Hi! This blog post is a combination of recipes and thoughts on Chinese cooking. In case you have questions or get confused, detailed ingredient and recipe explanations are at the bottom of this post.
I’m trying to get better at making food, even when I feel tired and shitty. I always look to my mom for suggestions and advice since she’s the best cook I know. I may be biased due to the fact that her cooking is what I ate growing up. Though, there was a 9-year period in my life when I’d have chosen a helping of cold Lunchables over her sweet and salty short ribs on rice. I think this might be proof that children have completely broken brains.
I’m compiling just a few of my mom’s dishes here - a few that I’ve ensured are really easy to cook quickly and not mess up. Chinese cuisine has a great range and depth of different flavours, ingredients, and methods of preparation depending on the region and culture. My mom is Han Chinese, born in Cangzhou (a town in the Northern part of China). It would be very diaspora-romantic to say that she grew up learning to cook from her family or something, but that’s not totally true. I think she only started learning for real once she got married and realized cooking for her husband every day was a marital expectation she had to fulfill. Which is kind of depressing. But at the same time, it’s an activity she now enjoys. Plus it brings me a little hope that the best chef I know once sucked at cooking, a lot.
That being said, I wonder what constitutes “authentic” ethnic food when one country has so much variation in culture and tradition. Immigration creates new traditions in and of itself. My mom’s culinary interests may have originated in Cangzhou, but it’s become so much more varied as a result of her new experiences: Trying out new restaurants next to her workplace on Dundas St., comparing the flavours of Congee Wong in North York to the flavours of the breakfast spots in Beijing, being able to Google recipes from her tablet in a split second, and watching Youtubers who wield equipment she’s never used before, like dutch ovens. In that sense, we’ll never know how well her recipes test for “authenticity”. What I do know is: These are recipes she will cook for my dad (one of the pickiest eaters on earth) when she comes home from work tired as shit, and their marriage has survived thus far. That’s real!
Chinese cuisine is close to my heart, but I know it isn’t exactly a go-to for many non-Chinese folks. Compared to Western and European foods, it’s distinctly lacking in cheese, milk, butter, or other dairy (horrifying, I know) which means it’s not very rich or heavy. Additionally, Northern Chinese food doesn’t use the explosive spices of cuisine found further South in China and beyond. Where Japanese cuisine might draw associations to master sushi chefs, Chinese food often draws associations to greasy takeout (though it might be greasy, I implore you to find a tastier, cheaper, and more filling eat than the Chinatown Centre basement food court). Honestly, I feel like it’s just a little misunderstood.
In addition to flavour, there are other little things I prefer. Food is cut into little pieces that accommodate the mouth perfectly. I remember my mom and I having steak for the first time and it was honestly a little disappointing, because it was just a huge hunk of expensive meat that was difficult to cut and chew, seasoned with not much beyond salt and pepper. In Chinese cuisine, that same cut of meat would be chopped down to small strips and coated with flavour on every surface. The experience of eating itself is different, too. When sitting down to eat, food is shared from a variety of huge platters as opposed to single servings, so you can have more of whatever you want. It’s a communal way of experiencing food. I would love to see more people try making Chinese recipes, since they are quick to make, easily vegetarian-adaptable, fragrant, and just super tasty.
There are lots of vegetables commonly found in grocery stores here that have their own (usually tastier) analogues in Asia. A few examples: Chinese celery is thinner, less watery, and more fragrant and flavorful than celery. At Asian supermarkets you can sometimes find Chinese green bell peppers, which are the lighter-in-colour, longer, denser, thinner, tastier version of my least favourite vegetable. Chinese cabbage comes in different shapes and sizes and is great for stir-fries and dumpling fillings. Chinese eggplants are long and skinny, divine when used as a meat substitute in a stir-fry. “Chinese broccoli” is nothing like broccoli broccoli but has a nice texture, a little bitterness, and delicious cooked with garlic.
Luckily, Chinese ingredients tend to be accessible in any city like Toronto. There are a wealth of Chinese restaurants in the GTA, too - I know there are tons in Scarborough, North York, and especially Markham. Carson once took me to a small Vietnamese grocer in St. Catharine’s - Dinh Dinh - that was pretty much stocked with all the essential goods. So you have no excuse…go forth, make some stir-fries, nourish yourself! Then next time, once I’ve mastered it, maybe I’ll show you how to a little technique called velveting…
Buying Chinese seasoning
Soy sauce is a salty, runny sauce with a deep flavour thanks to fermented soybeans. It’s like Asian Worcestershire sauce. Or Maggi, if you’ve ever used that.
My mum prefers Haitian soy sauce. It comes in a bottle that’s squareish at the bottom. Some come with MSG added in, which is only a plus in my book. Just make sure the stuff you get is actually made with fermented soybeans, not just hydrolyzed soy meal with corn syrup and colouring.
Chinese soy sauce is often separated into dark and light. Dark soy sauce has a more intense taste and is used to give food colour.
Widely available in any Toronto bodega is the Japanese kind, Kikkoman, which has a different flavour but is also perfectly good.
A little soy sauce lore for you: I’ve always been too scared to buy China Lily soy sauce. It kind of just looks evil…but they apparently produce it here in Toronto until recently. And it has a cult following, so I guess I should get my hands on some.
Oyster sauce is made with oysters, sugar, and salt. Yum! It adds a great umami flavour.
Black vinegar is yummy, deep, acidic, but not as sweet as Balsamic vinegar.
I’ve always used Chinkiang vinegar. A little goes a long way.
Sesame oil is something people insist is a cooking oil but we only ever use a little to give any dish a special flavour at the end since it’s so fragrant.
Kadoya sesame oil is what I see most often but I really don’t think it matters.
Chili oil is something you add to cooking disasters to make them edible.
Lao Gan Ma is the only way to go, IMO. There are some chili oils made specifically for “numbing spice” flavours (mala) but they’re not as tasty. “Chili crisp” is the classic variety with garlic, onions, and peanuts, but there are tons of other kinds they make too.
Great in stir-fry, fried rice, noodles, salads, just about anything. A little goes a long way.
Peppercorns AKA Chinese peppercorns or Sichuan peppercorns are spicier and more floral than black pepper. You can buy them whole and throw them in to flavour oil and stews.
White pepper is spicier but less funky-tasting than black pepper.
Ginger, garlic, green onions, star anise, whole dried chilis, and sesame seeds are good to have on hand.
Similar recipes online
I’m aware most of the recipes here don’t have measurements. We usually just add however much looks right and, when in doubt, taste! There are some more accurately measured recipes online:
滷肉 (braised/stewed meat)
炒白菜 (cabbage stir fry)
炒青菜 (bok choy stir fry)
西红柿炒鸡蛋/番茄炒鸡蛋 (tomato-egg stir fry)
And again! There are lots of different versions of this recipe floating online. Everyone likes theirs made in different ways.
Fun fact: The Chinese word for tomato is literally “Western persimmon” or “foreign eggplant”. We have a way with words.
凉拌黄瓜 and 凉拌豆腐 (cucumber salad and tofu salad)
These two dishes basically have the exact same flavour profile, you can also use this method for other ingredients to eat cold with the same seasonings (凉拌). For example, after you’re done with a rotisserie chicken, you can pick out the flavourless cooked meat, toss it with this sauce, and it’s suddenly delicious.
Whoever wrote this recipe needs to be sent to jail. Can’t we just cook Chinese food without being weird about it and adding olive oil?! At least append an “-inspired” to the title…
Thank you for reading! If you have any recipes you love to make, please share. I need to learn more. (If you make any of these recipes please send pics or tag me.)