Eight basic Chinese recipes for the novice cook

Super, super-simple ideas from my mum for when you want Chinese food and aren’t sure what to make.

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I was trying to make my inbox a little less terrifying today, and stumbled upon this email my mother sent me a few months ago when I was first panicking slightly about how exactly to cook (trust me, there is really no need to panic) – super-simple ideas for when you want Chinese food and aren’t sure what to make. (The salmon thing isn’t quite as Chinese.)

Most of these one-liners are an “intuitive recipe” (I’ll write more about this later) for a common dish you’ll see in Chinese households. Well, I guess the Coke one is kind of weird, but the rest are pretty standard at my house, at least. They contain the essence of the recipe, but may be inscrutable to someone unfamiliar with Chinese food, so for some of them I’ve added in italics the cooking technique(s) needed and a picture of what a finished dish might look like (if you click on the photo, you’ll get to the original image). Each is also followed by a link to a Chinese recipe website (content in Chinese, but there are photos) that goes into more detail.

I should also mention at this point something absolutely crucial to Chinese stir-frying: do not use olive oil. I know it’s a favorite with non-Chinese cooks. Don’t use it. Southern Chinese food in particular is about enhancing ingredients, not masking them. Overmanipulation is a sin. Olive oil is a) unsuitable for extremely high heat, e.g. what is used in stir-frying, and b) leaves a bad taste and texture that overpowers the food.

Cold garlic and cucumber salad (凉拌蒜蓉黄瓜)

  • Slice cucumber; chop garlic; pepper, salt, sesame oil. The linked recipe includes salt and vinegar; I [my mum] don’t think this is necessary. Mix well and let sit for a while.
  • 黄瓜,蒜头切小粒,胡椒粉,盐,香麻油。你可以参考如下链接。不过,他们有放糖、醋。可是我觉得不需要。
  • http://home.meishichina.com/recipe-178159.html

Scrambled eggs and tomato (西红柿炒鸡蛋)

Broccoli and meat stir-fry (西兰花炒肉片)

  • Use potatoes, celery, bittergourd, or eggplant. Other vegetables work too. Use cornstarch to tenderize the meat. Boil or steam broccoli, cook meat, stir-fry together. Butter is better than regular oil, in my opinion.
  • 用土豆、或是芹菜 Celery、或是苦瓜、茄子都可以。其他的蔬菜也可以。需要 Corn Starch 把肉片捏软。
  • http://home.meishichina.com/recipe-41911.html

Red Roast Chicken Wings (红烧鸡翅)

  • Marinade wings in soy sauce and sugar, then fry briefly with a little oil; when both sides are lightly brown, add water and simmer until dry.
  • 用酱油、糖腌一下鸡翅,然后少油煎一下,两面都有点焦,加水,小火煮到水干。
  • http://www.meishichina.com/Eat/RMenu/200806/38611.html

Coca-cola Chicken Wings (可乐鸡翅) (I’d never heard of these…)

Fragrant Fried Salmon (香煎三文鱼)

  • “Marinade” fish with salt and pepper, then pan-fry. Salmon can also be used for a seafood pasta: just cut into small pieces.
  •  用盐和胡椒把鱼腌入味,再煎。三文鱼也可以煮意大利面。切小块煎后,放在意大利面上。
  • http://home.meishichina.com/recipe-53984.html

Prawn stir-fry (虾仁炒…)

 Noodle Soup (面汤)

  • You can use ham, sausages, vegetables, etc. to cook the soup. For details see link.
  • 可以用 ham, 香肠、青菜煮面汤,加入你喜欢的任何东西。煮法如下链接参考。
  • http://home.meishichina.com/recipe-103597.html

Let me know with with a comment how these turned out if you try them, or if anything needs further clarification/translation!

Prawn (shrimp) and cucumber in soy sauce

A super-simple prawn dish and a little rant about overcooked prawn.

