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Fresh and Local Chinese Cooking - Goodbye Bottles and Pastes

  • m

Some of us have been discussing how when cooking American or European food, we demand freshest ingredients, yet when cooking Chinese, we submit to our cookbook recipes and use the jarred chile bean paste, chile paste, bean sauce, the cheap rice wine from the Asian market, and so on. Why not subject our Chinese cooking to the same standards of fresh, non-processed (or at least not overly-processed) foods as the other things we cook.

We seem to agree that we are interested in this, and some of have started experimenting. None of feel like we're "there" yet. So here's the thread to share our trials and errors. Post up on how you are making your favorite Chinese dishes your own, and upping the quality in the process.

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  1. Woo!Hoo! A shiny new thread to post in. I'll start. I would like to try using a locally-made kimchee, rinsed, in lieu of tianjin preserved vegetable.

    ~TDQ

    17 Replies
    1. re: The Dairy Queen

      Great one. I didn't mention this in our previous conversation, but I have subbed in homemade pickles. I have a fermented pickle I make with chiles and lapsang souchong tea, that is kind of smokey and spicy. I use that, diced, with excellent results.

      1. re: MelMM

        Mel, where do you buy smoky tea? In Asian stores?

        ETA: Please tell me if I am annoying you with my simplistic questions. Not just MelMM but everyone.

        1. re: herby

          Lapsang Souchong is an "English" tea. I grew up having tea at 4pm with my Aunt, and this is the tea she always served. We always drank Wagner's but it appears that the company was purchased and then disappeared. But I did find this: http://www.twiningsusashop.com/lapsan...

          It is great for smoking meats as well!

          1. re: smtucker

            SMT, I remember a while back you recommended a stovetop smoker and I didn't write it down at the time or maybe I did and can't find it. Would you please post the brand of that gadget again? TIA !

            1. re: herby

              I am using a heavy cast iron smoker inside branded Emeril's 5-in-One, but I don't think it is available anymore. A good substitute would be a Cameron smoker. They are much lighter; aluminum maybe? but seem to have good reviews. I have not actually used one however.

                1. re: smtucker

                  I ordered Cameron tonight and hopefully will have it by Labour Day Weekend. It is endorsed by Emeril but I care more about your endorsement:) It is SS, by the way, not aluminum. Can't wait to smoke salmon and chicken. Wonder if it is possible to do cold smoke as well as hot...

                  I'll start a "smoking" thread when I am settled back at home later in September.

            2. re: herby

              You should be able to buy it anywhere loose leaf tea is sold. It is a Chinese black tea, where the leaves are dried over a wood fire, imparting a smokey flavor to the tea. Sometimes very smokey. I order my teas from Upton Tea Imports, and their Lapsang Souchang selection is here:
              http://www.uptontea.com/shopcart/cata...

              The one I buy is the Imperial grade (not the organic). It is quite smokey, like barbecue in a cup.

              1. re: MelMM

                Thank you, SMT and MelMM ! How did I never noticed this is beyond me. There is a new tea shop that opened near me a few months ago. The owners are Chinese and I must stop by and talk to them and buy the tea of course :)

                1. re: MelMM

                  So when I've had tea-smoke duck, is this what they're using. I have a Cameron smoker.

                  1. re: c oliver

                    No, they are probably using a regular black tea for that. When you tea smoke, the smoke is created from burning the tea leaves, but you don't need to use a smoked tea.

                    1. re: MelMM

                      Thanks. I have a couple of ducks in the freezer so should give this a try.

                      1. re: c oliver

                        And please keep us informed when you do!

              2. re: MelMM

                And tea qualifies as a fresh non-processed ingredient?

                1. re: paulj

                  There are always going to be some processed ingredients, it's just a matter of degree, and more importantly, a matter of the ingredients that comprise the final product. Drying leaves over a fire, I would say counts as pretty minimal processing.

                  I don't anyone on this thread is trying to eliminate all processed foods, and we can argue until the cows come home about what is meant by "processed". We are just trying to bring our Chinese cooking more in line with the way we cook the rest of our meals.

