The elusive dream, Mandarin Sauce and Almond Gravy
There is not one decent Chinese food to be had in this area. I worked for a restaurant down in Boise about 30 years ago that had the most blissful Mandarin Sauce and Almond Fried Chicken gravy I have ever put in my mouth. I’ve been able to recreate their egg rolls, egg foo yung and fried rice over the years. But not that sauce or gravy. Don’t even recommend I ask for the recipe. Not one person in the kitchen spoke English (that they would admit anyway). I worked there for five years, just hanging a ticket for an order was taking your life in your hands if there was even one slight deviation in an Order (i.e. a simple #5 - to #5 with egg roll /no fried rice - aye, yi, yi, yi, yi). That cook would start slamming that meat cleaver on the window counter, screeching like a banshee, and you ran for your life!
But, I digress, is there some dish in your past that you have tried to recreate, but can never get “just right”?
Yes. Gai ga pao, i.e. hot and spicy chicken. There was a Thai restaurant in my neck of the woods called Chow Thai that made this dish and it was bloody Xanadu on a plate. Seemed fairly simple: diced chicken breast, mint, lots of minced jalapeno, and a darkish oily gravy poured over rice.
I have tried to recreate this recipe and have come fairly close, but it's still not the real McCoy. Then again, the original almost certainly used fish sauce and I now have an aversion to that stuff so I've attempted to use a substitute and that's probably part of my problem.
Ah well. I've still got my memory of the dish...
I'm trying to find out more about Almond Boneless Chicken: A local Chinese restaurant, now closed, the owner’s wife shared the following info: She said to soak the chicken breast in milk, then coat in a mixture of cracker meal, salt, sugar, and white pepper. Then fry. For the gravy or sauce: Almond juice, msg, sugar, salt, onion powder, cornstarch and water. The sauce was light brown in color and almondy in taste. I have no idea what Almond juice is?? I've seen recipes that had some toasted ground up almonds or almond extract. In the Detroit, MI area this dish is known as Almond Boneless Chicken or ABC. Up there they usually make a batter for the chicken instead of breading it. If you know about this recipe or can add any thing else to what I know, please share. There are 4 Chinese restaurants in town, and none of them make this dish. It is so good!!!!! I just found these recipes: 1 1/2 c broth, 2 T soy sauce, 2 T almonds,1 T flour, pinch of onion powder, garlic powder and white pepper. Put all in a blender and give it a whirl until smooth, then put in a saucepan and cook til thick. Another version: Take 1 1/2 c milk, 1/3 c cashews and 1/3 c almonds, and blend up in a blender. Put 1 T of flour in a saucepan and cook alittle, then add the milk slowly. Add a dash of salt, white pepper to taste. There is no soy sauce in this one for color. I add a dash and I'd use all almonds instead of the cashews. I've not tried these recipes out yet, but want to. Let me know what you think. :) :)
Not sweet at all. It's similar to a thick brown gravy, lighter in color. Here's the last recipe I tried, but the gravy is still missing "something"
ALMOND FRIED CHICKEN
FOR THE CHICKEN:
2 boneless/ skinless chicken breasts
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon dry sherry
FOR THE SAUCE:
4 tablespoons cornstarch
3 tablespoons water
3 cups chicken broth
3 tablespoons chicken fat (or butter)
2 teaspoons soy sauce
3 tablespoons chicken bouillon granules
FOR THE BATTER:
3 tablespoons cornstarch
3 tablespoons flour (Wondra flour works great)
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1 egg beaten
1 tablespoon water
1 cup shredded lettuce
1/3 cup toasted almonds
1 green onion, finely chopped (green and white parts)
TO MARINATE THE CHICKEN:
Sprinkle chicken with 1/2 teaspoon salt and sherry and marinate 15 minutes.
TO MAKE THE SAUCE:
Mix 4 tablespoons cornstarch and 3 tablespoons water in sauce pan until smooth. Gradually mix in chicken broth, Chicken fat (or butter), soy sauce, and bouillon granules. Bring to a boil stirring constantly. Let boil for about 1 minute; reduce heat and keep warm
TO PREPARE THE CHICKEN:
Heat oil to 375 degrees F.
