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In Beijing: what are some Chinese flavor profiles to combine with Western techniques?

post #1 of 8
Thread Starter 
I've just started cooking (for about six months now) and am by no means a chef, but am comfortable with a number of different techniques. The thing is, I recently moved from Boston to Beijing - while Western ingredients are available, they cost an arm and a leg and I would like to avoid them whenever possible. I was able to talk to my local butcher and he agreed to carve up certain Western-style cuts of meat (I won't have to give up my NY Strip! Yay!), but this still leaves open the question of what herbs and spices to use.

I'm open to being very experimental here, so if any of you have any ideas I would love to hear them. My bread and butter technique right now is searing a protein product that I've given a dry rub (brining first if it's poultry) and then whipping up a pan sauce to go with it. For instance, what sort of Chinese spices would go well on a dry rub for a seared pork chop, and then what sort of ingredients would be good in the pan sauce? Another favorite of mine is to pan-roast a steak and then top it with a compound butter with fresh tarragon and shallots - do any of you have any ideas as to what Chinese herbs and aromatics I could put in a compound butter to put on steak?

Another idea I had was to make a risotto with some sort of sushi rice like Kokuho - would this work? Would I have to add more liquid to make up for the starchiness? After adding the stock, I was thinking about adding some coconut milk to add some creaminess - would this go well? What could I use instead of Parmesan cheese (which is also expensive here)?

Any Chinese flavor profiles that you think would go well with Western techniques I would love to hear. While I've eaten my fair share, I'm actually pretty ignorant of what sort of herbs and spices Chinese cuisine has to offer with the exception of ginger. My one limitation is that the kitchens here usually don't have stoves, so roasting isn't really an option.

Thanks in advance!
post #2 of 8
Hi mthmchris,

Good to have you here. Sounds like you have a bit of a challenge going there. I'm not a pro cook by any means, but I hope I can help. Its a great place here to ask questions - there's some chefs who are well versed in mixing the two cuisines.

For pork chops for the rub - go five spice powder - you really can't go wrong. For the sauces - until you get more practiced, stick with the basic aromatics. Ginger, garlic and onion. Chicken stock, soy and cornflour feature heavily. Pork loves ginger. Also chilli.

For the steaks, personally, I'd steer away from the 5 spice (but that's just me). I'd stick with the basics as above (garlic, ginger, chilli and shallots), plus dark soy, bit of palm sugar. Garnish is pretty important - slivered/finely sliced (on an angle) scallions, or some finely sliced deep fried shallots add nice crunch.

You'll find vegetables form a lot of the basis in Oriental cooking. Onions, cabbage (various kinds), carrot, celery, capsicum (bell peppers), daikon (white radish) water chestnut, bamboo shoots. They tend to form the bulk of the meal, plus rice and noodles.

If ChrisLehrer kicks in on this thread - he'll be a wealth of information (c'mon ChrisL :) )
I think I remeber ChrisL saying it was hard to get recogisable "Western" cuts of meat working in Japan....don't know if you are finding the same thing there.

As for the risotto - experiment. Its hard to know how a different kind of rice will behave until you try. The compond butter - I would imagine garlic and chilli, or garlic and cilantro (coriander). Dash of lemon juice in both.

Best of luck with it :)
 Don't handicap your children by making their lives easy.
Robert A. Heinlein

 Don't handicap your children by making their lives easy.
Robert A. Heinlein

post #3 of 8
I wouldn't worry so much about getting westernized cuts, but it sounds like you solved that anyway.

And for the most part, Chinese flavors come out in the condiments more than in spices and herbs.

Five spice powder as mentioned is a traditional spice mix and it's a fun one. To me a little goes a long way so I recommend a light hand with it.

As for steak, black pepper or white pepper, garlic, and sichuan pepper would make a good flavored butter. The Chinese often us a blend of salt, pepper and sichuan pepper as a dry dip for morsels of meat but it would be interesting as a dry rub or crust.

