Punchinello’s Chronicles

August 16, 2010

Cooking Chinese Take-Out: The Ingredients

Filed under: Chinese Take-out Cooking — Punchinello @ 3:35 am
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In the previous post, I spoke about the hardware you’ll want to have in your kitchen in order to make take-out dishes taste the same as what comes in a cardboard container. This discussion will be about those things you’ll want to have in your kitchen as on-hand condiments. Many of them you’ll likely already have, but some of them you may not be as familiar with. A few, like green onions (scallions) and bean sprouts you’ll want to purchase when you’re in the mood for some of these recipes.

Remember that a take-out restaurant is working with bulk items, and trying to keep the costs low. We’re not talking about super-expensive stuff, just regular food. Nothing is so temperature or time critical that you have to freak out about it. It may look that way with a professional chef, but it’s more the order and timing of ingredients.

What I’m finding are the necessary things to keep on hand include:

  • Cornstarch (also corn ‘flour’) – Not corn meal, which is entirely different.
  • Soy sauce – complicated seasoning, discussed below
  • Rice wine – Cooking wine, not suitable for drinking, contains salt
  • Sugar – that would be real sugar, not some goofy substitute “sweetener.”
  • Cinnamon – The secret ingredient that often creates a unique aroma
  • 5 Spice Powder – Not my particular favorite, but you might like it
  • Long-grain Rice – raw, not Uncle Ben’s, or Minute rice or other such nonsense
  • Clear Sesame Oil – not the darker, toasted oil.
  • Won Ton skins – These can be frozen
  • Egg Roll skins – Not the generic ones for lasagna, also can be frozen
  • Arrowroot Powder or Tapioca Starch – If you want to make your own sweet and sour sauce
  • 12 oz. can College Inn Chicken Broth – No other brand works like this, and get regular with salt

Corn Starch

Anyone who does any cooking will usually have flour and sugar on hand, along with eggs. For years, I’d have some cornstarch, but I didn’t use it much. It’s often used as a thickener, making a smoother and more silky gravy than flour and milk. When I started cooking Chinese foods, I began going through corn starch like flour. It’s used in just about everything, mostly for thickening.

Cornstarch Slurry

To avoid creating lumps of starch when working with hot liquids, begin by dissolving the starch into a bit of liquid. For cornstarch and arrowroot, first put the cornstarch in a small bowl. Then add just enough liquid (water, broth, etc) to form a paste. Stir that around, slowly adding teaspoons worth of liquid. Only use enough liquid to make a smooth, easy to stir white liquid.

The best way to “cure” cold liquids and avoid lumps is to add a bit of hot liquid to the cool starch slurry. But if you’re careful, and slowly drizzle your slurry into the hot liquid, stirring constantly, you can usually avoid the lumps.

Chinese Egg-Drop Soup

  • 1 can 12 oz. College Inn Chicken Broth (not “lite” and not “low sodium,” real soup). They’re all “fat free.”
  • Green onions, about 2 – 3 stalks for the green tips
  • 1 large egg
  • Cornstarch – about 1-1/2 to 2 Tablespoons. The more cornstarch, the thicker the final soup.
  1. In a 1-quart pot put in almost the whole can of chicken broth, but reserve about 1/4 cup (a few tablespoons). You’ll use the reserve to make a “slurry” with the cornstarch, later, then add it to the soup.
  2. Bring the soup to a strong simmer, over medium heat. The heat will thicken the cornstarch, so it’s not critical as to how much of a boil or simmer. Just so there are some kind of bubbles along the side of the pot.
  3. While heating the soup, scramble 1 egg in a small separate bowl. Depending on the results, you’ll eventually scramble it “loosely.” That produces some yolk and some white as strands. Experience will show you, but for the first time, just use a fork and “mess up the egg.”
  4. Use scissors and trim off some small pieces of green onion from the green tips. You can put them into the simmering broth, or dump them in at the end. You’ve seen egg-drop soup, and there isn’t a whole lot of green onion. Just enough for both color, and a taste of onion.
  5. In another small bowl, first put in 2 Tablespoons cornstarch. Then pour in the reserved broth. Use a teaspoon to stir it around until the cornstarch is fully dissolved. It’s quick to accomplish.
  6. Stirring the simmering broth regularly, slowly drizzle the slurry of cornstarch into the simmering broth. You’ll see it start to thicken almost immediately. If, after it thickens you want it thicker, then use some more cornstarch and either hot broth, or just some water — enough to make more slurry. Add that until it’s the consistency you like.
  7. The broth will take on a translucent quality. At that point, pour in the scrambled egg. Use a wooden spoon (any spoon) and “swirl” the egg around, pausing periodically.The egg will cook in “strands,” and it’s up to you how thick or thin you want them. The more you swirl, the smaller the egg pieces. If you want to impress someone, you can use chopsticks, but a spoon works fine. Let it pause every few seconds so you don’t end up with “blended” eggs. You want strands of egg. (If it’s too thick, add a little water then, next time, reduce the cornstarch to 1-1/2 Tablespoons. But keep in mind that it actually should be fairly thick.)
  8. Finish off by putting in some green onion tips.
  9. The soup is ready to serve. It’s hot, though, so be sure to let it cool.