Beat together 3 tablespoons cornstarch, flour, baking powder, egg and 1 tablespoon water until smooth. Coat chicken with batter and cook 5-7 minutes in hot oil until golden brown. Drain chicken on paper towels.
Cut cooked chicken into strips, put on a bed of shredded lettuce. Sprinkle with almonds and green onion, spoon on sauce and serve with fried rice and egg roll.
I made the Almond Gravy/Sauce with about 3 or 4 Tablespoons of Almond Butter thinned down with some water. I added some salt, sugar, onion powder, msg to taste. Then thickened it up with a cornstarch slurry. It looked light brown in color and tasted almondy!!!! Just like I remember. :) :) :)
The Chinese Restaurant I went to used to serve the gravy over a breaded chicken breast over white rice. It was so good!!! :) :) :)
I have never had Mandarin Sauce or Almond Gravy. I wonder if I may have had them, but under different names.
Anyway, there are plenty things I cannot get it just right. In fact too many. I cannot quiet get my barbecue right. I cannot quiet get the Chinese steam bun quiet right..... many many more
Well, at least these are merely "not just right" which means they are like>90% right. I have plenty other dishes won't even make it on the "not just right" list -- because they are so far off. :)
My culinary nemesis is anything Chinese food. I love it. I love even the crappiest 'take-out'. I've had about six woks and a dozen bamboo steamer sets over many years. I give up. I quit!
I have a couple dozen Chinese cook books. I have a dozen Chinese food forums on bookmarks. Still nothing I do is remotely close to even the crappiest take-out.
In my next life I plan to be the genius Chinese chef in the movie 'Eat Drink Man Women'. After that I don't care if I come back as a 'dung beetle. Years ago in the early seventies in Victoria there was the Jade Palace and the Golden Horse. Sigh
<Still nothing I do is remotely close to even the crappiest take-out. >
Do you think it is possible that you have a very high standards for yourself? This is a real possibility. I always find that many people are very critical of themselves, but not very critical of others. Let's say that you made some Chinese sweet and sour pork. Objectively speaking, the dish may be 80/100 compared to a restaurant. Other people (like your friends) will feel it is 90/100, but you will feel you are 60/100.
Funny you should mention that. In my experience when I'm being totally honest with myself it's the opposite. I tend to be hypercritical of others while giving myself a 'pass' for my sometimes lazy/slothful/indulgent behavior. It's a character flaw and I'm too old to really change. Anyway.
I have over time earned a reputation for being a good home cook so I do care and try. There's some sort of secret mystery about making excellent Chinese food. Notice how many posters here say that Chinese food is the most difficult to make properly.Is it the screaming hot woks? Is it the 'special ingredients' only Chinese patrons get?
I'm absolutely certain that what it is home cooks are missing in their Chinese dishes is the "wok hei" or "breath of the wok". This can only come from a well seasoned wok used repeatedly over a wok burner that is at least 70,000 BTU or higher. It is a kind of "grilled" lightly smokey, savory aroma/flavor that one recognizes when present, but when absent is hugely difficult to describe or characterize.
I personally think it is the result of repeatedly charring the oils that ultimately form the "seasoning" of a carbon steel or cast iron pan over incredibly high heat. This site: hakkasan.com/blog/wok-hei-breath-wok/ , talks about the actual culinary process of imparting that flavor and I just think unless you ARE a Chinese chef, you are out of luck. Unless one has a high powered wok ring installed in one's home and cooks in one carbon steel wok for months, I don't think it can be replicated at home. It's definitely a conspiracy to get us coming back to the restaurants LOL!
This July Home Cooking thread, http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/909064, for which this board would have been the better choice, extensively covers your topic.
I can't pin down the ingredients in a shrimp dish that's a specialty of my favorite Chinese restaurant. The menu listing for Yang Brothers Special Shrimp says not to bother to ask for the recipe, as the staff is sworn to secrecy.