Category Archives: Oriental

Pork with Black Bean Sauce

Produce section of Oriental market
I love these places. Like a trip to another culture, without getting groped by the TSA.

Black bean sauce, made with fermented soybeans, is a staple of American Chinese restaurants. I’ve never been favorably impressed with it before, though; in restaurants it usually tastes like a bland version of oyster sauce.

When a friend rhapsodized about the flavor of black bean sauce (and sent me a baggie of black beans to try), I decided to experiment. Everybody who tried it is glad that I did.

My local supermarket had a good sale on boneless pork chops, so black beans and pork it shall be.

My friend Google and I sorted through a number of recipes. I started by rejecting any that had major ingredients that I lack, but they all did- how many of you have Shaoxing wine on your shelves? I didn’t have sherry, gin, or anything even close, so I subbed in some rice wine. (Update: Shaxing is cheap in my local Oriental market- I have some now)

Once I found a recipe that I liked (I liked it because it cooks the food in batches, as I’ve read is typical in mainland Chinese cooking), with substitutions that seemed rational, I waded in.

Cheap pork chops usually come with a generous layer of fat. Mine were no exception. I trimmed them and sliced them into large, regular chunks. I tossed them into a quart ziplock bag with a soy-based marinade and left them in the fridge for two hours.

Soy sauce is salty. Soaking pork (or chicken, fish, or other frequently-dry meats) in a salty water solution is also called brining. It’s part of the koshering process (on chicken… I don’t think that there is a process to make pork kosher!). It can turn even lean chicken breast moist and flavorful. In this case, since I had removed all the obvious fat from my pork chops, it meant that I would get juicy pork instead of dusty dry meat.

Garlic and ginger are a classic flavor combination in Cantonese cooking. I cut the ‘rind’ off of about an inch of ginger root and minced it, then pressed the garlic cloves.

The original recipe had called for red bell peppers and water chestnuts, both of which are now on my shopping list. For tonight, I added two cans of straw mushrooms and a chopped onion instead.

My stove is a basic American range/cooktop. It I were working in a Chinese restaurant, or had hit the lottery and owned a Wolf range, there would be a lot more heat available, to the point that things would cook much more quickly. Since I’m dealing with wimpy heat, I do not need to (for instance) discard the garlic and ginger after cooking them- on a better stove they would be burned to bitterness but their flavor would have blessed the oil. In this case, I leave them in, because I like them, but if you have a better stove than I do, beware that they may burn quickly.

So, I heated a tablespoon of peanut oil over the full (wimpy) heat that my stove provides, and swirled the oil to coat the wok. I added the ginger and garlic and sauteed them for a few minutes until they were aromatic, then added the veggies.

Onions are great communicators. When they start to become translucent (about eight minutes for me) they are ready to scoop out into a bowl and move on to the meat. If the onions start to brown, or get crispy, you’ve cooked them a bit too long, but it is not a tragedy.

I added another tablespoon of oil, swirled and heated it, then added the pork. I generally like to play with food, but it is important to leave the pork alone for four minutes or so so that the surface that is on the wok gets crispy. Once that happens, stir the pork up so that another surface gets cooked. Once two surfaces have cooked, stir it one more time, add the veggies, pour on the sauce, and cover the wok for the next five or ten minutes.

As a side note, trichinosis is really nothing to play with. If all of your pork pieces are very nearly the same size, pick three of them and cut them open. If they are white all the way through, you are good. If there is even a hint of pink, please don’t kill your guests. Let the mix cook for another few minutes and check again. If your pork pieces are a bit more ‘free form’ and not the same size, pick the biggest three you can find for the investigation.

Traditionally, this would be served on rice. Tonight I felt like being good (I try to stay low carb) so I just served it as is, with no starch.

