Food & Drink: From block to wok, chop chop

AS NICELY noted by E N Anderson in The Food of China (Yale University Press), one of a handful of serious books on the subject, Chinese cuisine 'is a cooking of scarcity'.

That is not true of its kitchens, which reflect the labour-intensive nature of many Chinese activities. I visited about a half-dozen restaurant kitchens - as well as staring bemusedly at an infinite number of street-kitchens, each serving one dish, and my overwhelming impression is that of confinement, numbers, heat, speed, intense concentration and extreme specialisation.

Even the largest of the kitchens would be considered outrageously cramped by a Western chef. Many look as though they have been in use since imperial days, the average, even in more modern buildings, being something like 12ft x 16ft.

Traditional restaurants that are not speciality restaurants - that is, which prepare full menus - often have three separate kitchens: one for 'cold' food, one for hot and one for pastry, the last seemingly the province of the relatively few women cooks I saw. The work in the pastry kitchen is highly collectivised: some cakes and pastries, not to speak of the dough prepared for dumplings, involve the rolling of dough 6ft long by several sets of hands, before it is sliced into the appropriate size.

The cold kitchen also employs women, because its tasks include all kinds of delicate glazings, layering and decorative effects. And while the first two kitchens are relatively calm and orderly - their tasks can be performed before a meal actually needs to be prepared - the hot kitchen is a miniature inferno.

The confined quarters of all the kitchens means, in personal and professional terms, that cooking is very much a collective effort. A part of the kitchen will, as in our own kitchens, be set aside for preparation. This is the single busiest place, and on a table some 6ft to 8ft by 3ft, as many as eight or ten cooks (they are generally sous-chefs, young and intense) will be doing the prodigious knife-work that makes mainstream Chinese cooking possible.

The dexterity of these choppers and slicers has become something of a performance art on television, and it is indeed a skill bordering on the miraculous; but it is also so common that a chef who cannot perform it is not considered worthy of the name. The basic implement, the tou, is not constantly sharpened, as in our kitchens. I saw some that were far from sharp, but still accomplished their allotted tasks. Several kinds of tou are in simultaneous use at the preparation table - small, even tiny, ones perform the sub-slicing and pointed ones the boning - but the principal knife in use everywhere is the carefully weighted cleaver. It comes in a number of different sizes and, in capable hands, can slice delicate meat paper-thin with phenomenal speed, and chop or dice or julienne vegetables without skipping a beat.

The speed of chopping and slicing, I was told, is an essential part of retaining the freshness, consistency and exactness of the cooking process. The time we, with our Western knives, spend slicing, say, a chicken breast horizontally into 12 or more infinitesimally thin slices would, in Chinese eyes, bruise the flesh.

Fish, needless to say, must be so cut as to circumvent their anatomical peculiarities, their bony structures. Vegetables, mushrooms especially, must retain the ghostly outline of their original shapes and, like all other ingredients, must go directly from the cutting process to the cooking; any delay would cause a loss of consistency and texture.

Much cutting and slicing is done on the bias - to create the largest- possible cooking surface out of the least flesh, and to allow every part to be equally coated with whatever sauce is being used; most cooks said the only way of acquiring this skill was by constant practice.

A brief mental tally suggested that in five minutes, the one cook I watched most carefully had executed well over 1,000 movements of wrist and forearm, and that with a cleaver weighing close to a kilo. It is something of a pianist's art, and reminds me that I once tallied my daily Czerny exercises as consisting of 127,908 separate keys struck per half hour, and quick I'm not.

Across a narrow aisle, in a sort of island, work the principal hot chefs. Here I discovered why the taste of Chinese cooking outside Asia often seems less satisfactory: the answer is the speed with which the ingredients are cooked. (The cooks I talked to seemed to think that correct timing was the essence of the cook's art, knowing just when an ingredient was cooked enough to retain its taste and its substance.) The speed is itself a product of the heat at which the cooking is done.

I could not find anyone who could give me an exact figure for this heat, but the gas jets on which rest the several traditional woks on a Chinese range are fan-blown to increase the temperature, and I estimate that this must reach nearly 400F, the flames being arranged in a very broad ring and some 6in high, thus reaching well up the sides of the wok. The wok becomes so hot that between cookings it is regularly plunged, upside down, in water to clean and cool it.

A few sessions in those restaurants convinced me that the reason why my own wok cooking has never really satisfied me is that I can neither raise the heat high enough nor spread the flames broad enough with our domestic gas pressure and my standard hob.

