Punchinello’s Chronicles

August 13, 2010

Cooking Chinese Take-Out Food: Introduction

I’m not particularly captivated by Chinese food, but I have my favorite dishes: egg rolls, fried rice, crab Rangoon, that sort of thing. For years and years I tried making the “simple” beef fried rice, and it never worked. It never tasted exactly like what I got from the local restaurant. Oh sure, there are lots and lots of recipes, particularly now with online video and the Web, but they don’t work for me. They taste very good, but they’re not what I get from a restaurant. There’s “something missing.”

Now, with time on my hands and not a lot of money, I’ve gotten back into the quest for the right taste. People say it’s the MSG (monosodium glutamate), which supposedly adds that special something. They say it’s cooking in peanut oil. They say all sorts of things, none of which turn out to be true. There’s no need for MSG, which is really bad for you anyway. You can use basic corn oil or vegetable oil if you want, or peanut oil which does have a nice flavor. No, it’s actually a combination of things.

Like any fine art, it takes 20 years to learn how to do the particular motor skills. Then it takes another 10 years to make it look like you’re not doing anything particularly difficult. That’s how it is with Chinese cooking (actually, a lot of Asian cooking). The ingredients are simple, inexpensive, and you don’t need a whole lot of “stuff.” But it’s the order, the quality, the style, and certain combinations that produce the finished result.

So I decided to put a series of posts into this blog, talking about my experiences with Chinese food, eventually getting it to be pretty much exactly the same as what I’m getting from the local restaurant. That used to be my benchmark, but then the owner sold it. Funny thing: now that I know how to cook what I want, I’ve gone back to this restaurant and bought some menu items. Mine are better!

Keep in mind that “authentic” Chinese food is one thing. Chinese restaurant “take-out” food is quite another thing. What we experience, here in America, is a modified hybrid. It’s more Chinese-American food and cooking. I’m not going to be talking about authentic recipes, I’m only interested in the stuff you get in cardboard containers when you’re in the mood for Chinese food.

Key Concepts

You must have a few basic things in order to make real-tasting Chinese restaurant food. They’re critical, and I’m going to get into each of them, so if you get bored easily, go read something else. This is sort of like Cooking for Engineers, designed for people who want to know the technical reasons behind food preparation. You’ll be amazed at the difference just a few items can make.

  • Rice – Long grain or extra long grain rice
  • A good quality electric rice cooker – An absolute must-have (I like Panasonic)
  • A 14″ carbon steel wok – mostly for the size, don’t bother with nonstick; it’s a waste of money
  • A flat, metal stirring spatula or wok spoon with a long handle (so you don’t burn yourself)
  • Sesame Oil – Gives a very specific flavor
  • Soy Sauce – both dark and light, but NEVER use “lite.”
  • Simple and basic all-purpose meat marinade – recipe to follow
  • Cinnamon

Rice

I’ve tried countless types of rice, ways of cooking rice, and all sorts of recipes for fried rice. None of them ever gave me the correct result. I thought that sushi rice (a.k.a., sticky rice or medium-grain rice) was the answer. It’s not. Indeed, you do get sticky rice in restaurants, and it certainly works very well with sauces, but it’s not the rice used in fried rice.

So-called Sushi rice (sticky rice) is actually medium-grain rice. It has a high starch content, and when cooked correctly ends up very, very sticky. Hence the name. It’s great for things like chicken and broccoli with cheese sauce when you want the rice to hold up under a lot of liquids. But it’s definitely not what you want for fried rice.

Understand that I do know how to cook rice in a pot on the stove, and it works very well. I make basmati rice that way, when I just want enough for one meal. It’s not that you can’t cook rice on a stove in a pot. It’s that you get a very particular, very specific texture in a rice cooker, and exactly the correct amount of sticky-to-not-sticky relationship between each grain.

You can use either long-grain or extra long-grain rice. It doesn’t matter what brand, and around here we have a lot of Mexican cooking, so a lot of 5-pound bags or larger. I just buy a brand-name extra long-grain rice.

