According to one of Hong Kong's leading food
writers and connoisseurs, Willie Mark, Hong Kong
is "the uncontested capital of Chinese
gastronomy." Few visitors who have sampled its
vast culinary riches would disagree with Willie.
Hong Kong's outstanding chefs in all the four
major schools of Chinese cuisine (Canton,
Peking, Sichuan and Shanghai) have redefined
classic recipes and cooking techniques.
The question that nags lovers of Chinese food
is: "Can I create some of these tasty, savory
dishes at home?" The answer is: "Very easily,
with a little practice." Once a Western kitchen
has been stocked with a few key ingredients, a
few basic utensils and an apprentice cook's
enthusiasm, it can produce a multi-course meal
for half-a-dozen guests at 30 minutes' notice ?
the true test of a competent Chinese housewife!
Simplicity is best
The goal is to create the correct balance of
flavors and textures in each platter, and
throughout the whole meal. Practice definitely
makes for Chinese culinary perfection. Start out
simply, one course at a time, using any of the
better-known Chinese cookery books designed for
non-Chinese readers. Just remember that most
Chinese dishes, with the exception of Imperial
Banquet specialties, are meant to be simple.
All home-style dishes were meant to be quickly
whipped up in a wok ?a large, saucer-shaped,
metallic cooking pot. Most standard a la
carte restaurant dishes are also
speedy, simple affairs. That is partly because
freshness and natural tastes are considered
fundamental to Chinese cooking. The short
cooking time also reflects the fact that few
diners outside the Imperial Court had time to
sit around and wait for cooks to concoct
elaborate culinary conceits.
it must be admitted that the time a traditional
Chinese cook saves on cooking processes is more
often than not devoted to the preparation of
ingredients ?but no more so than in a
traditional Western kitchen. Few convenience
foods are acceptable to traditional Chinese
Nowadays, most working Hong Kong housewives have
had to accept convenience. Tins of curried beef,
marinated pork trotters, preserved vegetables
and other "emergency" rations are standbys.
Refrigerated and deep-frozen meals and shellfish
are commonly used. As in the West, however, the
"real thing" is still preferred for special
family or festival meals. That means the cook
must buy the best available market produce.
So, what does one really need to start cooking a
Chinese meal? Very little, apart form top-class
The "seven essentials" in a traditional Chinese
kitchen were firewood, rice, oil, salt, sauce
(soy), vinegar and tea. Everything else was
bought fresh, twice or three times a daily.
Nowadays, of course, refrigeration means that
shopping need not be done so frequently!
Although today's cooks tend to stock many more
ingredients, those seven essentials of a
"well-kept house" indicate the simple style of
The "fire" is still the first priority. As so
many Chinese, especially Cantonese, dishes
depend on super-fast stir-frying and
instantaneous heat control, a gas cooker is
undoubtedly the best equipment. Use of an
electric cooker necessitates a lot of practice
in gauging when to adjust the heat level, and an
electric place cannot caress a round-bottomed
wok in the way that gas flames can. Yet, with
practice, an electric cooker and flat-bottomed
frying pan can turn out very passable Chinese
dishes. If possible, have a range with at least
One round-bottomed wok is the only "special"
utensil that is needed. Woks designed for
electric ranges are available in stores. Be sure
to buy a metal wok lid. Purists prefer cast-iron
woks, for their fast conduction of heat, but
stainless steel woks are just as acceptable. A
14-inch wok is adequate for home cooking.
A long-handled shovel-like metal spatula (wok
sang) is more useful than a Western
spatula for turning and tossing food. A small
wooden-handled sieve is needed for moving
deep-fried food to the walls of the wok for
draining. The other basic utensil is a steaming
stand (which also allows one to cook two dishes
simultaneously). Additionally, wooden cooking
chopsticks are recommenced cooking tools. (It is
assumed most non-Chinese households already
possess an electric rice cooker).
None of the utensils is expensive, including the
key utensil, the chopper, or cleaver. It should
be so sharp that one could shape or even cut
one's nails with it (as is done by "pedicurists"
in old-fashioned Chinese bath-houses!). The
chopper is handled with great care by Chinese
cooks, only raised high above the chopping block
when one's second hand is well clear, and is
never allowed to come near one's fingers.
Instead, one should only present knuckles
towards the blade's side when chopping or dicing
Wooden chopping blocks (usually cross-sections
of soap wood tree trunks) are favored by most
people because they do not blunt the chopper as
quickly as other types. Modern considerations
for hygiene have led to the widespread use of
special plastic boards. However, as plastic
boards can easily slip, the good heavy wooden
blocks are still recommended, for safety's sake.
