"The dumpling shape looks like the money of the old days," says Susur Lee, who will feature rabbit dumplings at his eponymous Toronto restaurant in honor of the incoming Year of the Rabbit. "We eat it very late at the family dinner, and it brings us good luck."
Food is an integral part of Chinese culture, with culinary knowledge considered essential for refined, educated people. To celebrate Chinese New Year, families traditionally eat foods believed to bring good fortune, prosperity and the best of everything for the year ahead.
"You do all your cleaning, change your carpets, paint your door red to attract spirits, you shower, cut hair, everything before New Year's Day," says chef Ming Tsai, a creator of the East-meets-West movement and author most recently of "Simply Ming: One-Pot Meals (Kyle, 2010). "You want everything prepped for the new year. It's like mis en place for the year."
But most people are more accustomed to takeout boxes than to the intricacies of Chinese cooking. So here's a primer:
Balance, texture and presentation are integral to Chinese cooking. For example, sweet typically is paired with sour - a sort of yin and yang on the tongue - and most dishes contrast soft elements with crunchy ones.
"Good Chinese food always has smooth and crunchy," Tsai says. "There's always that contrast of texture in Chinese food." For instance, soft tofu or pliant noodles will be offset by crunchy cabbage or flash-fried meat.
And though the Japanese are credited with adding the word "umami" - which roughly translates as savory - to the mainstream culinary lexicon, the flavor also is indispensable to Chinese cuisine.
Umami-rich ingredients, such as hoisin and soy sauce, are indispensible in Chinese cooking.
Presentation - or how the food reaches the senses other than taste - also is critical. The sizzle of a hot platter announces its arrival to the table. A beautiful plating, such as soup served in a whole melon or a fish stood on its side, adds a dramatic visual note. And then there is aroma.
"Fragrance is very important to the Chinese," says cooking instructor Eileen Yin-Fei Lo, author of a dozen Chinese cookbooks. "When you cook a dish, if you don't have nice fragrance, people will never return."
Such effects can be created through a number of cooking techniques, such as steaming, braising, flash frying and stir-frying. But no matter which cooking method you use, certain basic items are required to create the balance so essential to great Chinese cooking.
Garlic, ginger root and scallions are the Chinese version of French mirepoix (a flavor base of onions, carrots and celery) and their bright, fresh flavors help create layers of taste in numerous dishes. For example, softened in a little oil, they add a wonderful sweetness to stir-fries. Other common fresh ingredients include chilies, which add heat to dishes such as Sichuan chicken, and cilantro, which adds bright flavors to things such as stir-fried noodles with seafood.
Sugar or honey can lend sweetness, but hoisin - a soybean paste that Tsai calls "Chinese barbecue sauce" - adds a slightly plum-like flavor, as well. Traditionally used as a condiment for Peking duck and moo shu pork, it also enhances the flavor of stir-fries and umami-rich finger foods such as shiitake spring rolls.
Soy sauce brings salt as well as a savory side notes to dishes. Choose only naturally brewed sauces, the alternatives are essentially colored water. Lo suggests using Chinese brands, which have a rich flavor from 90 percent soy beans. Many Japanese brands use a 50-50 combination of wheat and soy. Soy sauce often is stirred into other sauces, added to marinades and drizzled over or into dumplings. It also is the classic condiment for stir-fries.
The tangy, slightly herbal taste of Chinese rice wine brings the sour to your sweet-and-sour. "That's what's used to marinate stuff in Chinese cooking, as opposed to red wine in Western cuisine," Tsai says. Look for the Shaoxing variety. Tsai says ordinary sherry makes a good alternative. Rice wine adds bright notes to seafood, such as steamed scallops, and the acid in marindes for roast duck.
Fermented black beans offer a hefty "pop" of pungent savory flavor that deepens stir-fries and sends flavor all the way to the bone in braising. "It's soy sauce on steroids," Tsai says.
Oyster sauce, an earthy, brown paste made by brewing bivalves, imparts a big, meaty taste to dishes such as stir-fried beef or Chinese broccoli. Try to pick one made in Hong Kong or China, Lo says, because other types often are too sweet.
Drizzled into a stock, used in a dumpling dipping sauce, or even slurried with cornstarch and water as a marinade for flank steak, toasted sesame oil imparts a rich, earthy, smoky flavor and that elusive fragrance Chinese cooks are always after. But don't cook with toasted sesame oil, as the heat destroys its silkiness and delicate flavors.
Crunch and Creaminess
A much-maligned ingredient, cornstarch (used in batter or dry dredging) gives items such as stir-fried squid or chicken a gentle crunch. When dissolved in sauces, such as that used in eggplant with garlic sauce, the cornstarch produces a smooth texture. "That's the magic powder," Tsai says. "It's a great go-to pantry item that is dirt cheap."
Clams symbolize prosperity in Chinese cuisine, and they are a must-have at Chinese New Year's banquets. Ditto for the scallions, whose hollow shoot represents an open mind. In this recipe, a combination of oyster sauce, soy sauce and black bean sauce creates an intense sensation of umami.
Clams Stir-fried with Black Bean sauce
Start to finish: 30 minutes Servings: 2 quarts water
30 medium-sized clams, scrubbed with a stiff brush to remove sand and grit
For the sauce:
2/3 cup chicken stock
1 tablespoons oyster sauce
1 teaspoons dark soy sauce
1 teaspoon sesame oil
1 tablespoon cornstarch
1 teaspoon sugar
Pinch of white pepper
For the stir-fry:
3 tablespoons peanut oil
2 tablespoons peeled and shredded ginger
2 tablespoons julienned garlic
3 tablespoons black bean sauce
1 tablespoon thinly sliced fresh cilantro
1 tablespoon thinly sliced green scallion tops
In a large wok set over high, bring the water to a boil.
Add the clams and allow the water to return to a boil. This will take 4 to 5 minutes. The clams will begin to open. Move them about with a spatula to help the process along.
As the clams open, remove them to a waiting dish to prevent them from becoming tough. Continue until all of the clams have opened (discard any that do not open). Set the clams aside. Discard the water and wash and dry the wok and spatula and reserve.
To make the sauce, in a small bowl, whisk together the chicken stock, oyster sauce, soy sauce, sesame oil, cornstarch, sugar and white pepper. Set aside.
Heat the wok over high for 40 seconds. Add the peanut oil and, using the spatula, coat the wok with the oil. When a wisp of white smoke appears, add the ginger, garlic and black bean sauce, then stir to mix well for about 1 minute, or until the garlic releases its fragrance.
Add the clams and stir to mix for 2 minutes. Make a well in the center of the clams. Stir the sauce, then pour it into the well. Stir constantly for about 2 minutes, or until the sauce thickens and the clams are thoroughly coated with the sauce.
Turn off the heat and transfer to a heated dish. Sprinkle with the cilantro and scallions.