Chinese cuisine has more than two thousand years of continually recorded history and development. The earliest surviving recipe dates from the Western Han period 西汉 in 200BC. Despite the styles and tastes that developed regionally, there are techniques which have been passed down from ancient times that all Chinese chefs have to master before being allowed to practice their trade.
In total, these are the twenty nine (or more) basic skills of a Chinese chef:
炒, 煎, 贴, 烹, 炸, 溜, 煸, 熬, 烩, 焖, 烧, 酥, 扒, 汆, 涮, 煮, 炖, 煨, 焐, 蒸, 滷, 醬, 熏, 烤, 炝, 腌, 拌, 拔丝, 焗.
Today’s western cuisine is full of show-offs, book deals, TV appearances and Michelin star rankings. All these cannot be compared to the decades of hard work and toil by a humble Chinese chef who starts as an apprentice and may only practice after more than a decade of learning.
One of the techniques that I am going to teach you today, is Shao 烧.
There are first several similar techniques you should be aware of:
- Hui 烩: After stir-frying, you add a bit of water to moisten the ingredients and then stir in cornstarch to thicken the sauce.
- Men 焖: You add stock or water to your ingredients in a pot over low fire, cover it and let it cook over a long period of time. ‘Men’ is further divided into seven categories (原焖，炸焖，爆焖，煎焖，生焖，熟焖，油焖). It is often badly translated into ‘stew’.
- Su 酥: You add dark vinegar, sugar and sesame oil to the ingredients and let it ’men’ (see above). Hard ’su’ 硬酥 means the ingredients first have to be stir-fried in oil beforehand, while soft ’su’ 软酥 means the ingredients were raw. This differs from ’men’ because of the taste produced by the vinegar and sugar.
Similar but different, the technique I am teaching you today is Shao 烧. Shao means you first stir-fry or fry your ingredients over very hot fire, add in your condiments and stock (or water), turn the fire to low to let everything simmer, then increase the fire again to reduce the liquid level of the dish. The key is you have to be very fast when the fire is on high heat. There is no thickening of sauce like in Hui 烩. There is no hours-long stewing like in Men 焖 or Su 酥. ‘Shao’ is badly translated into ‘braise’.
Shao is further divided into:
- Red ’Shao’ 红烧: The condiments are sugar and dark soy sauce, so as to overpower the taste of the ingredients
- White ’Shao’ 白烧: The condiments are light soy sauce and other very light flavoured spices to retain the taste of the ingredients
- Yellow ’Shao’ 黄烧: The use of saffron or orange peels as condiments.
- Sauce ’Shao’ 酱烧: The use of sauces like dark or light soy bean paste (miso in Japanese).
- Dry ’Shao’ 乾烧: Used almost exclusively in Sichuan cuisine, the liquid level has to completely disappear at the end and hot chilli oil is added before serving.
- Onion ’Shao’ 葱烧: You stir-fry shallots or onions, and other condiments before returning the (already fried) ingredients to the wok. “Onion ’Shao’ sea cucumber” 葱烧海参 is the most famous dish of the Lu cuisine 鲁菜 from northeast China.
Today’s dish is Braised fishhead, using the white ’Shao’ technique.
- 500g fish head or (collar bones which I have used)
- 3 cloves garlic, minced
- 300g Suan Cai (pickled mustard leaves) 酸菜, sliced
- 5cm ginger, sliced
- 4-5 small tomatoes, quartered
- 5-6 fresh Thai chilies, chopped
- 5 tbs light soy sauce 生抽
- 2 tbs sugar
- 400ml water
- 200ml vegetable oil
- Salt and pepper to taste
Servings: 2 persons
- Wash and dry your fish bones. Marinate lightly with salt and pepper.
- Heat up your wok with oil on high heat and fry your fish bones. Fry it on all sides until it is all brown.
- Take them out and put aside.
- Add in your ginger, garlic, chilies and Suan Cai and stir-fry those until the fragrance is released.
- Return the fried fish bones to the wok and mix well.
- Add in light soy sauce and sugar and stir fry until it is very slightly charred.
- Quickly add in the water and the tomatoes, cover the wok and put it on low heat for 10 minutes.
- Open the wok and mix everything well then turn on the heat again to reduce the liquid level until it covering only one-third of the ingredients.
- Serve it on a dish while piping hot, with a dash of pepper. It goes very well with steamed white rice.