Flour begins to thicken slowly, often making small beads if you don’t add it into hot liquid slowly. Cornstarch thickens faster, and it too can create small beads. As you become more skilled, you’ll see that you can use a few tablespoons of hot soup, and add that to the cornstarch in a separate bowl, one spoonful at a time. Just like with flour, that’ll help avoid the “lumps.”

Cornstarch produces a translucent opacity to liquids, where flour is mostly white when used in gravy. Arrowroot tends to remain clear, but it’s a lot more finicky to use. Sweet and Sour sauce from most commercial companies is almost clear, using arrowroot. But you can just as easily use cornstarch. However, when cooled, cornstarch tends to become jelly-like.

Arrowroot and Tapioca Starch

There’s not much information about cooking with arrowroot or using tapioca starch, at least that I could find. That’s odd, because Asian cooking uses one or the other a lot, when it comes to thickening sauces. The big difference between cornstarch and both arrowroot and tapioca, is that the latter two provide a clear end result.

Cornstarch is fine for thickening foods that will tend toward a jelly texture when cooled. It’s also good for thickening dairy products, since arrowroot gets slimy when combined with milk. Cornstarch works for apple-pie filling, since cold apple pie is fine with a sort of pudding-like texture to the filling.

But when you want to make sweet-and-sour sauce, you want thickness that doesn’t turn to jelly when it’s been put in the fridge. You also want a fairly clear sauce, without the cloudiness you’ll get with cornstarch. If you can’t find arrowroot, which is fairly expensive, you can also use what’s called tapioca starch.

Tapioca starch is a finely ground white powder. It isn’t in the typical beads you normally get. If you buy “instant” tapioca, you’ll get beads, but they’re very small. You can use a coffee grinder to turn them into a fine powder. Otherwise, look in the Asian section of your supermarket, or look in a store that specializes in Asian, Thai or Indian foods. Worst case, you can buy it online.

  • Use approximately 1 teaspoon of starch per 2 oz. of liquid
  • 2 TABLE spoons of starch thickens 12 oz chicken broth or fruit juices.

Tapioca starch (flour) is cheaper than arrowroot, so I’m switching over to that. It also holds up well under heat, and you can stir it without worrying that it’ll lose its thickening powers. Arrowroot is a little more delicate, and if you stir it too much it’ll lose that thickening capability. Both arrowroot and tapioca starch freeze well, although I don’t usually freeze sweet-and-sour sauce.

Bring your liquid to just starting to boil — to that point where there’s steam coming off the surface, and you can see a sort of minor volcanic action goin’ on. There are a few eruptions of almost a bubble coming from the bottom, spreading to the surface. Then add a slurry of starch with about a tablespoon of water or so, enough to make it liquid. Stir a few times, and you’ll see the liquid thicken right up.

If you want thicker sauce, add an additional teaspoon of starch to your initial slurry. So for 12 oz of juice, you might prefer 2 Tablespoons + 1 teaspoon (7 teaspoons). It’s up to you, and you can easily control the thickness of the sauce.

Soy Sauce

Oddly enough, soy sauce is made by using a fermenting agent (bacteria) to ferment soy beans. Soy sauce is used all over Asia, with wheat, for example used in Japan. Chinese soy sauce is complex and there’s no doubt that different brands produce different flavors. Soy sauce provides a salt flavor, along with coloring. Too much and your food will be too salty.

The key here is that soy sauce comes in two basic types. There’s lighter, “first run” sauce like we see almost everywhere in supermarkets. But there’s also darker, “older” sauce that’s been aged longer. The trick bag is that they BOTH look the same damn color! “Light” and “Dark” don’t mean squat when you’re trying to buy them in the store. The color actually refers to the impact they have on food, particularly rice, which is white.

Light soy sauce is NOT the same thing as “lite” sauce, which is a screwball American idea that gives customers an illusion that somehow they’re going to weigh less if they buy it. Never Buy LITE Soy Sauce! It sucks!

Dark soy sauce not only is darker, but it provides that darker brown color when cooking. It’s not that easy to find dark soy sauce, unless you happen to have a really good supermarket around. However; you’ll find that if you use light soy sauce in fried rice, by the time it’s brown enough to look right, it’s too salty!

A combination of regular soy sauce for flavoring, and a few sprinkles of dark soy sauce for color is perfect.

Light – Dark Soy Sauce Test

You can tell the difference with a simple test. Take a bottle of soy sauce and look up near the top, near the neck of the bottle between the glass and the sauce. Upend the bottle, then turn it right side up. Light soy sauce will immediately wash back down, leaving clear glass.

