China, the most populous country in the world, has always faced the problem of having enough food for its people. Eating is, therefore, a serious business and one of the joys of life.

Chinese cooking may be one of the world's most diverse and exotic cuisines, yet as much as three-quarters of the food for China's population is rice or other grains and the remaining one-quarter is mostly vegetables. Cows are scarce, resulting in little milk, butter or cheese. And beef is also in short supply. Pork and poultry are a more frequent speciality.

Chinese cooks create their masterpieces in simple kitchens that have not changed much over the years. The cooking apparatus in a typical kitchen is a large steel wok heated with gas. The wok can be used for stir-frying, steaming or deep-frying.

In restaurants and many homes in China, you are greeted at the table with hot scented towels for your face and hands. There is no one main dish. Instead, three or four dishes of the same importance are served together. Meals are always family-style, which means dishes of food are placed on the table so you can help yourself.

To begin, take a small porcelain bowl of rice in one hand. With chopsticks, transfer pieces of meat or vetables from the serving dishes to your rice. Then, raising the bowl halfway between the table and your mouth, scoop up the food with your chopsticks. Knives or forks are not necessary because food is chopped into bite-sized pieces before cooking.

The more you try Chinese recipes, you'll see that about 90 percent of the preparation time is getting foods ready to cook. Since the Chinese do not use knives and forks at the table, all necessary cutting is done ahead of time, usually before the cooking. Everything must be bite-sized so that they will cook uniformly and so they can be picked up with chopsticks.

Sauces are prepared and meats are marinated before cooking begins. Becuase cooking time is usually very brief, all ingredients must be within arm's reach before you begin to stir-fry or deep-fry.

Utensils:

Although the wok is centuries old, it is a beautifully designed and state-of-the-art utensil. It's round shape makes it perfect for stir-frying, deep-frying or steaming. The standard wok is 14-inches in diameter.

The best wok is made of steel. It has a slightly flat bottom so it can be used on either a gas stove or an electric stove. Some woks have two metal handles, others have one long wooden handle.

A domed lid to cover your wok is helpful for cooking dishes requiring long steaming.

The wok spatula is a long-handle tool used for tossing, mixing and stirring food in a wok. Many wok sets include a spatula. It is shaped to scoop and left food from the sides and bottom of the wok. A regular spatula or wooden spoon is not as efficient for stir-frying.

When deep-frying, a long-handle slotted spoon is helpful for lowering food into the oil and for removing the cooked food from the oil and draining it over the wok.

Bamboo steamers are used singly or stacked in tiers and placed over boiling water in a wok. The sloping sides of the wok support the bottom steamer so it is not istting in the boiling water. The steamer bottoms are loosely woven to let steam rise to the next tray. A lid on the top steamer prevents steam from escaping.

Food to be cooked can be placed directly in the steamer, as when steaming buns. Or it can be placed in a baking dish and then in the steamer, as when steaming chicken. When steaming in a baking dish, place the baking dish on a rack in the bottom of the wok or pot. The rack should fit in the wok or put so it is at least 2-inches above the boiling water.

After each use, rinse bamboo steamers and the lid. Shake off excess water and air-dry them.

Cooking Methods:

Stir-Frying - The most common cooking method is stir-frying. The Chinese word chow literally means toss-cooking, and that's exactly what happens. Food is lifted up from the surface of the wok and dropped back in with a tossing movement of the spatula. You can stir-fry a few tablespoons of oil or in a cup of oil.

It is important to heat the wok before adding the oil. Then heat the oil before adding the food. If you don't, the stir-fried vegetables will not be crisp-tender.

Stir-fry in appropriate order so nothing will be overcooked or underdone. Long-cooking vegetables (such as carrots) are added before quick-cooking ones (such as bean sprouts). Have all ingredients prepared and within reach before you heat the oil. Once you begin stir-frying, you won't have time to cut and chop.

Deep-Frying - Oil for deep-frying must be at the temperature specified in the recipe. If oil is not hot enough, the food will absorb it and be soggy and greasy. If oil is too hot, food will brown quickly but won't be cooked inside.

Using a deep-frying thermometer is the most accurate method for determining oil temperature.

Oil used to deep-fry can be recycled many times. Let it cool in the wok, then strain it into a large bottor or jar with a tight-fitting lid and refrigerate it. To remove any odor from recycled oil, heat it to 375-degrees. Deep-fry 2 or 3 slices of ginger root until golden. Discard the ginger, strain the oil if necessary and refrigerate it. Cold oil solidifies. Let it stand 20 to 30 minutes at room temperature and it will be come fluid. If oil becomes too dark, don't use it. Dark coloring indicates oil has deteriorated and may be rancid.

A couple tips when deep-frying ...

** Oil level should not be over half the depth of the wok.
** Dry food before lowering it inot the hot oil. Oil & water don't mix!
** Don't drop food into hot oil, lower it gently with a spatula or tongs.
** Deep-fry in a flat-bottom wok. A curve-bottom wok might tip the hot oil over!

Steaming - Use enough water in the bottom of the wok to come at least 2-inches below the first teamer tier. Bring water to a rolling boil. Place the steamer tray over the rapidly boiling water and steam over hihg heat according to the recipe directions. Just don't let the water boil away if the steaming time is long. Add more boiling water to maintain the water level.

While food is steaming, do not lift the lid from the steamer tray. If steam escapes from the tray, the cooking process will stop.

When the steaming time is over, carefully remove the wok from the heat. Let it cool slightly. Then stand back and slowly remove the lid from the wok or steamer tray. Steam causes very bad burns!

A Little About Rice - The Chinese use long-grain or short-grain white rice to make the steamed rice which is served with all their meals. To make a perfect pot of steamed rice, use a saucepan with a tight-fitting lid. The saucepan should be large enough to let the rice expand during cooking, but not so large that the rice becomes a crust on the bottom of the pan. Leftover steamed rice is the basis for fried rice. Cold day-old rice works best.

A Little About Soy Sauce - Most soy sauces are made from soybeans, flour, salt and water. The most common are black soy sauce and thin soy sauce. Black or dark soy sauce contains caramel and sugar, so it has a slightly sweet taste and is darker and thicker than thin soy sauce. Thin or light soy sauce is saltier than black soy sauce. Because of its saltiness, you don't need to add extra salt when you use it. Most supermarkets do not carry either black or thin soy sauce. They are available in Oriental food stores. Keep opened bottles of soy sauce tightly closed and refrigerated to help retain the flavor. Because soy sauce can lose its flavor fairly quickly, it's best to buy it in small bottles unless you use it on a daily basis.

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Graphics by Cheddar Bay