I look what I am and there is no denying that I am Chinese, specifically Cantonese. Although I grew up in Sydney, I also grew up within a Cantonese family environment. We had rice for dinner pretty much every night of the week, although my lunchbox would be filled with sandwiches for school during the day. Frequent visits to Hong Kong (plus a short stint living there) as a child opened my eyes to a different part of the world, a different pace of life, bright lights and a whole new subset of food that was part of my culture but not available in Sydney.
When it comes to cooking Cantonese food I do not follow any recipes and neither does my mother. Skills are learnt through observation and practise, and my mother has never actually ‘taught’ me to cook. And although there are many cooking methods – shallow-frying, deep-frying, steaming, stewing, braising, boiling – the Cantonese don’t traditionally bake and ovens didn’t, and in Asia often still do not, feature in their kitchens. Almost everything can be done stove top and by far the most used cooking technique is stir-frying.
Commonly the types of stir-fries seen in the home contain one meat with one vegetable. A frequent misconception is that there are several types of vegetables in the one dish as seen when dining out, which makes for lots of time-consuming chopping when trying to replicate at home. It is important that the vegetable pieces are cut roughly to the same size for even cooking but, as with all cuisines, there is a valley of difference between home and restaurant cooking and Cantonese cooking is no exception.
With home stir-fries, the most important aspects in my opinion would have to be timing and the marinade. Timing really is something that can only come through practice and through getting to know your stove top and how much heat is transferred by your pots, pans and wok. No, I don’t always stir-fry in a wok – a wide but deep saucepan can often work just as well. Ginger is optional except for when dealing with seafood and, no, we don’t throw spring onion segments into our home stir-fries. (And when spring onions are used as a garnish, they are always sliced on the horizontal and never on a diagonal.)
To time meat and vegetables to cook evenly, I often see my mother brown the meat first in a hot pan until it looks 80-90% cooked before fishing it out. She then cooks the vegetables to around 70-80% cooked before returning the meat to the pan. Any additional seasoning, if required, such as salt or oyster sauce are added at this stage before the whole lot is tossed a few more times until everything is cooked through. This is the process that I have inherited and use as well.
As for the marinade, except for specific dishes, each household normally has an all-purpose formula regardless of whether they are cooking beef, chicken or pork. (Cantonese do not traditionally consume lamb or goat as the local terrain lacks large expanses of grass required for grazing.) The marinade provides flavour to the meat as well as accompanying vegetables. It revolves around, but is not limited to, any combination of light soy sauce, dark soy sauce, sugar, cornstarch, sesame oil and white pepper. Salt is never used to marinate beef as it apparently makes the meat tough.
The proportions of marinade ingredients will vary from family to family and due to personal tastes. Mine is different from my mother’s as well as my mother-in-law’s. Shaoxing rice wine (紹興酒), when used, is usually added during cooking rather than to the marinade itself. Different brands of soy sauce will have differing levels of saltiness, so get to know your ingredients and adjust the amounts below according to your preferences.
What about that oft quoted term ‘breath of wok’ (鑊氣)? It’s something that is considered hard to replicate at home as the heat output of domestic stoves, regardless of whether gas or electric, is inferior to that of commercial ones. However gas cooking is preferable as it makes stir-frying easier due to faster heat up and cool down times. Here, I share with you the marinade that is used in my household. Recipes for stir-fries will come in future posts.
My All-purpose Cantonese Marinade (for 200-300g meat)
· ½ tsp sugar
· ½ tsp potato OR corn starch (Potato starch, available from Asian grocers, is finer in texture and is less claggy than corn starch)
· 2 tbs light soy
· 1 tbs dark soy
· 1 tsp sesame oil (optional)
Place sugar and starch in a medium bowl before pouring in soy sauces and mixing to combine. Add sliced meat to the bowl and turn a few times to make sure all slices are evenly coated – there should be no residual marinade pooling at the bottom of the bowl. If using, add sesame oil before turning meat again to evenly coat. Set aside to marinate for 20-30 minutes prior to cooking.