I’m slightly obsessed with the way the Chinese cook. The tools used come down to a few kitchen staples: a wok, cleaver, chopsticks, and just a couple more utensils. Recipes are intimidatingly ingredient-heavy, usually making most people shy away from throwin’ down an awesome and versatile dish.
Today, the cuisine is a little weak. Not the food itself, by any means. Whether or not there’s love or skill in the food, it somehow manages to taste fuggin bomb, much like Domino’s pizza. #guiltypleasure
While I love exploring restaurants and eating new dishes, my intuition to carefully trace the roots of my food has increased drastically, making me pickier than ever…unless I’ve been drinking.
Basically, if you want something done right, you have to do it yourself. Which is why I decided to take a knife skills class at one of Beijing’s well-known culture exchange houses: The Hutong.
Because I love almost all the Chinese food I’ve ever eaten, I couldn’t decide on a specific cuisine to cook - Yunnan, Sichuan, and handmade noodles are just a few of the offerings - realizing I wanted to know more about the methods used, I opted for learning how to make the most of my cleaver.
The two-hour class will cost you a cool 300rmb (45USD), which, to me is a bit overpriced, especially if you have a Chinese friend that is passionate about food. Mine laughed when I told them how much I paid.
The classes are geared towards foreigners and tourists. While they were well-organized and have Chinese hosts that speak great English, the downside to me was probably just the lack of information during the class. My teacher Miya, a very experienced and passionate cook, was awesome. I think I just wanted more detail. I’m a person of many why’s.
Because I’m not a total n00b in the kitchen, and am mostly self-taught, I took just a few key elements away from the class, that will be useful with both Chinese and foreign dishes.
1. CLEAVER IS LORD
I’m not shy to the cleaver. In fact, it’s the only knife I’ve used since I moved to China. A lot of people feel it can be used only when cooking Asian food. This is a terrible misconception that could lose you tons of money on knife sets and kitchen space, especially if you’re working in a little tiny joint like me.
The cleaver is used for slicing, dicing, marrying, and divorcing. Honestly, you can smash up aromatics with it, quickly julienne, or even debone a chicken with it. All of which I did in my class. Don’t get me wrong - you can do this with most knives. But the wide, flat panel the cleaver offers makes for an easy grab, allowing you to be in firm control of the beast, like an extension of your body.
Using a cleaver makes mincing particularly easy. Smash a garlic clove on with the flat side of the knife, then use one hand to hold the handle, and let your other hand be the guide on the opposite side of the blade in mincing faster than Bolt in a 100m dash.
Forget the food processor. The cleaver is a keeper.
2. SUGAR IS...NEEDED
I know what you’re thinking, “Monica, you just bitched at me telling me I need to stop worrying about fat and start worrying about sugar.”
I know, I know. I’m sorry.
Even after the class, I still don’t cook with palm sugar. If a recipe calls for it, just replace it with a natural sweetener. My go-to is honey, and still, very minimal amounts of it.
So, why is sugar used? Well, it’s for caramelizing in some cases, and balance in most.
For example, if your dish is too salty you could balance it out with a sweetener. Almost like a two-wrongs-do-make-a-right situation. In this particular situation, it seemed like we used sugar to accompany salt, in place of MSG, which our host correctly assumed we didn’t want to cook with.
Most Asian countries are big on using sugar in dishes where you’d think it wasn’t necessary. Sadly, this has created a diabetes epidemic, so do it sparingly, or you’ll end up like that old dude on daytime TV that can’t properly pronounce “diabetes”.
We used sugar in all three dishes we cooked. We caramelized chicken thighs in one of the dishes, balanced hot and sour potatoes with it, and did the same for a cold cucumber dish.
Do you absolutely need to add a sweetener when you’re cooking? Based on lots of cuisines around the world - Asian or not - it seems like it. If you want to achieve the best flavors possible, you do need to balance a lot of different ingredients.
3. SOY SAUCE: COLOR MATTERS
Soybeans. Ah, they get a bad fuckin’ wrap these days. I honestly can’t bring myself to keep a firm distance from them. The Chinese have turned soybeans into so many incredible things, none of which I’ll list now, because when you say them out loud, they sound disgusting. Shit, they even look disgusting no matter how well you dress them up.
However, when eating them, you’re like, omgz, I can finally be vegan.
But, (there’s always a “but”), you seriously can not eat or cook with just any soy product. It must be organic, and it should be in moderation. I use soy sauce in China and tamari (wheat-free soy sauce) in the US.
So why do some people use two different kinds? Simply for color. The caramelized chicken thighs I mentioned earlier were going to later be braised. Light soy sauce, which is obviously very salty, doesn’t produce a dark enough color, no matter how much you use. Dark soy sauce, is more mild, but very concentrated, meaning a little goes a long way. Braising is basically boiling whatever in its natural juices. We couldn’t risk losing any more color with the water that the steam would eventually produce, so we had to go with dark soy sauce to create a richer appearance. ’Twas the bomb.