Suggested Topics
News
people'Interview of the year' no letdown
Sport
Wayne Rooney
sportBut which sporting Brit beats him to top spot in Sunday Times Rich List?
News
Maxine Peake at home in front of a poster for Keeping Rosy
people
Arts and Entertainment
Boys in blue: Peter Firth and (right) Kit Harington in Spooks
filmHow well will Spooks make the leap from the small to the big screen?
Life and Style
ebookNow available in paperback
ebooks
ebookPart of The Independent’s new eBook series The Great Composers
News
Royal fans covered with Union Jacks and royal memorabilia wait for Kate, Duchess of Cambridge to go into the Lindo wing at St Mary's Hospital to give birth to her second child in London, Friday, April 24, 2015.
peopleLive updates in the wait for Duchess of Cambridge's second child
Sport
Arsène Wenger (left) and Jose Mourinho have to be separated by the fourth official, Jon Moss, during last October’s Premier League match at Stamford Bridge
football
Arts and Entertainment
Tate Modern chief Chris Dercon, who will be leaving to run a Berlin theatre company
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Tasos: 'I rarely refuse an offer to be photographed'
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
tv
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Food & Drink

    Guru Careers: MI Developer

    £35 - 45k: Guru Careers: An MI Developer is needed to join the leading provide...

    Recruitment Genius: Fitness Manager

    £20000 - £22500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This leisure organisation manag...

    Recruitment Genius: Visitor Experience Manager

    £25000 - £28000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Delivering an inspiring, engagi...

    Recruitment Genius: Learning Team Administrator

    £17500 - £20500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They are looking for a great te...

    Day In a Page

    Major medical journal Lancet under attack for 'extremist hate propaganda' over its coverage of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict

    Lancet accused of 'anti-Israel hate propaganda' over coverage of Gaza conflict

    Threat to free speech as publishers of renowned medical journal are accused of inciting hatred and violence
    General Election 2015: Tories and Lib Dems throw their star names west to grab votes

    All noisy on the Lib Dems' western front

    The party has deployed its big guns in Cornwall to save its seats there. Simon Usborne heads to the heart of the battle
    How Etsy became a crafty little earner: The online market has been floated for £1.2bn, but can craft and capitalism coexist?

    How Etsy became a crafty little earner

    The online market has been floated for £1.2bn, but can craft and capitalism coexist?
    Guy Ritchie is the latest filmmaker to tackle King Arthur - one of our most versatile heroes

    King Arthur is inspiring Guy Ritchie

    Raluca Radulescu explains why his many permutations - from folk hero to chick-lit hunk - never cease to fascinate
    Apple Watch: Will it live up to expectations for the man or woman on the street?

    Apple Watch: Will it live up to expectations?

    The Apple Watch has apparently sold millions even before its launch tomorrow
    Don't fear the artichoke: it's a good cook's staple, with more choice than you'd think

    Don't fear the artichoke

    Artichokes are scary - they've got spikes and hairy bits, and British cooks tend to give them a wide berth. But they're an essential and delicious part of Italian cuisine
    11 best men's socks

    11 best men's socks

    Make a statement with your accessories, starting from the bottom up
    Paul Scholes column: Eden Hazard would be my Player of the Year – but I wonder if he has that appetite for goals of Messi or Ronaldo

    Paul Scholes column

    Hazard would be my Player of the Year – but I wonder if he has that appetite for goals of Messi or Ronaldo
    Frank Warren: Tyson Fury will be closely watching Wladimir Klitschko... when he wins it'll be time to do a deal

    Frank Warren's Ringside

    Tyson Fury will be closely watching Wladimir Klitschko... when he wins it'll be time to do a deal
    London Marathon 2015: Kenya's brothers in arms Wilson Kipsang and Dennis Kimetto ready to take on world

    Kenya's brothers in arms take on world

    Last year Wilson Kipsang had his marathon record taken off him by training partner and friend Dennis Kimetto. They talk about facing off in the London Marathon
    Natalie Bennett interview: I've lost track of the last time I saw my Dad but it's not because I refuse to fly

    Natalie Bennett interview: I've lost track of the last time I saw my Dad

    Green leader prefers to stay clear of her 'painful' family memories but is more open about 'utterly unreasonable' personal attacks
    Syria conflict: Khorasan return with a fresh influx of fighters awaiting the order to start 'shooting the birds'

    Khorasan is back in Syria

    America said these al-Qaeda militants were bombed out of the country last year - but Kim Sengupta hears a different story
    General Election 2015: Is William Cash the man to woo Warwickshire North for Ukip?

    On the campaign trail with Ukip

    Is William Cash the man to woo Warwickshire North?
    Four rival Robin Hood movies get Hollywood go-head - and Friar Tuck will become a superhero

    Expect a rush on men's tights

    Studios line up four Robin Hoods productions
    Peter Kay's Car Share: BBC show is the comedian's first TV sitcom in a decade

    In the driving seat: Peter Kay

    Car Share is the comedian's first TV sitcom in a decade. The programme's co-creator Paul Coleman reveals the challenges of getting the show on the road