The problem with Chinese cooking is that there are just no clear-cut recipes out there. Open up any Chinese language cookbook and you see under the ingredient section phrases such as “a little bit of salt”, “the appropriate amount of cooking wine” etc. How am I to know how much is “a little bit” and exactly what is “the appropriate amount”?!! If you are like me, who’s never had to cook while living at home, hence missing out on the opportunity to learn from your parents, you are doomed. And that is exactly why my entire repertoire of Chinese dishes is made up mainly of stir-fried green vegetables, the only dish my dad hand-taught me when I was little.
So why would I attempt to make a Chinese dinner? It all started when I went grocery shopping on the day that typhoon #23 made landfall in Japan and saw Chinese chives on sale, 2 bunches for 99yen (a bargain in Tokyo). I thought, I know how to make stir-fried egg and chives. So I bought two bunches. Come Saturday, I realized that stir-fried eggs and chives a meal does not make. I have to come up with a meat dish. Stupid me, who had to ask for my husband’s opinion, to which he gladly offered, “Can you make some tang-cu-xiao-pai (sweet and sour spare ribs)?” Great, he had to pick the one dish with the difficult sauce, which most of the Shanghainese restaurants in Tokyo couldn’t even get right. But he’s worked very hard all week, and just twisted his knee running with our dog, Libby, so I thought I should indulge him a bit. I drew the line, however, when he asked if we could have a soup to go with it. Do I look like iron chef?
So out came the Chinese cookbook that a friend of mine brought back for me from China years ago. Low and behold, there’s the recipe. But wait, under ingredients for sauce, it only listed what’s needed, with no amount whatsoever, like I am supposed to know intuitively how much to add. And to top it off, the spare ribs had to be deep-fried first. Did anyone know this? As if to highlight my inadequacy at making Chinese food, all I have in my kitchen is olive oil, so I had to run to the grocery store again to buy vegetable oil. But I am the proud owner of a tampura frying pot, complete with thermometer to test oil temperature (bought two years ago, and never been used). Why would someone who has never deep-fried anything own a tempura frying pot? Well, I am a firm believer that you first have to have the right instrument before you can make anything.
So after three trips to the grocery store, I am finally ready to cook. Three earthquakes later (richter scale 6.9, 200 some km northwest of Tokyo), and a minor panic over not knowing when the ribs were done, Dinner is Served!
Doesn't look too bad, huh? But as it turned out, I still didn’t fry the ribs long enough to give it the right texture. And I have to confess that I was so discouraged by the vague instructions in the recipe that I cheated and bought a sauce package. Jason’s comment, “No wonder it doesn’t taste right.” Ha, at least now I can blame it on the store-bought sauce.