Being from an urban environment and because of the availability of hole-in-the-wall Chinese takeout stores I have always had a place in my heart for Chinese food. Chicken and broccoli as well as lo mein were staples for me. I never understood why some went straight for chicken wings and fries when you could get that anywhere. For me Chinese takeout meant something I couldn't get at home. Upon expanding my horizons and getting to know friends of East Asian descent and knowing that what we got in the takeout stores didn't resemble the actual traditions, I was interested in having the more authentic brand. But, I was pretty fearful of the process and technique involved in making an East Asian dish outside of one I defrosted.
I sat down, I mean really sat down, with Easy Chinese Recipes and didn't just skim it but read the details of what captures flavors I have enjoyed since I was a child--noting that Bee also mentions the difference between the takeout Americans are used to and the more realistic aspects of Chinese cuisine--as well as many of the 'How to's to make dishes similar to the way I'm used to with the right tools, sauces, and preparation.
First off, sauces are not meant to be thick like gravy and dishes aren't doused in them as I am used to. Also there are a handful of key condiments used in these dishes. I knew soy sauce was one but had no idea that oyster sauce was the other or that baking soda was used to aid in the tenderizing of meats when cooking.
I chose recipes that I could make a comparison against, ones that I have had in Asian restaurants/takeout/frozen, so that I had a basis for what I expected the taste to be for the dishes I made.
Beef and Broccoli
Even Bee notes that beef and broccoli is one of the most popular dishes in American takeout stores.
I didn't tenderize the meat (Bee has a section on how to do so with beef, pork, and poultry as well as making shrimp bouncy) for this dish and went all in with cutting flank steak against the grain and marinating (15 minutes). Then I prepped the broccoli, made the sauce and instant rice on the side rather than steamed long grain rice.
Using a large non-stick wok I prepped the beef, blanched the broccoli, added ginger to the oil, returned beef for final cooking, adding broccoli and sauce and voila I had my very own beef and broccoli! The sauce was a mixture of soy sauce, oyster sauce, toasted sesame oil, white pepper, sugar, corn starch, and water and really brought me back to the flavors I have eaten over the years from takeout.
I may have over cooked the beef though. Tenderizing the flank steak may have gotten that smoother texture I'm used to. The main difference between what the frozen P.F. Chang's and the takeout place down the hill and this recipe is the lighter aspect of the sauce as well as the rougher texture I got from the meat. However, if I had had dishes side by side and the meat had been perfect I would've chosen what I made.
Cashew Chicken (sans cashews)
I made this after work as well. And I chose to take Bee's advice and tenderize the chicken before marinating it and making the dish. The additional sides to this are cut up peppers (red and green, but I used red and yellow) and roasted cashews (which I took out since I'm having orthodontic work done), in addition to the sauce. Ginger is prevalent in many of the recipes so make sure to have a bunch of it ready and minced, same goes for garlic.
After tenderizing the meat (letting chicken sit in baking soda and then thoroughly washing before marinating) I half cooked it, added the minced ginger, and then the peppers and re-added the chicken. The sauce was light as well but clings and adds a great flavor (hooray for oyster/soy sauce mix!)
I am IN LOVE with this dish. The chicken was so tender even the next day after nuking it and several days later eating remaining leftovers. The peppers melted in my mouth and all the flavors were amazing! I know one of the best things about Chinese food is texture and if you get that right then everything falls into place. And this one knocked anything I've had in takeout/restaurants out of the park! So I'll be making this again and again and again.
Classic Shrimp Fried Rice
I didn't follow the steps to make the shrimp bouncy in this instance. I had made the rice the night before as Bee suggested and went with brown long grain rice which has a grainier texture than white long-stemmed rice/jasmine.
The seasoning/dressing for this is quite light mainly soy and fish sauce with sesame oil (another new love of mine) and white pepper.
As with all the other recipes I tried you partially cook the protein, in this case you have two proteins with scrambled eggs and shrimp. Cook the eggs first then partially cook the shrimp, take those out and add garlic & ginger, return the shrimp with frozen peas and carrots, cook for a bit then add rice, eggs, and seasoning and mix well.
Again: enjoyable. This is best eaten soon after making, not when it's piping hot but still very warm. The shrimp and peas and carrots and egg and seasoning were great with the rice and a nice meal in itself. And what I noticed was that the seasoning was, again, not heavy. I was worried the flavors wouldn't be there. "Less is more" pervaded in all of Bee's recipes, particularly this one. The flavors melded and each one worked together and was not too salty as the takeout you'll get nor was it greasy. I used low sodium soy sauce for all recipes but I think even without it the fact that you're adding light touches really does let the umami flavor break through on the fried rice. Again, I prefer Bee's recipe over takeout/restaurant/frozen foods that I've had of this variety.
