Chinese flavors in our kitchen

Chinese-inspired American dishes have quite a long history.

Asian salad (photo credit: YAKIR LEVY)
Asian salad
(photo credit: YAKIR LEVY)
With the Chinese New Year of the Monkey approaching on February 8, it is interesting to reflect on how popular Chinese flavorings and Chinese-inspired dishes have become in so many kitchens outside East Asia.
We recently enjoyed a colorful Asian chicken and vegetable salad with toasted cashews made by chef Doug Schonfeld of Chefs’ Toys. It included several Chinese ingredients – soy sauce, rice vinegar, sesame oil and the Chinese flavoring trio of fresh ginger, garlic and green onion. (See recipe.)
Such salads of raw vegetables are not part of classic Chinese cuisine. They were created to appeal to American tastes.
Chinese-inspired American dishes have quite a long history. My mother used leftover roast chicken to make chicken chow mein, a dish that was popular in American home cooking in the 1950s. She diced and heated the chicken with sliced mushrooms, celery and a little chicken soup and served it over rice, with crunchy chow mein noodles sprinkled on top.
Those crunchy noodles, which came in a can, were used by Americans in other dishes as well, such as the tuna chow mein casserole in The Great Hadassah Cookbook by the members of Edmonton Hadassah-WIZO. The casserole is made of canned tuna, peas and cream of mushroom soup as well as mushrooms, almonds, celery and onions, and is finished with the crunchy noodles.
Rachel Laudan, author of Cuisine & Empire, explained how Chinese flavors became so popular. “‘Ethnic’ restaurants run by migrants introduced diners to new dishes.... Foreign dishes made their way into national cuisines, though rarely in their original form.
“Chinese restaurants exemplified the storefront ‘ethnic’ restaurant,” wrote Laudan. “Run by hardworking family members, they had exotic decor and long menus adjusted to local tastes. Australia, with a Chinese population dating back over a century, had over 8,000 Chinese restaurants by the end of the 20th century. France, Britain, Germany and Belgium each had at least a thousand Chinese restaurants, with Italy catching up rapidly.”
We attended Laudan’s presentation for the Culinary Historians of Southern California, during which she pointed out that many processed foods improved people’s menus. The availability of prepared Chinese sauces, she wrote, made these flavors more familiar, and when Lee Kum Kee Company became a global distributor, this helped make certain flavorings internationally known.
Today, flavorings such as soy sauce, fresh ginger, sesame oil and rice vinegar are staples in many Western kitchens, and not only for preparing Chinese or Chinese- inspired dishes.
A French chef in Paris told me that soy sauce is useful for giving his beef stews a deeper brown color. Soy sauce is essential in lomo saltado, stir-fried beef tenderloin, which many consider to be Peru’s national dish. The seared beef pieces are stir-fried with strips of red onion, yellow chili pepper and tomato, and flavored with garlic, soy sauce, salt, pepper, cumin, wine vinegar and fresh coriander.
My sister-in-law, Hedva Cohen, uses soy sauce to season her olive oil and lemon juice salad dressing, along with pomegranate molasses, citrus vinegar, silan (date molasses), garlic, salt and pepper. Soy sauce flavors the honey-and-white-wine glaze for roast chicken that my niece Adi Levy learned in the kitchen of Kibbutz Ein Harod.
Asian sesame oil, made from toasted sesame seeds, is a fragrant finishing oil. We like to drizzle it over roasted vegetables, vegetable soups, and noodles with stir-fried vegetables. (See recipe.)
Gingerroot adds a lively flavor to vegetable soups and stews and even to creamy French sauces for fish. We love gingerroot in desserts and sweets, too. We cook diced apples or pears with chopped ginger to use as a topping for our breakfast oatmeal or for yogurt. Cookies flavored with fresh and crystallized ginger are a tempting treat. (See recipe.)
Faye Levy is the author of Sensational Pasta.
