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Old 02-19-2006, 02:35 PM   #1
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Cooking Chinese at home - why is it so often a pale imitation?

Hi,

I just love Chinese cuisine, or should I say the versions of it I've had in a dozen countries other than China...

There is a wonderful Aisian supermarket near where I live, with just about every ingredient you'd ever need .

And yet, rarely do I make a dish at home that tastes the way it does even in a cheap hole-in-the-wall Chinese restaurant.

Background information:
- I do have a couple of books, including Ken Horn's
- I have a wok that is well-seasoned and maintained
- I have been attempting to make Chinese food for years and understand the basic principles.

BUT my stir fries (because this is what I am mostly referring to) rarely taste quite, well, Chinese....

Obviously, I could improve my technique, but I'm wondering about 2 things specifically:
- Is the weak flame of my standard household range the culprit? Might I not be about to do wonderful things with a very hot flame?
- I never use MSG. Could this be part of the reason?

Thanks for your input,

Best regards,
Alex R.

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Old 02-19-2006, 03:33 PM   #2
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Heat could be a problem as AllenMI mentioned in his thread regarding fried rice. If you have an electric range, he suggests using a cast iron skillet. If you have a gas range, then the wok will he to the proper temperature (high heat for stir fries). I suspect msg is part of the reason too, though I never use it either, but most restaurants do ( I think it's a flavor enhancer).
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Old 02-19-2006, 03:33 PM   #3
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You hit the nail on the head. Wok cooking required very high heat. Much higher than the typical home range gets. One thing you can do is gt a turkey frying rig. Those burners can put out some serious heat. You of course would need to do this outside.

MSG could be part of the problem, but probably not. A lot of Chinese restaurants no longer use MSG. MSG is perfectly safe to use though. Only a VERY small amount of people are alergic to it. If you have never tried cooking with it then give it a shot. It really does add a lot to certain things.
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Old 02-19-2006, 04:16 PM   #4
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Welcome to DC, AlexR.

Pretty much, the same results here. I cooked with a wok years ago. The food was tasty and healthy, but not quite authentic. Perhaps you could show us a recipe, and someone can offer suggestions. There are some excellent cooks here. Mine came with the ring GB mentioned, but later down the line, I found a wok-shaped heavy pan with a handle with a large cooking surface I liked much better. I had a very old (but easy) cookbook by Kikkoman (sp) , that may have been my reason. I still like the recipes though.
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Old 02-19-2006, 04:34 PM   #5
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MSG is perfectly safe to use though. Only a VERY small amount of people are alergic to it.
Although this was also the reason (the dreaded 'Chinese restaurant syndrome') there was also the announcement that MSG was thought to be a carcinogen that sent people running.

However I believe that there is no solid evidence regarding this claim as MSG as a number of food/nutrition bodies give it a non-specified recommended daily intake (which is a good thing if you are a food). There have also been some evidence that replacing salt with MSG could be a healthier alternative.
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Old 02-19-2006, 04:55 PM   #6
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Originally Posted by Haggis
Although this was also the reason (the dreaded 'Chinese restaurant syndrome') there was also the announcement that MSG was thought to be a carcinogen that sent people running.

However I believe that there is no solid evidence regarding this claim as MSG as a number of food/nutrition bodies give it a non-specified recommended daily intake (which is a good thing if you are a food). There have also been some evidence that replacing salt with MSG could be a healthier alternative.
I don't know, Haggis - but I sure like the BUZZ
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Old 02-19-2006, 05:01 PM   #7
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heat for searing and browning...flavor there
msg for seasoning...flavor there one could use sea salt instead gently
use of chili flakes
use of flavored oils (toasted sesame, chili, etc)
HEAT
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Old 02-19-2006, 05:19 PM   #8
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Be careful when using toasted sesame oil, a little goes a long way. I believe its flavour compounds don't stand up to high heat so it might be wise to treat like a nice extra-virgin olive oil when adding it to dishes.
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Old 02-19-2006, 06:12 PM   #9
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Quote:
Originally Posted by AlexR
Hi,

I just love Chinese cuisine, or should I say the versions of it I've had in a dozen countries other than China...

There is a wonderful Aisian supermarket near where I live, with just about every ingredient you'd ever need .

And yet, rarely do I make a dish at home that tastes the way it does even in a cheap hole-in-the-wall Chinese restaurant.

Background information:
- I do have a couple of books, including Ken Horn's
- I have a wok that is well-seasoned and maintained
- I have been attempting to make Chinese food for years and understand the basic principles.

BUT my stir fries (because this is what I am mostly referring to) rarely taste quite, well, Chinese....

Obviously, I could improve my technique, but I'm wondering about 2 things specifically:
- Is the weak flame of my standard household range the culprit? Might I not be about to do wonderful things with a very hot flame?
- I never use MSG. Could this be part of the reason?

Thanks for your input,

Best regards,
Alex R.
Alex, you need to post a recipe with your sauce that you use. Heat can be part of it, but if your sauce is wrong it won't matter how hot you can get your wok.
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Old 02-19-2006, 06:23 PM   #10
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I have to agree with many of the people here.

First, post your recipe, so that we can see the technique and ingredients.

Heat, or the lack of, is usually the culprit.