Even in the US, my basic steak prep is to season with garlic, salt and pepper and drizzle lightly with soy sauce.

After eating risotto in Italy, Thomas Jefferson had his cooks make a cheese rice in the US. It wasn't made with a short grain rice but it's not a bad dish. Cheese is something that strikes most asian palates wrong so I think you'll have a struggle finding reasonable cheese prices and quality may be off in many cases as well.

The sticky rices of China are most often steamed into various cakes. i've not tried a standard cooking method with it myself. It seems to go softer faster than Arborio and wouldn't have that al dente chew the Italians want. At least that's my guess.

On the other hand, congee is pretty good in its own right and you may find ways to use that as a soup/starch accent rather than risotto. Or make it thicker. Or cook it with a parmesan rind, some garlic, onion.

Coconut milk rice is a fairly common technique from China through Vietnam and over to Thailand. it's not usually left creamy though and there are lots of variations.

In all seriousness, learn to cook Chinese. You have a great opportunity and it would be a shame to miss out on it. It's one of the top cuisines of the world. Sure, cook some western meals as a touch of home and diversity, but learn while you're there.
Palace of the Brine -- "I hear the droning in the shrine of the sea monkeys." Saltair
Palace of the Brine -- "I hear the droning in the shrine of the sea monkeys." Saltair
post #4 of 8
Hi there! :bounce:

Okay, a few things. China is actually a hair easier than Japan, but the same basic principles apply.

1. Beef is going to be cut, quite often, in weird blocks. Get big blocks, not small, and you'll save money. Season well with salt and pepper. Put them on a grill (look for a stovetop grill -- very popular item in East Asia) or in an extremely hot pan, and sear about 3 minutes per side, likely 3-4 sides, depending. Check for doneness, maybe do another minute per side if need be. Then let it rest under a bowl or something for 15 minutes while you do whatever else you need to do, including a pan sauce if you want. Then cut crosswise in thin slices and you'll have wonderful London Broil.

2. If you want to make risotto, just take it for granted that you will need more stock than you expect, and hope to be pleasantly surprised. Do it the old-fashioned way, adding 1/2 cup at a time and stirring until nearly dry, then repeat. It will eventually produce something like risotto, but who knows how much liquid will be needed? If you find this fun, start experimenting with different types of rice: you want it to be starchy and relatively short-grained. But if you're not looking for perfection, any regular rice will do.

3. I find that the basic trick is to think Mediterranean. You can always get chicken, pork, seafood, and root vegetables. Herbs, it depends on what you're looking for, but dry herbs are available (at a price!) and work fine in long braises and stuff. Look into bourride, bouillabaisse, and similar seafood soups: the crucial ingredients are whole seafood (check), garlic (check), eggs for the aioli (check), mild vegetables for filling it out (check). But you're going to have to learn how to fillet whole fish, which is a good skill and a lot of fun once you get the hang of it. Learn to separate fish into white, blue, and red, and use white only for soups. And clams, shrimp, oysters....

4. Raw vegetables are not your friend in Asia, in general. So plan to cook everything. Think about cuisines that like to cook vegetables instead of serving salads, and go from there.

5. In China, Louisiana is very, very close to you. What do you need? Celery -- not so much, but scallion greens are a fine substitute. Onion -- sure. Mild peppers -- sure. Hot peppers -- sure. Tomatoes -- depends, but canned are always around. Garlic -- easy. And of course seafood is a walk in the park. So think gumbo: make a brown roux of 1/4 cup flour and 1/4 cup oil, add a cup or so of coarsely chopped scallions (all parts) and mild peppers, add a bunch of Louisiana-type spices, including lots of garlic, and then add chicken or seafood stock and whisk the heck out of it until it starts to thicken. Simmer for an hour, gently. Skim. Then add a bunch of insanely fresh seafood, wait 2 minutes, then shut off the heat and slap the cover on the pot and wait 5 minutes. Serve at once. Hot sauce is always available, of course, if you need it.

