Technique

THIN SLICING MEAT— When recipes require thinly sliced, shredded or "matchstick" (julienne) cutting of boneless meats, the following procedure is useful: partially freeze the chicken, pork or beef until it is very firm but not frozen.  With this method—and cutting across the grain of the meat using a sharp cleaver—one can achieve paper-thin slices.

CRISP FRYING— Such dishes as Yu Xiang Qiezi, General Tso’s Chicken, and some American interpretations of Chinese call for lightly battered and fried meats or vegetables which must retain their crispness to be properly appreciated.  In home cooking, this is often not the case; chicken, pork, and eggplant, for example, are usually fried once, and when served—especially if they are accompanied by a sauce—the main ingredient has lost its original crisp surface and become soft or moist.  The moisture escaping the heated food softens the surface. Double frying dries out the surface and avoids this.  Battered morsels are deep or shallow fried until mostly cooked through, then lifted out of the oil and allowed to completely cool.  Just before serving, the ingredients are fried again to heat through, and then used according to the recipe.

NOTES ON THE WOK—Chinese woks with non-stick coatings are now sold all around the world; however if a plain steel wok is seasoned well and properly cared for, it will be far more durable and scratch-resistant and just as non-sticking as the coated variety.  Cast iron woks are excellent, but difficult to manage because of their weight, besides being difficult to find in the states.   And so, when purchasing a steel wok, shop around and try to choose the one fabricated of the heaviest gauge steel possible—the heavier the better for heat conduction and retention.  Be certain that the bowl of the wok is smooth and the handle welded or bolted securely; this joint undergoes a lot of stress, in cooking and washing.   For all around versatility avoid woks with the two small handles on either side in favor of those with one secure wood or steel handle.  I don’t recommend flat-bottomed woks—it is not necessary for electric stoves, and defeats one of the main purposes of this superb utensil, frying and stir-frying with a minimal amount of oil.   However, if you have a consumer gas stove, you will find that a traditional round-bottomed wok will not perform well. In this case, a stir-fry pan which has a wider flat bottom than a flat-bottomed wok is the best choice.
Note: unless your stove has a special grate to support woks, you will also need to purchase a wok stand or wok ring for a traditional-round bottomed wok.
Seasoning a new wok is time consuming, but extremely important, and must be completed before the pan is used.  Its purpose is to fill the pores of the metal surface with hard-cooked oils, creating a smooth, rust-free, non-stick, attractive surface.
  1. Remove the middle rack of an oven to allow room for your wok.  Pre-heat to 275°.  Thoroughly scrub the wok inside and out with soap, water and a mild abrasive pad or brush; this essential step cleans the machine oil, rust and dirt from the wok.  Immediately and thoroughly dry with a towel.
  2. Rub all surfaces with peanut oil and paper towel.  Rub in the oil so that the surface has a dull sheen.  If paper towel comes away dirty, wash and dry the wok again and repeat step one and two.  Lightly apply a second thin coat of peanut oil; it should be only enough to “shine” the surface—the oil should not run or pool in the bottom.
  3. Put wok in the oven for no less than 6 hours, after which it should be removed and cooled.
  4. Once the wok is cool enough to handle, wash it with water; add a tablespoon of salt (coarse is best) and burnish the surface by vigorously rubbing the salt around the inside with a cloth or paper towel.  This removes any roughness or accumulated oils.
  5. Repeat steps 2 –4.
  6. Rub in about a tablespoon of oil to the inside of the wok and put over a stove burner, resting on the wok stand.  Turn the burner on med low.  After a short while, the wok will begin to smoke; turn the wok on its stand and allow it to heat in different positions until the entire interior surface has browned.  If oil puddles in the bottom of the wok, wipe it cautiously and quickly with a dry paper towel.  This will take 15 to 20 minutes.  When the surface has been evenly browned, allow the wok to cool.
  7. Wash the wok with water: rub any uncooked oil into the wok surface—use more salt if you feel any rough spots.
  8. Repeat step 6.
The wok is now seasoned.  It is very important for the first 20 or 30 times you use the wok, to wash it with hot water and a light abrasive pad or brush only.  Do not use soap.  Be careful to remove only the residual sauce and food, not any of the dark, cooked-on oil.  Dry the wok and rub peanut oil into the surface before storing.  Do not stack other pans or utensils inside the wok as this may damage the surface.  The surface of a well-seasoned wok will be satin smooth and black.
Ed Note: An excellent and thorough book on woks, The Breath of a Wok is by Grace Young.