Be sure to scrub and rinse (never soak) the
board after every use.
Additional Chinese kitchen utensils such as
bamboo steamers and earthenware cooking pots can
be purchased when the apprentice cook moves onto
more complex dishes. These items are well worth
considering, once the basic techniques have been
mastered, for bamboo steamers allow excess
liquids to drain away from a steaming dish, and
earthenware pots add an indefinable richness of
flavor to soups and hot pots. In the beginning,
though, standard Western kitchen utensils ?
saucepans, a frying pan, a colander, etc. ?
serve well enough. There is one more thing that
is essential, as you will soon discover, and
that is an efficient exhaust fan to extract the
Let's start cooking with plain green vegetables.
A couple of quick lessons will have you cooking
a dish of which the flavor, vitamin content and
very color will amaze any guest used to
old-fashioned over-boiled vegetables! The
following basic steps are suitable for any
cabbage, spinach, kale or other green vegetable,
and will introduce the apprentice cook to the
fundamental Cantonese cooking technique of
Wash and drain the vegetable leaves, chopping
them into manageable lengths of about four
inches. Chop the stalks too, if necessary. Then,
thoroughly heat the wok.
Pour a little cooking oil into the pan. The
amount will depend on how much and what type of
vegetable leaves you are cooking. The idea is to
have the vegetables lightly coated with the oil,
with no excess oil lying in the pan, so a
practice run or two will soon give you an eye
for the appropriate amount.
Wait ?only a moment or two ?until the oil is
hot and starting to steam at the edges, then
spread it (carefully!) up the walls of the wok
with the wok sang. Make sure
that all the vegetables are coated. You will see
them starting to cook, the inner core of the
stems will change color, and an inviting aroma
will rise from the wok ?a quick glance and
sniff is enough to tell the vegetables are ready
for seasoning. Add a flavoring agent such as
salt, sugar or chicken stock, and then a little
water or stock. The liquid produces the steam in
which the final cooking process is carried out.
After quickly agitating the wok's contents with
the wok sang, place the lid on
the wok and wait a few minutes until there is
only a little liquid left in the wok (experience
will tell you precisely when).
Lift the lid and, presto! You have vibrant green
fresh vegetables. The hot oil has sealed in all
their natural juices, yet the steaming will have
ensured that the vegetables are not oily. At
this point, turn the heat down and taste the
vegetables to see whether extra salt should be
added. You can also add a sauce now, such as
oyster sauce, sesame oil or wine, depending on
The same stir-frying techniques are applied to
meat, and to such other vegetables as eggplant.
If you plan to add a garlic,
garnish to the dish, add it in the initial
stage, after the oil has been heated. Just
remember the 18th c. counsel of Yuan Mei: "The
eyes and the nose are neighbors to the mouth and
act as middlemen. A good dish strikes the nose
and eyes first.
Applying heat to food
With practice, you will discover how variations
in this basic cooking technique can change the
texture and taste of foods. In general, good
quality cuts of meat warrant cooking in hot oil
that has not started to smoke, while seafood and
battered foods should be fried in a very hot pan
in oil that has started to smoke, and larger
pieces of meat or whole meats are best immersed
in oil that has started to smoke at a lower
Shallow frying, say for fish, should be done
over high heat until the fish has begun to
brown, when the heat should be reduced to a
minimum. You will know you judged it correctly
when the fish does not stick to the wok or pan!
There are possibly a hundred more Chinese
methods of "applying heat to food," as cooking
has been described. Every region of China has
its special cooking techniques, and the
adventurous cook will enjoy discovering the
variety of methods used for boiling, simmering,
stewing, frying, smoking, marinating, etc.
Simplicity is the key to Chinese cuisine,
despite the apparent complexities of Chinese
restaurant menus. Maintaining and enhancing an
ingredient's natural flavor is the name of the
game. The game's second rule is that foods
deserve to be flattered by complementary tastes
and textures. Thus, one can create a
personalized Chinese "nouvelle cuisine" by
combining meats and vegetables in new ways, in a
stir-fried dish, a soup or some other appetizing
So do take a small pad and pen with you when you
dine in Hong Kong's fine Chinese restaurants so
that you can take down the English names of
dishes that were particularly pleasing, find the
names in your cookery books at home, and get
ready for fun in the kitchen.