To learn Chinese cooking, it helps to understand the concept of yin and yang. Meals, typically shared with others, should aim for a balance among a variety of ingredients: some are considered cooling foods (yin), others are heating foods (yang).
Such a yin-and-yang approach to cooking helps define Chinese cuisine and explains why it is relatively healthy, according to a new book by chef and television presenter Ken Hom. His book, "Complete Chinese Cookbook," surveys food from Cantonese and Szechuan cuisine to the more grain-based Northern School.
The U.S.-born Hom, who has published 33 books, now divides his time between Paris and Bangkok. He spoke with Reuters about the appeal and health benefits of a Chinese diet.
Q: Is it too reductive to talk about Chinese food as a single category?
A: "Yes. China is a vast country. It has as many regional cuisines as France or Italy. They're very different. We need to expand our minds about what China's really about. The Chinese are rediscovering their own heritage.
"Chinese food has changed because of Hong Kong. At the Handover in 1997, people were fearful that China would change Hong Kong. It's been the reverse. It's the quality of cooking, the attention to detail, all the Hong Kong chefs that have gone to China. You see the Peninsula (Hotel) opening in Beijing and Shanghai. Their influence is a standard China was not used to."
Q: Has Chinese food gained prominence since you first started writing about it?
A: "People are more aware of it. I go to Brazil a lot. Ten years ago it was kind of a curiosity. Chinese food was off the radar. Now everybody's interested in it in Brazil."
Is the Chinese middle class embracing high-end dining?
A: "Absolutely. It's the way of entertaining, a way of showing off. People have money; they take others out to eat. Before, there were funky little places where bones would be on the floor. People are exploring their own cuisine outside their regions. The restaurant culture has exploded.
Q: What do you mean by the 'yin and yang' balance of a meal?
A: "A good example is a steakhouse. You have nothing but heaviness, you have no balance. To achieve yin and yang you'd cut that steak by three-quarters. You would have a little bit of protein, a little bit of broth, things like tofu, some seafood, a little bit of everything and especially heavy on the vegetable side. A steakhouse is out of kilter of yin and yang. Most people discover that balance in their body when they hit their 60s and go, 'God, I can't eat that steak anymore.'
"You eat like the Chinese, you'll be healthy. Chinese steam things, braise things, cook in broth, which a lot of non-Chinese don't get into. The problem is, the Chinese (increasingly) eat like Americans and Westerners."
Q: What are the advantages of using a wok?
A: "Number one, it's very hot. It gives you that grilled, smoked flavor. And it's fast, quick and easy."
Q: You worked in your uncle's restaurant when you were 11. Were you as enthusiastic about Chinese food then?
A: "I grew up in a very Chinese household. Even in grammar school, I had a Thermos with rice and Chinese sausage and vegetables, while all the kids had bologna sandwiches. I would open up my Thermos and all the kids would envy me. I would trade them. It was cold as hell in Chicago."
Q: Why do so many of your recipes call for chicken stock?
A: "There's nothing better than Jewish chicken stock but I think Chinese can beat it. Chicken stock is the whole base of our cuisine. With that stock, you can make soup, you make sausage, you can stir fry. When you use stock, you don't need as much oil or fat. It simmers slowly. It's good for you.
Q: Because it's low-fat?
A: "I think Americans are too obsessed with low-fat. It's not about low-fat, it's about satisfaction. Americans should enjoy their food. You can eat healthily, in a nice way, everything in moderation. You're blessed or cursed with the genes you're born with, but there's only so much you can do, so you may as well enjoy it.
"By the way, that's how real estate people sell houses. They always have bread baking, or stock simmering, when people come look at houses."
Chicken stock recipe (makes about 14 cups, or 3.5 liters):
4-1/2lb (2kg) uncooked chicken bones - feet, wings, etc.
1-2/2lb (750g) chicken pieces such as wings, thighs, etc.
14 cups (3.5L) cold water
3 slices of fresh ginger
6 green onions, green tops removed
6 whole garlic cloves, unpeeled and lightly crushed
Put the chicken bones and pieces into a very large saucepan (the bones can be either frozen or defrosted). Cover with cold water and bring to a simmer.
Using a large spoon, skim off the scum as it rises from the bones. Watch the heat, as the stock should never boil. Keep skimming until the stock looks clear, between 20-40 minutes. Do not stir.
Turn down the heat to a low simmer. Add the ginger, green onions, garlic and 1 tsp (5ml) salt. Simmer the stock on very low heat for 2-4 hours, skimming any fat off the top at least twice. The stock should be rich and full-bodied and simmering it for such a long time gives it (and any soup) plenty of taste.
Strain the stock through several layers of dampened cheesecloth or a very fine sieve. Let it cool. Remove any fat that has risen to the top. Use straight away or transfer to containers and freeze.