Last Monday I looked at how to put a meal together in a Chinese restaurant. Today I'm going to talk about serving Chinese food at home.
A note before I start: as I've mentioned before, I'm neither Chinese nor of Chinese descent. Also, I've never eaten a Chinese meal in a Chinese home. So this is all from the perspective of someone who's learned about the cuisine via books, newspaper articles, conversations with friends, blogs, YouTube videos, restaurant food, etc. This disclaimer does of course apply to all my posts on Chinese food, but I wanted to make it explicit here since I'm talking about the culture of home cooking rather than about restaurant meals or individual dishes.
Having said that, I've been cooking various styles of food for over twenty years, and I do cook Chinese food at home fairly often, so hopefully this post will be of interest to other people who want to cook more Chinese food themselves.
One aspect that's often mentioned as being intimidating is the idea of cooking more than one "main dish" per meal. You don't have to do this — noodle soups such as sung's fishball noodle soup or other noodle dishes such as 炸醬麵/zhà jiàng miàn can make a satisfying and complete meal — but in general, even a very simple Chinese meal will include at least one dish per person (plus rice/noodles).
"Dish" here refers to a flavourful vegetable/meat/fish/seafood/beancurd/etc concoction. The rice or noodles provide the bulk, while the other dishes provide the interest. To get a good balance to the meal, there should be more than one of these "flavour" dishes, using varied ingredients, textures, and seasonings.
At first, this sounds a lot more complicated than simply making, for example, pasta with sauce, or stew with dumplings, or curry and rice, or sausages and mash, but in my opinion this is more a matter of practice and familiarity than anything else. There's some discussion of this issue on a thread on eGullet (if that link doesn't put you in the right place, scroll to post #77 for the start of the conversation). As the participants there point out, one key strategy is to have a repertoire of dishes that you know you can cook quickly without too much thought. Another trick is to serve some cold dishes, which can be prepared in advance and can also form part of multiple meals over the week.
Another eGullet thread, focusing on home-style dishes from the south of China, notes that steamed dishes are a nice addition to a home-cooked meal, and if you have a separate steamer this saves you from having to worry about making multiple dishes in the same wok. Soup also comes in handy.
Speaking of separate appliances, I'd be lost without my rice cooker. It does take up a certain amount of space in the kitchen, but I use it often enough that it's worth it. Particularly when I'm tired from work or in a rush to get dinner on the table, it really does take a lot of pressure off to just be able to throw rice and water into it, push a button, and not have to think about it or check on it until I'm ready to dish up.
What are your favourite Chinese dishes to cook at home? Any tips to add to those above?