cuisine aims for perfection and balance among four
elements in each dish: color, aroma or fragrance,
flavor, and presentation. Colors should be pleasing,
showing that the ingredients are fresh and tender.
Aromas should be appetizing. Finally, the dish
should be beautifully arranged and presented. Good
Chinese cooking is also distinguished by its
meticulous cutting, careful blending of seasonings,
and attention to temperature control.
Here we offer a
brief description of some of the basic techniques, skills, and
ingredients of Chinese cooking. We hope it will be helpful to visitors
when they try the Chinese recipes.
Balance Among Ingredient
cooking uses a wide range of ingredients, including
meat, meat products, fish, seafood, poultry, eggs,
vegetables, bean products, wild plants, game, and many
seasonings. Most come in both fresh and dried forms,
but the most important features to look for are
freshness and quality.
should be judged by their place of origin, season of
production, and any other characteristic-for example,
old or young, male or female-that may be specified in
a recipe. Appearance, color, weight, water content,
and smell are also important.
dishes call for different cuts of meat because cuts have different
textures once they have been cooked. Cuts of the same meat may be tough
or tender, coarse or fine. For example, the Chinese distinguish eighteen
different cuts of pork. These include filet, streaky pork, shoulder
butt, ham butt, hock, and shank.
The filet is
considered the best cut and is generally stir-fried or quick-fried (see
the section below on "cooking techniques" for descriptions of these and
other procedures) to take advantage of its tenderness. Streaky pork is
best when marinated with spiced rice flour and then steamed, or red-cooked (braised in
soy sauce). The shank and hock are best suited to lengthy simmering,
with or without
soy sauce, while the ham and ham butt are often used as
substitutes for filet. The ribs and feet are best prepared 'by lengthy,
low-temperature methods like braising, baking or simmering, while
spareribs are suitable for sauteing, quick-frying, slippery-frying, and
deep-frying. The methods used for pork are also applicable to similar
cuts of beef and lamb or mutton.
to poultry, the tenderest and most versatile part of a chicken or duck
is the breast. Chickens or ducks less than a year old are usually
quick-fried or deep-fried, while older birds need long, slow cooking
like simmering or braising to tenderize them.
Fish is as
nutritious as poultry. Crab, prawns and shrimps are rich in phosphorus,
calcium and vitamin A. You can tell a fresh fish by its tight, undamaged
scales, red gills, and clear protruding eyes. Fresh prawns and shrimps
should be greenish-white, with firm bodies that curve slightly. They
should not be flat or limp, and their heads and tails should be intact.
Fresh crabs should be alive and active. They should spit foams and have
green upper shells and white under-shells.
In Chinese cooking, preparation includes trimming
and washing vegetables, slaughtering and dressing live chickens and
ducks, gutting live fish, and reconstituting dried ingredients.
When preparing vegetables, cooks first trim and discard any wilted or
tough outer leaves. Then they wash them. Vegetables should not be cut
before they are washed, because vitamins and minerals would be washed
away. Nutrients are also lost if vegetables and other foods are cut
ahead of time and exposed to the air. The most nutritious dishes are
prepared and cooked immediately.
Chinese cooks prefer to buy live
poultry and fish and to kill them themselves whenever possible because
they believe that freshly-killed chickens, ducks and fish have a subtler
flavor. If you slaughter your own poultry, you should drain off the
blood thoroughly and soak the bird in very hot water before plucking it.
When preparing a duck, you will find it easier to pluck the eiderdown if
you force-feed it with wine, vinegar, or cold water before killing it.
To draw a bird, make an incision about 3 inches (7 cm) long along the
lower part of the breast, on the back, or under one of the wings. When
drawing out the entrails, be careful not to puncture the gallbladder;
its bitter taste would ruin the edible meat. Then wash the bird
thoroughly before continuing to prepare the recipe.
