essentials of making your cooking “oriental”.

Soya sauce, and Sesame oil are 2 of the 5 ingredients you can use to instantly make whatever you are cooking – oriental. Chinese wine is a bonus.

In the 80’s there were two cooking shows with Chinese chefs who both were surnamed “Yan”.

“Wok with Yan” was (iirc) hosted by Steven (or Stephen) Yan, and he had a restaurant in Vancouver, British Columbia.

“Yan can cook” was hosted by Martin Yan (or vice versa. You can Google it to confirm), and he was probably based in Los Angeles. Maybe.

Not important.

What was important was the ingredients they used. They both had good chef skills – at least the showy parts I can’t remember which one demonstrated how to debone a chicken in less than 12 seconds or something similar. [It was Martin Yan in 18 secs – not quite deboned, though.]

And if you want to learn chef skills – like dicing vegetables, really fast (without slicing off your fingers), deboning chicken, fish, etc, you will need to practice.

And you are not going to learn those skills from a blog.

This is just about ingredients.

Specifically, 5 ingredients that could make any dish “oriental” or Chinese. That I picked up from watching the Yans.

Here are the 5 ingredients that are sure to be used in Chinese cooking (at least as cooked by the Yans):

  • Soy Sauce
  • Sesame Oil
  • Oyster Sauce
  • Hoisin Sauce
  • Chinese Five-Spice powder

Bonus point ingredients (Extra “Chinese” ingredients)

  • Chinese Cooking Wine
  • Black Vinegar
  • Ginger
  • Spring Onions
  • Salted fish/salted eggs/salted vegetables
  • Corn flour (or Corn Starch).

The first five ingredients are almost 99% of the time present in Chinese cooking. Another way of looking at the 5 ingredients is, if you want to cook Chinese, you must have one or more of these 5 ingredients.

Soy sauce is naturally the first ingredient. But note that there are many types of soy sauce. But the first two types you may encounter is light soy sauce and dark soy sauce.

With the 5 ingredients, you are halfway to making any dish you can cook into a fusion Chinese and something else dish.

Say you can make truffle fries. Instead of truffle oil, use sesame oil and you have sesame fries.

Or say you are preparing lamb chops. instead of the usual marinade or seasoning, use five spice powder and have “Oriental Lamb Chops”.

Or something you can present to your uninformed friends as an “oriental dish”. If you are a good liar, you can spin some tale about learning this dish from a street vendor in the suburbs of Xiamen (or some off the beaten track location).

Or you can tell the tale of a poor scholar who was trying to pass the imperial exams to become a civil servant in the Chinese Imperial Court, and how his wife would prepare Broccoli and Wood-ear mushrooms in Oyster sauce for him while he studied on the roof of their thatched hut by the light of the moon (because they were too poor to afford candles or lamp oil). And when he finally became a courtier in the Imperial palace, his eyesight was so poor from all that reading by the moonlight, he would only eat Broccoli and Wood-ear mushrooms in Oyster sauce because he could only recognise that as food. And the other courtiers learned to love that dish too.

[Fact Check: Broccoli is a recent (modern) addition to Chinese cuisine. Also oyster sauce (maybe). Also, reading in the dark won’t make you blind. It’s the masturbation while looking at Playboy centrefolds under the blanket in the dark that makes you go blind. Fact check Fact Check: Masturbation doesn’t make you go blind. If it did, most men would be blind. Fact Check: Most people give up masturbation when they start needing to wear glasses. That’s why most men are not blind. Chinese masturbate a lot. A lot of them wear glasses. Fact. Fact check Fact Check: That’s not why a lot of Chinese wear glasses. ]

[Afternote (7 Jan 2017): I found this video on how to make American Chinese Take-out. See if any of the dishes are missing the 5 ingredients or if any of the dishes have ALL 5 ingredients.]

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