Ever wonder what Americans who don’t celebrate Christmas do when everyone else is opening presents and singing jingle bell tunes? Well, many of us go out for Chinese food and a movie. At least, that’s the time honored tradition in our household. But, not only would going out for Chinese food go against our current restaurant ban, but it is a sure way to get loaded up on MSG. And, movies, with their loud sound systems and child-intolerant crowds are no place for a near-two year old. So, we opted to stay in and attempt to make our own Chinese cuisine.
Disclaimer: I’m Not Chinese
Now, before we go any further, I feel I need to put in a disclaimer. I’m not Chinese. And, I’ve never been to China. And, while I set out to find authentic Chinese recipes, what I found most often were recipes by guys named Steve who also seemed to have never been closer to China than their nearest neighborhood Number One Chinese. Fortunately, I did have a few leads on good American style Chinese food. And, hopefully we got at least a little bit close in our flavors and composition. But, even if we didn’t, we had a great time and I’d love to cook with anyone who can teach me more about authentic Chinese (or Japanese, Korean, Vietnamese, or Thai) cuisine!
“We should make homemade Chinese food.”
Remember a month or so back when I started using PlanToEat? Well, I still love their software and I have been using it on and off to plan our shopping and cooking, but I’ll admit, I’ve fallen behind. In fact, it wasn’t until about the Monday before Christmas that I realized we had no plans for our non-holiday. As I poured myself a glass of raw milk and sat down to take a break, the thought hit me: We should make homemade Chinese food!
Our favorite Chinese restaurant in the Washington, DC area has always been the Peking Gourmet Inn (PGI), in Falls Church. They have their own farm and use home grown garlic and leeks when they’re in season. They are a favorite of a number of politicians who share my taste in Chinese food, but not my views on politics, and I once had dinner next to a Senator who was having his birthday party there. They have good food, of the type that makes you turn up your nose at other so-called Chinese food. But, I’m relatively sure that most of their dishes have MSG in at least some form, and are full of sugar. I know that most dishes don’t have as many vegetables as I like to eat at home, and are served with white rice, not brown rice. (And, even if they did serve brown rice, I’m sure that it wouldn’t be sprouted and soaked, like the stuff I have at home.) Not to mention all the soy and pseudo-fats I could avoid by making my own meal.
Besides the fact that I don’t think PGI is open for Christmas, there are just so many reasons to cook Chinese at home, the only thing holding me back was the mystery of the flavors and the worry that I couldn’t actually make food that compares to my favorite Chinese restaurant. PGI makes a delicious Peking duck. But, I wasn’t feeling ambitious enough to try copying that at home. Also, to get a small-farm raised, pasture grazed duck, I would have had to order at least two weeks in advance. I needed recipes I could easily pull off in a matter of days.
I began my search for recipes by using Google. I typed in “Authentic Chinese Recipes” and got a bunch of sweet and sour pork type things, calling for ingredients like Heinz ketchup, canned vegetables, and Tysons chicken. Nothing that looked promising or particularly like real food. I gave up my Google-ing and looked to Jet Tila’s Chasing the Yum (which airs on the Veria channel) for inspiration on healthy homemade versions of some of my favorite foods. And, I came up with Kung Pao Shrimp.
Recipes and Ingredients for an MSG Free Meal
I carefully reviewed Chef Tila’s recipe. It called for a few pre-made ingredients that I wasn’t sure of, namely chili garlic sauce and oyster sauce. Before I could plan on using them, I needed to know what kind of ingredients they contained. I’m not completely adverse to purchasing pre-made condiments, but I prefer to make them myself unless I can purchase something that is exactly as I would make it! So, I decided to do some research at my local international market. I found only one type of oyster sauce. Its label proudly listed “MSG for flavor.” The chili garlic sauces all contained ingredients that I didn’t want in my body. I decided to use plain fish sauce (without the additives) in place of oyster sauce and make my own chili garlic sauce.
Back at home, I used Google to search for chili garlic sauce recipes. The most promising ones called for fresh red chilies and garlic. Unfortunately, red chilies aren’t exactly in season. I decided to fake it, using dried chilies and garlic, along with some succanat, rice vinegar, corn starch, water, and salt, all processed to a pulp in my food processor. My first attempt was OK, but the chilies didn’t chop up as finely as I wanted. I showed it to our friend Heide who is from Mexico and was very interested in my attempt to use chilies. She suggested that I add oil. Because I knew the recipe called for toasted sesame oil, that’s what I used. It worked like a charm. I could tell it was coming together by the wonderful aroma that filled my entire house with spice and flavor. A quick taste proved that I was on the right track. It was a flavor I recognized from many a good Chinese meal. And, while I will definitely add fresh chili garlic sauce to my list of must-makes from my garden next year, this dried version will work perfectly in a pinch! I was confident I could successfully make the Kung Pao Shrimp. (I stored the finished sauce in a glass jar in the refrigerator for a few days until I was ready to use it.)
