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Chinese Cookery

A few tips and basic techniques that really work!


The absolute basic Chinese cooking technique is the stir-fry. It can be learned in about five minutes and is unbelievably versatile and flexible. The basic cooking utensil is the wok. There are a number of types (and Westernized variations), but the one to go for is the traditional iron thin-skinned half-spherical one, with a wooden handle, or two built-in metal handles on the sides (if you don't mind using oven-gloves to lift it off the heat). A large long-handled metal spoon with holes in it is the best implement with which to do the actual stir-frying, because the curve of the spoon fits in to the inverted dome of the wok. Wooden implements are also suitable and do less damage to the wok surface.


Frying in a wok is the same as frying in a pan, except that it is usually done at a very high temperature and hence very quickly. The food is cut-up in advance, and the items that require the most cooking (e.g. onions or chopped carrots or chopped pimentos) are put in first, then the items requiring somewhat less cooking (e.g. chopped chicken or fish) and finally the items requiring the least cooking (e.g. chopped mushrooms or ready-cooked prawns). The size of the chopped ingredients gives another dimension of control over cooking-time: bigger pieces cook more slowly, smaller pieces more quickly. The idea is that everything should end-up with just the cooking time it needs so that the whole mixture is uniformly perfect. The total cooking-time is usually considerably less than five minutes. This is how Chinese restaurants and take-aways are able to serve their customers so quickly. Sauces, flavorings and thickeners are added at the end of the frying and just heated-through before tipping the mixture out into the serving bowl. Typical additives are stock (either chicken, meat, fish or vegetable), soy sauce (which can be dark or light), yellow-bean or black-bean sauce, hoi sin (which is a blend of sauces), oyster sauce or Western alternatives such as barbecue sauce or even Worcestershire. It's best not to use too many sauces at once. Soy sauce plus one other is enough for any given dish. A good authentic-tasting combination is strong stock (double the normal concentration) with a couple of tablespoonfuls of soy sauce and about one tablespoonful of hoi sin added. I tend to use light soy for cooking and the dark one as a condiment on the table, but it can be useful for cooking too when you want a darker colored result. The best thickener to use is powdered arrowroot, because it can be added to the hot liquid without causing lumps. Cornflour and plain flour are also suitable, but require more care (must be cold-mixed to a paste before stirring-in, and then heated very thoroughly to avoid a raw, pasty taste) or even gravy-mix (but don't admit to having used it). Finely-chopped ginger, chopped spring-onions and fresh bean-sprouts are typical Chinese ingredients. Other vegetables like bamboo shoots and water chestnuts are often available in cans if you specially want them. I am not a great fan of garlic, but it's perfectly all right to use it if you like it. The best method is to chop it up very small and fry it first, by itself, at a very high temperature. The smell that this produces is also useful for getting rid of any unwelcome house-guests that you may have at the time.

This is all the basic information you need to produce an infinite variety of seemingly authentic Chinese stir-fries. Begin by raising the dry wok to a very high temperature, then add the cooking-oil and swirl it around to coat its surface (about 2 -3 tablespoonfuls). Keep the frying temperature very high, keep the food moving around all the time so it doesn't burn, and don't over-cook it. Err on the side of crisp rather than stewed. Put in your stock, your flavorings and your thickeners at the end and cook just enough to get the effect you want. Improvisation is the name of the game.

The thin skin of the traditional wok allows the temperature to rise back again very quickly after each addition of a new ingredient, and generally assists with temperature controlability. The domed shape offers no inaccessible corners (for food to stick) and makes it easier to keep the food on the move. It also assists the flame to reach all parts of the surface equally. The wok is in fact the finest frying pan ever devised. The ideal heat source is a high-powered gas-ring, but electric woks do exist and work almost as well.

A Chinese meal almost never consists of just one dish. You should think in terms of about as many dishes as you have guests, including one or two that are "fillers", such as the rice and noodles (if you include them). Make a lot more rice than you think you are going to need, if it doesn't all get eaten it can be fried-up with leftovers and a little beaten egg the following day.


