Meet My Chinese Mentors
Two of my most memorable cooking teachers were Madame Grace Zia Chu and Virginia Lee. Madame Chu taught classes in Chinese cooking including an advanced course in banquet cooking. Grace’s husband was a general in Chiang Kai-shek’s army. She and her husband moved to this country where Grace enrolled in Wellesley University studying physical education. The teaching skills she acquired put her in good stead for teaching cooking which she was later to do.
When her husband became a military attaché assigned to the Chinese Embassy in Washington D.C, she took on duties as a hostess becoming an ambassador of Chinese cooking. Her friends who often dined in her home urged her to offer cooking classes and acquaint Americans with the glories of Chinese food. It was the 1950s when Chinese food was thought of as chop suey and chow mein. Grace Chu set out to remedy that notion and took her friends’ advice offering classes at the China Institute, the Mandarin House restaurant as well holding small classes in her upper west side apartment in Manhattan.
I was fortunate to be one of those students. She not only taught Chinese cooking techniques but regaled her students with anecdotes of Chinese culture and history as well. Her first book The Pleasures of Chinese Cooking was published in 1962. “The book may well be the finest, most lucid volume on Chinese cooking ever written,” Craig Claiborne wrote in The New York Times in 1962.
My memories revolve around Madame Chu’s warm welcome to her handful of students as we sat in her living room chatting as Madame Chu explained what we were going to prepare in her small kitchen.. We started out in the dining room, chopping and preparing our ingredients. Madame Chu carefully observed each student readjusting the hand on any wrongly held cleaver or demonstrating once again the roll cut.
She taught me the Chinese concept of wholeness. When we deep fried a whole fish, even though we had cut it into sections, we put it back together on the platter to recreate the whole. Madame Chu asked if any of us would like to try the eyeballs, considered a delicacy. Everyone declined and Madame Chu popped both crunchy gems into her mouth.
We made shark fin soup and a deboned stuffed chicken. I volunteered to debone the chicken under her guidance. The flesh was chopped, mixed with Chinese sausage and other savory ingredients. The remaining skin, untorn and uncut , looked like a tiny pair of long johns. The stuffing was placed in the skin and voila! The whole chicken seemed to have reappeared.
Fried rice is a quick and delicious dish as long as you remember to make the rice in advance. You must use cold cooked rice. The rice should fall into into separate grains in the final dish. To accomplish this, stir fry the rice separately and don’t add additional ingredients until the rice is nicely golden and aromatic.
MADAME CHU’S SHRIMP AND HAM FRIED RICE
½ lb. cooked smoked ham cut into a small dice
8 to 10 large raw shrimp
3 T peanut oil
2 large eggs, beaten
3 cups cold cooked long grain rice
1 ½ T dark soy sauce
2 scallions cut into ¼ inch pieces (both white and green)
¼ cup green peas
Stir fry ham and set aside. Stir fry shrimp and set aside. Heat 1 T oil and scramble eggs lightly. Dish. Heat 2 T oil in wok. Add rice. Stir fry until rice is coated in oil and begins to turn slightly brown. This will take about ten minutes. Add soy sauce and stir fry. Add eggs and break up with spatula. Add scallion, ham and peas. Dish and Serve. Serves 4 as part of a meal.
Instead of ham, ½ lb. bacon cut into ½” pieces can be used.
A Note on Fried Rice:: Notice that you fry rice without anything else in the wok except just enough oil to coat the rice. Stir fry the rice using the technique described below. When you think you have stir fried the rice long enough, you haven’t. This is the secret to a really tasty nutty fried rice. Continue stir frying until the rice begins to turn golden and exudes a nutty aroma. If you have clumps at the beginning, break them up by pressing them with the back of the spatula. They will break apart.
Virginia Lee was a masterful Chinese cook who held classes in her daughter’s tiny Chinatown apartment in New York City. Her style was instinctive. She assembled beautiful dishes relying on experience and knowhow. In fact, when she wrote The Chinese Cookbook, Craig Claiborne sat at her side with measuring spoons and cups and typewriter, insisting that each ingredient be measured as Ms. Lee recreated her masterpieces.