If you’re serious about cooking good Chinese food at home, invest in a bottle. A little goes a very long way and will last forever.
4. JULIENNING: IT AIN'T SO BAD
This was probably the biggest take away of the class for me. One of my favorite Chinese dishes - 土豆丝 (Tǔdòu sī), which I’ll later give you the recipe for, is made of julienned white potatoes. The Chinese have upped their game and created a kitchen tool, much like a cheese grater, that easily juliennes for you, but having this skill is sexy and timeless. Big shout out to my boyfriend for impressing me during class with his julienning skills. Sup, playboi?
So how does one julienne? Well, it certainly takes practice. I’ve only done it one more time since I took the class almost two weeks ago. But the second time around, my skills had improved significantly.
- Start with a whole potato. Peeled or unpeeled. Shape doesn’t seem to be of importance.
- So you can have better control of the potato, slice a thin piece off of the entire bottom to create a flat surface.
- You’ll want to use the flat part of your middle finger as a guide for the knife, so you don’t slice off yo fanga tipz (finger tips),
- Slice the potato a thin as you can, moving your five fingers slightly back with each slice.
- Let the potatoes fall, then slightly pull them towards you to create what looks like tiny little steps.
- Use your five fingers to control the potato, with your middle finger again as a guide. This should be your standard knife position, always.
- Look over your cleaver so you can see how thin you’re slicing the strips, moving your hand back with each slice to get them as thin as possible.
You’ve seriously just gone from amateur to Guy Fieri in, like, two seconds. c00l, dude.
5. PREP OR DIE
One of the most important kitchen skills to have in general is prepping, especially if you cook with a wok.
Cast iron is the name of the game in my house, and woks retain a lot of heat as is. If you’re not down to burn your food, you’ll want to have your ingredients ready so you can add them with the quickness. This makes cooking more organized, because you can place them in cute little dishes in the order of which you need them, but also, it makes you look super profresh.
Seriously, just bleach the tips of your hair already and put on some Oakleys.
6. SESAME OIL IS FOR DRIZZLING
This is pretty straight forward. What olive oil should be to most people, sesame oil is to the Chinese. It doesn’t do well at high temperatures and the flavor is quite strong. Heat messes with its profile and even health benefits. Use it for salads or drizzle it on hot dishes for the best flavor.
With that, I’ll share with you a dish I’ve been eating in China the entire duration I’ve lived here - Tǔdòu sī, which basically just translates to potato wire. Yeah, Chinese is a weird language.
“Tǔdòu” (to dough) is potato, and “sī” (imagine if you put an “s” in front of “ugh”) means slice or julienne.
I’ve had this dish in the north, south, east, and west. I’ve eaten hot and I’ve eaten it cold, with cold, salty, and spicy being my preference over spicy and sour.
I prefer the “Là” spicy, pictured above on the right, to what is basically just hot, compared to the “Má” spicy, which is the feeling of numbness given from Sichuan peppercorns, pictured above on the left.
In class, we had the 酸辣土豆丝 (spicy and sour) version served hot, which traditionally consists of using vinegar, dried chilis, and Sichuan peppercorns. Probably my 2nd favorite variation.
Here’s my take:
Tǔdòu Sī Recipe
Serves 3-4, as a side, 30 minutes
- 2 large potatoes, low starch content
- Oil to coat your pan/wok
- 1/2 teaspoon white pepper
- 1 teaspoon ginger, minced
- 4 cloves garlic, minced
- 4-6 dried red chilies, chopped
- 1 Anaheim chili, julienned
- 1 small carrot, julienned
- 1 teaspoon light soy sauce
- ½ teaspoon sweetener
- 1 teaspoon rice vinegar
- Salt to taste
- 1 scallion, sliced for garnish
- sesame oil, for drizzling
1. Peel and julienne potatoes. Rinse them under water until the water runs clear. Soak in water while you prepare your other ingredients to prevent browning.
2. Peel and julienne carrots, followed by julienning peppers. Place in separate bowls.
3. Crush and mince garlic and ginger. Chop peppers. Deseed if desired. Set aside.
4. Heat oil until smoking. “No smoke, no cook!” As the Chinese like to say.
5. Add in ginger until slightly golden and fragrant, about 1 minute.
6. Drain potatoes while ginger is browning.
7. Sauté garlic, dried chilis until fragrant.
8. Add in drained potatoes, carrots, and Anaheim chili, stir fry quickly for 1 minute. Potatoes should have a crunch, but not be raw.
9. Add the soy sauce, sweetener, vinegar, white pepper and salt. Continue stir frying for 45 seconds to 1 minute on high heat.
10. Quickly plate, garnish with scallions and drizzle sesame oil. Add salt to taste if necessary. Serve hot or cold.
Did you make it? Prove it! Have you tried the hot and sour version? What about the sweet and sour version? Leave your preference in comments below!