Saturday, March 14, 2009

The Basic How To Make Spices, Seasoning, And Other Things For Chinese Cooking

When I marry my husband, Richard, I know that I would have to learn to cook Taiwanese food ( very similar with Chinese cuisine ). So I start collecting Taiwanese/Chinese book recipes. My plan was just to cook those meals without thinking too much about the availability of the ingredients.I always thought that I can always find a jar of Lee Kum Kee Black Beans Garlic Sauce in a nearby supermarket, or a bottle of Chinese Five Spice Mix, or a plastic bag of Preserved Mustard. Later I found out that when I move around to a different city, sometimes the ingredients that I could easily buy at one city may not be so easily to get on another city.

At that time I did not think about how my status as the wife of a Taiwanese man can make me have the advantage of knowing the inside scoop about how to make those ingredients that I usually use in cooking Chinese/Taiwanese food. Having a Taiwanese mother in law who now crazy about making everything by herself can give more an advantage to know about how to make those ingredients that will be needed when I want to cook Chinese cuisine.

Here I will mixed some part of my knowledge that I learn through my recipe books with the knowledge that I learn at my mother in law's kitchen.

I am very fortunate that my mother in laws' sisters are all great cook. Not only that, but my mother in law also surrounded with friends who loves to make everything by themselves. I guess it is partly because of her age. People that is still around the age of her generation still wants to make everything by themselves. People at my generation just want to go to a store and grab a jar of factory made seasoning or ingredients that usually full with preservatives, sodium, sugar, and other things that is hard to pronounced

I start to pay more attention after one day my mother in law gave me a jar of home-made chili black bean, made by her oldest sister. The taste is awesome! It's so different from the store bought one. For preserving the Chili Black Bean Sauce, her sister use 40 percent Chinese Liquor. She poured it on top of the beans. When I tasted it for the first time I was taken back by the strong liquor, but my mother in law told me that when I use it for cooking, the heat will evaporate the alcohol, so the dish will not be taste like a drunken master favorite dish.

At that time I asked her to teach me how to make it, she said she can not because only her oldest sister knows how to make it and when my mother in law need it, she just go to her oldest sister's home and ask for it. Her oldest sister will gladly supply her and her other siblings with her delicious Chili black bean Sauce.

I keep on pressing my mother in law to let me learn from her sister , until at one point I asked her this question, " If your sister died, who can give you or teach you how to make that Chili Black Bean Sauce?". I guess that's her wake up call. When I returned again to Taipei few months later, proudly my mother in law handed me a jar of her own home-made Chili Black Bean Sauce. It taste as good as her sister's. After that ( this was 2 years ago ), she never stop learning from her sisters and friends on how to make this and that. I still remember the unbelievable superior taste of the home-made pressed sesame oil that she gave me from one of her friend.

The bad news for me is, in Indonesia, it is hard to get the fermented black beans as the ingredient of her Chili Black Bean Sauce. But as a consolation, she teach me how to make other things such as, a health drink full of enzyme made with 12 different types of fruits, then Chinese preserved sour mustard. Actually she taught me more than that but we have a language problem. I can't speak Mandarin well enough to understand her and she doesn't speak English. She taught me to make delicious vegetarian dishes too because she is a strict vegetarian. But because she is surrounded by carnivores, she also taught me how to make an easy seasoned meat that taste great broiled or baked.

When I go to a restaurant, I like to try a new dish and then I tried to guess what kind of seasonings they use to make that dish. But when I am in Taiwan, many times I just can not guess. The dish look pretty simple, but somehow there is something in that dish that make that dish special, but I do not know what that is. Until one day, when I tried to squeeze a drink into my mother in law extremely crammed refrigerator, I found that behind a mountain of fresh produced or what ever that she put in the fridge, there are many bottles in all kind of shape, all of them are without any company labels. Just plain glass container with something in it. Then I look around her kitchen I found more glass containers. I asked her about them later, then she explain to me that all of them are home-made by her sisters or friends and all of them are the secret "taste", "flavor", "ingredients" behind many dishes. I asked her why on a certain dish I can not find the secret ingredient, she explain that the secret ingredient sometimes have to be taken out before serving, that's why I can not find it. Interesting....

