Wine Advisor FoodLetter: Chinese without a cookbook

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 "Chinese" without a cookbook Instead of a formula, a few simple principles for creating tasty Chinese-style dishes.
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"Chinese" without a cookbook

I've always enjoyed eating Chinese and other Asian foods, but it took a while to get used to the idea of cooking them.

The delicious contrasts of flavor, aroma, texture and color may make Asian dishes exciting to Western palates, but they're different, a difference that can be daunting when it comes to swapping that familiar skillet for a wok and stocking the pantry with exotic ingredients with strange characters on the labels.

I got over this obstacle years ago, with the help of a few good cookbooks like the Calvin B.T. Lee and Audrey Evans Lee's The Gourmet Chinese Regional Cookbook that I referenced in my recent recipe for Kung Pao chicken, not to mention such other Chinese-cookery favorites as Barbara Tropp's China Moon Cookbook and Irene Kuo's The Key to Chinese Cooking.

But embracing the idea of creating my own recipes in an Asian style, throwing together ingredients from scratch to fashion a dinner dish that a Chinese chef wouldn't find unreasonable? It took quite a bit longer for my Asian-cookery confidence to reach that point.

Following up on the Kung Pao, which was originally based on a cookbook procedure, I thought it would be fun today to use a recent from-scratch invention - hot-and-spicy stir-fried eggplant and garlic in a sort-of Sichuan style - to illustrate a few quick points about freestyle "Chinese-type" cookery and how I do it.

First, let's consider the form of a typical stir-fry dish. The primary ingredient - meat, poultry, fish or vegetable - is cut into bite-size pieces that can be stir-fried quickly and easily handled with chopsticks. Additional ingredients (onions, green pepper, bamboo shoots, etc.) are also cut into chopsticks-size pieces. There'll usually be a flavoring mix that may include such goodies as soy sauce, hoisin sauce, white vinegar, rice wine (or the often substituted Sherry), sesame oil, chile sauce and the like. Finally, there'll be aromatic and flavoring ingredients such as garlic and fresh ginger and perhaps chile peppers or dried red-pepper flakes; and cooking oil - peanut oil is my choice - for stir-frying.

Once you've broken a few favorite dishes down into their components, it becomes easy to see how to mix and match, choosing, well, one from Column A and two from Column B to create a "Chinese-y" dish of your own invention, stir-frying the primary ingredients and vegetables in a red-hot wok with the aromatics, adding the sauce ingredients and continuing cooking just until the sauce forms and the flavors blend, possibly adding a bit of cornstarch at the end for thickening. MSG? That's up to you.

A few quick prep and procedure tips, and we'll be ready to wok and roll:

 Take care to prepare all your ingredients and get them organized before you start to cook. Once you start stir-frying in that sizzling wok, you'll want everything ready and within reach ... you can't stop to go find, peel and chop something that you forgot.

 Don't be shy about getting the wok red-hot. Most home stoves lack the firepower of a professional Chinese-restaurant wok range, but try to come as close as you can (and don't forget the pot holders or oven mitts). Crank up the heat to its highest setting and don't be afraid to leave the dry wok on heat until a few drops of water, tossed in as a test, blast instantly into steam. (It's worth the modest investment in a real Chinese steel wok from an Asian market, by the way, but if you prefer a skillet, use a heavy cast-iron model that's big enough to hold all your ingredients while you stir-fry.)

 Don't be shy about using sufficient oil. You don't need to deep-fry, but holding back too far for the sake of calorie control may leave you scraping burned bits off the bottom of a dry wok. I like peanut oil both for the flavor it brings to the Chinese party and because it has a high smoke point and will hold up to hot-wok temperature, but standard vegetable oil, corn oil or canola oil will do. Save your extra virgin olive oil for the Franco-Italian dishes, though.

 Don't be shy about using lots of garlic and ginger. And hot stuff. Bold, bright flavors are the key to replicating Chinese-restaurant flavor at home.

Here's a dish I invented just the other night, based on whimsy and a batch of really pretty, golf-ball-size purple-and-green-striped Asian eggplants ("aubergines," for British readers) that I spotted at a local market. Don't worry if you can't find this type exactly - long Italian or Japanese eggplants or even full-size globe eggplants will work fine, too ... just cut them into chopsticks-size bites.

Sichuan-style eggplant and garlic

INGREDIENTS: (Serves two)

About 10 small round eggplants or 4 long Italian eggplants or 1 big one
2-4 garlic cloves
1-inch (2.5cm) length fresh ginger
Dried red-pepper flakes
2 tablespoons (30g) Sichuan hot bean paste
2 tablespoons soy sauce
2 tablespoons rice-wine vinegar or white vinegar
1 cup (240ml) chicken stock
Juice of 1/2 lime
1 teaspoon sugar
1/4 teaspoon sesame oil
1 heaping tablespoon cornstarch (corn flour)
3 tablespoons peanut oil
4 ounces ground or finely chopped pork


1. Cut the eggplant into bite-size pieces, leaving the skin on. (NOTE: Many recipes call for salting eggplant and leaving it in a colander for a time, then patting off the salt and liquid "to remove the bitterness." I don't bother. Eggplant isn't bitter.)

2. Peel the garlic and ginger and mince them fine. Put them in a small bowl with dried red-pepper flakes to taste.

3. Mix the hot bean paste (available in Asian markets), soy sauce, vinegar and chicken stock to make your seasoning mix.

4. In separate small bowls, blend the lime juice, sugar and sesame oil to make a flavoring mix, and dissolve the cornstarch in a little water.

5. Make sure all your ingredients are in reach: It's time to stir-fry. Put your wok (or large skillet) on a burner turned up high, and let it heat until it's sizzling hot and, as noted, a small splash of water vaporizes on contact. Drizzle in the oil, swirl it around the bottom of the wok, and let it heat until it shimmers. Put in the garlic, ginger and red-pepper mix, stir-fry quickly until the garlic and ginger turn translucent, then add the pork and cook just until it loses its raw color. Add the eggplant pieces and stir-fry, keeping them moving with two wooden spoons (or wok tools if you use them) until they start to soften and brown on the edges. Add the bean paste and chicken broth seasoning mix, bring to a boil, then reduce heat to a simmer. Stir, cover, and simmer until the eggplant is tender. This may take anywhere from 5 to 15 minutes, depending on your eggplant.

6. Uncover, stir in the sweet-sour lime juice mix, and thicken with the cornstarch, using a little at a time until the sauce is the thickness you like. Serve immediately with plenty of steaming white rice.

This dish can easily be converted to a meatless entree by simply omitting the pork (which is only a bit player) and substituting vegetable broth or water for the chicken broth. The bold seasonings and earthy eggplant will still make a delicious, if somewhat less complex, dish.

It may seem unconventional, but I've had great success matching Chinese dishes with Italian table wines, perhaps unconciously enjoying the Marco Polo connection between Italy and China. This one, made with a more mild than fiery level of chile-pepper spice, went very well with a fresh young Valpolicella Classico. And of course, cold beer or hot black tea is just about always a fine match with Chinese fare.

Want a copy that's easy to use in the kitchen? You'll find a simple, plain-text version of this recipe, suitable for printing, online at

If you have questions, comments or ideas to share about this recipe or food and cookery in general, you're welcome to drop by our Food Lovers' Discussion Group, where I've posted this article as a new topic, "FoodLetter: "Chinese" without a cookbook,"

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Thursday, Sept. 22, 2005
Copyright 2005 by Robin Garr. All rights reserved.

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