              3. re: The Dairy Queen

                I have posted in a LOP thread about using raw, lacto-fermented, no vinegar or sugar added, 100% MOFGA Certified Organic organic red cabbage sauerkraut instead of Tinjian. It worked perfectly and I probably should continue to do that. Only one thing bothered me a little though. While the taste of the sauerkraut was wonderful it needs some heat so I'd add red pepper flakes next I use it or a fresh chopped chili..

              4. I cook more Korean, Viet, Indian and Thai at home (more than Chinese). I make many ingredients from scratch. Many Asian essential purchased/jarred ingredients are fermented. I think getting comfortable with fermenting is critical for cooking from scratch, in most Asian cuisines.

                Fermented bean pastes, fermented batters,fermented tea, vinegar, fermented vegetables, are all things that can be either purchased or made at home. I always have small glass jars and bowls bubbling away on my counter..... makes me look like a mad scientist ;)

                4 Replies
                1. re: sedimental

                  I like to ferment stuff too! If you could share your techniques/recipes/sources for information on fermenting Asian ingredients, it would be much appreciated here.

                  At the moment, I have two barrels of vinegar and some pickles fermenting on my counter. I'd love to expand into the bean pastes, so if you have any experience with this, do share. Many people have become interested in fermenting at home in the past few years, so I think you will find a receptive audience for whatever you are willing to share.

                  1. re: MelMM

                    I've been thinking about starting a small batch of vinegar but have not investigated the process yet. I believe that "mother" is required to ferment it, is this correct? I have local wine/beer making store and wonder if they sell "mothers".

                    Recently I made very simple turnip pickle, the kind you'll get with a Shwarma but have not tried it yet. Cooks beautiful - pink and firm.

                    I took a few minutes and pulled the Art of Fermentation off the shelf. Instead of "mother" I can use Bragg's vinegar as a starter because it is not pasteurized. I am going to give it a try since I have all ingredients.

                    I read about black bean ferment too. In my ignorance I always thought that the sauce/paste is made from black beans. In fact soy beans are used to produce either Chinese or Japanese fermented beans. The process is simple enough if you have soy koji (culture) and dehydrator. The later is not necessary as beans could be dried under the sun (or lamp I assume) but convenient. The fermentation takes six months and maybe be the reason that people are not attempting it at home. I would be willing to try!

                    1. re: herby

                      I bought a "mother", which was a gelatinous square in a jar of vinegar, but I have heard of using Bragg's. There are also some other vinegars I have bought that had a mother in them. I can't recall the brands, right offhand, but higher-end stuff. But you wouldn't want to waste you hard-earned $$ in case you were sure, so I'd go with the Braggs if you don't want to buy a mother. There is also a fermentation group on Yahoo... maybe if you were active someone would send you a mother. I lurk there, but do not post. The vinegar does take patience... a few months, to convert. Mine is just there.

                      Those Chinese black beans are black soy beans... confusing to we Americanos who are used to another kind of black bean. Plus they look similar, which makes the confusion all the more understandable. It's not my highest priority, but if you want to take this on, I'll do it too, to make it more of a group effort.

                      1. re: MelMM

                        The book actually says that you can use any kind of soy bean and they will turn black during the molding/fermentation/drying processes. They sure look similar to black beans and I thought they were :) I have dehydrator at my daughter's house and could bring it back just to try beans. I also want to dry apples, pears and maybe tomatoes this fall for winter snacking.

                        I will be done with my family obligations by mid-Sep. Let's plan to start by the end of Sep - great to have company and maybe someone else will join us.

                2. I have to admit that I have never thought twice about going straight for a jarred paste, sauce, etc. when cooking Chinese. But I'm intrigued at this notion of doing it from scratch.

                  Where to start? Where are the recipes for these things?

                  1 Reply
                  1. re: tcamp

                    From what I've seen, and I have looked, there are not many recipes out there. That's why this thread will be very exploratory in nature.

                    1. Love that you started this thread, Mel... Just last night when making a Grace Young recipe and prepping the mise en place I discovered we were out of hoisin sauce. So I googled, read through some homemade versions, chose a simple one from RecipeSource.com and made it on the spot. But right now when I re-read it I see that although all the ingredients are natural it did call for 20 drops of Sriracha. Now that's not at all acceptable.. Must rethink this.

