Laboratory in the Culinary Arts: Day #7

By Jillian Bernardini - Oct 29, 2011 - 02:05 PM
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July 25th:  Chinese Cuisine with Helen Chen

                                        Steamed Salmon with Fermented Black Beans

Helen Chen was an amazing culinary instructor and the perfect guide for learning genuine Chinese cooking.  I say genuine instead of authentic because China is made up of multiple regions that practice a variety of cuisines, which consist of the indigenous ingredients to that particular region.  Considering my knowledge of Chinese food has been limited to typical Chinese-American take out restaurants that still make good food, but it is food that has transformed into a cuisine thought to be more receptive towards the American palate.  Lots of sauce and extra sugar is now what we’ll find in those take out containers, but this is not authentic Chinese cooking.  I was also surprised that traditional Chinese home cooking does not have predominant spiciness, but instead, this cooking has more subtle, flavorful spice elements. 

                        Stir Fried Rice Vermicelli with Shredded Chicken and Vegetables

When Helen displayed her chef’s tools and different culinary skills, this was a direct window into her culture.  The bamboo steamer was beautifully crafted and something so different than the typical metal steam baskets found in America.  Even the wontons were amazing!  The filling never seemed to be enough, but once we fried them, the centers were moist and had that umami-savory quality to them.  It was interesting that we decided to fry them because Helen mentioned that they never fry their wontons.  I would have enjoyed steaming some of them in the bamboo steamer to compare and contrast the results.  I also loved how Helen explained the regional cuisines, and how the Cantonese will practically eat anything with legs!  Her lessons and recipes were reflective of the authentic flavors of regional Chinese home cooking: nothing overcomplicated or fancy, and two main goals of flavor and health.

Once our team was ready to stir fry the vermicelli, I was expecting more sauce or a remainder of sauce to be served on the side.  The vermicelli surprised me in that they absorbed all the sauce and maintained that flavor.  I am used to Chinese food with gloppy, thick sauces on top, but this recipe proved to me that they are unnecessary.  Even the sauce from the Yangzhou shrimp had the perfect amount: sweet, salty, tangy, and savory all in one. 


                                                       Yangzhou Slippery Shrimp

As a whole, the dishes were very well-balanced, and one of the ingredients that we used throughout the night, sesame seed oil, became my favorite new ingredient.  I loved its aroma and toasty complexity.  One of my next kitchen investments will be a wok or a bamboo steamer, so that I can recreate and reinvent Helen’s recipes in my own kitchen.