Yin and Yang of Classical Chinese Cuisine

Food: A Cultural Culinary History—Episode 08

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Chinese culture has produced what is arguably the most complex, sophisticated, and varied culinary tradition on earth. In this podcast we’re going to trace the rise of civilization in China from the Hsia to the Han dynasty. We’ll look at the social and technological factors underlying China’s elaborate food traditions, and we’re going to investigate the role of Taoist thought and Chinese medicine in the Chinese diet.

Images for this Episode:

Culinary Activities for this Episode:

• Seasoning a New Wok

A round bottom wok with a steel wok spatula

Although you can purchase preseasoned and even nonstick woks nowadays, it is really best to buy a rounded-bottom steel wok and season it yourself. It will become virtually nonstick because the fat transforms with heat into a polymer and literally becomes one with the metal surface. This is something you must do outdoors.

Properly seasoned wok

Over an open flame, either wood or a barbecue grill, heat your new wok for an hour on a high flame until glowing red. Put on sturdy oven mitts. Then, take a fist-sized lump of pork fat (or any animal fat), and with a pair of tongs, swirl it around the interior of the work and quickly remove it. This will create a lot of smoke, so be prepared to step back. Repeat over and over again until you have a dark, shiny, slick surface inside the wok.

Never use soap on this surface. After stir-frying, simply put the wok in the sink while still hot, and swirl around a sponge or cloth with a pair of tongs and hot water. Dry thoroughly, and wipe on some oil to prevent rusting. You will be amazed how wonderfully food will cook on this surface without sticking, even though the technology is centuries old.

• Using Your Wok

We usually think of a wok in terms of stir-frying, but it is actually used to braise, boil, steam, deep-fry, and practically perform any procedure in the Chinese canon. Stir-frying is still classic, but it demands just a little practice and know-how.

A wok should be heated to a very high temperature, ideally over a wok ring.

First of all, the wok should be heated, over a very high flame. Ideally, you will have a burner that will steady the rounded bottom or a wok ring. A flat-bottomed wok is a waste of time; you might as well just use a pan. All of your ingredients should be cut up ahead of time, into thin pieces that will cook very quickly. The actual cooking should only take a few minutes, which means not only less fuel used but, in a professional kitchen, rapid service.

Stir fry marinade

If using meat, marinate it first in soy sauce, rice wine, ginger, garlic, sesame oil, and cornstarch—or whatever you like. The cornstarch will not only act as a thickener in the end, but will also seal the surface of the meat when it goes into the hot wok. Keep your cut-up vegetables separate. You can use bok choy, mushrooms, bean sprouts, and carrots—again, whatever strikes your fancy.

Proper wok technique demonstrated

When your wok is red hot (it will smoke a little), pour in oil—peanut or neutral vegetable oil is best—and immediately add your meat so that it sears. Wait a minute before you begin to toss. This should be done with a Chinese spatula, which has a metal end and a long shaft ending in a wooden handle. One hand should be on the handle of the wok (use a dish towel if it’s a short, ring-type handle) and the other on your spatula. The idea is to tilt the wok slightly and toss the ingredients up.

When browned lightly, remove the meat to a bowl, and add vegetables to the wok, using the same procedure. Add a little more oil if necessary. You want to sear these quickly, which won’t happen if you overcrowd the surface of the wok. Then, add the meat back in again, and finish with a little soy sauce, perhaps rice wine, and some broth. These are usually kept in little bowls next to the wok and added with a ladle. When the ingredients all come together, move them to a bowl and immediately rinse out and scour your wok with hot water and return to the fire to start another dish, or dry and set aside if you’re done. Serve the dish with white rice.

Suggested Reading:

Anderson, The Food of China.

Chang, Food in Chinese Culture.

Schaefer, Golden Peaches of Samarkand.

Simoons, Food in China: A Cultural and Historical Inquiry.

Swislocki, Culinary Nostalgia: Regional Food Culture and the Urban Experience in Shanghai

Images courtesy of:

• Map of China: Shutterstock
• Extended Chinese Family cooking: Shutterstock
• Vibrant Chinese court culture: By Yan Li-pen [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
• Map of Xia and Shang Dynasties: By SY (Own work) CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons
• Xia Dynasty pottery: By Gary Lee Todd (Luoyang Museum) GFDL, via Wikimedia Commons
• Water Buffalo :Shutterstock
• Chinese bronze cooking vessels from Shang era: By Daderot (Own work) [CC0], via Wikimedia Commons
• Zhou Dynasty map: By Territories_of_Dynasties_in_China.gif: Ian Kiu CC-BY-SA-3.0 , via Wikimedia Commons 

• Shi, Chinese scholars: See page for author CC BY 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons
• Millet: Shutterstock
• Confucius: See page for author [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

• Chopsticks: Shutterstock
• Lao Tzu: See page for author [Public domain or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
• The Vinegar Tasters: By Kanō school artist (Tokyo National Museum) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Sesame plant: Shutterstock
• Szechuan pepperShutterstock
• Noodles: By ProjectManhattan (Own work) [CC0], via Wikimedia Commons
Wok and Spatula: Shutterstock
Seasoned Wok: Shutterstock
Smoking Wok: Shutterstock
Stir Fry Marinade: Shutterstock
Wok Technique: Shutterstock