Preparing a fresh, whole fish involves scaling, chopping off the
fins, taking off the gills, gutting and washing. To gut the fish, make a
cut along the belly or spine and take out the black membrane in the
belly cavity. If the recipe calls for a whole boned fish, you should
first gut it by cutting along the spine. Then cut parallel to the spine
almost up to the top and separate the flesh from the top and bottom of
the center bone. Lift out the center bone and small side bones and cut
the spine away at the head and tail. Finally, wash the cavity and the
outside and arrange the fish as closely as possible in its original
The easiest way to shell shrimps and prawns is to hold the head in
one hand and the tail in the other hand and squeeze the meat out of the
shell at the neck end. Wash the vein away under cold running water or
pick it out with the tip of a knife. Wash the shrimp, drain, dry well,
and set aside. Sometimes shrimp and prawn heads are also used in dishes.
Drying makes meats, seafoods
and vegetables tough and fibrous. To reconstitute dried foods, first
soak them in cold water until they soften. Then soak them in warm water
until they expand and regain their original texture and pliability. When preparing dried vegetables such
as wood ear (an edible fungus) or golden needles (also known as dried
tigerlily buds), you need not use cold water first. Wash the vegetables
well to remove any dirt or sand, and then soak them in hot water until
soft. Dried black Chinese mushrooms are prepared the same way, but
require less soaking time.
Chinese recipes call for ingredients to be cut
into different shapes because different ways of cutting affect the
texture and appearance of a finished dish.
Chinese cooks use three
main cutting techniques (see illustrations): straight-cutting (also
known as perpendicular-cutting), horizontal-cutting (slicing), and
slashing (scoring). Both straight-cutting and slicing are used to create
chunks, slivers, slices, strips, cubes, and even pulps and pastes.
Slashing means making shallow parallel cuts on the surface of an
ingredient, usually a meat or fish. This exposes a larger area to the
seasonings and to the heat source. If an ingredient is scored in a
crisscross or diamond pattern, it will shrink to form a raised
flower-shaped pattern when cooked.
Balance Among Ingredients
Chinese cooks attach great importance to the
balance among the ingredients in a dish. This important step should
result in a harmonious blending of textures, colors, aromas, flavors,
shapes and nutritional qualities. To do this well, you must understand
the required cooking methods of the dishes and the characteristics of
different ingredients and how they fit together.
ingredient should be the most plentiful one in a dish. If you are making
stir-fried meat shreds, for example, the total quantity of other
ingredients should not exceed the amount of meat. If there are two or more
main ingredients, you should use about the same amount of
All the ingredients
in a dish should enhance the flavor of the main ingredient. This is why
asparagus or bamboo shoots are often cooked with chicken, duck, and
fish: the blandness of these vegetables enhances the light, delicate
character of the meat.
Similarly, the blandness of shark's fins and sea cucumbers (beche-de-mer,
sea slug) can be offset by cooking them with Chinese ham, chicken, or
pork, or in a highly-flavored stock. You can also cut the heavy, greasy
character of a main ingredient by adding lighter secondary ingredients.
This is why many Chinese recipes call for pork to be cooked with fresh
You must also take seasonal factors and personal preferences into
account. Summer is the season for light, juicy foods, while heavier
dishes, or ones with thick gravies, are better suited to cold weather.
When you plan a menu, you should balance sweet, salty, sour, and hot
dishes to suit your taste and that of your family and guests.
There is also a Chinese sequence for serving dishes: salty dishes are
served before sweet ones, while heavy- and light-flavored ones are
Texture refers to the crunchiness, crispness, softness, or tenderness
of a food. In Chinese cooking, ingredients with similar textures are
usually cooked together. However, crisp and soft foods are sometimes
combined in a single dish. This requires careful attention to cooking
temperatures to retain the differences in textures.
shapes Chinese cooks usually cut all the ingredients in a dish into
similar shapes. For example, chunks of meat and chunks of vegetables are usually cut to about the same size. This makes it easier
to cook all the ingredients evenly and also gives the final dish a
Chinese cooks tend either to select ingredients of the same color, or
to use many contrasting ingredients to add color to a dish.
A well-prepared dish should have a distinctive
flavor. But it is not enough just to select the right blend of foods and
the correct cooking temperature-a good cook also needs to master the art
of blending the right seasonings with the right combinations of
ingredients. Without the correct seasoning, even delicious ingredients
can taste bland and uninteresting. Seasonings are also important in
Chinese cooking because they create the special flavors that
characterize different regional styles.