6. In China, Mexico is also close. Cheese is tricky, although mild cheese is available. But cilantro, very fresh seafood, fresh vegetables, pork, chicken, that stuff is around for the taking. You may need to learn to press a flour tortilla, but that's not hard once you get the hang of it, and then you sear it in a hot dry wok and it's ready. Dry chiles are going to be different from in Central America, but experiment and you'll get all kinds of interesting flavors going on. Look into the local yoghurts, too -- when I was last in Taiwan (20 years ago) there was this big push to get people eating yoghurt for the calcium, because it's easier to digest than milk, and I have heard that this has led to an explosion of interesting kinds of yoghurt, some of them admirable substitutes for Mexican-style crema (sour cream).

Beyond that, it's a question of (a) what you're looking to produce, and (b) what sort of equipment you've got in your kitchen. Keep us posted, and I'm sure we'll come up with more ideas.

Enjoy China. And don't spend all your time trying to cook other things: Chinese food hen hao chi and you know it, so eat lots.
post #5 of 8
Thread Starter 
Thank you all for all of your help. To be sure, I want to eventually learn to cook Chinese cuisine, but first I wanted to get a good feeling of the herbs and spices that the Chinese pantry has to offer. I figured that a good way to do this would be to pair them with the techniques that I already knew, and then move from there (to be honest, I also wanted to practice these techniques more, as I've only been cooking for about six months). I'm here for at least two years, so I'll have no shortage of time.

I'm should be going to the store tomorrow. I'll keep you guys updated with anything "inventive" I prepare, whether it be good or bad.

Thanks again!
post #6 of 8
Important question, by the way. What kind of cooking equipment have you got? I don't mean pots and pans, but the oven, range, microwave, etc. It's no help to give you suggestions that require an oven if you haven't got one, for example.
post #7 of 8
Thread Starter 

As of right now, I only have a stove and a microwave. Apartments with oven are usually difficult to find, but in a month or so I'm going to be moving, hopefully to a place with a balcony that I could place an outdoor grill on. I was thinking if I ever wanted to do something like a roast, I could fire up the outdoor grill and use an indirect grilling method (although this will no doubt take some practice, luckily I brought over my trusty instant read thermometer).
post #8 of 8
Okay, I just spent a year with a system like this: three burners of various strengths, microwave that doubled as a stunningly bad toaster oven. (Example: it takes literally 5 minutes per side to toast bread! :mad:) Feel free to ask for suggestions as time progresses: I learned a lot and there's no sense in reinventing the wheel.

One thing to look for is a wire stovetop grill. In Japan, they're called 焼網, and you can see whether that term gets you any mileage. It's got two operative parts: a very fine-meshed screen that sits directly on top of a gas burner, and a much wider-meshed screen of fine durable wire that sits a couple of inches above the screen. You turn on the burner full blast and wait about 30 seconds or so, until you see that the screen has gone red-yellow instead of just trapping the flame below. That screen is now the heat element, and acts a great deal like an even bed of charcoal. The mesh above that is the grill itself, and once you've waited maybe another minute, those wires are scary hot and it's ready. The big trick is figuring out how much to turn it down for a given usage, because at full blast it's very, very, very hot, and you'll feel that radiant heat in waves.

Be sure you have good tongs, unless you are quite deft with metal-pointed, wood-handled chopsticks. Wood chopsticks will go up like matches, and metal will burn your hands amazingly fast --- that thing is HOT!

Try it with fish, by the way. It's bar none THE BEST way to cook fish. Just salt the skin well for half an hour, wipe clean, then re-salt and rub lots of salt into the fins, and toss the whole thing on the grill. Perfection is both sides brown and blistering in 3-4 minutes per side for the average 1-2 serving fish. Then just eat everything except the head, tail, and backbone. Serve with soy sauce and lemon.
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