Respected master chef Martin Yan paved the way for millions of Americans to access the secrets of the Chinese kitchen when he debuted his pioneering television show, Yan Can Cook, in the 70s.
More than 3,000 tv shows and 30 cookbooks later, Yan is still as self-deprecatingly charismatic and timelessly valid as he continues to be a solid source for both beginning and more advanced cooks practicing the art of Chinese cuisine.
"Tsing Tao goes well with most Chinese foods," said Yan, during a brief chat at the NY Wine Expo last weekend. "It's good for cooking - marinating and adding to stews."
The multi-talented Yan offered me a glass of Tsing Tao - his secret ingredient for taste-tempting beef ribs and savory stews - then invited Eat. Drink. Memory. to attend his seminar later that afternoon where he explained the basic ingredients necessary to the Chinese kitchen.
“There is no such thing as duck sauce,” explained the Guangzhou, China native and culinary expert. Duck sauce, a blend of plum sauce, apricot preserves and apple sauce, was an invention created for Western palates, he added.
Yan detailed the uses and grades of the essential ingredients of the Chinese kitchen, giving seminar guests a mini-tasting as well. The core ingredients to daily Chinese cooking are: light and dark soy sauce, Shaoxing rice wine, Oyster flavor sauce, Hoisin sauce, plum sauce, and chili garlic sauce.
“Like a fine wine, you smell it,” said Yan of soy sauce. “Light soy sauce – not L – I – T – E, which is low sodium, is thinner, lighter in color, and doesn't stick to the bottle when you shake it.”
Soy Sauce This most basic of kitchen ingredients, soy sauce is fermented soybeans and flour and comes in light and dark forms. Like wine, soy sauce comes in varying complexities and grades. Light soy sauce is generally used for marinades, finishing flavor and dipping sauces. Dark soy sauce is thicker and sweeter since it is made with an additional ingredient, molasses, and is used for adding flavor to ribs, chops and beef in dry rubs before cooking or grilling.
Shaoxing Rice Wine Used for both cooking and drinking, this wine made from fermented rice ubiquitous in Chinese kitchens is named after the region of Shaoxing in the Zhejiang province, and tastes a bit like sherry. Produced since dynastic times, the wine is most famously used in marinades for drunken dishes like Drunken Chicken or Shrimp.
Oyster Flavor Sauce Essential to Cantonese cuisine, this slightly sweet and savory sauce, called ho yau in Cantonese, is made from extract of boiled oysters and seasonings and is used in fried rice and noodle dishes as well as in vegetable, beef, poultry and seafood entrees. Not only does oyster flavor sauce give food a rich, slightly earthy taste, it gives the dish an attractive sheen.
Hoisin Sauce This sweet, spicy and pungent sauce made from soybeans, garlic, chili and five spice powder is both a condiment and a staple cooking ingredient. Hoisin sauce is used as a dipping sauce for Peking Duck, a spread for the thin, crepe-like pancakes in Moo Shu dishes, and as a glaze or ingredient in barbecue dishes.
Plum Sauce A tart-sweet dipping sauce made from salted preserved plums, brown sugar and vinegar, this sauce is especially good with fried appetizers like spring rolls and wontons as well as roast pork and spareribs.
Chili Garlic Sauces From black bean to dried shrimp to anchovy, there are many versions of chili garlic sauce, the powerful and fiery condiment and cooking ingredient. Use sparingly and add at the end of cooking. Offer a small dish with the meal so guests can adjust the temperature to their palate.