Saturday, June 13, 2009

BTO: Wok this way

Business Times - 13 Jun 2009


Wok this way

A Cantonese kitchen may not utilise as many technical machines as a Western one, but there is precision and method in its cooking too, says Chan Kwok. By Audrey Phoon

THERE aren't many chefs who would touch authentic Cantonese cuisine with a 10-foot pole, simply because cooking it competently requires ladlefuls of skill and years of experience. The cuisine, after all, is regarded as one of the Four Great Traditions of Chinese cooking (the others being Sichuan, Shandong and Huaiying cuisine), and is built around a core of 36 cooking methods and a great diversity of fresh ingredients due to the fact that Guangdong, where the cuisine originates, was a trading port in the old days.

But like the sort of acrobat who can not only balance but spin plates atop long, thin poles, some chefs - such as Chan Kwok - are capable of more than just a touch of Cantonese cuisine. Chan, the group master chef of Orchard Hotel, hails from Hong Kong, the home of fine Cantonese cuisine, and has been responsible for turning out all sorts of delicacies for the hotel's traditional Cantonese restaurant, Hua Ting, since he joined the company 12 years ago.

As with any other traditional cuisine, there are no space-age machines or super scientific methods in a classic Cantonese kitchen, says Chan. He adds: 'It's more based on experience and how we use our equipment.'

Still, that's not to say there is no method to the making. Instead of cooking vegetables sous vide (where ingredients are sealed in air-tight plastic bags and slow-cooked at a temperature far below boiling point so as preserve the food's nutrients), for example, the Cantonese 'control the fire' when wok-frying to keep the cell structures of the ingredients intact, notes the chef. Bear in mind though, that 'you should not cook them for more than 20 seconds - otherwise, the nutrition will be gone', he cautions.

Coating your wok with a little oil first will also create a 'buffer' layer that should stop the hot metal surface from scorching your food the moment it touches the pan. 'You should scoop a bit of cooking oil into your wok and swirl it around for a few seconds before ladling it back out,' explains Chan. 'This will create that layer and also help to cool the pan a bit before you put your food in.'

To do without too much fat and oil in a meat stew, the Cantonese way (no George Foreman Lean Mean Fat-Reducing Grilling Machine needed), simply pan-fry your meat quickly without overbrowning it before putting it in the stew - as in the recipe here, suggests the chef. The heat will help to draw out the fat plus reduce any smell from the meat.

Alternatively, another fat-extraction method that makes use of heat - and has the added benefit of washing away excess blood - is to dip your meat into boiling water for about 'one to two minutes' before adding it to the rest of the ingredients.

Those tips should help in the preparation of the oxtail recipe here, but what is equally important is starting with a good piece of oxtail, emphasies Chan. 'It's not important where you buy it, but how fresh it is,' he says, adding that a good gauge of freshness is to buy meat that is a 'bright blood colour'.

Picking oxtail that has more muscle than fat - muscle looks like clear gelatin while fat is more opaque - will also make for a healthier eating experience, reckons the chef. Not to mention that muscle, when simmered over long periods of time, becomes deliciously fork-tender too.

Full-flavoured meat such as the oxtail is good for dishes that are either stewed or steamed because the flavour of the meat is retained within the sauce or jus, Chan says. But he concludes: 'I like wok-frying best because it's fast and you get the qi of the wok then - it's good for the nose when cooking and eating!'

Stewed oxtail with brown sauce
Serves 10

For the meat

10 pieces of oxtail, each about 2cm thick 
100g celery, roughly chopped 
100g carrots, roughly chopped r2 star anise 
2 tsaoko fruit 
1 stalk Chinese parsley 
3 stalks spring onion 
6 bay leaves 
3 slices ginger 
1 onion, diced 
A bit of cornstarch

For the seasoning

1 tbsp minced garlic 
2 tbsp preserved bean paste 
1 tbsp oyster sauce 
2 tsp chicken essence powder 
50g rock sugar


1. Pan-fry the oxtail until fragrant, then immerse in boiling water for 2 minutes, remove and drain dry.

2. Put the rest of the ingredients for the meat in a pot and place the pieces of oxtail on top of the mixture.

3. Fry the minced garlic and bean paste with a bit of oil in a clean wok, then add it to the pot. Top up with water until the water level covers the oxtail.

4. Set on high heat until thoroughly cooked then turn the heat down low.

5. Simmer for about three hours until oxtail meat is softened, then discard the vegetables in the sauce and thicken the sauce with cornstarch.

6. Portion oxtail pieces onto plates and pour the sauce over each piece. Serve hot.

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