Saturday, January 5, 2013

Cooking Chinese food

It's been so long since I've posted! I guess med school as gotten the best of my blog. But nothing like a fresh new entry to start the new year, so here goes!

I have a shameful confession to make: I don't really know how to make Chinese food, and sometimes I even mess up fried rice. When I go back to China and tell my Chinese family that I live on my own and cook for myself, they are first impressed. After all, tales of university students who can't take care of themselves are commonplace on that side of the pond. But when they delve deeper the following conversation often ensues:

Chinese relative: You live on your own! Do you know how to cook Chinese food (literally translated as "stir-fry vegetables")?
Helen: Not really, but I'm good at cooking Western food.
CR: Oh. So you make hamburgers and toast.
H: ....

Chinese misconceptions of Western cuisine aside, it is unfortunate that I don't know the basics of cooking Chinese food, especially since, well, I love eating it. In my defense, learning how to cook good Chinese food in America is not easy given the scarcity of both available ingredients and a family member who makes it on a daily basis (ahem, MOM). And lastly, Chinese cookbooks (that is, cookbooks from China) are notoriously not user friendly. There is no glossy picture of an Asian Barefoot Contessa holding your hand and walking you through each step of a dish. Instead, recipes are more like: fry pork, add vegetables, and season to taste. The end (I'm exaggerating, but only a little).

But now that we're done with excuses, I've been making my foray into the Chinese cooking world. Sadly, this adventure makes me feel like a beginner cook all over again, with each barely-edible meal taking hours and countless dirty dishes. And of course, I am glued to recipes because I have no idea how to use many of the ingredients. Whereas for most Western cuisines and even some Indian dishes, I have a sense of the general workflow of a dish and how ingredients behave, that's less true for the typical Chinese dish. Why are there so many different soy sauces? When do I add the Shaoxing wine? WTF is Shaoxing wine? And of course, stir-frying happens at such a high temperature that there is less room for mistakes and as a result I have gotten to know my fire alarm reset button quite well.

Still, it's been a fun process. I have gotten to explore the non-junk food sections of the Great Wall Chinese grocery store in Northern Virginia (on which Tyler Cowen has dedicated an entire book chapter). And it's been satisfying to cook up familiar and comforting foods. As I've written about before, following recipes is one thing, but knowing how to cook is a different matter altogether. So for now, I can tell my Chinese relatives that I can "stir-fry vegetables," and I can't wait until I can say I know how to cook Chinese food!