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Home > Cooking Tips > What to do Before Cooking?

What to do Before Cooking?

What to do Before Cooking?
Food Preparation

Chinese Recipe Links


Chinese cuisine aims for perfection and balance among four elements in each dish: color, aroma or fragrance, flavor, and presentation. Colors should be pleasing, showing that the ingredients are fresh and tender. Aromas should be  appetizing. Finally, the dish should be beautifully arranged and presented. Good Chinese cooking is also distinguished by its meticulous cutting, careful blending of seasonings, and attention to temperature control.

Here we offer a brief description of some of the basic techniques, skills, and ingredients of Chinese cooking. We hope it will be helpful to visitors when they try the Chinese recipes.

Selecting Ingredients



Balance Among Ingredient

Blending Seasonings


Selecting Ingredients

Chinese cooking uses a wide range of ingredients, including meat, meat products, fish, seafood, poultry, eggs, vegetables, bean products, wild plants, game, and many seasonings. Most come in both fresh and dried forms, but the most important features to look for are freshness and quality.

Meats should be judged by their place of origin, season of production, and any other characteristic-for example, old or young, male or female-that may be specified in a recipe. Appearance, color, weight, water content, and smell are also important.

Different dishes call for different cuts of meat because cuts have different textures once they have been cooked. Cuts of the same meat may be tough or tender, coarse or fine. For example, the Chinese distinguish eighteen different cuts of pork. These include filet, streaky pork, shoulder butt, ham butt, hock, and shank.

The filet is considered the best cut and is generally stir-fried or quick-fried (see the section below on "cooking techniques" for descriptions of these and other procedures) to take advantage of its tenderness. Streaky pork is best when marinated with spiced rice flour and then steamed, or red-cooked (braised in soy sauce). The shank and hock are best suited to lengthy simmering, with or without soy sauce, while the ham and ham butt are often used as substitutes for filet. The ribs and feet are best prepared 'by lengthy, low-temperature methods like braising, baking or simmering, while spareribs are suitable for sauteing, quick-frying, slippery-frying, and deep-frying. The methods used for pork are also applicable to similar cuts of beef and lamb or mutton.

With reference to poultry, the tenderest and most versatile part of a chicken or duck is the breast. Chickens or ducks less than a year old are usually quick-fried or deep-fried, while older birds need long, slow cooking like simmering or braising to tenderize them.

Fish is as nutritious as poultry. Crab, prawns and shrimps are rich in phosphorus, calcium and vitamin A. You can tell a fresh fish by its tight, undamaged scales, red gills, and clear protruding eyes. Fresh prawns and shrimps should be greenish-white, with firm bodies that curve slightly. They should not be flat or limp, and their heads and tails should be intact. Fresh crabs should be alive and active. They should spit foams and have green upper shells and white under-shells.




In Chinese cooking, preparation includes trimming and washing vegetables, slaughtering and dressing live chickens and ducks, gutting live fish, and reconstituting dried ingredients.
When preparing vegetables, cooks first trim and discard any wilted or tough outer leaves. Then they wash them. Vegetables should not be cut before they are washed, because vitamins and minerals would be washed away. Nutrients are also lost if vegetables and other foods are cut ahead of time and exposed to the air. The most nutritious dishes are prepared and cooked immediately.

Chinese cooks prefer to buy live poultry and fish and to kill them themselves whenever possible because they believe that freshly-killed chickens, ducks and fish have a subtler flavor. If you slaughter your own poultry, you should drain off the blood thoroughly and soak the bird in very hot water before plucking it. When preparing a duck, you will find it easier to pluck the eiderdown if you force-feed it with wine, vinegar, or cold water before killing it. To draw a bird, make an incision about 3 inches (7 cm) long along the lower part of the breast, on the back, or under one of the wings. When drawing out the entrails, be careful not to puncture the gallbladder; its bitter taste would ruin the edible meat. Then wash the bird thoroughly before continuing to prepare the recipe.

Preparing a fresh, whole fish involves scaling, chopping off the fins, taking off the gills, gutting and washing. To gut the fish, make a cut along the belly or spine and take out the black membrane in the belly cavity. If the recipe calls for a whole boned fish, you should first gut it by cutting along the spine. Then cut parallel to the spine almost up to the top and separate the flesh from the top and bottom of the center bone. Lift out the center bone and small side bones and cut the spine away at the head and tail. Finally, wash the cavity and the outside and arrange the fish as closely as possible in its original shape.