But, I didn’t want to just make one dish. I put the word out on my Facebook page, asking for traditional recipes. AnnMarie of Cheeseslave posted a link to her piece on Orange Chicken. It was perfect, except that I didn’t have time to thaw a whole chicken to cut into pieces for the dish. She suggested that I try Orange Beef, which is one of my favorites. Because beef steak is a lot quicker to thaw and cut, that’s what I decided to do. (I planned only a few alterations to her recipe. I wanted to use homemade beef broth instead of chicken broth, and decided to replace the garlic and chili with my chili garlic sauce!)
Additionally, I decided to wing it with some kind of string bean and broccoli dish. I thought I would steam each, throw in a little pork and a little chili garlic sauce and call it good. Of course, we’d also make tea, and I’d make some fried rice out of my sprouted and soaked brown rice.
No Wok Required
Most of the Chinese recipes that I read called for using a Wok. I used to have a Wok. Brian and I bought it spur of the moment as part of an outdoor grill set. (It had its own burner, like a turkey fryer.) We had great intentions of getting into stir fry at the time, but we also ate out a lot in those days and it was so much simpler to go out for stir-fry, or so we thought. The Wok was stored in the garage and eventually it started to get rust spots—which I probably could have conditioned off of it if I’d wanted to, but I didn’t. When we moved, I needed to cut down on the junk we were hauling with us. The Wok was one of the first things to hit the donate pile. “We haven’t used this thing in all the years we’ve had it,” I reasoned, “We’re never going to make stir-fry.” Little did I know that I was destined to go the hardcore traditional path.
So, I don’t have a Wok, and I wasn’t in the mood to go buy one. I did not want to repeat the impulse purchase and then find out that cooking Asian inspired cuisine wasn’t for me. So, I decided to rough it with my cast iron cookware. I won’t buy a Wok until this way of cooking becomes a regular thing for us.
Now that I knew I had a workable chili garlic sauce and was pretty sure I could pull everything off. I made a shopping list and took another trip to the international grocery. I took Mia along, as I always do. She likes to see the live fish in the market tanks, and I always give her a basket to carry. (My grandfather was a renowned basket weaver in the black mountains and she carries one of his baskets when we shop!) We fill it up with produce and I let her pay with my card when we check out! It’s fun for her and it’s fun for me!
Cooking Up a Family-Style Portion
Now, I don’t know about you, but when I go out for Chinese food with friends, we always order several dishes and share them around the table. And, that is exactly what I had in mind when I was planning the two main dishes, two vegetables, and fried rice. But, sometime around dinner on the night of the 23rd of December, I realized that it might be a little bit ridiculous to cook like that for a family of three. So, Brian and I judiciously decided to do one main dish on Christmas Eve and one on Christmas day.
For Christmas Eve, we decided on Kung Pao Shrimp. I pulled a pound of wild caught shrimp from the freezer and force thawed them under running water. Brian got his first ever try at shelling and deveining, a chore that is made much easier with a simple deveining tool. After a few tips from me (I was looking over his shoulder pretty closely there at the start), he was on his way and I had the luxury of chopping vegetables and cooking shrimp without being the one dealing with the messy part! Mia was asleep, so we were able to enjoy the pure pleasure of cooking, laughing, and talking together. It reminded me of when we were newlyweds and once a month would pick out a new recipe to try cooking as a couple!
The recipe called for half of a green pepper and half of a red pepper, but that was pretty wasteful to my mind. Besides, I like a lot of veggies! So, I went ahead and used a whole red pepper and a whole green pepper. (Kind of crazy of me to veer so far astray from the recipe, no? *wink* *wink*) I also made a few other changes. I chose to use my brine soaked and dehydrated cashews in place of roasted of raw cashews straight from the package. (For instructions on brining nuts, see this blog by the Nourishing Gourmet!) As I previously mentioned, I used fish sauce in place of oyster sauce, which I know has a different flavor and texture. But, I didn’t have time to make my own oyster sauce, and I wasn’t up for the additives in the commercial variety! I also used lard (non-hydrogenated, from pastured animals—purchased through a reputable butcher) in place of canola oil. Lard is a much more traditional oil in Chinese cooking, and I don’t use that crazy, ultra refined product of industrial food production that is the oil of the rapeseed. (Lard from the store is also nasty stuff. You want good, old fashioned lard from pastured animals only, and from a trusted source!)
The cooking itself (compared to all that worry, planning and prep) was very easy. Just stir fry some garlic, chilies, veggies and then the shrimp (adding each ingredient after the first has had a little time to start cooking) and then tossing in a sauce at the end. Meanwhile, I had steamed my sprouted and soaked brown rice, which I fried at the end, adding veggies, an egg and some traditionally fermented soy sauce. (See note). As always when cooking fresh food, the aromas were intoxicating. I could barely wait to taste my first bite.