There is only one problem with learning from her. She never use exact measurement on anything. So I usually just video taped her lesson for future reference.

Since she is a very healthy vibrant person. I know that I still have many more years where I can keep on learning from her all about Chinese cuisine and Taiwanese cuisine and I am so looking forward to that many coming years of learning under her guidance.

So now I am going to share some recipes with you....

Chinese Five Spice Blend

Despite its name, this savory spice blend usually contains more than five ingredients, typically ground star anise, cloves, cinnamon, fennel seed, Sichuan peppercorns, and sometimes cumin, cardamom, coriander seed, and /or ground ginger. Prepared blends are readily available in any Asian market, as well as in the spice section of most supermarkets, but it's easier, cheaper, and far more flavorful to make your own mixture.

To make your own five-spice seasoning this is how and what you will need ...

Ingredients :
2 Tbs fennel seed
8 whole star anise
1 Tbs coriander seed
1 tsp cumin seed
1 Tbs white peppercorns
14 whole cloves

1 tsp ground cinnamon

How to:
Put all of those dry spices ( except ground cinnamon ) in a dry skillet. Stirring frequently, toast over medium heat for 5 to 8 minutes, or until the mixture is fragrant, taking care not to scorch the spices. Add the 1 tsp ground cinnamon. When cool, transfer to a coffee grinder or food processor and whir until finely ground. The seasoning will keep in a cupboard in a closed container for up to 3 months.

Makes about 1/4 cup.

Chili Oil

Variously called red-pepper oil, hot oil, or chili oil, this is a seasoning only, and not for cooking over heat. The best brands, sold in small glass bottles, are made by infusing a mixture of vegetable and sesame oils with chilies. They vary in heat, with those from China generally less intense than the brands from Southeast Asia. It is easy ( and cheaper ) to make your own and you can adjust the heat to suit your palate.

Ingredients:
3/4 Cup peanut or corn oil ( not canola, which is flavorless )
1/4 Cup Asian sesame oil
1/4 Cup dried red pepper flakes

How To:
Mix both oil in a small, heavy saucepan over medium heat. After 3 to 4 minutes, or when the oil registers 250F on an instant-read thermometer, add 1/4 cup dried red pepper flakes. Remove the pan from the heat ( the flakes should be foaming slightly ), stir, and cover. Let sit off the heat at room temperature for a couple of hours or overnight. Strain the oil through a fine mesh sieve into a clean glass or plastic container, discard the red pepper flakes, and store in a cool, dark place.

Seasoned Tofu

If you can't find seasoned tofu, it's also easy to make your own.

Ingredients:
14-ounce block of firm tofu
1 cup water
1/2 cup soy sauce
1/2 cup Shaoxing wine
1 Tbs brown sugar
4 whole star anise
1 tsp Sichuan peppercorns

How to:
Halve the tofu crosswise and place both pieces in a saucepan. Cover with all the seasoning. Bring the liquid to a boil over high heat, then decrease the heat to medium-low and simmer, uncovered , for 30 minutes, adding more water if necessary to keep the tofu covered. Drain, discard the liquid, and keep the cooked, seasoned tofu refrigerated in an airtight container for up to 2 days.

Note:
If you want to make the tofu more dense, you can wrapped the tofu with a cheesecloth on a bamboo steamer or cookie rack then place something heavy on top of the tofu. The weight will squeeze out the tofu liquid and the tofu will become denser. The cheesecloth will also help to keep the tofu skin stay moist.

Chinese Chili Paste ( La Jaio )

Be sure to wear kitchen gloves when you make chili paste to protect your hand and eyes from stray chili heat.

Makes about 2 1/2 cups

Ingredients:
2 lbs dried red or fresh jalapenos, stemmed and chopped very roughly
10 fresh Thai Chilies, or 1 Tbs red pepper flakes
1 Cup minced garlic
1/4 cup Canola oil
2 Cups rice wine vinegar
1 tsp sugar
2 tsp salt

How To:
In a medium saucepan, combine the jalapenos, Thai chilies, garlic, and oil and cook over low heat until the ingredients soften and blend, about 15 minutes. Add the vinegar and cook until reduced by half, 12 to 15 minutes.