The easiest way to shell shrimps and prawns is to hold the head in one hand and the tail in the other hand and squeeze the meat out of the shell at the neck end. Wash the vein away under cold running water or pick it out with the tip of a knife. Wash the shrimp, drain, dry well, and set aside. Sometimes shrimp and prawn heads are also used in dishes.

Drying makes meats, seafoods and vegetables tough and fibrous. To reconstitute dried foods, first soak them in cold water until they soften. Then soak them in warm water until they expand and regain their original texture and pliability. When preparing dried vegetables such as wood ear (an edible fungus) or golden needles (also known as dried tigerlily buds), you need not use cold water first. Wash the vegetables well to remove any dirt or sand, and then soak them in hot water until soft. Dried black Chinese mushrooms are prepared the same way, but require less soaking time.




Chinese recipes call for ingredients to be cut into different shapes because different ways of cutting affect the texture and appearance of a finished dish.

Chinese cooks use three main cutting techniques (see illustrations): straight-cutting (also known as perpendicular-cutting), horizontal-cutting (slicing), and slashing (scoring). Both straight-cutting and slicing are used to create chunks, slivers, slices, strips, cubes, and even pulps and pastes. Slashing means making shallow parallel cuts on the surface of an ingredient, usually a meat or fish. This exposes a larger area to the seasonings and to the heat source. If an ingredient is scored in a crisscross or diamond pattern, it will shrink to form a raised flower-shaped pattern when cooked.



Balance Among Ingredients

Chinese cooks attach great importance to the balance among the ingredients in a dish. This important step should result in a harmonious blending of textures, colors, aromas, flavors, shapes and nutritional qualities. To do this well, you must understand the required cooking methods of the dishes and the characteristics of different ingredients and how they fit together.

Balancing amounts

The major ingredient should be the most plentiful one in a dish. If you are making stir-fried meat shreds, for example, the total quantity of other ingredients should not exceed the amount of meat. If there are two or more main ingredients, you should use about the same amount of each.

Balancing flavors

All the ingredients in a dish should enhance the flavor of the main ingredient. This is why asparagus or bamboo shoots are often cooked with chicken, duck, and fish: the blandness of these vegetables enhances the light, delicate character of the meat.

Similarly, the blandness of shark's fins and sea cucumbers (beche-de-mer, sea slug) can be offset by cooking them with Chinese ham, chicken, or pork, or in a highly-flavored stock. You can also cut the heavy, greasy character of a main ingredient by adding lighter secondary ingredients. This is why many Chinese recipes call for pork to be cooked with fresh vegetables.

You must also take seasonal factors and personal preferences into account. Summer is the season for light, juicy foods, while heavier dishes, or ones with thick gravies, are better suited to cold weather. When you plan a menu, you should balance sweet, salty, sour, and hot dishes to suit your taste and that of your family and guests.

There is also a Chinese sequence for serving dishes: salty dishes are served before sweet ones, while heavy- and light-flavored ones are served alternately.

Balancing textures

Texture refers to the crunchiness, crispness, softness, or tenderness of a food. In Chinese cooking, ingredients with similar textures are usually cooked together. However, crisp and soft foods are sometimes combined in a single dish. This requires careful attention to cooking temperatures to retain the differences in textures.
Balancing shapes Chinese cooks usually cut all the ingredients in a dish into similar shapes. For example, chunks of meat and chunks of vegetables are usually cut to about the same size. This makes it easier to cook all the ingredients evenly and also gives the final dish a pleasing appearance.

Balancing colors

Chinese cooks tend either to select ingredients of the same color, or to use many contrasting ingredients to add color to a dish.



Blending Seasoning

A well-prepared dish should have a distinctive flavor. But it is not enough just to select the right blend of foods and the correct cooking temperature-a good cook also needs to master the art of blending the right seasonings with the right combinations of ingredients. Without the correct seasoning, even delicious ingredients can taste bland and uninteresting. Seasonings are also important in Chinese cooking because they create the special flavors that characterize different regional styles.