This colorful salad of greens, sweet peppers and edamame is dressed with a sesame oil and fresh ginger dressing. Either make it vegetarian, or add soy-marinated chicken breasts to turn it into Asian chicken salad. You can sprinkle the salad with cashews and fried wonton strips, made by cutting wonton wrappers into strips and frying them until crisp.
Makes 4 servings
■ 2 or 3 soy-marinated chicken breasts (see recipe below), cut in strips or bite-size chunks (optional)
■ ¹⁄3 to ½ cup ginger cilantro dressing (see recipe below), or to taste
■ 1½ to 2 cups shredded napa cabbage (also known as Chinese cabbage)
■ ¼ to ¹⁄3 cup finely shredded red cabbage
■ 3 to 3½ cups mixed baby greens or thinly sliced baby bok choy, or a mixture of both
■ 4 to 6 mini sweet peppers, sliced into rings, or 1 cup strips of sweet red, orange or yellow peppers
■ ¹⁄3 to ½ cup cooked shelled edamame (green soy beans)
■ 1 carrot, peeled and cut in fine julienne strips or shredded
■ ¼ to ¹⁄3 cup thin strips of Asian pears or apples (optional)
■ Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste (if needed)
■ 4 to 6 Tbsp. roasted, coarsely chopped cashews (optional)
Prepare soy-marinated chicken, if desired, and ginger cilantro dressing.
In a large mixing bowl, combine both kinds of cabbage, greens, peppers, edamame, carrot and pear strips, and mix them. Add chicken pieces and mix lightly. Add dressing and toss well. Taste, and add more dressing, salt or pepper, if needed. Serve topped with cashews.
Soy-marinated chicken makes a flavorful addition to salads. To keep the baked chicken moist and tender, Schonfeld suggests letting it rest before cutting.
You can cut the chicken in cubes or strips and mix them into the salad, or slice the chicken at an angle and fan it around the salad.
Makes 4 servings as part of Asian chicken salad
■ 1 cup soy sauce
■ ½ cup sesame oil
■ ¼ cup sweet chili sauce
■ 4 cloves garlic, peeled and coarsely chopped
■ ¼ cup coarsely chopped ginger-root
■ 3 green onions, coarsely chopped
■ 1 Tbsp. canola oil or other vegetable oil
■2 or 3 chicken breasts, 110 to 150 gr. (4 to 6 oz.) each
Combine soy sauce, sesame oil, sweet chili sauce, garlic, ginger and green onion in a mixing bowl. Mix together well with a whisk. Transfer to a container which fits the chicken breasts easily.
Heat canola oil in a skillet over medium-high heat. Add chicken and sear on both sides until beginning to brown. Transfer to marinade, turn to coat all sides and let cool. Cover and refrigerate for 4 to 6 hours or up to overnight.
Preheat oven to 175°C (350°F). Remove chicken from marinade, and place in a roasting pan. Roast until cooked through, about 15 to 20 minutes or until its internal temperature is at least 74°C (165°F). Let it rest for at least 10 to 15 minutes before slicing it.
If you want to serve extra dressing separately or save it for another salad, Schonfeld recommends keeping it in a jar. Shake the dressing to blend it before adding it to the salad.
Makes about 1¼ cups
■ ¼ cup rice vinegar
■ 1 Tbsp. plus 1 tsp. soy sauce
■ ¼ cup (60 ml. or 2 oz.) sweet chili sauce
■ 2 tsp. peanut butter
■ 1 Tbsp. coarsely chopped garlic
■ 1 Tbsp. chopped fresh ginger
■ 1 cup canola oil
■ 1 Tbsp. plus 1 tsp. sesame oil
■ ¼ to ¹⁄3 cup cilantro (fresh coriander) leaves, coarsely chopped
■ 1 Tbsp. chopped green onion
■ Salt and pepper to taste
Combine the rice vinegar, soy sauce, sweet chili sauce, peanut butter, garlic and ginger in a blender. Blend to a smooth puree.
With blender running, slowly pour in canola oil and sesame oil. Once oil is incorporated, add cilantro and blend until smooth. Transfer to a bowl. Stir in chopped green onion. Season to taste with salt and pepper.