You’ll want to rinse your rice, to get rid of the sprayed on vitamin “fortifying” powder. Then you’ll want to let it soak for about half an hour. When you get your electric rice cooker, you’ll get the measurements nicely organized for you. But you’re basically looking at 1-1/2 cups of water for 1 cup of rice.

All fried rice begins with day-old (or longer), cold rice. The major problem is the texture of that rice, how starchy it is, how soft or hard, and how well it separates grain by grain. The “frying” part means that you’re actually coating every single grain of cooked rice with oil, then lightly frying it to get it warm.

The flavor of the final product does NOT refer to the type of oil used for frying the cold rice! It’s the sesame oil that you put on at the very end that provides the “secret” flavor. It took me a lot of tries and experimenting to understand this, even though it seems totally simple nowadays. “Frying” the rice is one thing. The flavor is later. More about this in the actual preparation post to come later.

Rice Cooker

You’re probably not a restaurant chef, otherwise you wouldn’t be reading this. Therefore, I’ll give you a 95% probability that your rice isn’t cooked to the specific texture necessary for fried rice. Don’t take it personally, it’s only that the science of cooking rice is as complex as it is old.

The benefit of an electric rice cooker is that it uses science to produce perfect rice every time. At sea level, water boils at 212 degrees. During that boiling process, the energy in the water converts to steam. The constant conversion accounts for the exchange of energy. Therefore, as long as there is steam, there is a constant 212 degrees of temperature.

As soon as the steam stops forming, the temperature rises. Electronics provide a way for us to monitor exact temperatures and changes in those temperatures.

Therefore; no matter how much rice or water you use, and no matter how cold or warm is the water, an electric rice cook senses when the water is all gone. There’s no more steam, so the temperature rises by a degree. When that happens, the rice cooker turns off. Automatically.

I did a lot of research and ended up with the Panasonic 3.3-cup rice cooker. I probably will go upward to a 5-cup cooker eventually, because when I cook three cups of raw rice, it expands right up to the top of the cooker. The bottom rice tends to almost begin to brown. I suspect that a larger cooker will give me a more evenly distributed volume of rice.

That being said, 2 cups of rice produces so much end product (fried rice) that it easily feeds five or six people, or makes plenty of leftovers.

There’s no need to have a timer, really, other than it’s a convenience. Since you’ll want to soak the rice for half an hour, it would be nice to set a timer to turn on in 30 minutes. Then you could leave and do other things, knowing the rice will soak then turn on, all by itself. They all turn off automatically, so it’s not important to be there to turn it off. Finally, the longer you let the rice sit in the cooker when it’s done, the better it turns out.

The Wok

Realistically, you can use a Dutch oven or very large frying pan. The advantage of a wok is the tall sides and cone shape, making it much easier to stir around large amounts of food. Another advantage is that the thin steel allows for almost immediate changes in temperature. If your heat is too high or too low, you can quickly change it and the wok reacts much faster than a steel or cast iron pan.

I had a 12″ wok, long ago, and almost never used it. The reason is because it was too small, and food kept flying out the sides. It also was a cheap-ass wok made of some kind of flimsy tin or steel, and it just bent and scratched. So I did more research.

There’s no doubt you’ll be doing a whole lot of stirring around. There’s no doubt a lot of food will end up sticking to the bottom of the wok, initially, until you’re more comfortable with what you’re doing. Therefore, there’s no point whatsoever in getting a non-stick wok. Sure you can use plastic utensils, but they don’t stir very well. A stainless steel or aluminum long-handle spatula is way better, and it’ll quickly scratch off all the nonstick junk.

You can get a carbon steel wok for about $35 new. We often find them at the resale shops, like Goodwill, in our area and they’re pricing at around $5. It doesn’t matter if they’re scarred, burned or scratched. What matters is that they’re not dented. Check that the wok has layers of metal, like bands of circles. If it’s smooth inside, then it’s probably just plain steel. Don’t get a cheap one, it’s too light and not worth it. You likely will never use a cover, so don’t worry about it if you find a decent used wok.

You can season a brand new wok, but that’s easy enough to accomplish. (How to season a wok.) Don’t get stainless steel, aluminum or some other super-duper space age foolishness. Don’t get cast iron, they’re frickin’ too heavy!