NOTES ON GAS VS ELECTRIC RANGES
Among cooking enthusiasts, Gas stoves enjoy the reputation of being far superior to electric stoves for their responsiveness and control; to question this truism is nearly heretical. However, when cooking Chinese food at home, the answer is more complicated.
The tradition of home cooking as it evolved in China utilized much less heat applied to the wok, since fuel in China has been historically scarce. Dry grass and twigs were the most common combustible, used as economically as possible; however, in restaurants, especially since the advent of propane and natural gas, wok burners are akin to vertical jet engines, rated in the 150,000 plus btu range. Such high heat not only speeds up the line in a restaurant, it allows the stir-fry cook to obtain quick sauce reductions and wonderful caramelization of the ingredients--nowadays considered the characteristic texture and flavor of good Chinese cooking.
For the cooking enthusiast working at home, these characteristics are nearly impossible to achieve using consumer gas stoves, since they are limited to burners with a rating of btus around 15,000, one-tenth of the commercial wok burners. Even the so-called pro-sumer models, with small wok burner options, rarely exceed 15-16,000 btu. At mainstream kitchenware outlets, one can occasionally find stand-alone home natural gas wok burners with a 30,000 btu rating; impressive, but still not close to commercial ratings.
Despite the low output of natural gas burners on home stoves, cook book authors still maintain their loyalty to gas, even though superior stir-fries will be achieved using an electric range. While technical comparisons are complicated by the fact that gas burners are rated with btus, and electrics with wattage, anyone who compares wok cooking on both will see that the electric burner is ultimately hotter. This fact is enhanced when using a wok ring whose vent holes are wrapped in foil, further concentrating the heat to the bottom of the wok. Physicists will tell you that gas flames themselves are hotter, but the radiant heat of an electric stove actually delivers more heat to the object being heated. The drawback is as noted, that electric heat will not respond immediately to control; the cook makes up for this deficit by first turning down the heat, then lifting the wok off the support ring as cooling is required.
Having said that, there is yet another altrenative; Asian groceries and kitchen stores often sell propane fueled wok burners that are excellent. These can safely be used out of doors and deliver intense gas flames that approach professional intensity. A word of caution, though, when choosing these burners. Some are cheaply made, with few jets, and will not improve upon the standard gas range. However, one product, the Leaderware Gas Stove, Model B-0203, shows a rating on the box of nearly 60,000 btus, delivered from approximately 146 jets, is well-constructed and delivers more than enough heat to approximate a commercial wok burner at a fraction of the cost ($70) See photo, below. The inconvenience of having to transfer the ingredients and cooking tools outside seems a small price to pay for such superior results.





MARINADES FOR STIR-FRYING—For roasting meats, such as duck and “barbecued pork,” marinades are a most important element to the success of the finished dish.  However, the exact proportions for meat marinade in Chinese stir-frying is not crucial: while the absorption of flavors through marinating is desired, the primary purpose of marinating stir-fry meats is to provide an extra coating of carbohydrates in the form of sugars and starch, which aid in the browning reaction.  In general you will want to use soy and wine in equal amounts, and just enough to moisten the ingredients without puddling in the bottom of the bowl.  Then add just enough cornstarch to make a slurry that evenly coats and clings to the pieces   If the meat pieces cling together in a mass, you've used too much starch and it will be difficult to separate the morsels during stir-frying. Using sugar in stir-fry marinades is optional, depending on the dish.  It helps with the browning reaction, and sweetens the meat, but if the dish will use an already dark and sweet sauce, sugar may be unnecessary.

THICKENING SAUCES —Two main methods of thickening liquids are common to all cooking: reduction or using a binder, usually a starch. In China, both methods are used often. Reduction reduces the liquid ingredients and marinades through evaporation as the sauce boils off in the wok; thickening with cornstarch, potato starch, or water chestnut powder is best accomplished by creating a slurry of 1 part starch to 2 parts liquid, preferably stock. The slurry should be put in a closed container and shaken thoroughly before it is used. A quantity of this can be kept in the refrigerator for a few days, and used as needed.