  • 2 lbs boneless pork chops, all fat trimmed, sliced into even cubes
  • 2 TB soy sauce
  • 1 tsp baking soda
  • 1/2 tsp salt
  • 1/2 tsp sugar
  • 1/4 tsp white pepper
  • 1/4 cup water
  • 3 TB fermented black soy beans, well rinsed
  • 2 TB oyster sauce
  • 2 TB soy sauce
  • 1 TB sesame oil
  • 1 TB cornstarch dissolved in 2 TB water
  • 2 TB peanut oil
  • 1 onion, chopped
  • 2 cans straw mushrooms, drained
  • 6 cloves garlic, minced or pressed
  • 1″ of ginger root, peeled and minced
  1.    In a quart zip lock bag, mix the 2 TB soy sauce, baking soda, salt, sugar, pepper and water. Once the powders have dissolved, add the pork and refrigerate for at least one hour.
  2.    In a small bottle or cup, mix the black beans, oyster sauce, soy sauce, sesame oil, cornstarch and water. Stir it well and set aside.
  3.    Add one tablespoon of oil to the wok, swirl to coat, and put over high heat. When the wok is hot (you should be able to put a drop of water in the wok and have it jump and dance, not just steam away), add the ginger and garlic. Stir often for two to three minutes, until your kitchen smells like a gingery garlicky paradise.
  4.    Add the onion and mushrooms and stir well. Keep the veggies moving every minute or two until the onions start to become translucent, then scoop all the veggies out into a bowl. Use a paper towel (carefully, it is easy to burn yourself doing this) to wipe out any stray bits of garlic.
  5.    Drain the pork in a strainer to let the marinade run off. Discard the used marinade.
  6.    Add the last tablespoon of oil and swirl the wok. When it comes up to temperature, add the pork to the pan.
  7.    Leave the pork alone for three to five minutes, until it is crackling quietly and has formed a nice brown grilled appearance on one side, then stir it so that another side gets to brown up.
  8.    Leave the pork alone for another three to five minutes. When it has browned on the second side, stor it once more to expose another side to heat, then add the veggies and sauce.
  9.    Cover the wok and let it cook, stirring occasionally, for about ten minutes, then take out the largest three pieces of pork you can find and cut them open to check that they are completely cooked.
  10.    Serve over rice or rice noodles, or on its own.

Kung Pao Chicken at Home

A few weeks ago, I gave up on my old formerly-nonstick wok and bought a genuine steel wok from a local Oriental market.

So now I own a carbon-steel wok, sixteen inches in diamKung Pao closeupeter, and I’ve been cooking Chinese most nights.

A friend of mine, Linda, is quite an accomplished cook who specializes in Cantonese dishes. She’s been giving me advice and stories. I may interview her some time- she has quite a lot that she can teach me!

Kung Pao is a Szechuan, not Cantonese. It is one of the spicier dishes that you’ll find in most American Chinese restaurants. I’ve had it at a few restaurants but never much liked it- too spicy, too sweet, and what are peanuts doing in my chicken? Yuck.

With my new wok begging for a new dish, though, I found a recipe online and modified it a bit. The original recipe called for chicken breast (thighs are juicier and what I had) and a few other ingredients that weren’t in my pantry, so this is my version.

P.S. This works well with pork or shrimp too. If you use pork, check two or three bits of meat to be sure that it is cooked through. If you use shrimp, use peeled de-tailed shrimp and add them very late in the cooking, since shrimp overcook quickly if neglected.

  • 1 lb chicken thighs, deboned, most fat removed, chopped in even chunks about one inch squares
  • 1 yellow bell pepper, cut into one inch  squares (red or orange will work too)
  • 1-2 TB sesame or peanut oil
  • Marinade:
    • 1 TB soy sauce
    • 1 TB sesame oil
    • 1 TB cornstarch dissolved in 1TB of water
    • 1 TB rice vinegar
  • Sauce
    • 1 TB Soy sauce
    • 1 TB sesame oil
    • 1 TB cornstarch dissolved in 1TB of water
    • 1 TB rice vinegar
    • 1 TB hot chili paste (more to taste)
    • 1 TB honey
    • 4 green onions, chopped, green portion chopped and reserved
    • 4 cloves garlic, chopped or minced
    • 1/2 cup peanuts
  1.    Mix the marinade in a ziplock bag, add the chicken, and refrigerate for half an hour.
  2.    Start the rice. You were planning to serve this over rice, weren’t you? Plan on half a cup of dry rice per serving unless you are feeding teenagers.
  3.    Cut a slit in the corner of the ziploc bag and let the marinade drain for five minutes or so.
  4.    While the marinade drains, prepare the sauce.
    1.    In a small saucepan, add all the ingredients in the ‘sauce’ section. Stir well and put over low heat.
    2.    Cook, stirring occasionally, for about ten minutes, until the sauce thickens and becomes fragrant. Turn off the heat.
  5.    Finally, the wok! Oil your wok. If you have a nonstick wok, use less oil. If you have a genuine steel wok, carefully swirl the oil so that it covers all of the wok, to within an inch of the rim.
  6.    Put the wok over high heat, with a wok ring if you have one. Once the oil begins to smoke, add the chicken and stir to coat with oil.
  7.    Leave the chicken cooking for about three minutes, until one side of the chicken chunks is crispy and browning, then stir them and add the pepper.
  8.    Cook the chicken and peppers, stirring frequently, until the chicken is cooked through. Different stoves and different woks will vary considerably in how long this takes, so the best plan is to just cut open the largest chunk of chicken you see in the wok to verify that it is completely cooked.
  9.    Add the sauce from the small saucepan to the wok and stir to evenly coat everything, then add the reserved green onion pieces.
  10.    Serve over rice. This dish serves four but the recipe can double if your wok is big enough. If you don’t have quite a large wok (and a flamethrower of a stove), though, try making this in batches. Woks are meant for fast cooking, not a gradual steaming.