Be sure to have a wooden or heat-proof handle on one side, and try to get another handle on the other. If the opposing handle also is wood or heat-proof, that’s very helpful. It doesn’t seem to matter whether or not I have a seasoned wok, but I wash it in soapy water and scour out whatever’s stuck to the bottom, then spray some oil and wipe it clean with a paper towel. Seems to work just fine.

Chinese Stirring Spoon or Long-Handled Lifting Spatula

As you know from the idea of “stir fry,” you’re going to be doing a lot of stirring and turning. When you’ve got 2 cups of cooked rice, meat, bean sprouts and various liquids, that’s a lot of food!

I saw in various videos of Chinese restaurants that the chefs use a particular type of spoon. It’s got a long handle, around 10″ long. The functional end is very shallow, almost like a bowl, and they use it to measure out oil and liquids. I use measuring spoons.

The key here is that it should be metal, with an end that’s between 3 – 5″ wide. The edge should be sharp enough to easily slide under piles of food, but it should be like a pancake turner in that you want to turn that pile of food completely upside down. That makes for evenly distributed cooking heat.

Don’t get a knife-sharp edge, just have something that’ll scrape food away from the sides, but that also will easily chop up scrambled eggs. Here’s one example of a Chinese turner cooking spatula. That’s fine, if you can find one, and you can use it to measure liquids. On the other hand, an ordinary lifting spatula works just as well, and they’re easier to find. Don’t get slotted or screened for draining, and don’t buy a typical burger flipper. The handle’s too short, and you’ll get carpal tunnel syndrome.

Summary – Part 1

I’ll continue with these articles, and put in links to each part as I go. But for now, this is the main idea for the hardware part of the process. You absolutely want at least a 3-cup electric rice cooker with automatic shut-off. You absolutely want a 14″ carbon-steel wok. EVERYthing else you can deal with using typical kitchen pans and pots.

Being kind of an idiot, taking things literally too often, I just “assumed” that the reason Chinese food tastes a certain way is because it’s all cooked very quickly, all in a single wok. Totally not true! Not being an expert chef, I found that it’s really much easier to cook the food in parts, in your own time, in different pots and pans when it’s convenient to do so. The end result is perfect, and you don’t go nuts trying to juggle everything at the same time.

It all begins with the right tools. Fried rice is totally and completely dependent upon the exactly correct texture of the cold, leftover rice. It may not seem like a big deal, but having tried every other combination I can tell you for sure that the texture is critical.

When you spend the $50 or so for these two items, you’ll be set. The results will be so good that you’ll make that money back almost right away by not having to spend the money at your local take-out restaurant.

Related – Table of Contents

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5 Comments »

  1. Very excellent post and you just forgot one thing that is essential. Have plenty of dish washing soap as the Chinese love to dirty a lot of dishes. The great thing is that the taste is so delicious that it is worth the time and energy for the cleaning afterwords. Not sure what the Chinese say but I say Bon Appetit 🙂

    Comment by Kathy — August 14, 2010 @ 12:13 am | Reply

  2. The nice thing about being the chef is that they have “people” for that — cleaning, preparing, dishwashing and all that other stuff. 🙂

    Comment by Punchinello — August 14, 2010 @ 1:14 am | Reply

  3. Even the fish go straight from the fish tank to the kitchen. Feeding Cups

    Comment by Feeding Cups — August 14, 2010 @ 2:49 pm | Reply

  4. A cleaver would be desirable although it is not essential. Dishes Utensils

    Comment by Dishes Utensils — August 14, 2010 @ 2:51 pm | Reply

  5. It’s true that a cleaver is an excellent and general tool, being versatile and capable of holding a sharp edge. But what I’m focusing on are the absolutes that can’t be replicated by some other, already common kitchen device. A chef’s knife or even utility knife works for this kind of food, or in a pinch any kind of knife.

    The main thing is to produce the taste and texture of Chinese-American take-out restaurant food. Authentic Chinese cooking is a massive subject, with countless people writing about it and putting up terrific videos on YouTube, and places like that. But very few people are trying to replicate as exactly as possible the “fast food” we get on the run.

    Comment by Punchinello — August 16, 2010 @ 2:16 am | Reply


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