One other thing that comes to mind, but really falls under the "recipe" part, is the use of Fish sauce (Nam Plah). This is a really smelly liquid, but a little bit in the stir-fry does give the dish a nice flavor.

When I use toasted sesame oil, I add it at the last second, give the pan a quick stir or toss, and plate the dish. It has a nice flavor, but is not something I'd use for the basic cooking oil.
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Old 02-19-2006, 06:42 PM   #11
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One other thing that comes to mind, but really falls under the "recipe" part, is the use of Fish sauce (Nam Plah). This is a really smelly liquid, but a little bit in the stir-fry does give the dish a nice flavor.
In traditional Chinese dishes I would not think that fish sauce would be the missing ingredient needed to achieve the effect AlexR is after due to fish sauce being a traditional South-East Asian ingredient.
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Old 02-19-2006, 08:17 PM   #12
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You're probably right on that one. I like to add a little, as I like the taste it gives a stir-fry.
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Old 02-19-2006, 11:39 PM   #13
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One other thing not mentioned here is that most restaurants don't use water, but broth when stir frying foods. The broth can be from chicken, beef or pork bones. Bouillon cubes will not give the same taste as real broth. MSG is used in almost everything. Finally, the wok gets really HOT!!! My parents owned a chinese restaurant and I used to cook (with a wok) and sometimes the wok would get so hot that the oil (usually lard) would ignite. Someone mentioned fish sauce...we never used fish sauce for anything.
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Old 02-20-2006, 12:04 AM   #14
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Quote:
Originally Posted by AllenMI
I have to agree with many of the people here.

One other thing that comes to mind, but really falls under the "recipe" part, is the use of Fish sauce (Nam Plah). This is a really smelly liquid, but a little bit in the stir-fry does give the dish a nice flavor.
Uhhm, I'm Chinese and Fish Sauce is in no Chinese kitchen I've ever seen. The Chinese only use soy sauce and salt. Nam Pla (literally 'fish juice' in Thai) is a Thai cuisine staple ingredient. (The Philippines also has a similar version of fish sauce called Patis.) Fish sauce is unheard-of in Chinese restaurants.

It's tough to recreate Chinese restaurant-quality food. But I'm pretty happy with my home-cooked Chinese Fried Rice. I use a heavy-bottomed frying pan and I make sure it's white-smoking hot before I put the oil. When the oil gets smoking hot, that's when I start cooking. I swear, I get that desirable Chinese-restaurant taste! (Key authentic taste-ingredients for Fried Rice are: ginger, spring onions, soy sauce, and plenty of heat).

Good luck!
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Old 02-20-2006, 12:22 AM   #15
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i have mentioned this before, but when we order chinese take out, we order it steamed with the sauce on the side, usually garlic or kung pao sauce.
i then use the leftover sauce with my homemade stir fries, and it really is tought to tell which is which, except for the little cardboard containers.
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Old 02-20-2006, 10:06 AM   #16
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Ok, I stand corrected. Thank you all for enlightening me.

I have to agree about the using the broth. The last time I made stir-fry, I used some homemade chicken stock and some homemade shrimp stock, and it tasted almost exactly like what I can get at my favorite Chinese restaurant.
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Old 02-20-2006, 10:56 AM   #17
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Chopstix
It's tough to recreate Chinese restaurant-quality food. But I'm pretty happy with my home-cooked Chinese Fried Rice. I use a heavy-bottomed frying pan and I make sure it's white-smoking hot before I put the oil. When the oil gets smoking hot, that's when I start cooking. I swear, I get that desirable Chinese-restaurant taste! (Key authentic taste-ingredients for Fried Rice are: ginger, spring onions, soy sauce, and plenty of heat).

Good luck!
If you can squeeze one of these into your kitchen then you're all set. But you'd need one heck of a ventilation hood and even with that you'd have a coating of grease over everything in your kitchen. We used to have to clean the ventilation hood (and the wok range) every night after we closed the restaurant.

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Old 02-20-2006, 12:15 PM   #18
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I know a lot of chinese restaraunts have their meats, especially chicken ( which is what is use almost 100% of the time) dredged in some very thick flavorful, and usually somewhat sweet sauces. I doubt if this is the correct method, but I have started to add a little bit of white granulated or sometimes brown sugar to my wok just after I start cooking. It helps the sauce to carmelize around the meat, and concentrates the flavor a bit. This has been the best I can do with the heat I can get out of my range.
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Old 02-20-2006, 06:57 PM   #19
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I'm Chinese and my parents owns a chinese restaurant. My mom is a wonderful cook, but she hates cooking at home due to the heat never being high enough and the exhaust fan being not very powerful, and she uses MSG sometimes to enhance the flavor.

As for no fish sauce in a chinese kitchen, we had a worker from the Fujian province in China, they use fish sauce.
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Old 02-20-2006, 07:22 PM   #20
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Originally Posted by Luv4Prada
As for no fish sauce in a chinese kitchen, we had a worker from the Fujian province in China, they use fish sauce.
Thanks. That's new to me. My grandparents were migrants from Fujian province, and so were almost all of the Chinese migrants in the country where I grew up. While fish sauce was abundant locally (called patis), you'll never find it in a Chinese kitchen or Chinese food supply store. I'm not even aware of a Chinese term for fish sauce. I do know the chinese term for soy sauce and most other common ingredients though.
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