Remove from the heat and add the sugar and salt. Cool to room temperature. Transfer the mixture to a food processor and pulse 3 to 4 times to chop to a salsa like texture. Store in the refrigerator in a tightly sealed jar.

Black Bean Garlic Sauce

Makes about 3 cups
Last 2 weeks, refrigerated.

Ingredients:
1 Cup canola oil
1/3 Cup fermented black beans, roughly chopped
1/2 Cup minced garlic
1/2 Cup peeled and minced fresh ginger
2 bunches of scallions, white and green parts, sliced 1/8 inch thick
1 Tbs Chinese Chili Paste
1/2 Cup Shaoxing rice wine
2 tsp salt
1 tsp freshly ground black pepper

How To:
Heat a wok or large saucepan over high heat. Add 1/4 Cup of the oil and swirl to coat the pan. Add the beans, garlic, ginger, and scallions, and stir-fry until the mixture has softened, 2 to 3 minutes.

Add the Chili Paste and wine, decrease the heat to medium, and cook until the mixture is reduced by three quarters, 2 to 3 minutes. Add the salt and pepper.

Remove the mixture from the heat and allow it to cool. Transfer half of the mixture to a blender and puree it at high speed while adding the remaining 3/4 Cup of oil. Stir the puree back into the remaining mixture and cool completely. Use or store.

Preserved Sour Mustard Green

All of the measurement has to be done in approximate. Sorry.
Chinese mustard has a bitter taste with horseradish-mustard taste to it. But by salting it and then squeeze out all the liquid and throw it away, you will rid of the bitter horseradish taste from the mustard.

Ingredients:
2 kg mustard medium size ( don't buy the biggest one )
2 kg yam/sweet potato
3 Tbs salt or to taste

How To:
Soak and clean the mustard. Don't forget to check the area near the stalk because usually the dirt like to hid in there. Then you will need to dry them completely first. There are many ways. The first one is my mother in law's way, she lay them on the clean floor of her apartment's patio. It's outdoor so both the wind and the sun will slowly dried them. Or you can try my way. Put the vegetable on a white nylon laundry mesh wash bag that has zipper. Then you put the bag into your dryer ( hahaha ) just for 10 minutes on medium low heat. Then there is another way, my maid's way. She learned this from her Saudi Arabian boss who is in food business. She wrapped the vegetables in a towel then tied them so they won't explode inside , then she pop them inside the washing machine. Then she use SPIN cycle. The centrifugal force will help dried the vegetables just like salad spinner. Except much bigger. Unfortunately my washing machine doesn't have the spin only feature so I have to come up with the dryer method.

After the vegetables are all dried nicely. Then start sprinkling 2 Tbs salt ( save the rest of the salt for later ) on the vegetables in a big container. Then gently start messaging the vegetables to distribute the salt.

Put something heavy to press down the vegetables. Since the salt will draw out the liquid soon there will be some liquid in the container. By putting some weight on top of the vegetable this will make sure that the vegetables all evenly soaked in that salty liquid. Let the vegetables marinate in this salty water for a day. You can move them around to make sure they are all marinated evenly.

Then the next day, squeeze out the liquid from the vegetables and throw the liquid away. Now, skinned and then cut the sweet potato/yam into 2x2x2 cm cubes.

On a saucepan or soup pot, boil 6 cups of water. Put the sweet potato in. Then add 1 Tbs of salt. When the sweet potato are all tender but not mushy. Turn off the heat and let it cool.

When it's cool, mix the sweet potatoes and the liquid into the vegetables container. This is the replacement liquid of the one that is drawn by the salt out and then you threw it out remember?

Now cover the vegetables with plastic. If necessary, use some weight again to make sure that all of the vegetables are submersed in that liquid. Put the mustard on a table in room temperature. Now you just need to wait for at least 2 - 3 days.

After 2 - 3 days, you will see that the vegetables will turn yellower. The liquid also become yellow. The yellow comes from the sweet potato, that's why you need to find a sweet potato or yam that has yellow flesh and sweet because in this recipe we don't use any sugar. Just the natural sweetness of the yam/sweet potato. The addition of yam / sweet potato will give your home-made sour mustard a nicer fragrant than the store-bought one. Don't believe it? Go ahead try to make this recipe !

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