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.