Chinese Cooking Terms and Techniques

Here are some useful Chinese cooking terms and techniques that will help you master your Chinese cookery.

Xing wei This is a term used to describe the “rawness” flavor and smell of meat or fish. Good Chinese cooking will allow the flavor of the ingredient to shine through without this “rawness” on the palate. For example, if you have ever had bad soft-shell crab, you can taste the fishiness of the crab, whereas it should taste sweet and fresh, not raw or overly fishy. Chinese love to use rice wine — distilled, aged, made from rice or barley, or a combination — and add it to dishes to take away the “rawness” from meat or fish.

Cao (“stir-fry”) The most impressive cooking technique in Chinese cookery is mastering the art of wok cooking. The intense heat, timing, maneuvering and seasoning fascinate cooks in the West. The smoky wok flavor is what all good Chinese cooks must deliver. The trick is cooking the ingredient at its optimal time, temperature and balance of seasoning to ensure maximum flavor. Hence, Chinese cooks must understand all the ingredients to bring out the best in each. For example, a beef and celery stir-fry will call for different cooking times and temperatures in the wok. The chef may cook the celery first by either blanching it, poaching it in stock or quickly stir-frying it depending on the recipe. He or she may then scoop it out and set it aside. Then the beef may be precoated with a cornstarch and egg white slurry to protect it as it cooks for a few seconds in the hot wok, and the chef will add the celery back into the wok with seasonings such as rice wine, soy, sugar, vinegar and sesame oil, combining it together and then plating it up.  Stir-frying is easy and at its heart simple, but to cook a masterful wok dish takes a wok master! It is also complicated to get an array of wok dishes to be served at the same time piping hot — that takes a lot of preparation.

Hong shao Otherwise known as the “red braise” or “red cooked” technique, this was traditionally used to cook pork belly with spices and rock sugar. This slow-braised cooking technique gives melt-in-the-mouth results.

Zheng (“steaming”) — This technique is the healthiest of all in Chinese cookery. It is used to soften dried ingredients and prepare them for cooking. It is a popular technique used in the south of China, as fresh produce was not traditionally abundant and cooks wanted to enjoy the ben wei, or “original flavor,” of the ingredient. The traditional Chinese equipment used for steaming was a bamboo steamer placed over a rack, set over a wok of boiling water. The food to be steamed was placed in muslin cloths, wrapped in lotus/bamboo leaves or set on a plate that fit inside the bamboo steamer, depending on what was being cooked. 

Hui guo (“return to the wok”) This technique refers to returning already stir-fried ingredients back to the wok to be incorporated with the other ingredients ready to be seasoned.

Zha (“to fry”) Frying is a popular Chinese cooking technique to add crispness to ingredients. Ingredients can be shallow- or deep-fried.  Ingredients should not be swimming in oil if the temperature is hot enough. The oil should seal the juices and flavors of the ingredient while the latent heat cooks the inside of the ingredient. Sometimes ingredients are “passed through the oil” to semicook the ingredients; this is to help seal in their juices, and then it is drained and added to a stir-fried or braised dish.

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