What is the reason for the enduring worldwide popularity of Chinese food? It begins with a cornucopia of unique ingredients, vegetables and nourishing tofu, plus sauces and seasonings that are partnered with just about every creature that swims the seas, flies the air or roams the land. This astonishing variety of ingredients is transformed by the Chinese into memorable works of culinary art. Every dish must meet three criteria— appearance, fragrance and flavor; other considerations are texture, the healthgiving properties of the food and its auspicious connotations.
The array of seasonings and sauces used by Chinese cooks is not vast; nor are a large range of culinary techniques employed. However, the endless interplay of one basic ingredient with another—meat with tofu, vegetables with slivers of pork—and the transformation of these basics when combined with different seasonings, allows for almost endless variety.
The most essential utensil in Chinese cooking is the wok—a parabolic pan traditionally made of cast iron and used for just about everything except cooking rice: stir-frying, deep-frying, braising, making sauces, holding a steaming basket and so on.
Claypots of various shapes and sizes are used for slow cooking and for making soups and stocks. These are attactive and inexpensive, but any type of saucepan could be used instead.
Steaming is a healthy method of cooking favored by the Chinese, who traditionally use a multi-tiered bamboo steamer with a woven cover that absorbs any moisture, unlike a metal cover where moisture condenses and then falls back onto the food. The steaming basket is placed inside a wok, sitting a few inches above the boiling water.
Stir-frying is by far the most commonly used method. Other simple methods include steaming, braising, deep-frying and slow cooking.
Timing is absolutely crucial to the success of Chinese dishes. Most food is cooked very briefly, so it is essential to chop all the ingredients, measure all the seasonings, and have garnishes and serving dishes ready before starting to cook. Control of heat is also important, and for this reason, a gas flame is far superior to any other form of heat. Make sure you prepare and place the ingredients near the stove in order of use. And remember, as any Chinese cook would agree, practice makes perfect.
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