Just about any vegetable tastes good when combined with fresh noodles and ginger, garlic, soy sauce and sesame oil. It’s best to include stir-fried Chinese cabbage or other greens. In this recipe, we added cooked vegetables that we had on hand: roasted eggplant, cooked winter squash and parsnip, but you could add any cooked vegetables you have.
Makes 2 or 3 servings
■ 225 gr. (½ pound) fresh Asian wheat noodles or other fresh noodles
■ 1 to 2 Tbsp. canola oil or other vegetable oil
■ 1 to 2 tsp. Asian (toasted) sesame oil, or to taste
■ 1½ to 2 tsp. chopped ginger root
■ 1 tsp. minced garlic
■ 1½ to 2 cups chopped Chinese cabbage or other tender greens
■ ½ cup diced roasted eggplant with onion (see note below)
■ 1 cup cooked vegetables, such as winter squash and parsnips
■ 1 Tbsp. soy sauce, or to taste
■ 1 to 2 Tbsp. chopped fresh coriander or parsley
■ ½ tsp. Chinese or other Asian hot pepper sauce, or to taste
■ Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
Cook noodles in a large pan of boiling water, separating them if necessary with chopsticks or a large fork, according to package directions. Drain, reserving about 1 cup of the cooking liquid. Transfer noodles to a bowl and toss with ½ tablespoon canola oil and 1 teaspoon sesame oil.
Meanwhile, heat 1 to 1½ tablespoons canola oil in a medium-large skillet or wok, add ginger and garlic and stir-fry over medium-high heat for a few seconds. Add chopped greens and stir-fry for 1 or 2 minutes or until they begin to wilt. Add roasted eggplant mixture, cooked vegetables and ¹⁄3 cup reserved noodle cooking liquid. Bring to a boil, tossing to mix ingredients without breaking them up too much.
Add soy sauce and noodles and heat through, adding more of the noodle cooking liquid by tablespoons if the mixture looks dry.
Add fresh coriander, hot pepper sauce, 1 teaspoon sesame oil, and salt and pepper to taste. Serve hot.
Roasted eggplant with onion: Dice 1 small eggplant and put in a small foil-lined roasting pan. Add 1 small onion in quarter slices, 3 to 4 teaspoons vegetable oil and a sprinkling of salt. Roast at 190°C (375°F) for about 45 minutes, stirring twice. Season to taste with salt and pepper.
“A double dose of ginger – both crystallized (sometimes called candied) and fresh – give these cookies a gentle spicy edge,” wrote Cathy Thomas in Melissa’s Everyday Cooking with Organic Produce. “For a chunkier, crisper cookie, omit the baking soda.”
Makes 32 cookies
■ 225 gr. (8 oz. or 1 cup) unsalted butter, softened
■ 1 cup sugar
■ ½ tsp. salt
■ 2 eggs
■ 1½ tsp. vanilla extract
■ 2 Tbsp. finely minced ginger root
■ 2½ cups all-purpose flour
■ ½ tsp. baking soda
■ 85 gr. (3 oz.) crystallized ginger, chopped into 3 mm. ( -in.) pieces
■ Powdered sugar (optional garnish)
Adjust oven rack to middle position. Preheat oven to 190°C (375°F). Line 2 rimmed baking sheets with parchment paper.
In large bowl of electric mixer, beat butter, sugar and salt on medium-high speed until thoroughly blended and creamy, scraping down sides of bowl as needed with rubber spatula. Add eggs; mix well until blended. Add vanilla and ginger root and mix well until blended.
In separate medium bowl, combine flour and baking soda. Add butter to mixture; mix until blended.
Add crystallized ginger and mix until blended.
Drop heaping tablespoons of dough 5 cm. (2 in.) apart onto baking sheets. Flatten using back of spoon to 6 mm. (¼ inch) thickness. Bake for 12 minutes or until lightly browned. Transfer parchment to wire racks; cool cookies completely.
If desired, dust cookies lightly with powdered sugar. To get a fine powdery layer atop the cookies, place powdered sugar in sieve and shake sieve over single layer of cookies.