                      25 Replies
                      1. re: Gio

                        It's perfectly acceptable!

                        When I've been out of hoisin sauce, I've gone online, looked at the ingredient list from a jar, and thrown the components together (or close substitutions) to mimic the stuff the best I can. All's fair in a cooking emergency!

                        You can make your own sriracha... I've done it.

                        1. re: MelMM

                          This is really too funny.. in the '70s I made my own yogurt, sourdough starter, breads of all kinds, etc. All organic of course, before organic was "cool." Don't tell me I'm about to regress... The hoisin was delicious and oh so easy!

                          1. re: Gio

                            Regress, progress, it's all a matter of perspective.

                            I guess I'm a bit younger than you. In the 70's, I was still a kid, but at that time my Mom was growing all our vegetables, pickling, canning, raising chickens and so on. She would have fit in really well in certain hip locales in the US today.

                            She was not a hippie earth-mother type (actually too old for that), she was more of a throwback - a Mississippi farm girl raised in the 20's and 30's. She showed me how to make butter the old-fashioned way, a process which started with her procuring raw milk (illegal in the state we lived in at that time), and clabbering it. In the 80's when I was on my own, I followed in her footsteps but also on my own path... gardening, of course, but also making my own tofu, brewing beer, etc. None of that was really "cool" at the time.

                            Not sure where I'm going with this... but a lot of people my age and younger think that during the 70's, everyone was eating TV dinners. Not so. Younger people were exploring natural foods, and some older people, like my mother, had never given them up. Karen Hess wrote pretty much everything Michael Pollan did, only 40 years earlier. And she could cook.

                            1. re: MelMM

                              Thank you, thank you , thank you, for mentioning Karen Hess. John and Karen Hess are in so many ways the unacknowledged saints of today's home cooking. For one thing, they were among the bigtime supporters initially of the New York City Greenmarket - in fact John was the only former New York Times food person to push for it - also worth pointing out that Craig Claiborne and Julia Child were among the non-enthusiasts. John Hess was kind of the Andy Rooney of the (left-leaning, community oriented) Pacifica radio network in the last ten years of his life, doing the end-of-news-broadcast opinion piece each night.

                              The Taste of America is a wonderful book, if you can find it. But Karen Hess's The Carolina Rice Kitchen is my own favorite of their books - get ahold of it if you can.
                              And of course one of the opinions that ended up getting John Hess fired from the New York Times food desk was that Chinatown had the only decent fresh food market in Manhattan.

                              1. re: ratgirlagogo

                                John and Karen Hess don't get mentioned enough these days. I think The Taste of America should be required reading. I also have The Carolina Rice Kitchen, and it holds a special place in my collection.

                                1. re: MelMM

                                  Just looked at Amazon description - it is more of a food history book than a recipe book, right? Sounds very interesting and tempting :)

                                  1. re: herby

                                    Right, it's not a cookbook. It talks about the history of American food, and was a commentary on contemporary food.

                                    1. re: MelMM

                                      Another point -- very apropos to this thread.

                                      Ketchup (the Hesses cite the OED for apparent origin as Amoy-Chinese "kétsiap," and that the Malay "kechap" may also come from Chinese) was standardly, including in US cookbooks I have up until about the mid-1900s, a class of condiment, often made at home, from various materials (like mushroom, walnut, or oyster ketchup). Not containing sugar.

                                      The altered way Americans now perceive "ketchup" is not just different from how most of their ancestors did, it's also representative of commercial forces at work on American food and how they can shift its culture. The same forces that gave us "French" salad dressing that's now sweet, red, and artificially thickened (it meant something else, of course, in the US until around 1980 -- vinaigrette, the same as it still means in many English-speaking countries) and Alfredo "sauce," another recent US commercial concept.

                                  2. re: MelMM

                                    I just spotted this sub-thread.

