Having explored the history behind this incredible cookbook, I thought it would be good to give one of the stir-fry recipes a go. This recipe for Chicken with Mushrooms exemplifies the stir-frying – or bào, as it is known in Chinese – technique.
Here, the wok or skillet is heated to a high temperature. Cook oil or lard is added, followed by seasonings, vegetables and proteins. The ingredients themselves are often simple – one or two vegetables and a protein, if any. As long as quality ingredients are used throughout, what makes a stir-fry particularly unique is often the sauce. Since the high heat cooks everything quickly, the meal retains much of the flavor and freshness of the ingredients.
I love the note in the recipe after fresh ginger “if you can get it.” Now most major grocery stores sell fresh ginger year round, but this was certainly not the case in 1945. Ground ginger was often available for baking, though even that could be a challenge to find in the post-war period. Candied ginger was another possibility, but it doesn’t have the same effect in a recipe that fresh ginger has. Chao recommends the cook omit the ginger in a recipe where chunks of it are meant to be consumed, rather than try to find a substitute.
Technically, this dish is called “Mushrooms Stir Chicken Slices.” As I mentioned in the accompanying article to this recipe – Buwei Yang Chao and the Invention of ‘Stir-Frying’ – Buwei wrote “I cooked my dishes in Chinese, my daughter Rulan put my Chinese into English, and my husband, finding the English dull, put much of it back into Chinese again. Thus, when I call a dish ‘Mushrooms Stir Shrimps,’ Rulan says that that’s not English and that it ought to be ‘Shrimps Fried with Mushrooms.’ But Yuen Ren argues that if Mr. Smith can Go to Town in a movie, why can’t Mushrooms Stir Shrimps in a dish?”
TIPS AND TRICKS
If you don’t have a wok, a heavy bottomed skillet will work just fine. Indeed, the cookbook assumes most readers would not have a wok in 1945, and suggests a skillet as an alternative.
Wash, chop and prepare everything ahead. Once the wok or skillet begins heating up, there isn’t really time to be dicing and slicing. For this particular recipe, you can put the mushrooms in one bowl, the chicken in another, and the sauce in the third.
Always mix cornstarch with liquids before adding it to anything. Mixing it with foods inhibits the cornstarch from completely dissolving and it will often clump. In this case, mix it with the water and sherry before adding the ginger, onion, and chicken.
The cookbook prefers the use of lard. In the absence of lard, cooking oil can be used such as canola or vegetable. Other oils like olive or peanut have a tendency to burn before getting to the heat recommended for stir-frying.
Remember, it is stir-frying. Keep the food moving once it hits the wok. You should only ever stop momentarily to add or remove items from the skillet. Otherwise, keep stirring.
The chicken won’t take long to cook, and the mushrooms will need even less time. Once everything is done cooking, pour the food into a serving dish and rinse the wok immediately – as the remaining heat can cause the oils to continue cooking and damage the surface of the pan.
I thoroughly enjoyed this recipe. Not only was it quick to assemble and cook, but the taste was incredible. The fresh ginger balanced out the sherry/soy sauce perfectly. I was a bit concerned at first that the amount of sauce didn’t seem to be enough to adequately cover the chicken and mushrooms, but it all came out flawlessly.
Before stumbling on this cookbook, I once thought I was occasionally stir-frying at home. I’d cut up a bunch of my favorite vegetables, and cube some chicken or tofu, and mix it all about with a splash of soy sauce. It wasn’t bad, but I was never really tapping into the full potential of the dishes. Fewer ingredients and an incredible sauce. That’s the key. And really, it couldn’t be simpler.
I’m as guilty as the next person for getting Chinese food delivered in a pinch. The greasy unnatural colors hint at a kind of Chinese food that is distinctly American. But Chao’s How to Cook and Eat in Chinese demonstrates what Chinese American food was before it was truly Americanized in a bath of sweet and sour sauce and cream cheese wontons. It was, and can be, fresh and delicious.
“Mushrooms Stir Chicken Slices” from How to Cook and Eat in Chinese by Buwei Yang Chao, New York: John Day and Co., 1945.
White meat of one large chicken or two small chickens – about 1lb.
1/2 lb. fresh mushrooms
1 tbsp. cornstarch
2 tbsp. water
1 tbsp. sherry
1 tsp. salt
2 tbsp. soy sauce
3 tbsp. lard or oil
1 scallion or 1 small sweet onion
2 or 3 slices fresh ginger (if you can get it)
Cut chicken white meat into thin slices. (Be sure to keep it in the icebox if not used immediately.) Mix with the cornstarch, water, sherry, salt, chopped onion, and ginger.
Wash the mushrooms and cut them vertically into slices. Heat 1 tbsp. lard in a skillet, put the mushrooms in, add the soy sauce, and stir-fry for 2 min. Then take out.
Heat the other 2 tbsp. lard over big fire and put the chicken in. Stir constantly for 2 min., then add in the mushrooms again. Cook together for 1/2 min.