It’s the easiest thing in the world to cook a simple Chinese stir-fry at home. That is what all the recipe books tell us. You chop the meat and vegetables. You toss them in the wok and then you add the sauce. The actual cooking takes only a few minutes and when it is through, you will get restaurant quality Chinese food.
I wish! If only it were that easy!
If you’ve cooked Chinese food at home, you will know that no matter how authentic and fresh your ingredients are, you will never ever get food that approaches restaurant quality. Real Chinese food is incredibly difficult to make at home.
Which perhaps explains why, in so many take-aways or spirit-of-Punjab Chinese places, they don’t even bother with real stir-frying. Instead they batter fry the meat and vegetables and then drown them in thick gravies. When they do attempt to cook vegetables, they sauté them till they are limp and lifeless and have oozed out all their water. Order stir-fried bean sprouts, for instance, at the average Sino-Ludhianvi restaurant and you will be served a dish that looks like dead worms floating in lukewarm dishwater.
So, what are the secrets of Chinese cooking? Are the recipes in the books made deceptively simple to taunt us round-eyes and to remind us, once we have failed to execute those recipes, that only those born of Chinese mothers can make the real thing?
Can You beat the heat? According to chef Ananda Solomon of the Thai Pavilion restaurants (in Bombay and Gurgaon), the secret of stir-frying is mastering the ability to handle immense quantities of heat
I’ve been talking to chefs, both Chinese and Indian, and my broad conclusions are a) the recipes are not wrong, but they are a little misleading, b) there are things that you and I will never be able to cook in a home kitchen, c) Chinese cooking is about skill not just method and d) there is a trick that the Chinese use which they don’t like talking about.
The most important thing to remember about stir-frying is that to get restaurant quality results, you need very, very high temperatures. In a good Chinese kitchen, the hob has a flame that is at least six times as hot as the highest setting in a home kitchen. Unless you can get that level of heat, you will never get the results that professional chefs get in their kitchens. This is a fact of life. So live with it.
According to Ananda Solomon, who stir-fries Chinese-influenced dishes (such as his wonderful chicken with cashewnuts) at the Thai Pavilion restaurants (in Bombay and Gurgaon), the secret of stir-frying is mastering the ability to handle immense quantities of heat. Ananda says that it is only through practice and trial and error that you will learn how many seconds it takes to sear mushrooms in your wok. Only experience can teach you how to ensure that the pieces of garlic you are stir frying touch the side of the wok so that each pod has a crisp crust on the outside but remains soft and squishy inside.
As you and I are not going to work with professional levels of flame in our kitchens any time soon and nor are we going to spend our lives mastering wok skills to reach the Solomon league, I asked Ananda if he had any tips for the averagely-skilled home cook.
He had a few suggestions. First of all, cut your meat and vegetables into small pieces (bite size). That will help them cook quickly and evenly. (In China, knife-skills – and knives themselves – are nearly as important as wok-skills). Second, given that you can’t get the high heat you need for stir-frying in a home kitchen, try and do the best you can. Put the wok on the flame much before you are ready to cook and let it get as hot as possible.
Third, treat your wok with respect. Buy a cast iron wok (not one of those puny stainless steel non-stick things) that is heavy and serious-looking. Season it by heating oil slowly in it several times before you use it. This will add flavour to your food. It will also give it a natural non-stick quality. (The scientific reason is that the oil forms polymers in the wok which prevent the food from sticking). The more you use the wok, the better your food will start tasting. (Ananda gives the example of the pan in which you make an appam. An omelette pan also works on the same principle).
How do you know when your equipment is ready for restaurant-quality food? Well, Ananda says you should wait for the rice to dance. If you are making fried rice then you should strive for a situation where, once you put the cooked rice in the pan, the heat is such that the grains of rice start jumping around. This is why restaurant-quality fried rice is dry and flavourful not moist and lumpy like the stuff we make at home. (I’ve tried this test at home and my rice never dances, so no matter what Ananda says this may be tough to do in a home kitchen.)