Adventures in the Oriental Market II: Bigger and Better

While visiting my parents in Concord California, I visited the 99 Ranch Market, a HUGE Oriental market.

99 Ranch is around four times the size of my home favorite (in El Paso), and every aisle has more shoppers than I’ve ever seen in the entire Texas store.

As is my wont when shopping Oriental, I came in with a vague idea of what I wanted, and let whim lead me.

The noodle aisle is organized roughly by geography. I wondered through Thailand and Cambodia before I found my Banh Phö noodles again.

The sauce aisle here makes my home market look pretty dinky. I wandered past the familiar teriyaki and hoisin sauces until I found  tonkatsu. Ive never seen Tonkatsu before. Its ingredient list has a lot of fruits so it’ll probably be sweet. Just to be safe, I grabbed a bottle of orange sauce as well.

Dried black fungus jumped into my cart as I passed by.

I went to produce, thinking to grab more enokis, but a bin of big Freudian daikons caught my eye first, so I grabbed one and checked out.

I already have several bell peppers, asparagus and chicken. I think I’ll save the asparagus for another day and make a chicken stir fry tonight.

I tasted the tonkatsu and found that it is not right for me- nice flavour but missing a deeper note. My friend Google tells me that Tonkatsu is panko-breaded fried pork chops; this flavor would work with pork but without it it is not a complete sauce. Good thing I grabbed the orange sauce.

Prep is straightforward- slice the peppers in strips, the chicken in even chunks, and the daikon in thin coins. I decided to serve the daikon raw. It tastes not unlike a common radish but with a bit more of a crunch. The noodles and mushroom got fifteen minutes of soaking in hot tap water.

I heated coconut oil (around two tablespoons) in a wok until quite hot, and seared the chicken in two batches. The peppers took only a few minutes after that to start to blacken- this is not burning, but adds a smoky flavour that I enjoy.

Once the peppers were done, I drained and added the shrooms and noodles, and covered the wok. The moisture on the noodles is almost enough to steam them, but not quite; when I heard them start to sizzle, I added the orange sauce, which turned the sounds from ‘blackening noodles’ back to ‘steaming sauce.’

Ten minutes and a few stirs later, dinner is done. The orange sauce is sweet, but the flavor works well with the chicken.

The Story of Nori

I love nori. It is a kind of dried, toasted seaweed, often found in sushi rolls.

It is almost inconceivably good for you, with enough vitamins and minerals to make kale look like a stale Twinkie.

Many Oriental markets sell snack packs of toasted nori. Naturally it is also good wrapped around seasoned rice and fish.

And until today, I’d had no idea at all of its history.

Check out National Geographic’s article about Kathleen Mary Drew-Baker, known in Japan as The Mother of the Sea.

An Adventure at the Oriental Market

I’m not Asian. I’m an American, of pan-European ancestry. I’ve never traveled farther east than Switzerland. My culinary DNA is mostly Italian, but there’s true appeal in good Chinese cuisine (as served in American restaurants).

have worked in several Chinese restaurants, and I’ve always enjoyed the balanced teamwork that Chinese food shows. A good dish will always have some sour, some sweet, some salty and some bitter. Crunchy water chestnuts snuggle up against soft noodles and crisp bamboo shoots, all unified by savory sauce.

I revisited a local Oriental market yesterday. It’s a small shop, for a place that sells the foods that 4.5 billion humans enjoy. The shelves crowded with exotic (to Western eyes) preserved vegetables, a hundred varieties of rice, and aisles of sauces.

I’ve found that most of these shops’ proprietors are knowledgeable and quite willing to explain what their mystery ingredients (many of which are not labeled in English!) are, or how to recreate a restaurant favorite. Yesterday, though, I was just killing time and shopping for whims.

