London is in no short supply of brilliant Chinese food and we’re a city that takes full advantage of the great restaurants, takeaways, pop-ups and street food vendors serving up the Eastern cuisine. But how many of us are cooking it at home? Unless you’ve grown up cooking Chinese food or have been lucky enough to be taught somewhere along the way, chances are it’s food you usually eat out or order in, no thanks to the fact that the principles, techniques and flavours are quite different to those of Western cooking ideas.
With Chinese New Year around the corner, we’ve enlisted the help of chef and author of Chinatown Kitchen, Lizzie Mabbot (also known by her blog name Hollow Legs), to steal some at-home cooking tips and tricks. Lizzie grew up in Hong Kong until the age of 13 before moving to the UK and her cooking style is fuss-free, modern and utterly delicious, having been influenced by a combination of her upbringing in Asia as well as food experiences here in the UK.
Read on for Lizzie’s tips on making awesome Chinese food at home, from the secret to a perfect sauce to the store cupboard ingredients you need to buy.
What are your three top tips for cooking Chinese food at home?
- Get all your ingredients prepped; many Chinese recipes require quick cooking over high heat so you don’t want to be slicing last-minute midway through.
- Keep it simple; stir fries don’t need to be a veg drawer clear-out, just a couple of main ingredients work well.
- Chinese food is best shared; when possible, cook up a few dishes but lighten the load by making one of them a cold salad-style dish.
What are the main principles of Chinese cooking?
Chinese food is so wide-ranging in region, you can’t really pin-point it to specific flavours, but you can techniques. Steam, braised, deep-fried, stir-fried are the most common when it comes to Chinese cooking.
Let’s talk store cupboard essentials… what products do you absolutely need?
My key staples are:
- Light and dark soy sauces
- Shaoxing rice wine
- Chinkiang black vinegar
- Sesame oil
- Jasmine rice
It’s important to buy good brands; I use Lee Kum Kee for light and dark soy sauces, and have been as long as I’ve been cooking Chinese food.
Other ingredients I always have in the cupboard are:
- Chilli oils
- Rice vinegar
- Egg noodles
- Rice noodles – I use a variety of rice noodles in varying shapes and sizes depending on what dish I’m making.
What are your tips for cooking delicious, authentic tasting Chinese dishes but using seasonal and British ingredients?
Think about technique and flavourings. For example, I often use seasonal British greens to stir-fry, or steam and drizzle with oyster sauce. We’re into autumn now which is a great season for veg; I particularly love Brussels sprouts halved and stir-fried with Chinese sausage and garlic, or pumpkin steamed with black bean sauce.
Also, get to know your butcher; mine now laughs at me for my slightly more unusual requests. I ask him to mince pork belly with pork shoulder so that I get fattier mince – crucial for juicy dumplings – as it is important to me to buy high welfare, local meat.
What’s your all time favourite Chinese dish?
Oh, SO hard to choose! But I would say the roast goose from Yat Lok in Hong Kong. I dream about it.
What do you make when you need a bit of Chinese comfort food?
Braised beef flank noodle soup, often served with pieces of stewed tendon. It’s rich and comforting and most crucially, reminds me of my childhood.
What’s going to be the next big trend in Chinese cooking?
Dumplings. Who doesn’t love dumplings?
Are there any kitchen essentials, gadgets or utensils we should invest in to create Chinese food at home?
A rice cooker is key. I don’t know any Chinese households without one! I have a really simple one that just cooks rice and that’s all you need. Other than that, a decent wok – you can buy a cheap carbon steel one and season it yourself.
Sauces are a huge part of so many Chinese dishes. What’s the secret to making a good one?
Delicacy of touch and layering of flavours. Lots of umami is needed; for example, I use oyster sauce to enhance flavours, as it has a great balance of salty and sweet, but it’s also good to keep on hand to use as a drizzle, or for marinades.
Chinese desserts don’t get as much airtime as their savoury counterparts. What are your favourites and do you have any tips for making them at home?
Chinese desserts can be surprising to Westerners so really it’s about changing your mindset. Forget chocolate; embrace the red bean. Hot soups, cold soups, jelly-like and chewy textures are much loved. I love black sesame tong yuan, a glutinous rice ball stuffed with black sesame and served in ginger syrup. Try out some that are ready-made – they come frozen in Chinese supermarkets – before you embark on making them from scratch.
What are your top three London restaurants for Chinese food?
For mid-range, I love Gold Mine for their Cantonese-style roasted meats. For cheap, I love Hung’s in Chinatown, especially their noodle soups. And my third would be Yi-Ban; consistently decent dim sum.
What veggie or vegan dishes can you recommend?
Spicy smacked cucumber salads, steamed aubergines with garlic sauce, and savoury steamed egg custard, which is a very classic home-style Cantonese dish.
What’s your favourite quick, easy, midweek meal?
If I’m strapped for time it’s usually a bowl of rice topped with a fried egg, some chilli oil, sliced spring onions and whatever greens I have in my fridge. I microwave-steam the veg with oyster sauce for ease. It sounds complicated but it takes less than 15 minutes to put together.
What would you typically cook for a dinner party or special occasion?
My favourite party dishes are ones that people can help themselves to and share family-style. Bo Ssam, a Korean roasted pork dish that has lots of dips and sauces, served with lettuce cups and rice, is always a hit.
Lizzie Mabbott is working with authentic Chinese sauce brand Lee Kum Kee to show how easy it is to cook Asian flavours at home.
For more, visit www.LKK.com