I can feel this turning into a recipe blog. I promise that the post after next will be a progress update on teaching myself German. For now, today’s recipe is a simple dish featuring prawn/shrimp and cucumbers – any hard vegetable will do, though, and there are some asparagus pieces in the photo below.

Awesome cucumbers and prawn
Unlike the previous two recipe images, this actually looks good!

Prawn, shrimp – I can’t tell the difference between the two, and Wikipedia says there isn’t any real difference – tends to be far overcooked in our school dining halls, probably due to liability minimization reasons. This is probably the worst thing you can intentionally do to a prawn that you’re going to eat. The whole point of prawn is its springiness, juiciness and sweetness: overcooking not only turns it tough and dry but also robs it of all flavor.

Repeat after me: I will not be afraid of undercooking prawn. Prawn cooks extremely quickly and undercooking is pretty much impossible if you can clearly see what you’re doing. The danger lies in using prawn that has gone bad. In fact, I just tossed $8 of prawn – it was in the fridge, I’d forgotten about it for 4 days, and some of it was starting to turn orange. Most of it still seemed okay, and it smelled fine actually, but I’d rather lose $8 than get food poisoning from being inexperienced with seafood. And now that the lesson’s been seared into my head with a loss, I’ll remember to cook prawn quickly after buying it in the future.

I would also taste the soy sauce you have on hand first just to check its saltiness. The soy sauce I have with me right now was donated by a friend and different from the lower-sodium ‘light’ kind I have at home. Unfortunately I did not realize this (well that and it was my first time cooking with soy sauce) and added too much. Thankfully, cucumber, like potato, will suck saltiness right up, and the slices saved the prawn from being too salty. We then treated the cucumber slices as though they were pickled and just paired them with a lot of rice – not bad at all, actually.

Prawn and cucumber in soy sauce

Ingredients

  • prawn/shrimp, raw – make sure it’s safe first!
  • cucumber, cut into strips
  • soy sauce
  • water
  • garlic, finely chopped
  • vegetable oil
  • black pepper (optional)

Directions

  1. Heat up a frying pan/wok and add a small amount of oil when hot.
  2. Add garlic (adjust amount depending on personal preference) and quickly stir-fry until you can smell it.
  3. Add cucumber and cook till a little soft.
  4. Add prawn; add a splash of soy sauce and some black pepper if desired. The black pepper is going to be discarded when you peel the prawns anyway, but I think it does help the flavor.
  5. Wait until prawns are cooked. Flip to make sure they’re done evenly. In theory prawns are cooked when they change color completely and the flesh is all opaque white – leave them on for a minute and a half afterwards if you’re uncertain, as I did. But no more!
  6. Add a very small amount of water to dilute the soy sauce. Remove from heat.

Previous recipe: Simple black pepper teriyaki pork stir-fry

Black pepper pork stir-fry

An easy recipe for pork in a teriyaki sauce marinade made more interesting with black pepper.

Today’s dinner dish was based off this Onion Black Pepper Pork Neck recipe found on a Chinese recipe website – it was one of the first recipes to show up when I searched for ‘pork neck meat’. I’ve modified the ingredients a little and have added some elaboration to the somewhat handwavey steps in the original. Serve this with rice or toss it with noodles; it’s too flavorful (in my opinion) to be eaten alone.

Black pepper pork stir fry
It looks kind of slimy, but it tastes fantastic.

I bought two pounds of pork neck bones/meat on my first-ever grocery shopping trip today. It may sound strange, and this cut tends to have a bit more fat, but the meat is ridiculously tender, akin to the best parts of pork rib – if you haven’t tried neck meat before, I’d definitely recommend doing it. Pork neck is one of the least expensive cuts of meat because most Americans prefer lean meat and don’t like to eat ‘weird’ parts of animals – all the better for me.

pork-neck

Obviously, any other cut is fine, I just refer to pork neck here because that’s what I used. I’m not sure if this would taste good with either chicken or beef. I imagine you’d tone down the amount of seasoning with beef, and marinade for longer + cook for shorter with chicken.

