Just about every chef says the secret to the deliciousness they serve is using fresh ingredients. They lie.
Cooking well is more than just relying on fresh produce. It’s about the mastery of techniques – even for the simplest of dishes. And when it comes to the ways of the Chinese kitchen, there is much that can only be learnt through experience.
“Chinese cuisine is the toughest to learn,” says Tóng Lè Private Dining’s senior executive chef Ken Ling. “A lot of things are gauged by feel. You either know or you don’t.”
The veteran with an illustrious career spanning more than three decades might be famed for the modern fine dining offerings he has created for the likes of Club Chinois and TungLok Heen, but his innovation is based on traditional Chinese cooking techniques. And there are unknown intricacies behind every cooking process.
Take stir-frying. “The first step is what we call shaohong — heating the wok over high heat until it is red hot. Literally. The wok base has to really turn red. Then to the hot wok you pour cold oil and quickly coat it – this allows the ingredients to not stick to the wok while stir-frying. This oil is then poured out. Only then do you start stir-frying,” shares Ling.
For the abalone served at Tóng Lè, Ling first stir-fries the seasoning ingredients until fragrant, in a process known as baoxiang. Then he adds abalone slices – first blanched in hot oil – and tosses them in the wok for about 30 seconds. When the dish is almost done, he allows the ingredients to rest in the wok for two to three seconds.
The ingredients are then flipped and allowed to sizzle on the hot surface again. “This step, which we call latwok in Cantonese, is the last and most important step,” reveals Ling. “This is how a dish gets its wok hei – the wok’s breath.”
And you thought you did a mean stir-fry at home.
Then there is deep-frying. If you thought that is just about submerging food in a vat of bubbling hot oil until it is cooked to a crisp, think again. “For a dish like sweet and sour pork or deep-fried prawns in spiced salt, we would fry the ingredients in warm oil until it is cooked.
Then at the last stage, the flame is turned up for a process called biyou – the heat draws the oil out from the food, making it crisp yet less greasy. But you have to be really quick, because this process also draws moisture out and the food could be burnt.”
A talented amateur cook might have a glimmer of hope in mastering stir-fries or deep-frying. But there are also high-calibre techniques that come with a hazard warning.
Ling’s signature party trick: shaoyou. He first heats two litres of oil to a minimum temperature of 270°C. A steamed, butterflied white sultan fish is laid flat, and Ling pours hot oil over it with such speed and accuracy that the entire fish is covered without getting overcooked. This process is repeated three times: first to flare the fish scales, second to crisp them up, and finally to give it a golden hue. “The challenge is doing it in two to three seconds for each pour of oil, but with precision,” says Ling.
“And please, don’t try this at home.”