NOTES ON "AUTHENTIC CHINESE" The most common argument I hear regarding ethnic food, Chinese included, is that concerning authenticity. One dismisses a version of a particular dish or restaurant because it is "not authentic." If you look in an English language dictionary, most definitions of the word really don't apply to cooking. Authenticity implies a single, factual ideal to which something should conform.  I prefer the word “traditional,” which to me implies variations within a general category--according to one dictionary, "a customary or characteristic method or manner." This allows for the continuous small changes that take place in all forms of art, craft and techniques handed from person to person, generation to generation, country to country, while preserving the general form that survives those changes. There is no absolute, no perfect example, to which we might compare, say, Gong Bao Ji Ding (known here as Kung Pao Chicken), to determine it's authenticity; yet, if you scour the world eating this dish in China and elsewhere, you'll find a general agreement on its form. Most of the time, Gong Bao Ji Ding contains cubed chicken breasts, chilis, chili sauce and peanuts; thus, the dish containing these is solidly within the tradition. If the dish contains broccoli, baby corn, green peppers, or carrots; or no chilis or peanuts, it may be called "not traditional." Editor's Note: The issue of judging certain recipes as "authentic" or not is amply illustrated when one reads an article in the New York Times, wherein a coincidentally named chef Wang of Guizhou Province blasts away at any version of Gong Bao Ji Ding other than his; he dogmatically insists that the Sichuan versions of the dish are completely wrong, and, unbelievably, concludes that " authentic gong bao jiding should have absolutely no peanuts." It may well be that Gong Bao Ji Ding originated in Guizhou, that originally it used leg meat instead of breast meat, and had no peanuts; nevertheless, according to Wang's sensible view, the traditional Kung Pao Chicken is now no longer made this way, and Sichuan Province's version rules the day, where a Chengdu chef is quoted as saying, "We were not even taught to add peanuts, as it's so natural to do so,"

DEEP FRYING As a substantial number of delicious Chinese dishes require deep frying, it is important to point out a few issues that deep frying entails. The first is safety. Most modern local governments require that restaurants undergo periodic fire inspections wherein they must conform to regulations concerning cooking and fire suppression equipment. It is unlikely that a home cook meets such safety requirements, yet this form of cooking is just as hazardous at home as it is in a restaurant. The primary problem is that of mixing moisture and hot fat. Moisture in the foods and on their surface creates steam, which in turn causes the oil to foam, and if the oil is too hot, the food too wet, or there is not enough expansion room in the fryer, the oil can boil over and catch fire. However, if common sense precautions are taken, deep-frying can be quite safe. Because foaming is always a possibility, I recommend keeping a small, (BC rating) dry extinguisher nearby the stove or fryer, and make certain it has full pressure and is operational.  This precaution is less important if using a stand-alone appliance deep fryer, since the heat elements are not exposed.  If no extinguisher is available, a large open box of baking soda is good to have on hand, as it is an excellent fire suppressor when scattered over the flames.  Make certain towels and other flammables are away from the fry pot, and tie back hair, roll up sleeves, etc., before proceeding.  Never put water on an oil fire!

Another tool which makes deep-frying safer and more predictable when not using a deep fryer appliance is a fry or candy thermometer, especially one which clips to the side of the fryer pot.  Typically, deep-frying is done at a temperature between 350º and 375°.  If a thermometer is not used, you can watch the oil until it begins to move in gentle currents; add a piece of stale bread, and if it browns within 50 – 60 seconds, the oil is ready to use.  Once the food is placed in the fryer, the temperature will drop; if the food is dense and large, it may be necessary to compensate for this by increasing the heat somewhat to maintain the correct temperature for the length of time needed.
Two other tools are extremely useful: long kitchen chopsticks for separated and rotating foods while frying, and bamboo-handled wire strainers for lifting the cooked ingredients from hot liquids.
One can use an appliance, wok or stockpot to deep fry.  A wok is widely used in Chinese homes, but even when using a wok stand, Western stoves often do not provide as stable a surface for the wok, allowing it to tip or slide, which is of course extremely dangerous when partly full of hot oil.  Unless the wok can be well stabilized, a stockpot will be safer with the same results.  A further benefit derives from not having to empty and clean the wok between dishes if the kitchen only has one available.  Always use a pot much larger than your quantity of oil(Editor’s note: 2 quarts of oil in an 8 quart pot seems to work well…)

The smoking point of deep frying oils is important to consider: the lower the smoke point, the more quickly the deep fryer fat will burn.  Refined safflower oil has a very high smoking point, 510º.  However, I prefer peanut oil for its flavor, which has an acceptable smoking point, along with Soybean, corn, sunflower oils of  450º. (Editor’s note: for an excellent description and list of frying oils, go to:
Frying itself follows the same general procedure no matter what is being fried: the heat is slowly raised until the oil reaches 350° to 375° (smaller items will tend to respond to higher temperatures and shorter times, while larger, denser items will require lower temperatures and longer times).  When the oil is hot, the ingredients are carefully lowered into the oil with the basket strainer or tongs a few at a time and separated with long chopsticks to prevent clumping.  When the ingredients are cooked and browned, they are retrieved with the basket strainer and set aside for a short time to drain.