One evening during class a powerful snowstorm was headed our way. I should have dropped everything and driven home which was as far north of Chinatown as you could go and still be in Manhattan. However, I was so caught up in cooking and eating that by the time I left, snow was falling heavily. As I drove home, the snow was building steadily and driving became slow and treacherous. I finally managed to get one block from my house and could get no further. The snow was too deep. The parked cars were just mounds of snow. I left my car in the middle of the street, walked home and realized what I’d done for food. I should have realized then that this insanity would remain with me.
BUTTERFLIED SHRIMP (adapted from Virginia Lee’s recipe)
20 extra large shrimp
2 t salt
2 t baking soda
2 t peanut oil
2 T ketchup
1 t tomato paste
3 T white vinegar
¼ cup sugar
1 T light soy sauce
1 t salt
1 cup water
1 ½ T cornstarch
3 T water
½ cup rice flour
2 T cornstarch
2 ½ t baking powder
1 ½ t peanut oil
½ t salt
1 t sugar
Remove shells from shrimp but leave tails on. Rinse thoroughly. Butterfly shrimp, devein and flatten slightly between sheets of wax paper. Mix shrimp with salt and let stand 10 minutes. Wash off salt in cold running water, drain. Mix shrimp with
2 t baking soda. Let stand 20 minutes, rinse, drain and dry with paper towel.
While shrimp are standing, make dip. In a saucepan, heat 2 t peanut oil. Stir in ketchup and tomato paste. Add vinegar, sugar, soy sauce, salt and 1 cup of water. When liquid begins to boil, slowly add cornstarch mixed with 3 T water. Stir until thickened.
Combine 1/3 cup of water with flour, cornstarch, baking powder, oil, salt and sugar. Beat batter lightly. Coat each shrimp with batter, leaving tail uncoated, deep-frying a few at a time until golden brown. Drain.
Serve dip with the shrimp. Mustard sauce made from one T Coleman’s dry mustard and enough water to make a creamy paste also makes a good dip for butterflied shrimp.
SELECTING AND SEASONING A WOK
Good news: the best wok also happens to be the least expensive and that is the carbon steel, sometimes called a rolled steel, wok. Carbon steel will rust so you have to season it and take proper care of it. However, it is light weight, will take on a black patina over time and nothing will stick to it. Cast iron is too heavy to maneuver and will interact with acetic ingredients. Stainless steel may be heavy and will be more expensive. An electric wok is out of the question as you cannot take food quickly off the heat or manipulate the wok.
Carbon steel is the way to go. A new wok may be covered with machine oil which must be washed off with detergent and a plastic scrubber or brush. Never use steel wool on a wok. Dry the wok and place it on a top burner until the entire surface is hot. Douse a wad of rolled up piece of paper towel with peanut (or vegetable) oil and using tongs, wipe the entire surface. Heat for 10 minutes. Let cool. With clean paper towels, wipe out wok. Repeat this process two more times.
The first couple of times you use a wok, there may be a slight metallic taste, but this will soon wear off. After each use, wash with hot water and detergent and dry thoroughly. At the beginning, rub with oil again. After a short while this will not be necessary and in time you will have a beautiful shiny black wok on which nothing will stick.
I prefer the metal spatula shown in the photo for stir frying. Wooden spatulas quickly discolor and don’t slide cleanly under the food.
First of all, “stir frying” is a misnomer. There is no stirring in stir frying. Well there is one occasion when you make a well in the center of the food, add a cornstarch slurry and stir to make a thickened sauce. Otherwise, the technique is to slide the spatula underneath the food at the center of the wok, lift it up and turn it over.Then repeat this procedure from a different angle. Thus, the top surface becomes the bottom surface and all gets cooked evenly. Always heat your wok fIrst before adding the oil and get your wok as hot as possible without burning the oil. Happy woking!