Vegetables with Oyster Sauce
In Easy Chinese Recipes this is listed as Chinese broccoli (gailan) with oyster sauce. But since I did not like the gailan I found I went with another favorite, bok choy, and figured I'd see how this worked. I followed all the same steps of blanching the bok choy and cooking the sauce (again oyster and soy) and sprinkled this atop the vegetables. Man, oh man was this great! The sauce is not thick, more watery and you may want to add more bok choy than I did to make sure the vegetable isn't swimming in the sauce. Again, not too salty but with a familiar flavor that compliments the Classic Shrimp Fried Rice I ate it with and the Cashew Chicken I had it with the day after. I love bok choy for it's watery flavor and crispy texture. It reminds me of fennel but less intense in taste and for anyone who has had bok choy in an Asian restaurant you know that it works well with a light, meaty flavored sauce atop it. This is a new go-to sauce for me.
Shanghai Fried Noodles (with chicken instead of pork)
After trying, and failing, to find flat rice noodles I went with this recipe as it reminded me of lo mein.
Shanghai noodles are made of wheat and thicker than lo mein noodles. The base sauce here is significantly soy based (I used low sodium soy and dark soy sauce for color) along with white pepper and sugar (more staples in dishes with sauce in Easy Chinese Recipes).
Instead of pork, which is noted in the recipe, I made it with chicken, tenderizing it again beforehand.
Spinach and green onions are included in this dish and it's nice to have something green in there with all the noodles and protein.
I was worried that all the soy sauce would make this too salty even with low sodium because of the two used. But once I mixed it with the noodles and added chicken and spinach it was not a problem. This is not a slurpy, greasy mess when you eat it at all. It doesn't leave a huge oily mess on your plate but caters to having subtle flavors. The chicken was perfect, lightly toasted on the outside and a perfect moisture on the inside. I was glad to eat this over several nights.
Green Onion Pancakes
This was the most time intensive recipe (not hours or anything just longer than 30 minutes or so), and that is because you have to set the dough aside and also roll several out to prepare pancakes for frying. Also, I lost track of what stage I was in so re-rolled some balls more times than necessary.
I was worried that I didn't put enough green onions (scallions) into the dough. The basis for the dough is flour, water, and salt with little more additions besides the scallions and a brush of oil then more for deep frying. Scallions are darned strong (in smell and taste). I've always enjoyed eating scallion pancakes when going out for dim sum with friends. That with some hoisin sauce...awesome.
The frying went quickly. You have to make sure not to overdo it which may be hard as the oil gets hotter and hotter the more you cook. They came out golden brown then a bit browner and my whole apartment smelled of scallions (not complaining).
I waited a few minutes for the first batch to cool and then took a bit. I don't use acronyms when describing things but O.M.G! These were just as good as the ones I've had in restaurants and, you know what I'm going to say, less greasy. The grease factor may be because I often let things sit on paper towels and pat them to get rid of as much oil as possible where you may get the pancakes right out of the fryer in a restaurant. But the flavor even with less scallions than I had thought (because I had cut them up a bit bigger) was there! It pervaded in every part of the pancake but not so much you felt a need to hold a hand up to your mouth to cover up your breath. Minimal salt and accompanying sauce was unnecessary. It worked on its own.
After eating each meal I didn't feel too full or lethargic, nor was I too thirsty which can happen with the overly salty ways and MSG found in many takeout eateries (though many may proclaim they do not have MSG). Specifically the fried rice and green onion pancake were lighter for me compared to their restaurant/takeout/frozen counterparts. The flavors weren't too bold in that they overwhelmed but each had a distinct taste I could place that was effective and delicious. I really, really enjoyed every dish I made. No offense to the places I've grown up eating at but I'll probably be making these dishes on my own from now on unless a major ennui hampers me in the kitchen.
Bee's book helped me realize that Chinese cooking can be easy and healthier and tastier! Easy Chinese Recipes also gave me a lot of faith in myself, of being able to make a quick meal for friends and family and have it be better for them than what we've grown up with in NYC. What is also great is that many dishes serve two so making them won't leave too many leftovers in the homestead if you're cooking for yourself.
The only critical thing I can say is, as someone who bakes, I wouldn't have minded a larger dessert section. Easy Chinese Recipes is divided up by appetizers, dumplings/dim sum, entrees (pork and beef, chicken, seafood, vegetable, noodles & rice), and dessert/drinks. There are five dessert recipes in total, including custard tarts and shaved ice.
However, the major benefit of Easy Chinese Recipes is the amount you learn and the fact that you get wonderfully tasty sauces and succulent meats goes beyond any critical thing I could say.
I definitely want to share my new love and ease of cooking Chinese food at home. And I'd like to thank Rowan at Tuttle Publishing for being generous in helping me with this giveaway.
So here's the deal, from September 3rd to September 17th (12:01am, EST) I'll be running a giveaway. There are a few ways to enter: make a comment on this post (once a day if you like), liking Tuttle Publishing's and/or Rasa Malaysia's Facebook page and noting both via Rafflecopter (below). Rafflecopter will choose a winner at random and I'll be in touch about an address and send the book to you via USPS.