day thirteen - chinese cuisine

Note: For six weeks, July 5 - August 11, I will be enrolled in the culinary arts cooking and pastry/baking certificate programs at Boston University. Cooking is Monday and Tuesday, baking is Wednesday and Thursday. We have to keep a daily journal of the experience, so I'll be blogging about the class every day.

"The Cantonese will eat anything with two legs except a man, with four legs except a table and with wings except an airplane."

This is apparently a saying used to describe the Cantonese, which we learned in last night's class devoted to Chinese cuisine. I could take a class on Chinese cuisine alone; it would last a year and we would probably get through ten percent. I'm not sure it's possible to really know all of it.

Helen Chen was our guest chef last night. She's the daughter of Joyce Chen, the famed host of Joyce Chen Cooks, one of the first television cooking shows (it was filmed on the same set as The French Chef). Helen specializes in home cooking, specifically how Americans can cook Chinese food at home, and she also teaches cooking classes, has written three cookbooks and has her own line of Chinese cookware.

We started the class with about an hour of lecture on Chinese cuisine, where we learned that little saying concerning the Cantonese, and maybe by extension Americans, because our Chinese restaurants are usually modified Cantonese dishes. A few facts about Chinese cuisine:

  • Northern Chinese cuisine is more wheat-based, focusing on wheat noodles and breads, because that's where wheat is farmed. Southern Chinese cuisine is rice-focused.
  • As the oldest living civilization, Chinese cuisine has a long and deep tradition, developing at at time when travel was unsafe and expensive, resulting in strong regional cuisines.
  • Chinese cuisine deteriorated during the Cultural Revolution, when a restaurant's recipes were suddenly deemed property of the state and commissaries became the central place for dining.
  • Stir-frying became the predominant form of cooking in Chinese cuisine because deforestation limited the wood supply needed for long cooking. Cooking with twigs, leaves, etc. meant fast, high heat.
  • Because only 10 percent of China is suitable for agriculture, pigs, chickens and ducks are favored over grazing animals. Thus, beef is not popular and dairy is absent from Chinese cuisine (which makes it a good Kosher option, aside from the popularity of pork).
  • Leafy greens, as opposed to root vegetables are very popular in China. But, because human waste is utilized as a fertilizer, salads and other raw vegetable preparations are not a part of the cuisine.

Helen told us this last bit of information in reference to the cucumber salad we were making. Raw cucumbers could be used, she said, because they grown on trellises and thus don't touch the ground.

The whole meal was delicious. We started off with pork fried wontons, which wouldn't normally be fried in China, but Helen said they are such a good appetizer when they are fried this is how we would do them. And she was right. After learning how to fold the wontons into the traditional "nurses cap" shapes, we fried and ate way too many of them with a delicious Thai sweet and spicy sauce she had brought in.

Then we split up the jobs to make sweet and sour cucumber salad (simple and refreshing), stir-fried rice vermicelli with shredded chicken and vegetables (the chicken should be shredded to the same size as the vermicelli), steamed salmon with black beans (made in bamboo steamers using these great steamer holder rings Helen invented that you place over your pot) and Yangzhou slippery shrimp, which is shrimp in a slippery, sticky sauce made of ginger, garlic, ketchup, cider vinegar, sherry and a bit of sugar (see the photo at the top).

When we sat down to eat, with a sweet gewurztraminer, it was the first time it seemed like a real meal, instead of, say, a pound of steak, a whole chicken and a pork chop. Or three cakes and another cake. It was all very good - lighter, fresher and less gloppy and cloying than a lot of what you might find at an American Chinese restaurant (which I like, too; sorry authenticity). Although, to be honest, the simple white rice was my favorite. From the moment she put it in the fancy Zojirushi rice cooker (which sang a little song), I wanted some rice so bad. As Helen said, you haven't eaten until you've had rice.

Tonight: Mexican, including ceviche and mole.