For the second-half of this semester, I studied and practiced the techniques and cooking recipes from Shiu Wong Chan’s book The Chinese Cook Book composed in 1917 in New York City. In the preface of her cookbook, Wong Chan explains that this is written for both housewives and restaurateurs alike; she goes on to say that “in fact, it is written in such a clear, simple form that any one by following its rules can prepare dishes of rare delicacy and favor.” My goal is to completely immerse myself in the technique and culture of traditional Chinese cooking and discover if her recipes really are written for the common, everyday cook. I will attempt to cook a three course meal that consists of a vegetable soup, shrimp chow min (fried noodles), and peanut candy. In order to create both the vegetable soup and chow min properly, I will first have to concoct a primary soup (which is made out of equal parts chicken and pork, 6 pints of water, and…chicken blood???) as well as a Chinese sauce (made entirely from boiled white beans). My hope is to cook these recipes well with little-to-no adaptation involved.
According to Shiu Wong Chan, the Chinese method of cooking was invented in 3000 B.C. by the Emperor of Pow Hay Se. Confucius, ever the rule-maker, preached to his followers a scientific way of eating: there should never be more meat than vegetable, every piece should be properly chopped, and never forget the ginger. Shiu Wong Chan notes a few general rules of Chinese cooking. She states, “A Chinese dish consists of three parts: A. meat; B. secondary vegetables such as water chestnuts, bamboo shoot, celery, Chinese mushroom, and sometimes other vegetables according to the season; C. the garnish on the top of each dish consisting of Chinese ham, chicken, or roast pork cut up into small dice or into small bars about one inch long, and enough parsley to aid the taste as well as to ornament the dish” (Wong Chan 5). She goes on to claim that the amount of meat should always be one-third of the secondary vegetables and should always be cut in the same size and shape as the vegetables. The Chinese utilize three methods when cooking, which are steaming, frying, and boiling. Throughout my Chinese cooking journey, I just steamed and fried my food.
I started the shopping and cooking process when I arrived in Nashville for Thanksgiving break. I visited my local international market (K&S International Market) to search for products like fermented white bean curd (see yout), bamboo shoots, Chinese mushrooms, and Chinese fried noodles. I’ve always been a fan of contemporary chow mein, but the process for making this traditional dish seemed strikingly different from recipes I found online. For one, none of the recipes from the Chinese Cook Book called for soy sauce, which seems to be the number one ingredient in all Chinese and Asian-inspired dishes. I realized that the fermented bean curd, or what Shiu Wong Chan calls “Chinese sauce” or “see yout” provides that salty, umami flavor, and I would have to get over any premeditated ideas against the sticky, smelly substance.
Though I’ve been a vegetarian for the past five years, I decided to make my own pork and chicken broth (also known as “primary soup”). I bought three pounds of pork and three pounds of bone-in chicken thigh and let that simmer with six pints of water in a dutch oven. While the broth was simmering, I started on the secondary vegetables. Though bamboo shoots were not in the original chow min recipe, I wanted to include something that was not a part of my everyday intake. Like most cookbook writers in the early twentieth century, Shiu Wong Chan did not prioritize in-depth instructions, and I found myself running to Youtube much more often than I originally planned. To prepare the bamboo shoots, I first trimmed off the hard, fibrous outer layer of stalk and cut the inner white “meat” into thin slices. I then boiled the bamboo pieces in just enough water to cover them with a bit of salt for thirty minutes.
After about 2.5 hours of cooking, I took the broth off of the stove, strained through a cheesecloth, and set aside. Once the shoots were soft and slimy, I drained the water, patted them dry, and set aside. After about 2.5 hours of simmering, I returned to my primary soup, took the broth off of the stove, strained through a cheesecloth, and set aside. Next, it was time to start steaming the noodles. I tossed the two pounds of Chinese noodles in Crisco (I had a hard time committing to actual lard) and placed them on a steaming rack over a few cups of water. I ended up steaming the noodles for about thirty minutes, just as Shiu Wong Chan instructed and took the noodles out of the rack once they felt soft enough.
Though I felt adventurous with the chicken and pork broth, I decided to draw the line at actual pork pieces in the dish and instead followed the “Steamed Shrimp” recipe to add to my chow min. While the noodles steamed, I fried about two pounds of shrimp in Chinese peanut oil. Once the shrimp were cooked through, I took them off the hot pan, added a few more tablespoons of peanut oil and started on my egg threads. I decided to cook three eggs rather than one and didn’t quite understand what Wong Chan meant by “egg thread,” so I instead cooked them like scrambled eggs. Once the eggs were finished, I took them out of the hot pan, added more peanut oil, and started sautéing my onion.
I was surprised to see that garlic was not included in any of Wong Chan’s recipes, but I assumed that because this cookbook was curated for Americans rather than the Chinese, garlic just wasn’t a part of the audience’s diet. Once the onions turned a translucent color, I added my bamboo shoots and Chinese (also known as enoki) mushrooms. By the time the vegetables were cooked through, the noodles had finished steaming, and I took everything out of the hot pan to let the noodles brown in the peanut oil without being too crowded. While the noodles fried, I created a thick gravy with a cornstarch-water solution, fermented bean curd, and salt and pepper.
Once the noodles were crispy, I added in the vegetables, shrimp, and eggs and poured the Chinese gravy over the combination. The result was a yummy, salty, and flavorful chow min. I served the fried noodle dish with a vegetable soup that I concocted by combining enoki mushrooms, baby bok shoy, and broccoli with a bit of ginger and frying in peanut oil for a couple of minutes. Once the vegetables were softened, I added a few quarts of the primary soup and left it on the hot stove until the soup boiled.