Life of a Rooster

Memoirs of a psychiatrist, journalist and educator

How to Train a Chinese Cook

on April 17, 2014

Aunt Lily taught me more than family history. I spent countless hours with her in the kitchen, thus becoming quite skilled at cleaning chickens (in those days, chickens still came with their innards intact). Aunt Lily would explain how you needed to dig your fingers between the ribs to get the lungs out of their place before pulling the entire respiratory system out. She would pull out the trachea and the oesophagus and line them side by side, showing the difference between the two: “See these rings here how they keep the tube open, that’s how it can breathe easily.” I would rinse it out then play with it, blowing into it to see the lungs inflate. I would then squeeze the lungs again to get the air out, which was really fun because they would feel interestingly squishy and bubbly at the same time. The gizzard was quite an interesting organ. It does not have an equivalent in the human body. Aunt Lily showed me how to slice it open around the fleshy part, and throw out the yellow-green straw-like, stinky contents. Then, one had to look for the edge of the thick inner wrinkly membrane and poke it up with the nail, and peel it off. Now it was ready for cleaning and slicing. The longitudinal slices would look like flattened candies in their twisted wrappers. They tasted delicious stir-fried or stewed in “lu” sauce.

chicken gizzard

Aunt Lily also taught me to clean fish and squids. When supermarkets started selling cleaned seafood and poultry, often presented in trays of one type of body part, children lost valuable opportunities to learn anatomy and physiology. Ah, the joys of pulling out the ink bag without squirting it on the white flesh! The excitement of pulling out gills and scraping off scales carefully, without getting them on one’s own skin (for, Aunt Lily warned, they would grow onto your skin and become part of it).

She took me with her to the market. Ah, yes, they still had markets in Paris then. I don’t know whether they still do. We would pull a shopping bag on wheels and carry a few more just in case. The open air markets had stalls lined in rows, offering fruits, vegetables, meats, seafood and even recycled newspapers, books and magazines. That’s when Aunt Lily would whisper to me, “That’s what Uncle Lung used to do to survive during his student days…” Aunt Lily taught me how to recognize fresher fruit, how to compare prices, how to dig under the top rows for fresher food, and how to bargain for better prices or get some bonus pieces.

And then, finally, when she judged that I had completed my apprenticeship in cleaning and purchasing, she finally agreed to teach me the Chinese art of cutting food. The Chinese always cut food using a well-sharpened cleaver, not a tiny little knife like housewives in other cultures. First of all, you must always have a good, strong and clean cutting board. This you can anchor on the kitchen counter with a moist rag, so it won’t slide around while you are working. Then, you need to hold the food correctly. Here I am giving away a very valuable secret, the secret to fast, accurate cutting. Whoever is reading this, you are getting golden nuggets here, believe me! So here goes: your left hand (or holding hand) must have the first (tip) phalanges curled under, the middle phalanges vertical, and the thumb tucked behind the fingers. This is it. Very simple. The result is, you can now  push the cleaver — which is in your right hand, or cutting hand — tightly against those middle phalanges and pull the cleaver up and down against it without fear of cutting your fingers off. Notice that  the blade of the cleaver is sliding along your middle phalanges, not flying up in the air, therefore never in danger of coming down on something it shouldn’t. Thus, you can cut as fast as you wish and still be accurate and safe. The left hand slowly slides backwards over the food, while the left thumb keeps re-adjusting its position accordingly.


You can easily slice a big long cucumber in thin rounds in a matter of seconds, tak tak tak tak tak… to the desired thinness. I used to watch friends struggle making salads, “Ah, I hate making salads the most, because there is so much cutting to do…” they would  sigh while holding a tiny blunt knife and cutting food on their thumb, at the speed of a turtle. To me, salads are the easiest to cut. Meats are a little trickier, because you have to watch out for the grain. “Always cut across the grain, Fawzia, across the grain!” Aunt Lily would nag me. Beef slices or shred cut along the grain were tough and hard to chew while shred cut across the grain tasted tender. And — here is another golden nugget — always cut meat when it is half defrosted. Soft enough to cut, but hard enough to hold its shape while you do so.

Aunt Lily showed me the cube, the slice, the shred and the “rolling blade chunk”.  The shred, of course, is the ultimate test. The first time I did so, Aunt Lily gave me carrots to shred. By the time I was done, she gave up trying to save the batch of carrot shreds, they were so intimately coated with wood shaving (more like wood powder!). Tapping, rinsing, straining, nothing saved it. “No need to saw your knife up and down, Fawzia… Just lift and cut, lift and cut. A slight forward motion only, not sawing up and down on the wood…” Well, by the end of a year or two, I could now quickly and efficiently cut a half pound block of beef into perfect 2mm x 2mm matchsticks in under three minutes!

Then I was ready to move on to stir-frying. All foreigners know that stir-frying is the main method of cooking in Chinese cuisine, although, depending on the culinary school, some claim at least 24 methods of cooking.  Now, what stir-frying is NOT: It does not mean moving some food around in a flat frying pan in a bit of lukewarm oil. I call that simmering in oil. Stir-frying or “chao” is a very specific cooking method based on two main factors: a) high temperature and b) speed of mixing. This is why you need a “wok”, a semi-spherical cast iron frying pan with a single handle, so that heat is evenly distributed all around, and so that you can toss the food with one hand while stirring with the other. The ones with two handles are meant to be used for deep frying or steaming. I really don’t see how one can toss food with two handles…!

chinese wok

The main philosophy behind stir-frying is that you can only stir-fry one type of food at a time. If you need to mix different types of food, you can fry together only ingredients with similar cuts and consistency so they get cooked in the same amount of time. Each food is thus stir-fried separately, then eventually mixed together in the wok — what is called “hui” (pronounced hway) before pouring into the serving dish piping hot. For example, if you have spinach and shredded beef, you stir-fry the beef first, pour it back into its bowl, then stir-fry the spinach, then pour the beef back into the wok, mix quickly then serve immediately.

Most stoves in the West are just not hot enough for real stir-frying. If you are serious about Chinese cuisine, then buy yourself a Chinese stove. The fire comes out with a hiss and has two concentric rings of blue flames. It is usually a counter top item and can be found in many Oriental grocery stores. If you are stuck with your stove, then make sure to heat your wok very long before putting in the oil (test it by sprinkling a few drops of water. They should sizzle, jump around and evaporate in a few seconds). Then heat your oil very long (until you see smoke coming up, and streaks on the wok when you swirl the oil around). Finally make sure to only stir-fry a small amount at a time otherwise the first bit will be stir-fried and the rest will be braised. Whenever I read recipes that tell you to put chopped green peppers, and chunks of onions, and beef slabs (I’m sorry, those thick cuts are not shreds, whatever they may think) and whatever else together in a lukewarm frying pan, I just cringe. How dare they call this Chinese food!



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