Cuisine Intensive: Chinese

These recipes, tips and techniques will infuse your menu with a little Far East flavor.
Chinese IntensiveCuisine Intensive

“Chinese food has so much variety, much of it based on region,” says Jaden Hair, author of The Steamy Kitchen Cookbook: 101 Asian Recipes Simple Enough for Tonight's Dinner . “For example, southern China is characterized by Cantonese cuisine. Steaming and light stir-frying (without the goopy sauce!) are the most popular methods of cooking. In the north, where the winters can get bone-numbing cold, hearty stews and long meat braises provide warmth and sustenance. In the landlocked west, Szechuanese cuisine is all about spice, pickling, salting, preserving.”

Get comfortable with the basic ingredients and techniques that follow and you’ll be ready to cook hundreds of Chinese dishes.

Peanut oil
Since stir-fries are cooked quickly over a high flame, it's crucial to use oil with a high smoke point — one that can take the heat. Peanut oil is the traditional choice, but if you have allergy concerns, substitute vegetable oil.
Soy sauce
Made from fermented soybeans, grains (in this country, it's generally wheat), water and salt, soy sauce is the quintessential ingredient in Chinese food. Use it during cooking or in marinades, in salad dressings or at the table.
Toasted sesame oil
In China, this dark-brown, nutty, aromatic oil is often used as a condiment, rather than for cooking. Drizzle it at the end of a stir-fry or atop a bowl of soup, or use it in dipping sauce or dressing to impart an unmistakable Asian flavor to your meal.
Chinese rice wine
Just as most Western wines are made from fermented grapes, rice wine begins as fermented rice. Use this golden liquid to marinate meat or poultry and to add a sweet, mellow flavor during cooking. Shao Hsing wine, named for the region where it originated, is one of the most common Chinese varieties. If you can't find good-quality rice wine, substitute dry sherry. Avoid anything labeled "Chinese cooking wine."
Rice vinegar (rice wine vinegar)
Thanks to its low acidity, rice vinegar is relatively mild. There are three main varieties: white (found in many supermarkets), black and red, (available at Asian markets). Look for unseasoned vinegar, as some Japanese varieties have additional ingredients. Its bright, sweet-tart flavor lends itself to sweet-and-sour or noodle dishes, braises, dipping sauces and salad dressings.
You may not think of corn as particularly Chinese, but the starch is used in several key ways: in marinades, where it helps to seal in the meat's juices; in a slurry with water, added at the end of cooking to thicken sauces; and in batters for deep-fried dishes.
Garlic, ginger and scallions
French cooking relies on a mix of onions, carrots and celery (called "mirepoix") as the starting point for so many recipes. Consider garlic, ginger and scallions the mirepoix of Chinese cooking. You'll see this trio, or some combination of it, in almost every recipe.
Rice and noodles
Simple, steamed white rice is served at virtually every meal in China - if not, there are likely noodles. Made from rice, wheat or mung beans, they're served hot or cold, stir-fried, deep-fried, steamed, boiled and (of course) in soup.
Okay, so technically it's not a technique, but it is the single most important aspect of Chinese cooking, stir-fries especially. With many Chinese recipes, you'll spend more time assembling and preparing ingredients than you will at the stove. Because the cooking moves so quickly, it's crucial to have all your ingredients prepped before you begin.
This high-heat, quick-cooking technique allows you to cook with very little oil. Food is cut into small pieces and cooked briskly in a wok or sauté pan (the pan's high sides help keep ingredients from falling out). Also, don't crowd the pan — too many ingredients releasing moisture at the same time will turn a stir-fry into a braise.
Almost no oil is used in this exceptionally healthy Chinese technique. Simply place food above simmering water in a steamer basket (often stackable and made of bamboo, but metal steamers are fine too), and the vapor works its magic. In China, anything from dumplings to buns to whole fish might be steamed.
A slower cooking method, in which protein (meat, poultry, even tofu) is sometimes browned and always simmered for a long period in a flavorful liquid. Red-cooking is a popular braising style, in which the food is simmered in soy sauce and other seasonings until it takes on a burnished, mahogany-red hue.
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