There are certain Chinese dishes that are surrounded by a degree of mystique, and which people think you can not cook at home. Chinese Honey-Roast Pork (Char Soh) is one of these. It is essentially strips of good-quality lean pork (such as fillet or medallion) marinated in soy sauce and spices and then roasted with a painted-on glaze of honey. The strips are cut along the "grain" so that they are about the thickness of two fingers. After cooking these strips are usually cut into coin-sized pieces and eaten either hot or cold with rice and a light sauce.

After some experimentation I have come up with a completely inauthentic but very plausible amateur version. My daughter (a former vegetarian) can't get enough of this.

The Marinade

Mix together about half a cupful of dark soy sauce, two teaspoonfuls of Bovril, about a tablespoonful of plum sauce (which you can get in Chinese grocers or the larger supermarkets), a little dash of red wine or sweet sherry, a couple of teaspoonfuls of tomato paste, a level teaspoonful of mixed herbs (supermarket package), and, if you have no conscience, a very small quantity of red food coloring (or cochineal). Mix this all together very thoroughly and leave the strips of pork to soak, turning them occasionally, preferably overnight. You can add some honey to the marinade if you wish, but I have found that it tends to reduce the absorption of the liquid into the meat.

The Glaze

Mix a couple of tablespoonfuls of clear honey with about a teaspoonful of sesame seed oil (for the lovely smell). Take the strips out of the marinade, let them drip-dry, and then coat them all over with the glaze and place them on a wire grid over a baking tray to go into the oven. Roast them at Gas Mark 5 (a medium oven) for about half an hour, turning once or twice and painting on more of the glaze as required. They will come out looking a bit black usually, but when you let them cool slightly and cut them "against the grain" into bite-sized chunks, the lovely red color will appear just under the crust and the taste will be really superb. A small quantity of an unthickened gravy consisting of a mixture of meat stock and a little dark soy sauce can be poured over the chunks just before serving. The chunks can be chilled and kept in the fridge for a day or two if required, and are nearly as good cold as hot.

Sweet and Sour

A lot of people think that Chinese sweet and sour sauce must be incredibly difficult to make at home - in fact it is one of the simplest sauces imaginable. Begin by heating a little cooking oil in a small saucepan and frying a little bit of onion and some finely chopped red and green pimento fragments. Take it off the heat and add all the following: About three tablespoonfuls of pure orange juice, a cupful of water in which you have carefully dissolved three level teaspoonfuls of cornflour (or plain flour), a dash of sweet red sherry or port, two tablespoonfuls of pure malt vinegar, two to three level tablespoonfuls of ordinary granulated sugar, about a level tablespoonful of tomato paste, and a tablespoonful of light soy sauce. Mix all the ingredients thoroughly and heat the saucepan again until the sauce thickens. Don't boil it if possible - just simmer gently. Finally check the taste and if you think it needs either more vinegar or more sugar, simply adjust the balance to the way you want it. A few little pieces of chopped spring onion floating on top look nice when the sauce is transferred to the serving jug. Use it straight away - it doesn't reheat very well. This is as good as any sweet and sour sauce that I have had, even in the best Chinese restaurants.

Pork in Batter

The traditional thing to serve with sweet and sour sauce (at least in the West) is pork pieces deep-fried in batter. Irregularly-shaped pork pieces look better than regular cubes, but they should be of roughly a cubic inch or so in order that they cook at about the correct speed. The batter is simply plain flour in a mixture of equal parts beaten egg and water. Stir in the flour until the mixture forms a thick paste that will coat the pork pieces evenly. Add a little salt and some freshly-ground black pepper. Dip each piece of pork to coat it thoroughly, then roll it in plain dry flour to prevent it sticking to the other pieces prior to frying.

When all the pieces are ready (about 3/4 lb. will make a generous dish) place them in a frying basket and lower them into hot vegetable oil. It should be hot enough to sizzle straight away but not so hot that it erupts like a small volcano. The cooking time will depend on how hot the oil is but an average frying-time would be about seven to ten minutes. The pork pieces should appear golden brown after this time, and the outer coat should be crisp. Finally, dry the pork pieces on a sheet of kitchen towel and serve immediately. A few small chunks of pineapple make a nice garnish for this dish.

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