                                    No kidding, MelMM -- I've been telling people about the Hesses' famous book for many years, and sometimes pressing copies on them since it became easily available in the paperback re-issue around 1999. (To the person who wrote "if you can find it," it was pretty available used, even before the 1999 re-issue, but that newer paperback is very easy to get now online, either new or used.)

                                    It's especially valuable as a sourcebook for perspective on food history popularly unknown today in the US. The Hesses themselves (she is or was one of the leading US scholarly cookbook historians, and also wrote much of the book's content) cited example after example of modern food celebrities badly mis-stating cooking history, or celebrating, as new (late 20th century) breakthroughs, ideas actually mainstream and commonplace until US cooking culture started becoming dumbed-down and commercialized in the 1900s.

                                    Such misrepresentations continue today. McNamee, author of the recent Claiborne biography "The Man Who Changed the Way We Eat" and clearly someone who is fairly new to the subject of food history, committed various faux-pas about it, and even characterized one detail in Claiborne's own food experience as a mystery -- though it's in the Hesses' "Taste of America," which McNamee even cited in his own reference list (getting the date wrong). He also omitted to examine some of the less flattering details of Claiborne's work that the Hesses documented.

                                    That touches on a possible factor in the Hess book's longtime status as more a classic among experts or enthusiasts than the general public. It pokes sharp jabs at several late-20th-century food celebrities. Never mind that the jabs are well founded (mostly, they're quoted comments by the celebrities themselves) -- if people grew up learning all about food from Claiborne or the Joy of Cooking, then any writing impugning those familiar icons can be unwelcome, no matter how well founded. (I do think some of the personal remarks about Julia Child, added in the reissue 20-odd years after the original 1977 edition, will come across to almost everyone, experts and enthusiasts included, as unnecessary and petty; and yet the original Taste of America is among very few books at all, bios included, to look searchingly at JC, rather than gushing about her as if something more than human.)

                                    1. re: eatzalot

                                      Yes!

                                      One reason I think it is so important for younger cooks to read this book, is that Karen Hess (and she is the one responsible for this part) refutes the notion that American food needs to "catch up" to the rest of the world, or that it is better now than it ever was. If she were still alive (unfortunately she is not), I have no doubt that she would still claim that American food reached it's heyday around 1800, mostly in the Southeast. And it all went downhill from there, from her perspective. The thing is, she makes a VERY strong case, well researched, for her perspective. And it isn't just that American food then was better than American food now, it's that American food then was really great, even compared to other "great" cuisines.

                                      In the "Carolina Rice Kitchen", you learn how rice from South Carolina was exported all over the world, and was, at the time, the most sought-after rice in the world. I recall running across a recipe on Michael Ruhlman's blog for a Scottish shortbread, based on a recipe from 1920, which called for rice flour. A food blogger who claims to be an expert in historic recipes questioned whether there would have been enough of an Asian population in Scotland for them to have rice flour!!!! This person obviously had no idea that in Scotland and elsewhere in the UK, rice flour would have been imported, not from Asia, but from the US. In the Carolina Housewife, first published in 1847, there are more baked goods made from rice flour than wheat flour.

                                      Well, I could go on and on, about our current ignorance of our true food history. Karen Hess was the best of any writer I know of documenting our American food history and how good it really was before we screwed it up.

                                      Your point about the Hesses skewering some icons of modern food world is a good one. They said what they thought, and they did not care who they offended, and they offended a lot of influential people. Which is surely why they do not get the credit they deserve.

                                      Richard Olney was another personality who openly criticized the Julia Child's of the world. Now, he probably had some issues of his own, but he certainly had a huge, huge influence on people who became very important in American food and wine (Alice Waters, Jeremiah Tower, Kermit Lynch, and more), and is arguably a much greater influence on our current food scene than Julia Child. And yet, he is also not well known by many home cooks.

                                      1. re: MelMM

                                        Olney is among late-20th-century cooking writers the Hesses cite admiringly. Others include Elizabeth David (who, like Olney, influenced some very important modern US chefs), Marcella Hazan, Diane Kennedy, Paula Wolfert. But (they complain), these people's books were succèses d'estime, rather than best-sellers. The best-sellers, acc. to the Hesses, have tended to sport "the seal of approval of a well-known institution," be it the Boston Cooking School, McCall's, or Time-Life. They see this as evidence of insecurity among American home cooks.

