A guide to Chinese food
Chinese food for beginners
When I think of Chinese food, I think of this little walk-in hole in the wall carry-out place back where I used to live in college. It was a nondescript, ordinary looking place called China Star. It had just about any kind of dish you could think of on the menu, listed in fine print under category headers like Poultry, Pork, Beef, Seafood, Appetizers, Specials. It was the specials that I was attracted to - what the heck was "Happy Family" anyway? Over time and with lots of experience, I found out what that was, and most of the other dishes on the menu besides. I became a Chinese food connoisseur, and I've never stopped loving the stuff - I learned what Chinese food is all about.
The thing to remember about Chinese food is that there are really only a few different basic ingredients, in a few different sauces, and accompanied by a few different kinds of rice and noodles. The appetizers are a whole other world, but there aren't that many of them, and the menus are easily understood once you grasp the concept. One of the best ways to learn about Chinese food is to get a cookbook that takes you through recipes and cooking methods. But maybe cooking isn't your thing, and you just want to learn about the food by visiting a Chinese restaurant.
I've seen inexperienced people sit down with the menu in their hands and start studying it like it was holy writ, and still have a puzzled look on their faces when they try to order. And don't expect the person taking your order to clarify - usually they are native Chinese speakers with a limited command of English, so they will just nod their heads at anything you say. Or they can be seen standing in front of the steam table at a buffet looking at the dish description, trying to figure out what the name "General Tso" has to do with the deep fried pieces of chicken swimming in a spicy, sweet, heavy sauce.Credit: PDClipart.org
The different meats (or lack of them) is the place to start - pretty self-evidently beef, pork, chicken, seafood, and none. Then there are the types of sauces, usually tied to places in China - Szechuan, Hunan, Kung-Pao, Cantonese (Chow Mein and Chop Suey) and so on. All you have to know is this: if you like hot spicy foods, go for the Szechuan or the Hunan dishes. These will invariably contain the meat, veggies such as
carrots, broccoli, celery, Chinese cabbage, and onion, all of it in a slightly sweet, hot brown sauce. Kung-pao dishes are small cubes of the meat, carrots, celery and bamboo shoots, and peanuts, all in a savory hot brown sauce. Cantonese dishes are the mild ones with white sauces and bean sprouts - like the Chinese food that comes in a can. If you don't like spicy, these are the way to go.
Americans like to put the main dish (the Hunan beef and broccoli, for example) on top of something, kind of like gravy on mashed potatoes. This is not done in China, of course, but it doesn't really matter: we like our Chinese food on top of white rice, fried rice, lo mein (fat brown noodles), or chow mein (crispy fried noodles - again, like you get in canned Chinese food at the supermarket).
So, to sum up, decide what you like for a meat - beef, chicken, shrimp, pork, etc. (By the way, if you like them all, "Happy Family" is a mild brown sauce dish with all the types of meat included!) Then decide if you like spicy, sweet, hot and sweet, or light and bland. Then choose a base to put it on, based on your culinary preferences, then pick a couple of appetizers - you can't go wrong in Chinese food with egg rolls. Above all, don't be afraid to experiment and try new dishes - that's why a buffet is a great place to learn about and enjoy Chinese food. Once you have found a favorite dish or two, you can order Chinese food with confidence from the carry-out joint on the corner.