The last couple years I have dedicated a lot of time in the kitchen to learning how to cook Chinese food. I’ve posted about this a couple times already, first here and then here. In this post I’d like to introduce you to my inspiration and my teachers.
I was initially inspired by a user of the EGullet forums known as hzrt8w (aka Ah Leung) who posted a series of Chinese food pictorials. Ah Leung is a Chinese American (born in Hong Kong) living in California and as well as being a computer geek he writes these fantastic step by step guides on how to cook his favourite Chinese dishes, illustrated with photos. The photos are obviously just taken on the fly as he makes his dinner, totally anti-food-porn, but they still make me think YUM! I want to make that! So I have gradually been learning to make a handful of his dishes. Admittedly I haven’t been so adventurous as to try the more obscure (to the Western eye) dishes like Stir-Fried Lotus Roots with Dry Conpoy and Hairy Moss Fungi but I’ve tried a lot of the chicken based stir-fries. What is particularly useful about Ah Leung’s pictorials, is the photo he takes at the start of all the ingredients. Sometimes it is hard to find the ingredients you need in the Chinese shop because you don’t know what you are looking for – these photos show you what the containers look like.
I have 2 other sources for recipes, one I already mentioned on this blog, is a book published in 1979 by Deh-Ta Hsiung called Chinese Regional Cooking. I’m guessing this book was one of the earlier books to try to present Chinese cooking to a western audience. One thing it didn’t get quite right was that it translated the names of dishes into English, so intead of a recipe for Ma Po Tofu (funky!) that recipe is called ‘Pock marked woman’ bean-curd (yuck!). Still, I went ahead and tried making that recipe anyway (it’s one of the easier ones) and it is OK, but I prefer Ah Leung’s version. The other shortfall of this book – not surprising for its time – is that the recipes tend to use a lot of oil – but once you learn this, it is easy to adjust. The photography in this book is classic seventies food photography: not that appetising, but it gives you the idea! What I like about this recipe book is that it includes an introduction to Chinese cuisine: the fundamentals (history and the elements of taste), techniques and how Chinese meals are served. Then there is also an introductory background to each region that the book covers. A random fun fact for you which I just learnt from his website: Deh-Ta went to the Slade School of Fine Art here in London (in 1960)!
The other Chinese cook I’ve been learning a little more from is the star of the recent BBC TV series Chinese Food Made Easy, called Ching-He Huang. As Deh-Ta’s book was a reflection of his time, so Ching-He’s program is a reflection of the current fashion in cooking – beautiful looking food made by an attractive presenter that doesn’t take long to make. Ching-He Huang’s main aim in this series was to show us, a nation consuming vast quantities of take-away Chinese every day, that you can easily make the same food at home and it will taste better and be much healthier. I watched her series out of curiosity: comparing my experience following Ah Leung’s pictorials and Deh-Ta Hsiung recipes, to her methods. She didn’t marinate her meat, whereas the others would always marinate for at least 20 mins (I find this fits in while I’m preparing the other bits and it makes the meat noticeably more tender), but Ching-He Huang is much lighter in the use of oil, and finds a good way of including vegetables in her dishes. She also demonstrated various preparation techniques – you can still watch the videos on the BBC website.
Finally, I was also inspired by the fact that a Chinese shop called Great Wall opened at the end of my road – this was perfectly timed with my discovery of EGullet and my new recipe book. I find Chinese grocery shops fascinating (well to be honest I find most grocery stores fascinating, especially those selling ‘ethnic’ ingredients) and I can never go in to pick up some noodles/tofu/dried mushrooms without spending some time browsing the peculiar cans, jars, packets, vegetables and live animals they stock their shelves with. It was also just super handy to have this shop so close (107 Lower Clapton Road, Hackney), and open ’til late (10pm) – so I could not even think about dinner until 7pm and still end up making something new and exciting! I say this in the past tense because I’ve now moved 1 mile away (towards Upper Clapton) so I have to get on my bike to go to this shop, but its still better than having to go all the way down to Mare Street or worse still, to Chinatown in central London!