The condiments used in Chinese
cooking come in two ways, singly or blended. They lend single flavors
(salty, sour, sweet, etc.) or blended flavors (sweet and sour, sweet and
salty, hot and spicy, etc.) to foods. Some examples of these flavors and
the condiments used to create them are:
Salty flavor is basic to most dishes, with other flavors usually
added. Salt and
soy sauce, are the main seasonings used to impart a
Sweet flavors counteract fishy odors, cut the greasiness of rich
dishes, and enhance delicate flavors. The main seasonings use to give a
sweet flavor to foods are confectioner's sugar, brown sugar, rock sugar,
granulated sugar, honey, and saccharin.
Sour flavors help the digestion and increase the absorption of
inorganic salts. They also lighten heavy or rich dishes. Red and white
rice vinegar are the main seasonings used to add sourness to a dish.
Hot flavors are appetizing because of their sharpness. Hot seasonings
include fresh and dried red chili (chilli) peppers, pepper,
Bitter flavors have a special aftertaste that can be palatable and
refreshing. Ingredients such as bitter melon, Chinese yam, tangerine
peel, and-Chinese wolf-berry give a bitter flavor to dishes.
Spicy flavors help mask off-odors or fishy smells, cut greasiness,
and whet the appetite. In Chinese cooking, the main spicy condiments are
cassia bark, which resembles cinnamon, star anise, fennel, clove,
Sichuan red peppercorns, sesame, sesame oil, sesame paste, wine, red
wine mash and flavoring essence.
The first five spices are often ground and mixed together into a
combination called "five-spice powder."
Delicate flavors are natural food essences, generally the principal
amino acid of the ingredient. Shrimp eggs, crab meat, oyster sauce, fish
sauce, and meat stock impart delicate flavors.
Sweet and sour flavor
Sweet and sour flavor comes from sweet and sour sauce, a mixture of
sugar and vinegar, jam, and ketchup (catsup).
Sweet and salty flavor
Sweet and salty flavor comes from a combination of shrimp eggs,
soy sauce, and shrimp paste.
Peppery and salty flavor
Peppery and salty flavor comes from mixtures like the combination of
roasted ground Sichuan peppercorns and salt known as "spiced
Spiced pepper-salt is sometimes referred to as "prickly ash." One
basic recipe for making it is:
4 tbsp salt
1 tbsp whole Sichuan peppercorns
Heat a dry wok over moderate heat and pour in the peppercorns.
Cook, stirring constantly, about 1 minute, or until they release their
fragrance. Grind to a fine powder in a mortar or blender, strain out any
large husks, and set aside. Reheat the wok and pour in the salt. Cook,
stirring constantly, about 5 minutes, or until it just begins to turn
golden brown. Pour into a bowl and let cool slightly before mixing with
the ground peppercorns. Store in a tightly-closed jar. Makes about 1/4
cup and will keep indefinitely.
Sharp and salty flavor
Sharp and salty flavor is obtained from chili (chilli) peppers or
Sichuan peppercorns and salt.
Hot and spicy flavor
Hot and spicy flavor comes from seasonings like curry and mustard.
Hot and salty flavor
Hot and salty flavor is found in condiments like chili (chilli) sauce
and Worcestershire sauce.
Seasonings can be added to foods before, during, and after cooking.
Because the success of Chinese dishes depends so much on how they are
seasoned, the following guidelines may be helpful.
Fish, shrimp, beef, lamb, and mutton sometimes have off-odors. Adding
ginger, or sugar before or during cooking
helps counteract unpleasant odors.
Do not over-season dishes that feature delicate foods like fish,
shrimp, chicken, duck, or mushrooms, or you will kill their flavor.
Bean threads (also known as "cellophane noodles"), shark's fin, and
sea cucumbers are so bland that they should always be cooked with a
highly-flavored sauce or stock.
The amount of seasoning used should be correct. When a dish has
several flavors, the principal and complementary flavors must be
balanced to enhance the principal flavors.
The predominant flavors of Chinese dishes change with the seasons.
Fresh, crunchy foods and sweet-and-sour cold dishes are best for hot
weather, while winter is the time for heavier, fattier dishes, or those
that call for long, slow cooking techniques like stewing or braising.
Hot pot, in which a variety of fresh ingredients and meat is cooked in a
boiling broth in a special cooking pot, is also a special cold-weather