That’s the skill, heat and technique part of restaurant cooking. But there’s also a trick. The first time I went to the mainland a decade ago, I wondered how Chinese chefs got the meat so tender in their stir-fries. It was more tender than the meat at any Chinese restaurant in India. And though some of it had to do with skill, I was sure there was a secret.
I now know what the trick is. It is something that all Chinese chefs should do – in theory, at least – but it is only chefs from the mainland who insist on it. The trick is called velvetting and I got chef Dong Shao Long from the China Kitchen at Hyatt Regency to explain it to me. China Kitchen is Delhi’s best Chinese restaurant and the authenticity of its food is down to six chefs imported from the mainland. Chef Dong is the head chef and like the rest of his brigade, he speaks no English. The service staff communicates with him through an interpreter and when I went to his kitchen, I also had to rely on the interpreter.
Chef Dong explained that in all serious kitchens on the mainland, chefs always velvet the meat before they cook it. He demonstrated the process for me. First, he took a cleaver and cut a chicken breast into juliennes. Then he put the juliennes under cold running water for a minute or so. Next he squeezed all the water out of the chicken. It was now ready to be velvetted.
He lightly dusted the chicken juliennes with cornflour though, he said, potato starch worked as well. Next, he added the white of one egg. (The ratio is one egg white for 250 grams of meat.) He could, he said, add a little rice wine at this stage but chose not to in the Hyatt kitchen.
Then he put aside the chicken for a while. (He did not specify a time but most chefs say it should be around 30 minutes – though in professional kitchens, time can be a luxury). Next he put lots of oil (peanut or sunflower are both okay) in a wok and raised the temperature to around 100°C. When the oil was ready, he threw in the chicken juliennes for 30 seconds. (Or less, he said, if the chicken turns white earlier). He quickly took them out and kept them aside. The oil (and there was masses of it) was put away separately. (Oil for velvetting can be reused).
When it was time to cook a dish, he made it according to the standard Chinese stir-frying method (but with a much higher flame than the velvetting flame – around 150°C to 200°C). But instead of raw chicken pieces, he used the velvetted chicken. I tried the dish when it was ready. What stood out was the texture of the chicken – moist, tender and, as the name suggests, like velvet.
Afterwards I read up on velvetting. Methods vary. Some chefs insist on a little alcohol in the marination. Others keep the meat for longer before putting it into the hot oil. Some don’t use oil at all but poach the chicken in water.
Most mainland chefs use the velvetting technique for pretty much anything that has to be stir-fried: fish, pork, beef etc. In many Chinese restaurants, chefs don’t bother with good quality chicken because the trick to the stir-frying lies in the velvetting not in the provenance of the bird.
The science is easy enough. The egg white binds the starch (either corn or potato) to the surface of the pieces of meat. So, when it is first put it into hot oil for velvetting, the starch becomes an invisible casing for chicken/meat/beef/fish. Then when it is dropped into the very hot oil for stir-frying, the moisture inside the meat is protected by the invisible casing and does not evaporate. This keeps each piece tender and succulent.
The great thing about velvetting is that you can do it at home. It is easy and requires no special skill. So, if you buy a cast-iron wok, get it really, really hot and use velvetted meat, you still won’t get restaurant quality Chinese food.
But you’ll come pretty damn close.
Velvet it like a chef
Chef Dong Shao Long from China Kitchen at Hyatt Regency, Delhi, explained that in all serious kitchens on the mainland, chefs always velvet the meat before they cook it.
Coat it just right
Chef Dong (right) cuts the chicken into juliennes, puts them under cold running water and squeezes them dry. Then he lightly dusts the juliennes with cornflour.
Next, he adds the white of one egg. (The ratio is one egg white for 250 grams of meat.) He could add a little rice wine at this stage if he chooses.
Make It A Full Hundred
Next he put lots of oil (either peanut or sunflower) in a wok and raises the temperature to 100°C. And throws in the chicken juliennes for 30 seconds or less.
When it is time to cook a dish, he makes it according to the standard Chinese stir-frying method. But instead of raw chicken pieces, he uses the velvetted chicken.
From HT Brunch, September 8
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