The condiments used in Chinese cooking come in two ways, singly or blended. They lend single flavors (salty, sour, sweet, etc.) or blended flavors (sweet and sour, sweet and salty, hot and spicy, etc.) to foods. Some examples of these flavors and the condiments used to create them are:

Salty flavor

Salty flavor is basic to most dishes, with other flavors usually added. Salt and soy sauce, are the main seasonings used to impart a salty taste.


Sweet flavors

Sweet flavors counteract fishy odors, cut the greasiness of rich dishes, and enhance delicate flavors. The main seasonings use to give a sweet flavor to foods are confectioner's sugar, brown sugar, rock sugar, granulated sugar, honey, and saccharin.


Sour flavors

Sour flavors help the digestion and increase the absorption of inorganic salts. They also lighten heavy or rich dishes. Red and white rice vinegar are the main seasonings used to add sourness to a dish.


Hot flavors

Hot flavors are appetizing because of their sharpness. Hot seasonings include fresh and dried red chili (chilli) peppers, pepper, ginger, scallion, and garlic.


Bitter flavors

Bitter flavors have a special aftertaste that can be palatable and refreshing. Ingredients such as bitter melon, Chinese yam, tangerine peel, and-Chinese wolf-berry give a bitter flavor to dishes.


Spicy flavors

Spicy flavors help mask off-odors or fishy smells, cut greasiness, and whet the appetite. In Chinese cooking, the main spicy condiments are cassia bark, which resembles cinnamon, star anise, fennel, clove, Sichuan red peppercorns, sesame, sesame oil, sesame paste, wine, red wine mash and flavoring essence.


The first five spices are often ground and mixed together into a combination called "five-spice powder."


Delicate flavors

Delicate flavors are natural food essences, generally the principal amino acid of the ingredient. Shrimp eggs, crab meat, oyster sauce, fish sauce, and meat stock impart delicate flavors.


Sweet and sour flavor

Sweet and sour flavor comes from sweet and sour sauce, a mixture of sugar and vinegar, jam, and ketchup (catsup).


Sweet and salty flavor

Sweet and salty flavor comes from a combination of shrimp eggs, soy sauce, and shrimp paste.


Peppery and salty flavor

Peppery and salty flavor comes from mixtures like the combination of roasted ground Sichuan peppercorns and salt known as "spiced pepper-salt."


Spiced pepper-salt is sometimes referred to as "prickly ash." One basic recipe for making it is:
4 tbsp salt
1 tbsp whole Sichuan peppercorns
Heat a dry wok over moderate heat and pour in the peppercorns.
Cook, stirring constantly, about 1 minute, or until they release their fragrance. Grind to a fine powder in a mortar or blender, strain out any large husks, and set aside. Reheat the wok and pour in the salt. Cook, stirring constantly, about 5 minutes, or until it just begins to turn golden brown. Pour into a bowl and let cool slightly before mixing with the ground peppercorns. Store in a tightly-closed jar. Makes about 1/4 cup and will keep indefinitely.


Sharp and salty flavor

Sharp and salty flavor is obtained from chili (chilli) peppers or Sichuan peppercorns and salt.


Hot and spicy flavor

Hot and spicy flavor comes from seasonings like curry and mustard.


Hot and salty flavor

Hot and salty flavor is found in condiments like chili (chilli) sauce and Worcestershire sauce.
Seasonings can be added to foods before, during, and after cooking. Because the success of Chinese dishes depends so much on how they are seasoned, the following guidelines may be helpful.


Fish, shrimp, beef, lamb, and mutton sometimes have off-odors. Adding wine, vinegar, scallions, ginger, or sugar before or during cooking helps counteract unpleasant odors.


Do not over-season dishes that feature delicate foods like fish, shrimp, chicken, duck, or mushrooms, or you will kill their flavor.


Bean threads (also known as "cellophane noodles"), shark's fin, and sea cucumbers are so bland that they should always be cooked with a highly-flavored sauce or stock.


The amount of seasoning used should be correct. When a dish has several flavors, the principal and complementary flavors must be balanced to enhance the principal flavors.


The predominant flavors of Chinese dishes change with the seasons. Fresh, crunchy foods and sweet-and-sour cold dishes are best for hot weather, while winter is the time for heavier, fattier dishes, or those that call for long, slow cooking techniques like stewing or braising. Hot pot, in which a variety of fresh ingredients and meat is cooked in a boiling broth in a special cooking pot, is also a special cold-weather dish.



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