                                        Other late-20th-c. US food historians, with different interests, similarly bring out evidence of decline in US cooking culture, especially in the 20th century; also that what mainstream media hailed as recent breakthroughs were, rather, rediscoveries. Root & de Rochemont comment to the effect that "farm-to-table" could be novel only in recent generations: until about 1900, most Americans lived on or near farms.

                                        Couple more samples of pop icons en brochette, to give readers further flavor of "The Taste of America:"

                                        James Beard ("who has helped promote Pillsbury products") rationalized the modern addition of sugar to bread in his 1974 bread book. He dedicated it to Elizabeth David, "who loves bread," yet ignored her writing on this particular issue. David had already concluded that "the sugar and milk business" added nothing good; even small amounts gave "a sweet or soft taste to the bread," not her idea of a good loaf.

                                        Among many points they call Claiborne on (for the Hesses were true scholars, and actually checked and compared sources) is a NY Times recipe, a sauce that (Claiborne wrote) "we recently contrived" for smoked fish. Escoffier's "Guide Culinaire" (1921) has the same recipe, give or take a little dumbing-down; and Escoffier didn't even claim to've "contrived" it. Five weeks earlier, Claiborne had bragged in his column about his familiarity with Escoffier. (Many such anecdotes are in the Hesses -- largely ignored by McNamee in his recent Claiborne biography, despite its citing the Hesses as a source.)

                                        1. re: eatzalot

                                          In general the Hesses always, always had the perspective that INGREDIENTS were more important than TECHNIQUE. This is why they pushed so hard for the Greenmarket - it was their experience living in Paris and doing their food shopping there that underlay their advocacy. John Hess always maintained that if the French were eating better than Americans, it was because they were cooking with better, fresher, less adulterated ingredients.
                                          This was maybe the most basic aspect of their disagreement with Child, Claiborne, et. al. Julia Child really did tend to think that Cordon Bleu level technique could help you polish a culinary turd - the Hesses did not. Also in keeping with this idea, they were much more focused on the importance of home cooking - that you could learn much more about cooking (cooking generally, and the history of it) from home cooking than from restaurant cooking.

                                          1. re: ratgirlagogo

                                            <from home cooking than from restaurant cooking.>

                                            Age old debate. Not just food, but music, art and literature. What represent a culture? The professional or the average people. Romantically speaking, you would think the folk music and everyday writing represent the culture. However, historically speaking, it has been proved that it is the elites (in positive tone) products have far greater staying power.

                                            1. re: Chemicalkinetics

                                              Speaking of home v restaurant cooking

                                              http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/09...
                                              "18 Countries That Love To Eat, Drink & Smoke More Than The U.S."

                                              19. United States of America -- $4,431 per person in 2012
                                              Spending on food at home: $2274
                                              Spending on restaurant meals: $1485
                                              Spending on tobacco and alcohol: $673

                                              15. France -- $4,760 per person in 2012
                                              Spending on food at home: $3037
                                              Spending on restaurant meals: $964
                                              Spending on tobacco and alcohol: $760

                                              1. re: paulj

                                                PaulJ

                                                Very interesting information. I guess two people can look at the same data and draw different conclusions. For me, I only see that the French spend more money at home, while the us (Americans) spend more money for restaurant meal. I am guessing that the French actually eat out even less than the number because I believe French restaurants are much pricier than US restaurants. So even if they spend the same, they probably still eat out less.

                                                1. re: Chemicalkinetics

                                                  There's also the book with photos of a week's worth of groceries - for families from different countries. Some of those pictures appear on line.

                                                  https://www.google.com/search?biw=136...

                                              2. re: Chemicalkinetics

                                                "However, historically speaking, it has been proved that it is the elites (in positive tone) products have far greater staying power."

                                                In practical terms those are the products that are more likely to be preserved, in books, museums, libraries, tombs, etc.

