Long, long ago, I lived in Hong Kong for three years, with my parents and the rest of our family. Every so often, we ate meals in really good restaurants there. Some of the meals we ate were so good that I can still remember what the food looked and tasted like.
Later, when I was back in England, I ate in Chinese restaurants, but with very few exceptions, they were a huge disappointment. The stuff the Chinese takeaways sold was almost always even more disappointing.
When I visited Hong Kong later, while working for the Blue Funnel Line, we had some food cooked on a bicycle, and that was good too.
I thought it quite odd that a man with a fire in an oil drum, in the street by Stanley harbour, could cook up better food than people in England with well equipped kitchens. He did not have anything more to work with than a very hot fire, a wok that was utterly black, and very fresh ingredients. His kitchen was mounted on a bicycle, and he had a few basic items prepared. We used to walk past and give our order, and go up to the flat. Five minutes later, he would be at the door with the food. He clearly was doing something very different from the restaurants in England. Thinking about it, I would say the major differences were that he cooked each dish from raw when it was wanted, and that he did it very fast to conserve his fire. His other strength was that he only had a few things on the bike, so the number of possible dishes was very limited.
Most Chinese restaurants in England have lots of dishes on the menu, and I suspect the components for these sit in the kitchens for a long time. There is usually a slow flow of customers, all ordering the same range of dishes they feel safe with. The restaurant in England that I remember for being better than the rest is one of the huge ones in Soho, where they serve thousands of meals a day, and the waiters are notorious for trying to rush your choice of food.
A lot of Chinese food is cooked fast, from fresh ingredients. Why? Well, if you don’t bump your chicken off before you want to eat it, it will be bigger when you get to it. And fresher – worth thinking about if nobody has invented refrigerators yet. And there was a history of fuel shortage in China. The wok is a very efficient device, and it works best with a big fire for a short cooking time, which requires you to have the food in small pieces and keep it moving all the time. That is why the steak just isn’t a Chinese dish.
Often, somebody will claim to have a wok, and it will turn out to be some sort of wide pan with a flat bottom. Or it will have a coating of Teflon. Well, I hope they are happy with their purchases. Those things may be very nice, but they are not woks.
Woks have round bottoms, so you can use a small pool of oil to fry the food. They have bare metal surfaces. If you treat them wrongly, they go rusty. You can buy a real wok from a Chinese supermarket. There’s a high probability it will actually have been made by a company in London, called Hancock’s Woks. I can heartily recommend their woks. It will be oily, to stop it rusting. Scrub the oil off the wok, as it is not cooking oil. This should be the only time you use detergent on your wok, and you must ensure you rinse it all off. Put the wok on the gas ring, and turn the gas up high. Do not forget to light the gas. If you do not have a gas cooker, move to a different house.
Heat it for ages, then a bit longer. Add ground-nut oil, and spread it all over the cooking surface with kitchen towel. There will be a lot of smoke. Heat and oil again, if you like. You just created a non-stick surface NASA would envy, if they didn’t love Teflon so much.
Now, in the unlikely event that anything sticks to the surface you just created, scrape it off with a wooden spatula. Cleaning is done with a damp cloth, and is followed by heating and oiling. If you use your wok at really high temperatures, the food will rarely stick, and you can use metal implements without worrying about scratching the wok.
Here we go. You cannot cook Chinese food by starting something cooking, and going round the kitchen finding things to add, then peeling them and chopping them before adding them. It all needs to be ready to go, the way you see the television cooks do it. Like this…
These are the ingredients for a four course Chinese meal, part cooked in some cases, and all ready for final cooking. From left to right, we have –
- Sweet and sour pork.
- Chicken and walnuts.
- Chicken and sweetcorn chowder.
- Beef and black beans with green peppers.
Can you spot what is missing from the photograph? The third column should have had a small tin of sweetcorn in it. I took the picture over twenty years ago, I have to admit, and it’s too late to change it now.
Carefully cleaned plastic food containers are useful, but these days I prefer proper dishes. Three of the tubs contain meat that has already been part cooked in the wok. The shorter the delay before finishing the cooking, the better. So you get it all ready like the picture. And you check everything is present…
The tubs at the front contain carefully prepared garnishes. Too fancy? I don’t think so, and ten minutes extra work will have your guests amazed by how good the food looks, as well as the taste.
Confession and recipe
This was all taken from my (very) old web site, and I never finished typing all the recipes in. Most of our recipe books are currently in storage, so all I’m going to put here is how to make the Chicken and Sweetcorn Chowder, which is a very popular dish. I served it third in the meal this is about, because the soup doesn’t have to be at the beginning…
Start by making spring onion brushes, as they need to sit in iced water until they open up and look pretty.
In your saucepan, put –
- 2 Tablespoons of groundnut oil
- 900 ml Chicken stock
- 2 Teaspoons of Chinese rice wine (Shao Xing)
- 350g Can of sweetcorn, drained
Don’t start cooking yet! In your first little dish, marinate these things –
- 50g Uncooked boneless chicken breast meat, finely chopped
- 1 Teaspoon of ginger juice
- A few drops of Sesame oil
- 1/2 Teaspoon of sugar
- Salt and pepper
In the second little dish, mix up 3 or 4 teaspoons of cornflour and just enough water to make it into a fairly thick paste.
In the third little dish, put a beaten egg.
Now you can start cooking! This is going to be quick, so have your serving dishes, spoons and spring onion brushes ready.
- Bring the contents of the saucepan to the boil.
- Stir in the marinated chicken, and keep stirring for a minute, at most.
- Stirring continually, pour the cornflour paste in slowly. Stir until it has thickened.
- Keep stirring, and pour the beaten egg in as slowly as you can, so that the egg forms long, thin strands.
- Stop stirring, and serve the chowder, garnished with the spring onion brushes.