Cooking with Jerry- A lesson in Chinese cuisine

As a Canadian, I have fond memories of going to the local Chinese Buffet restaurant and eating a ridiculous amount of  sweet and sour pork, fried rice, chicken balls, even some beef and broccoli and chop suey.  How ethnic!  Chop suey!  After being in China for over a month now, I can safely say that none of the above qualify as anything remotely close to the food I have eaten over here.

I, as a self proclaimed super-foodie, am very interested in different foods, flavors, and techniques from around the world.  I have eaten many wonderful thing in the time I have been here, and last night, I was honored to spend the day with an amazing chef, and cook a meal, from market to table.  My parents have been here for over nine years now and have made some amazing friends.  Jerry and his family definitely qualify as amazing.  Jerry works as a chef at a private Kindergarten, and his food has become VERY popular… kids are always excited to go to school, mainly for his food!

How to speak “Foodie-nese”

I was invited to cook some traditional Chinese dishes, as well as some of his specialties.  We met in the morning, he with his daughter Amy, to interpret and translate.  We arrived at his home, has a quick lunch consisting of small, whole fried fish (head, tail and fins!), rice, and a gorgeous pumpkin and shrimp dish.  Amy’s English is very good, and we talked about this and that, she explained a few things, then said she had class to teach and had to leave.  Uh oh… Jerry speaks NO English, whatsoever, and I speak an unintelligible version of Chinese consisting of only about ten words.   Although this could have been disastrous for some some, we were fortunate in the fact that we could speak the language of food.  Smell, taste, action, touch.  We had a great time, and part of the fun was the challenge of getting whatever point we had across to each other.

The Market

We stepped outside of the apartment building, a bright sunny day, with just the beginnings of the chill of Fall.  Behind the building was an alley PACKED with outdoor markets, and stretched for blocks.  Fresh fish, caught in the morning, fresh vegetables, picked within days, nuts, fruit, every type of animal and meat you could think of!  To my western sensibilities, some of the storage and display practices were not “foodsafe”, were questionable, but I had to remind myself that the items were so fresh that what I might consider “safe” is somewhat ludicrous.  No plastic, no fridges, no isles of frozen food or boxes of preserved “somethings”.  This was raw… fresh… food.  Our idea of “safe” stems from our food sitting around for weeks being shipped, handled, processed, and eventually sold.  The seafood was on beds of ice or live in containers, with little tubes blowing air bubbles for circulation.  The meats were either cooked, or butchered on the spot.  There were some snack stuff as well, some unidentified root vegetables, and some big assed carrots.

As we walked, we would try things, little tastes of different fruits, veggies, breads and nuts.  He would tell me what they were.  One way we found to communicate was me guessing ingredients.  For instance, there was a beautiful bread that looked like corn bread.  I would point to the bread, point to corn, and say “Shen me” (What? What is?) and he would either affirm or go pick up something else.  In this case I had been wrong, the bread was made from a very commonly used ingredient “red bean”, which you will find in breads, snacks, gelatin and mooncakes.   And so, with enough gesturing, pointing, and tasting, we could get our points across.  Having an iPhone with a dictionary app helped a bit as well, for tricky concepts.

The Kitchen

It is official.  I HATE Chinese kitchens.  I have no idea how they put together the lavish meals they sometimes do.  How they use the space to pull off culinary miracles.  So far, I have seen a few kitchens (mine included) and they consist of  one or two burners (gas), one hotplate, and a ricemaker/ pressure cooker/ wonder gadget.  There is a sink that is way too low, and the counters are also low and are more of a shelf than they are deep, and there really aren’t many of them in there.  I have been cooking in one now for a while, you do find creative ways to achieve your dishes, such as roasting pork loin, or baking cookies, in a toaster oven.  They use one knife for the most part.  A large, cleaver style, and I was blown away by the knife skill shown.

The Menu

The dinner we had would not be considered everyday Chinese cooking.  Jerry went all out, and had actually spent a few day prepping in advance.  I was truly honored.

Some of the items we had were:

  • Steamed abalone in a seafood sauce
  • Sweet chicken wings
  • steamed crab
  • Egg white battered fried jumbo shrimp served on shredded fried potato
  • Century eggs (Still don’t really like them)
  • Eggs and veggies cooked with a Vine Pepper oil
  • Shrimp and vegetables
  • Tomato pork and pineapple
  • Battered pumpkin “french fries”
  • A squid and pepper dish (The prep on the squid was very interesting, with some scoring, skin peeling, and trimming, oh my!)

Here are some more with a bit more detail.  I have no idea what the names of the dishes are, so I made some up…

Chainsaw chicken

Basically, you take a whole chicken, and chop the hell out of it.  The bones are not removed, it is just cooked in small bits with what I think were water chestnuts, in a sweet savory sauce.  The sauce was devine, it was cooked down with anise, a beautiful wine vinegar, and chicken stock.  Absolutely gorgeous.

Pork and shrimp stuffed pumpkin

This is my Mom’s favorite dish, and I can see why.  Pork and shrimp is diced, and mixed with ginger, garlic, and a kind of green onion.  These three were used in many of the dishes.  The pumpkins in China are smaller, and the skin is edible.  The Pumpkin is stuffed, them put in a pressure cooker for a couple of hours to get happy.  Man was it ever happy.

Inside out fish

This was fun to make and delicious!  Jerry and I did a fish each (his turned out a LOT nicer than mine) and it was interesting to go through the whole process.  The fish was caught that morning.  We got them from the market, and cleaned them.  My experience cleaning and prepping a fish was very different from what we did.  In Canada, with a big salmon, you remove the head, cut up the belly, clean the sucker out and scale.  Remove the fins and tail, and either filet or cook whole.  “Whole” now has a whole new meaning.  For the small/ medium sized fish, you take two chopsticks, shove them deep down into the fish, weaved through the gills, and twist.  You then pull out the stomach and gills with the sticks and rince.  Scale with a knife and voila! Ready to cook!  We then cut and peeled back the meat from the bone, and marinated in a soy based sauce.  After marination, we battered and fried! It was amazing.

This was one one the most honest and fun days of cooking I have had in a long time.  Without the ability to easily talk, even the simplest instruction or identification of ingredient was a challenge.   Dinner was amazing, and the company was great.  Both of our families showed up for the meal after work, and his brother came to give us a ride back to Kai Fa Qu at the end of the night.  Next time we make noodles from scratch, Chinese Gyoza, and Kimchi!

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Thank you Jerry!