General Tso’s chicken. Pork fried rice. Cheese wontons (my personal favorite). The list of American Chinese dishes goes on and on; this is the taste of China we’ve become familiar with. When I would ask my Chinese students what they thought of American Chinese food, they would laugh. “That’s not Chinese food,” they would say. “Real Chinese food is so much butter. Come to China, we’ll show you.”
So I did.
This past March I spent almost two weeks in China, between Shanghai, Beijing, and Guilin/Yangshuo. I scorched my tongue on soup dumplings in Shanghai, ate dinner in a hutong in Beijing, and took a cooking class in Yangshuo. I also accidentally ate jellyfish at a fancy dinner and embarrassed myself by immediately spitting it into my napkin, once I realized it was crunchy (thinking about still gives me the shivers!) I discovered the many uses of bean paste and learned that “vegetarian” means the dish doesn’t contain pork. My crowning achievement: perfecting my chopsticks skills.
And I saw… or rather, tasted…. how right my students were. American Chinese food has nothing on the real deal, and I loved the food so much that I took a cooking class in Yangshuo, so I could recreate a few dishes at home.
And I have. So I thought I would share it with you!
The dishes I learned were traditional tastes of Guilin and Yangshuo, cities in Guangxi province in Southern China. In Yangshuo, garlic and red chiles were everywhere – on the streets, in the stores, and in the dishes we created. They feature prominently in the two dishes below. Normally, I cannot handle much spice, but I was surprised by how mild the chiles were. In our cooking class, we used a traditional garlic/chili/fermented bean paste that was so delicious, I bought a few jars before leaving Guilin. When I returned home, I excitedly used it to make the Eggplant Yangshuo dish below for my husband and mother. I only used a teaspoon’s worth, I swear.
But somehow, the heat in the chile had increased tenfold in its trip across the Pacific, and after one bite of the eggplant we were all gasping and reaching desperately for the water. Maybe it served me right for bringing such a product over the border. Or maybe it was just further proof that you can’t make real Chinese food outside of China.
But I don’t think so. I think I must just have bought the wrong jar of paste, and, since I can’t read Chinese, ended up with the uber spicy one. So now I make my own chili-garlic mix, thusly:
The real trick, of course, is finding a chile mild enough for my wussy palate. I got lucky at the market one day and found one.
But I digress.
In addition to chiles, garlic, and ginger, one other hallmark of Chinese cooking is its speed – developed at a time when cooking fuel was not plentiful, many Chinese dishes are cooked very quickly. No simmered stews here! These two recipes are super fast and super simple.
So here you go: Traditional Chinese Beer Fish with Eggplant Yangshuo, as learned in the Yangshuo Cooking school one March afternoon in southern China, copied from their cookbook and updated for American measurements.
“Braised in a brew made from the spring waters that flow into the legendary Li River, Beer Fish has become Yanghuo’s most famous dish.”
(from Yangshuo Cooking School Cookbook)
Time: 20 minutes Serves: 4
- 3 T peanut or vegetable oil
- 24 oz (1.5 lbs) firm white fish, skin-on
- 2 tsp salt
- 2 tomato, chopped
- hot peppers to taste – the recipe calls for 2 red chiles and 2 green chiles
- about 1 inch of peeled fresh ginger root, sliced into matchsticks
- 8 cloves of garlic, crushed
- 4 T soy sauce
- 8 oz beer
- 1 T oyster sauce
- 1/4 cup thinly sliced green onion
Heat wok on medium flame. Add oil and heat until smoking.
Place fish in wok skin side down, salt the fish, and cook on each side for 3 minutes or so until skin is brown. If you use skinless fish, that’s fine too.
Put the tomato, chiles if using, garlic, and ginger on top of the fish.
Pour on soy sauce, oyster sauce, and beer – it will broth and bubble.
Cover and cook for 5 minutes, then remove lid and allow liquid to reduce for another few minutes.
Serve sprinkled with green onions, with white rice (of course).
- 1lb eggplant, sliced into strips so that each strip has some skin on it
- 4 T peanut or vegetable oil
- 1-2 red chili, or to taste, sliced
- about 1 inch peeled fresh ginger root, sliced into matchsticks
- 8 cloves garlic, crushed and chopped
- 2 tsp salt
- 2 T oyster sauce
- 2 T water
- 6 spring onions, sliced
Heat wok; add oil and heat until smoking.
Add eggplant, and salt it. Cook eggplant until it turns a caramel brown color. Use your spatula to press the eggplant constantly, squishing out as much water as you can. Now, the thing about eggplant is that it will soak up as much oil as you put in the pan, so you really need the eggplants juices to come out to keep it from sticking to the wok. Resist the urge to put in more oil! If I had one complaint about some of the dishes I ate, it is that they were swimming in oil (only sometimes.)
Move eggplant to side of wok, reduce heat, and fry garlic, ginger, and red pepper for 1 minute.
Mix everything together and add water and oyster sauce. Cook for a few minutes until sauce reduces and thickens slightly.
Serve sprinkled with green onions. This goes great with the beer fish, above, and of course white rice.
Like this recipe? you might also like my Cashew Chicken from the same cooking class!