Getting the meat off the bones was surprisingly tricky. Muscle sticks to bone more strongly than one imagines, and I had to do a bit of sawing with my knife-that-is-dull-because-I-can’t-find-a-whetstone-in-this-apartment. I also forgot to trim the larger pieces of fat off…but it made it taste really good.

Before starting, I was uncertain that this would taste like anything because pork on its own just tastes like…pork. Well, I’m now very impressed by what a teriyaki sauce bath can do. Unfortunately, the store-bought kind is usually very high in sodium. I fumbled the sauce-to-water ratio for the marinade (thanks, vague recipe) and it probably would have been less salty if I had used more water, but in the future/once this bottle runs out I’m going to attempt this mix:

Most Japanese just mix soy sauce (2TBS), rice vinegar (2TBS), sugar/honey (1tsp) and salt (to taste) instead of buying teriyaki sause. — Seen on this forum discussion about teriyaki sauce substitutes.

With the preamble out of the way, let’s get to the food!

Black Pepper Teriyaki Pork Stir-fry

This took me a while because it’s probably the most complex thing I’ve made so far, and I was stopping to wash dishes in the sink in between. If you know what you’re doing, I think 25 minutes would be enough, including 15 minutes of marinading. Enough time to cook a pot of rice and some vegetables for the rest of your meal!

Ingredients (this made enough to accompany two solo meals)

  • 200-300g pork neck bones (remove as much meat as you can from the bones, and don’t throw them away – you can use them for broth/soup if you want, although some say you should only use bones from high-quality organic meat for this)
  • 1.5 to 2 teaspoons cornstarch
  • 70ml teriyaki sauce (original recipe calls for 90ml, which I found excessive)
  • half an onion
  • a generous amount of ground black pepper
  • some vegetable oil for the frying
  • (optional) finely chopped green onion/spring onion/scallion (confused? here’s a picture)

Directions

  1. Cut the pork into chunks – if needed. When I removed the meat from the bones it sort of had no choice but to turn into 1 inch/2.5cm-long pieces. Not too thick, as that will slow cooking: about half inch/1cm is great.
  2. In a bowl, pour in teriyaki sauce and half as much water (more water or less sauce if you want it to be less salty).
  3. Add pork to this, making sure the sauce can reach all the meat, and let marinade (sit) for 5 minutes.
  4. Meanwhile, peel and cut half an onion into large pieces (I cried). Set this aside for now.
  5. Add cornstarch to the pork marinade – just sprinkle it in – and mix well to coat the meat. Marinade for 10 more minutes. The cornstarch helps thicken the gravy/sauce you get at the end, and more importantly, keeps the meat tender and juicy when cooked.
  6. Heat up a wok or frying pan, then pour in a little oil. A circle with around 1-inch diameter is fine. Excessive, even? I’m not sure – I haven’t done this enough yet.
  7. Wait for the oil to get really hot – apparently sticking a wooden implement in and watching for bubbles fizzing up will tell you if it’s ready; I just winged it. Add the pork and stir-fry (chao, sort of like sautéing but with more flipping). If there’s marinade left in the bowl, add it to the pan, because why not.
  8. Set the cooked pork aside and add a little bit more oil to the pan if needed.
  9. Put the onions in and push them around until they’re a little softer.
  10. Add the pork back into the pan, and as much black pepper as needed to make it smell good, then stir-fry for a few more minutes. If you have green onions, toss them in. (The original recipe calls for adding a pinch of salt here, but I wouldn’t – the marinade packs enough sodium and you can always add more later if it’s not enough.)
  11. Done!

I am worried about cooking in Germany because I will have to use a hot-plate type of stove, or an induction cooker. According to a friend originally from Stuttgart, open-flame stovetops haven’t been in common use for at least the past 30 years. I made spaghetti at her place a few days ago, and it was awful trying to understand how much heat was getting through to my food through numbers and dials. What does a setting of ‘5’ even mean? How much heat is there in the maximum setting? I can’t find out by touching the pan, so what else can I do? Grr.