Dark soy sauce will also wash downward, but it will leave behind an obvious coating on the glass. It’s because there’s added molasses. The reason for the test is that sometimes you’ll find dark soy sauce, imported from China. But the bottle label is all in Chinese characters. In some cases, it’ll actually say “Dark” on the label. Otherwise, you likely won’t have the slightest idea what it’s saying, unless you can read Chinese.

Here’s a link to Amazon, where you can get it mail-order if you’re not able to find it locally. The brand I like is Kilman’s, although according to Wikipedia, it’ll probably kill me.

One way or another, the label or advertisement MUST say that it’s “Dark” soy sauce. On the other hand, “Light” soy sauce may mean “lite,” but all the company’s trying to say is that it’s not dark. You can find regular, light soy sauce everywhere. Kilman comes in both Light and Dark, and the label says so.

When in doubt, use the bottle-turning test. Dark soy sauce definitely leaves that coating on the glass. No doubt about it.

I like to take some frozen string beans and fresh bean sprouts, put them in a pan with a little water and fry them until they soften. Then I’ll add in a couple of tablespoons of butter, and cook the beans until they’re tender. At the very end, I’ll put in some ordinary, light soy sauce, a dash or two. When I began using imported soy sauce, that’s when I really noticed the difference in taste. Otherwise, just use Kikkoman.

Rice Wine – Cooking Style

Just like other types of wine used in cooking, you can purchase drinking-quality wine or cooking wine. I don’t drink, but I use a high-quality Burgundy and Chablis for other types of cooking. On the other hand, I’ve found that plain old cheap-ass rice cooking wine works for me. I did buy a bottle of saki from a liquor store, to try making some Japanese shrimp, but that’s another story.

Rice wine is…fermented from rice. Isn’t that something! From what I read, the best tasting stuff is Shaoxing cooking wine, but y’know what? I can’t tell the difference. Just buy a bottle if you see it in the Imported Foods section of the supermarket. Or check Wal-mart, they have some, I think. Or get it online. You won’t use but a tablespoon or so, here and there, so it’s not expensive. But it definitely adds salt!

I use this wine in the basic marinade (recipe coming in another article), and there’s no question it tastes differently than French wine or California wine. Definitely try to find some rice cooking wine, it’s worth it.

Sesame Oil

The last thing I want to talk about, in this post (more to come) is sesame oil. I went nuts trying to figure out how come my fried rice didn’t taste right. Neither did my egg rolls. I must’ve looked at a billion-zillion recipes, tried a lot of them, and none of them worked! I’d go to the restaurant and get fried rice and egg rolls (Fih’teen min’itt), examine them closely, and no joy.

Then I ran across a couple of forum posts and some video talking about sesame oil. Hoo Hah! Problem solved. Almost!

Most sesame oil you’ll find locally is “toasted” sesame oil. It’s used for flavoring on salads, I suppose. I dunno, it sure tastes awful in fried rice, though. What you really want is clear oil. Around here, it’s not that hard to find. We saw some at the local Super Wal-mart, along with some other stores.

A typical bottle of clear sesame oil is about $8 for 16 fluid ounces. You’ll only use about 3 Tablespoons in two cups of rice, so it lasts for quite a while.

The key thing to understand is that you don’t use sesame oil for frying! (You can, I suppose, but it’s a waste of oil in my opinion.) No, you use it at the end of the process for flavor! When you’re all done cooking the beef-fried rice, just before you take it out of the wok, you slide in the sesame oil, similarly to the way you would toss a salad with some oil.

Same thing with egg rolls: What “appears to be” greasy egg rolls, isn’t at all. In fact, egg rolls rarely are all that greasy. Instead, they have a few tabelspoons worth of sesame oil added into the cabbage. I’ll do a post on egg rolls, since they’re a frickin’ nightmare all on their own. But I did figure them out, so no worries.

Sesame oil has another interesting property of sort of “making you want to eat more.” When I get egg rolls from the local restaurant, the two things that mostly distinguish them from previously home-made are 1) the aroma (turns out to be cinnamon), and 2) the overall taste. Part of that taste is hard to describe, as it doesn’t really have a word.

It’s a sort of “gee, I just had a bite, but now I want another bite” kind of thing. Weird, right? And yet, it turns out to be a particular aspect of sesame oil. My own opinion is that it also has to do with another myth that “an hour after you eat Chinese food you’re hungry again.” Depends what you eat, but it’s not really true.

I’ll finish up a discussion on ingredients in the next post, but for now, these are the ones that you likely won’t have at the moment. They’re really not that common in American cooking, meat-and-potatoes and so forth, but they’re very common in Chinese cooking. Especially if you want that cardboard-container flavor.

Related – Table of Contents


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