                                                1. re: ratgirlagogo

                                                  "that you could learn much more about cooking ... from home cooking than from restaurant cooking."

                                                  Not unique to the Hesses either, of course, and related to a broader issue about temptations to overreaching and pretentiousness in home cooking (temptations that some commercial interests aggressively encourage).

                                                  By the 1960s, Elizabeth David was warning home cooks in her native England away from the commercial hustles and pretentious magazine recipes that implied the point of cooking is to dazzle guests via the exotic and prestigious. Rather than learn valuable basics like making bread, or finding good tomatoes. Similar to advice in the Hesses, and still relevant.

                                                  1. re: eatzalot

                                                    Do French cooks know the basics of making bread? I thought they bought that from the neighborhood bakery.

                                                    Homebaking is one area where Americans have (traditionally) been ahead of most of the world. Not just bread. Biscuits are an American specialty.

                                                    1. re: paulj

                                                      I hadn't thought about French home cooks (previous posting referred only to British and American).

                                                      Random sample of Elizabeth David perspective (from the collection "An Omelette and a Glass of Wine" -- recommended, though not mainly a recipe book):

                                                      "As soon as any dish with a vaguely romantic-sounding name ... becomes known you find it's got befogged by the solemn mystique which can elevate a routine leek and potato soup into what the heroine of a recent upper-class-larks novel refers to as 'my perfected Vichyssoise'. Then a semi-glamour monthly publishes a recipe in which the original few pence-worth of kitchen garden vegetables are [replaced by] cream of chicken soup and French cream cheese. With astounding rapidity the [processed food firms] move in, and launch some even further debased version which in a wink is turning up at banquets and parties and on the menus of provincial hotels." (1961)

                                                      I actually have a commercial catering cookbook from such a firm, with details on how to make banquet Beef Stroganoff (certified to last 10 hours on the steam table) using condensed cream of mushroom soup, wine (the combination imitates a sour-cream effect), and precooked beef chunks.

                                                  2. re: ratgirlagogo

                                                    Yeah, I was thinking about that too. Painters from the palaces are the one which survive the best. As for cuisines, there were just much more written records for the royal recipes than farmer's foods.

                                                2. re: ratgirlagogo

                                                  "In general the Hesses always, always had the perspective that INGREDIENTS were more important than TECHNIQUE."

                                                  On the other hand, many specific quibbles in "Taste of America" concern technique.

                                                  Jula Child criticized for an amateurish approach to roasting turkeys (in "From Julia Child's Kitchen"), which ignored the importance of meat drippings. Repeated harangues about over-floured sauces, where even Escoffier later in life (post-"Guide Culinaire") had backed off considerably from thickeners; be it noted those were long controversial in France, centuries before Gault and Millau and their "Nouvelle Cuisine." The Hesses do go after JC for suggesting, e.g., that adding ingredients to canned meat stocks disguises them from being canned meat stocks.

                                                  More generally JC's recipe sensibilities and details are consistent with her own history of having started cooking essentially upon studying it in France around age 40, rather than growing up learning everyday domestic cooking in the US as many people of her era did. Having lived overseas in the 1940s and 50s, she even comes across, in her biographies, as unconscious of the various authoritative cookbooks published in the US while she was away that helped bring French cooking canon into US households. Her own unawareness of it may have helped promote the persistent mythmaking about JC "introducing" French cooking to US homes, although I think the bigger factor in that is TV.

                                                  Authenticity was such a near-obsession in the Hesses that it might well have brought criticism of this very thread. JC upbraided for inauthentic lasagne. Vic Bergeron ( who was a restaurateur rather than a cook, but grew up with cooking-obsessed parents who improvised and grew many of their ingredients, as my own parents did) lambasted as a "dedicated enemy of authenticity" because his restaurants featured adapted Pacific-Asian or Mexican cooking that his customers liked. (Bergeron was around too early to glibly dub it "Fusion," as today.)

                                2. re: Gio

                                  Reading through this hoisin discussion recalled to me a Chowhound thread from way back when, not because it elicited an answer to its OP's quest for a recipe, but because I have never forgotten the first reply (and thankfully, neither has Google): http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/288765