NOTES ON MAKING NOODLES (mian 面) and STEAMED NOODLES (Zheng mian 蒸面)
I may not have mentioned it before, in the editor’s notes on jiaozi and xiao long bao, but I’ll say it now: If you are a fastidious person, one for whom a few splashes of flour on the kitchen counter is discomfiting, let alone dough scraps underfoot and flour everywhere, including cupboards, drawers and apron pockets—you should avoid making your own noodles and dumpling skins. It is impossible to keep the work area tidy and dust free. But if one relaxes into the process, the quality of the results make it well worth the effort and mess; you can control the thickness and texture of the skins and noodles, the shape, the flavor—even the color, if you are so inclined. Without any preamble, here Wang gives us his recipe for noodles, and interesting directions for making steamed noodles, with their wonderful texture and convenient shelf life.)
For Wheat Noodles:
4 cups all purpose flour (approx.)
1 cup water
1 tsp salt
1 tsp oil
Make the dough by adding the water and stirring with a wooden spoon or mixing with a machine and dough hook; when it is well incorporated, the dough should cohere but feel somewhat dry. Knead the dough until it is smooth, 10 to 20 minutes, and set aside until you are ready to make the noodles.
Many Chinese purchase freshly made noodles, which are cut with special roller cutters and sold by the jin (500 grams) in small stores and on the street . In the west, fresh made noodles are less easy to obtain, but if one wants to make them at home, Italian pasta rollers are available and will generally produce two common sizes of noodles which are nearly identical to those on the streets of China. The old fashioned way, hand cutting, works well and may even be preferable to some for esthetic reasons.
Divide the ball of dough into 4 or 5 equal pieces, and keep the portions you are not working with covered in plastic or a damp cloth. With your hands flatten the piece into a rectangle approximately 1/2" thick:
1. If you are using a pasta machine, set the roller on the widest setting, and pinch one of the narrow ends of the rectangle so that it will be gripped by the roller. Roll the piece through the machine a few times to knead, dusting it with flour each time. Reduce the roller setting one number or notch, and roll through once. If the dough becomes too wide for the rollers, fold the rectangle and run through again. Reduce the setting one number, dust with flour and roll through once more. Ideally, the sheet should be no wider than the rollers and about 12" to 15" long, approximately 1/16 to 1/8" thick, depending on how fine you prefer the noodle. Trim the sheet if necessary and save the scraps. Dust with flour and run through the narrow cutter (spaghetti size) or wider (fettucini size). Toss with flour. If you find pairs of strands stuck together, it means the dough is too soft. Knead more flour into it. Repeat these steps until all the dough, plus scraps are made into noodles.
2. If you are hand cutting, flatten the rectangle as before and place on a floured board. Roll the dough into a sheet approximately 12" to 15" long, and 1/16 to 1/8" thick. Fold and roll out as necessary to achieve these dimensions. Width is unimportant. Liberally flour the dough. Beginning with the 12" to 15" edge, roll up the rectangle of dough, somewhat tightly, into a roll. Using a sharp knife, cut the roll crosswise, evenly, slicing whatever thickness of noodle desired. This produces dozens of noodle coils which should be unrolled and dusted with flour.
At this time the noodles can be put into small piles and dried, or frozen; boiled if used within a few days, or steamed.

STEAMED NOODLES Steaming noodles gives them a chewy, substantial texture which is excellent for chau mian and Hong Kong style pan fried noodles. This is achieved by arranging the strands in steamer trays no more than 1" or 2" deep, covering the steamer and steaming for 10 minutes (15 to 20 minutes if using fresh commercially made noodles) . As soon as they are done, and as they cool, repeatedly fluff them to keep the noodles from sticking together. When cool, they can be frozen indefinitely or stored in the refrigerator for a couple of weeks.

NOTES ON CHICKEN STOCK
4 pounds chicken pieces (wings, backs, necks)
3 quarts cups cold water (approximately)
3 green scallions smashed flat with cleaver, chopped into 3" pieces
4 or 5 1/8 " x 1" slices fresh ginger
2 tablespoon Chinese rice wine or dry sherry
Salt, to taste
Under cold water, rinse the chicken parts, drain and partially chop with a heavy cleaver to expose the flesh and marrow. Put the pieces in a large stock pot and cover with at least 3 quarts of water. Toss in the other ingredients. As you bring the water to a boil over medium heat, carefully skim the surface, removing the foam and scum. Continue skimming until no more scum appears. Add salt to taste. Cover and reduce the heat to a bare simmer for 2 or 3 hours. Uncover and allow the stock to reduce until the desired richness is achieved. Remove the chicken pieces with a basket strainer, then strain the broth through several layers of cheese cloth. As soon as possible, put the stock in the refrigerator to congeal the fat, at which time it can be skimmed, and the stock is ready to use.