Starting in the produce section, I found bags of peeled garlic cloves. Convenient! It costs a bit more to buy the pre-peeled cloves than it does to buy heads of garlic, of course, but the convenience is worth it.

Next, I grabbed Enoki mushrooms. They’re tiny mushrooms, looking like a tiny ball on the end of a stalk of grass, all the color of ripe wheat. They’re great in stir fry.

Bok choy was tempting but for whatever reason, didn’t really keep my attention, so I put it back and wandered to the next aisle:  noodles.

Italians are famous for pasta; history tells me that Marco Polo brought it back from China in the thirteenth century. We owe him a debt of gratitude! I grabbed a package of flat rice noodles, looking like a paler version of fettuccine. My random dinner was taking shape.

The last aisle that I shopped was full of sauces, more than half of which had English labels. Korean barbeque sauce, oyster sauce, eight feet of varieties of soy sauce all jostle for attention.  I grabbed a bottle of teriyaki (which is childishly simple to make, but I couldn’t find mirin and was feeling lazy).

On the way to the register, I found a bag of dried black fungus. When it is dry, it looks like random scraps of leather cut from an old shoe. Rehydrated, it is supple, interesting and deeply flavored. It went into my basket and I left before I could impulse buy anything else.

Once I was home, I took the last of a bag of shrimp out of the freezer to thaw, and my dinner ingredients were complete.

This meal could have come from any part of the market. I might’ve grabbed rice instead of noodles, or water chestnuts instead of (or in addition to) the black fungus. The improv nature of stir fry is one of the reasons why I prefer it to the much more measured field of baking.

Since raw (or lightly cooked) garlic is a very strong flavor, I decided to caramelize it. Long slow cooking turns garlic from a bright blast of flavor to a sweet, rich but soft one. I dropped about two tablespoons of coconut oil into a wok, added the garlic, and put it over the lowest heat my stove would do, then went away to check my email. I tossed the garlic three times in the next half hour, until it had changed from firm white cloves to soft, golden cloves with a hint of browning.

The noodles’ instructions said to soak them in hot water for ten minutes. I’ve tried that before and they come out quite underdone, so this time I soaked them for ten minutes, as directed, but then added them to the wok. Since the black fungus needs rehydration, I added it to the same zip-loc bag as the noodles.

I turned the heat up to high under the wok and added the enokis. You’ll have to trim them off of their base but that it just one or two cuts.

Enokis are small, so you’ll want to keep either stirring or tossing the veggies or they’ll burn. I sauteed them for about a minute, until the stalks were starting to relax towards limpness, and then added the (drained) noodles and black fungus.

I added the teriyaki sauce and covered the wok. This lets the whole mixture steam. Then I peeled the shrimp, stopping every few minutes to toss the veggies around to mix them.

Once the shrimp were peeled, I removed the wok cover and dropped the shrimp on top of the noodles, then tossed the wok so that the shrimp were on the bottom.

These shrimp were super mongo huge 13-15 count shrimp, so I cooked it for about three more minutes, until the shrimp were uniformly light pink, then served the mix in bowls. If they’d been the smaller shrimp that I usually use, it would have taken less time, but a local supermarket had a really good sale a few weeks ago so huge shrimp is what I had. It’s a cross to bear.

Pretty Good Impromptu Oriental Noodles
Serves two hungry people, or four as a side dish
4 oz peeled garlic cloves
2 tb coconut oil
4 oz dry  banh pho noodles
2 oz dried black fungus
4 oz enoki mushrooms
2 oz teriyaki sauce
6 oz shrimp

  1. Caramelize the garlic: add the oil to the wok, over very low heat, then add the garlic. Cook for about half an hour, until soft and slightly darkened.
  2. Rehydrate: soak the black fungus and the noodles for about ten minutes in hot water. A large zip-loc bag is convenient for this but a cake pan or large bowl works fine too.
  3. Peel the shrimp. Slice the enoki mushroom so that the long stems are separated from the base, and discard the base.
  4. Drain the noodles and dried mushrooms.
  5. Bring heat under the wok to high and saute the noodles, teriyaki sauce and fungus (stirring every minute or so) for about five minutes at high heat. Noodles should be quite pliable when done.
  6. Add the shrimp, mix them to the bottom of the wok, and cook for about 2-3 more minutes. They should be light pink all the way through when done.