Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Sesame Ginger Chicken & Chinese pantry list

I've been wanting to make Chinese food at home, just like the ones I had in Chinese restaurants as a child in Saudi Arabia. My first attempt was a Szechuan chicken recipe, because the hubby and I like spicy food. After hunting down the main ingredient for the heat - sichuan peppercorns, aka prickly ash from a chinese grocery store, I was all excited about trying this recipe from another blog, which I shall not name. It called for 2 tablespoons of the peppercorns. After toiling in the kitchen for a few hours, we finally sit down to eat. First bite, we felt it was way too sour. And then the sensation, started to come in. This is not heat that we're familiar with, such as in hot chillies. This was a very wierd feeling that we've never felt before. It has a very numbing effect, a very prickly tingling sensation - I can't really describe it. But we just couldn't take another bite. The whole thing went straight into the trash - this is very rare in my house! The first time since I've moved to the US. For a while I did not have the confidence to try cooking Chinese again, because it felt too foreign to me. Now I'm stuck with a huge bag of those sichuan peppercorns, and have no idea what to do with it. I don't have the heart to throw it out, but I guess I will eventually.
Few months later, I was watching the cooking channel on a weekend, and decided to try another Chinese chicken dish, but doesn't call for peppercorns. It's called the sesame ginger chicken, and this one turned out to be amazing! I stocked up on the essential ingredients for Chinese food.

Here is a list of must-have ingredients in your pantry if you want to get started on Chinese food:
  1. Low sodium soy sauce: I used to buy regular soy sauce before, but I feel the low sodium ones are better in making chinese stir-frys. The regular one is much more salty and strong - maybe good to use a few drops in soups.
  2. Toasted sesame oil: When I used to make fried rice or noodles, I used regular sesame oil that you would get in Indian grocery stores. Turns out "toasted" sesame oil, makes all the difference, and give the food that unique "Chinese restaurant" aroma. I bought a bottle that had hot peppers infused in it. I used the exact amount in this recipe and it wasn't hot at all, at least not by Indian standards - not even a small tingling sensation on the tongue for me.
  3. Rice wine: I bought a cooking rice wine from the asian aisle in my local supermarket.
  4. Rice vinegar: Many recipes call for rice vinegar, including many stir-frys. Do not confuse it with rice wine (at least I tend to).
  5. Hoisin sauce: This is a sweet Chinese barbecue sauce. Again, tastes amazing in a lot of recipes, including noodles.
  6. Sweet chili sauce: This is a great dip on its own with spring rolls, but it also adds a nice sweetness to many Chinese dishes.
  7. 5 spice powder:  This would be like the Chinese "Garam masala", and like garam masala - the spices can vary in each household. The one I got contains cinnamon, star anise, fennel, ginger, cloves, white pepper and licorice root. So it's definitely more than 5 spices, but that's the name they give it. Other versions can also contain Sichuan peppercorns, but thankfully mine doesn't.
  8. Oyster sauce: This is made from real oysters, and it gives a very pungent smell. Another sauce similar to this is Fish sauce. Many people use it directly in soups, or in dipping sauces. I'm still not that bold, and would rather use it within the cooking process, because the smell is too strong for me. Whenever I see oyster or fish sauce, I always recall the first time my sister opened up my bottle of fish sauce and took a whiff of it. Her face contorted and she wailed "Cheeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee!!" and placed the bottle as far away as possible from her. I will never forget what she said next: "Why would you use such a stinky ingredient in your food? This smells like somebody's underwear used for 5 days and then left to rot!". My eyes are rolling with tears and I still can't stop laughing as I type this. Maybe after you read this, you won't feel like buying this, but if you use the same amount as the recipe asks for, it will taste good, I swear. Also, I think oyster sauce is a lot less pungent than fish sauce (which uses fermented fish).
  9. Sambal Oelek: This is a ground chili paste (different varieties of chillies). In the US, you will only find that of the brand Huyfong (it has the rooster symbol on it). The same brand also makes a chili-garlic paste. I sometimes use that too. I guess you can use any red chili paste you can find in your local store.
  10. White pepper: This is more milder than black pepper. If you can't find it, you can substitute with regular black pepper.

Now onto the recipe.
Credit: Kelsey's Sesame Ginger Chicken
Click here to watch the video of the same recipe.

2 1/2 pounds boneless, skinless chicken thighs, cut into 1-inch cubes
6 tablespoons toasted sesame oil (i used chili flavored)
2 1/2 tablespoons sugar
2 tablespoons soy sauce
1 teaspoon cracked black pepper

1 cup plus 2 tablespoons cornstarch
Vegetable oil for deep-frying
2 tablespoons minced garlic
1 tablespoon minced ginger
1 green bell pepper, cut into small pieces (optional)
4 tablespoons Chinese Shoaxing rice wine
2 tablespoons hoisin sauce
2 tablespoons oyster sauce
2 tablespoons low-sodium soy sauce
1 1/2 tablespoons honey
1 tablespoon sambal chili sauce
1 tablespoon Thai chili sauce
1 lemon, zest and juice
Toasted sesame seeds, for garnish
Scallions (spring onions), thinly sliced on an angle, for garnish
Fried Rice, for serving (or steamed rice)

For the chicken marinade: In a mixing bowl, combine the chicken with the sesame oil, sugar, soy sauce and pepper. Toss to coat, cover, place in the refrigerator and let sit 1 hour.

For the stir-fry: Remove the chicken from the fridge. Add 1 cup cornstarch to a shallow baking dish and dredge each piece of chicken, shaking off any excess.

Fill a Dutch oven or wok with enough oil to completely submerge the chicken pieces. Heat over high heat until glossy and the temperature reaches 375 degrees F. Deep fry the chicken until golden brown, about 3 minutes, adding your chicken in batches to avoid overcrowding and to keep your oil from dropping in temp too much. Remove to a paper towel-lined plate.

In a large saute pan, heat 1 tablespoon oil over medium heat. Add the garlic and ginger and cook until golden brown and fragrant, about 30 seconds. Add bell pepper (capsicum) if desired and saute for a two minutes. Next, add the rice wine, hoisin, oyster sauce, soy sauce, honey and the chili sauces; bring to a simmer.

In a glass measuring cup, mix the remaining 2 tablespoons cornstarch with 3/4 cup very cold water (make sure you water is cold to avoid lumps!), whisking until combined. Add the mixture to the sauce and simmer for an additional minute, until the sauce thickens. Adjust seasoning to taste.

Add in the fried chicken and toss to coat with the sauce. Add the lemon zest and juice. Garnish with toasted sesame seeds and scallions.

1. Toasting sesame seeds:
Heat a small pan on low-medium heat. Put around 2 tbsp of white sesame seeds and constantly toss so that the toasting happens evenly. Stop when it turns golden brown and transfer to a cool plate.

2. Original recipe called for only 1/4 cup of water to add with cornstarch to the sauce. That will make the sauce too thick to just coat the chicken pieces, and it will be very dry (good as an appetizer). I needed some more gravy (side with fried rice), so I added about a cup of water. You can adjust as per your liking.

3. I had half a bell pepper in my fridge, so I tossed it into the chicken. This is often used in most Chinese stir frys. Original recipe does not call for it.