Chinese Fast Food

There are some days when I get involved in writing, working or gardening, and I forget that I have to cook dinner until the sun is going down, my stomach is growling and Zak is about to perish from lack of caloric intake.

In these times, I am glad that we have a Chinese deli in downtown Columbus, where I can purchase an item that will save me from just making peanut butter and jelly sandwiches or reaching for a jar of pasta sauce.

What is this paragon of foods that helps me put dinner on the table in fifteen minutes or less?

Cantonese style barbecue pork–char sui–from a grocery store or deli can become the basis of very quick meals at home.

Zak’s favorite food is char sui. I swear, he would never have been able to keep kosher; his love of pork rivals that of mine, and I am a hillbilly born and bred, raised on all manner of pig products from the time I could toddle.

And I am grateful for his passion, because if I keep a steady supply of char sui in the freezer or refrigerator, I can throw down and whip up dinner in less time than it would take us to gather ourselves and go off to the nearest fast food outlet. And it is cheaper, too, and usually quite nutritious. Even if I didn’t have sense enough to start rice in the rice cooker earlier I usually have a batch of leftover rice that I can either fry or reheat.

All it takes is few minutes of cutting, some pantry items and a wok.

I always have some sort of greens in the fridge, along with the pork, which is great, because as we know, pigs and greens were meant for each other. One of my favorites these days is Shanghai bok choi: a smaller, curvaceous relative of the more familiar upstanding white stalked and forest-green leafy vegetable. I find that it is more flavorful, with a sweeter more toothsome crunch and just a hint of mustard-green pepperiness.

Shanghai bok choi is smaller than regular bok choi and has a gorgeous jade green color. I find that it is also sweeter and crisper than its larger cousin.

I cut it up crosswise into slices about 3/4 of an inch wide, rinse them and then dry them in a salad spinner. I then towel off any remaining dampness, so that the leaves stir fry, not steam.

The pork I cut into 1/4 inch thick slices, against the grain.

I also slice 2 or 3 cloves of garlic thinly, and mince up about a tablespoon of fresh ginger.

And if I have them, I will peel and slice fresh water chestnuts, because, well, I will put them into near about anything, and they improve it.

All of this cutting takes me about five minutes or so. Maybe eight, if I am really tired and had a long day.

Then, I heat up the wok, add the oil and toss in the garlic and ginger. As soon as the smell wafts up in a billow of steam, in goes the pork.

After adding the pork, let it sit on the bottom of the wok with the garlic and ginger, so that it browns well.

While I leave the pork to brown, I mix up some dark soy sauce with either raw sugar syrup or honey. How much of each? I don’t know, it depends on how much pork and greens I am cooking. But the total amount tends to be about 2 or 3 tablespoons worth. More soy sauce than sweetener, as the char sui sauce on the pork is sweet. Then, after that is mixed, I run back to the wok and start tossing and stirring madly.

Add the bok choy after the pork has browned on the edges and the garlic is golden in color.

After the bok choi goes in, if I have water chestnuts, in they go too. Carrots could go in now, too, or bamboo shoots. Water chestnuts are best, though.

Can you tell that I am biased?

After the greens begin to give up their juices and wilt, in goes the sweetened soy sauce, and I stir and stir, letting the soy sauce reduce into a thick sauce. I pull the wok off the heat and drizzle a tiny bit of sesame oil over all, and give it a last good turn with the wok shovel.

The finished dish; the entire preparation and cooking process takes about ten or fifteen minutes start to finish. That is faster than it takes me to get to the nearest fast food joint and order a greaseburger.

And so it is done. I serve it up over rice, with tea and we call it dinner.

Char sui and greens are really versatile. I could make fried rice with the same ingredients. Or pork lo mein. Or instead of serving this recipe over rice, I could make pan fried noodle cakes (If I happened to have cold cooked noodles in the fridge that is–and sometimes I do) and pour the topping over it. Or I could make an omelet, Chinese style, with the pork and the greens and serve that over eggs with some of my chile garlic oil.

All of these things are possibilities for fast dinners, though they are all predicated on not allowing Zak to get his fingers on the pork when I am not looking. Because he will take it out of the fridge and eat it up cold, and then where would be when it came to dinner time?

Probably eating peanut butter and jelly.


RSS feed for comments on this post.

  1. Quick meals in my house often involved noodles of some sort – even just ramen, with some veggies quickly boiled in the broth along with slices of char siu put into the simmering broth just long enough to be warmed up. Takes about five minutes once the water is boiling and approximates what you can find for lunch in a true Hong Kong family-style restaurant.

    Comment by etherbish — March 9, 2005 #

  2. Char sui ramen is one of Zak’s most beloved dishes involving the sacred pig. He first had it in San Francisco’s Chinatown on our honeymoon; when we came back home, he was thrilled to find a homestyle Cantonese restaurant that served it. (My favorite noodle soup is shredded pork with preserved vegetable. Not that I will turn my nose up at char sui ramen.)

    The place where we pick up the char sui also makes a beautiful rendition of that soup. The pork/chicken stock is rich in flavor and full of body.

    After we move, I will be forced to make up gallons of that stock and freeze it, along with char sui, so we can have it on hand. I always have noodles, so the only other thing I would have to have is the greens, which are easily found in Athens.

    Comment by Barbara Fisher — March 9, 2005 #

Sorry, the comment form is closed at this time.

Powered by WordPress. Graphics by Zak Kramer.
Design update by Daniel Trout.
Entries and comments feeds.