Brian set the table and we plated everything up. We took a few pictures before we gave in and had to have a taste. I don’t know if it was authentic, but it was the best Chinese food that I have ever had! EVER! I could hardly wait until the next day for our adventure in orange beef.
Christmas day dawned and I asked Brian if he thought breakfast as too soon to start. He wasn’t really prepared for Orange beef for breakfast, so I humored him and waited until lunchtime. We broke out the cast iron skillets again and I ground sprouted brown rice into flour to make our breading. We used beef and beef broth in place of chicken and chicken broth, and I also used my homemade chili garlic sauce in place of the chilies and garlic, but otherwise we followed AnnMarie’s recipe. Orange beef is somewhat short on vegetables, so we made broccoli and string beans (each stir-fried with garlic chili paste and pork) as sides. I sliced the steak while Mia and Brian squeezed the oranges to make the sauce. Then, Brian breaded and fried the beef. (This has become his job since he started all that stuff with the delicious breaded and fried fish!) And, I took care of all the rest.
Once again, we were blown away by the freshness and flavor. We had leftovers, but it took some restraint to stop nibbling! The food was just that good! Mia enjoyed it as well, but she preferred the rice and vegetables, which weren’t as spicy as the main dish.
True to the spirit of our eat-in Christmas, we rented several movies on Christmas day. And, as we sat and watched, I reflected on what a perfect gift our adventure in Chinese cooking had been.
I was completely inspired by our foray into Asian cuisine. After months of cooking essentially the comfort foods of my youth, it was a pleasure to branch out and try to cook something I’ve always enjoyed, but found so exotic that I thought it would be hard to make. The truth is, it was easy. The cooking methods are pretty much the same as American cooking. You use a good quality fat, fresh vegetables, good quality meat proteins, fresh flour, and some spice, and you time it all to come out at about the same time—hot, flavorful, and on the plate. Eventually, I may add a Wok to my collection of kitchen gear, but before then, I am definitely going to add some Chinese cookbooks. I might even try out Thai, Japanese, Vietnamese, and Korean cooking as well! Nothing seems out of reach.
MSG seems to be a traditional spice, so why won’t I use it? Some people (the ones who manufacture and sell it) are going to tell you that MSG is just another harmless food additive. (See this very pro-MSG wikiarticle: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Monosodium_glutamate#cite_note-twsNovK6-5. It seems to me to have been written by someone trying to sell MSG to the general public!) Traditional cuisines used seaweed extract that contained naturally occurring glutamate, but in 1907, scientists isolated MSG and it started being used as a “flavor enhancer.” The idea that there is no difference in naturally occurring glutamic acid and MSG is just rubbish. “Glutamic acid found in unadulterated, unprocessed, unfermented food that contains protein is only L-glutamic acid, while the glutamic acid found in our processed food supply always contains contaminants (including D-glutamic acid), some of which likely may contribute to the majority, if not all, of the adverse reactions that MSG-sensitive people experience.” Interestingly, though MSG is often listed as a spice, it imparts no flavor of its own! Instead, it is a neurotoxin that alters our perception of the satisfying nature of the food we eat, making it seem meaty or more substantial. And, as reported by the Weston A. Price foundation, “fifth taste or not, MSG causes brain lesions and subsequent endocrine disorders, and adverse reactions that can vary from a simple skin rash or flushing to debilitating and life-threatening conditions such as migraine headaches, obesity, diabetes, asthma, heart irregularities, seizures, and mood disorders.” (For a further information and a list of citations on these claims.)
Hey, I thought the Traditional Hard-Core Cook didn’t use soy! So, why the soy sauce? Well, I don’t use soy, as a general rule, but I don’t think there’s any way to cook Chinese food and get the right kind of flavor without soy sauce. So, I compromise here—and just make sure this is a special occasion and not representative of my everyday diet. And, I make sure to use only traditionally fermented, gourmet soy sauce that does not have MSG masking ingredient names. Traditionally brewed soy sauces take months to make and contains naturally forming glutamic acid. (This naturally forming variety isn’t dangerous, except to hypersensitive individuals.) The modern method of producing soy sauces fast, in a bioreactor, creates large amounts of unnatural glutamic acid, like that in MSG. So, I always buy the more expensive, naturally brewed stuff. And, even then, it’s still soy with all those phytoestrogens, and I still have a history of infertility. So, I make sure that soy sauce isn’t an everyday, every week or even every month food for my family!
These Recipes Aren’t Kosher: I didn’t mean to offend anyone by using pork ingredients in our nonkosher Chinese food. It is possible to make kosher Chinese. Brian’s bar mitzvah was catered by a kosher Chinese restuarant. I’m no expert on kosher cooking, but I think you could substitute the lard and the pork ingredients here with beef tallow and beef bacon. In the Kung Pao dish, you could use chicken instead of shrimp.