Variations on Chinese Recipes

Most of the recipes presented on this blog are ones that either are, or have become, favorites at my house, and they turn into standards that live in my head, and I no longer have to seek the written recipe in order to recreate them.

However, these recipes do not stay static. I do not make them the same every time, because I may not always have the necessary ingredients on hand, I may be cooking for people with different food preferences, or I just want to try something different.

Sometimes, I just happen to have some vegetables in the fridge that need to be cooked, and so into the pot or wok they go.

And, more often than not, the variant recipes come up because of a combination of the reasons cited above.

But, for whatever reason, I have some notes on how to make variations on several of my Chinese recipes, and I wanted to share them with you all, in one post, because none of the variations are substantial enough to warrant a single post on their own. But, in combination, they may help inspire readers to free their woks and minds and cook up some new Chinese dishes in their own kitchens.

The dish photographed above is a very simple variation on the classic Cantonese Chicken with Bitter Melon. With the classic dish, you get pretty much what it says: chicken and bitter melon. All the other ingredients are aromatics meant to flavor the light sauce and complement the costarring foods. For this variation, which I poetically like to call, “Phoenix with Two Colors of Jade,” I used the basic recipe with one simple addition: an orange sweet bell pepper, sliced thinly, and it turned out magnificently.

The texture and translucent color of the pepper matched those qualities in the melon, while the mouthfeel was slightly softer. What really made it wonderful was that the sweetness of the pepper was a perfect foil to the melon, without adding extra sweetness to the sauce.

I added the pepper near the end of the cooking, within the last minute, so that it didn’t get too soft or soggy.

Another great favorite recipe in my household is Ma Po Tofu, and is one that normally I would not play around with overmuch. However, last week, when the snow was deep, and the temperatures were below freezing, we had house guests in the persons of our dear friends Dan and Heather, who were escaping frozen pipes and a long drive to their place in the country. Heather is a Muslim, and thus cannot eat pork; if you are familiar with my recipe for Ma Po, you will remember that I use minced pork in it. Since it is the perfect recipe to warm the heart and stomach on a blustery night, I decided to go ahead and make it anyway. But instead of leaving the meat out of it entirely, I substituted ground lamb instead.

Lamb is not a meat one thinks of as a Chinese staple, but it is eaten often in the northern provinces, and is a staple among the Muslim population all over the country, so there was precedent for my choice.

The only other changes I made was I added two more cloves of garlic, a teaspoon more of fermented black beans and I was extra special careful to cook all the alcohol from the Shao Hsing wine out of the dish.

How was it?

Amazingly flavorful to the point where I cannot decide which I like better. Zak came down on the side of pork (no big surprise, as he is a big fan of the pig) and Morganna on the side of the lamb. Me, I am somewhere in the middle on the issue, and will have to give it much more thought.

Based on this experience, I am going to have to make a batch of lamb potstickers soon, just to, you know, see how they taste.

As much as I love Beef with Gai Lan, and every variant I have made of it, sometimes I don’t want meat for dinner. Sometimes I want tofu, but I don’t want it mixed with vegetables. So, what do I do in that case? Braise the bean curd, as in Peng’s Bean Curd Homestyle, and stir fry up some greens, especially gai lan, at least when I can get a hold of it.

For stir-fried gai lan, I follow the first recipe for beef with gai lan, except that I obviously leave out the beef and the marinade for the beef. To the aromatics (scallion, ginger and garlic) I add a tablespoon of fermented black beans, which counteract the slight bitterness that is inherent to gai lan. I use dark soy sauce, and instead of fresh water chestnuts, I usually use red bell pepper. The sweetness of it goes very well with both the gai lan and the oyster sauce, and the brilliant scarlet color contrasts beautifully with the emerald green leaves and jade stalks.

There, then are three variations on three of my favorite recipes. I hope that this shows that if you learn the basic underlying techniques of Chinese stir-frying, that one is then free to either customize classic favorite dishes, or come up with your own combinations which, in the coming years, may become classics within your families.


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  1. Thank you Barbara!

    I was wondering, is there any possibility that you could give us a post on the use of Asian produce? My HK market carries a wide range of fresh produce that I have no idea what to do with, let alone how to shop for it. I would love to use fresh watercress, but I have no idea on how to prep them for cooking.

    It would be so helpful to have a guide of this sort: how to shop for Asian produce, how to store it properly, how to prep it, and tips on how to cook it.

    I suspect I would like bitter melon. I like the taste of bitter if it’s paired with other flavor profiles (sweet, sour, spicey, tart, salty, and savory), and I see many recipes for bitter melon that encompass most of these.

    Any advice you could give would be much appreciated.

    Comment by Roxanne Rieske — February 14, 2007 #

  2. Roxanne–I will see about doing a post or a series of posts on Asian vegetables in the future.

    Thanks for the idea!

    Comment by Barbara — February 19, 2007 #

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