Welcome to the Clever Cookstr, your ultimate window into the kitchens of the world's best cooks.
Joining us today is Diana Kuan, chef and author of The Chinese Takeout Cookbook: Quick and Easy Dishes to Prepare at Home.
Clever Cookstr: Thanks for being with us Diana. Can you tell us a bit about about your family's history in the food business and how you got involved in recipe writing and cooking education?
Diana Kuan: It dates back a really long time. My family moved from China to Puerto Rico when I was about 5 years old in the late 1980s. My parents worked at a restaurant that my aunt and uncle owned. It was a Chinese restaurant/ice cream parlor.
It was their first impression of Chinese food seen through Western lenses. It was a lot of fried foods, foods that were much sweeter than what we were used to, but really good at the same time. After we moved to Boston, my parents worked with our extended family in restaurants for a while before my dad opened a Chinese bakery. I guess it was eye-opening to see that you could create a career around food.
So I went to college in Boston for art history and about a year after I graduated I moved to New York City for culinary school.
CC: And when did you come up with the idea for the cookbook?
DK: It was about 4 years ago. I had recently moved back to New York after spending some time in China, and I read a book called The Fortune Cookie Chronicles by Jennifer 8. Lee. That book is a narrative non-fiction exploration of the culture of Chinese food in America, and there was a lot of history on takeout containers and menus, General Tso's chicken, Chinese immigrants and how they came to work in all these small towns around the country.
I found that book really fascinating and when I was reading it, I thought, "I'm getting hungry...I wish there were recipes in this book!" But there weren't. So I thought it would be cool to do a book specifically celebrating Chinese food in the U.S.
CC: It's really interesting to take a look at these foods that people love, that they order every week, that they always think of as being outside the home, and helping them bring those foods into their own kitchens. It's a challenge. So Diana, what are a few pantry/fridge items folks should always keep on hand for quick takeout-style meals after work? What are the shortcuts you should have all the time?
DK: Soy sauce, Asian sesame oil, either a Chinese rice wine or dry sherry, and hoisin sauce. If you like spicy food, be sure to have some chili sauce or Sriracha, and some tahini sesame paste. You can make some fantastic stir-fries with just those few ingredients.
CC: When I was growing up my mom cooked with sesame oil often, and the trick was always that you only needed a little bit. The flavor comes through, so if you're making a bigger stir-fry you can use a base of vegetable or canola oil and then add a little sesame oil for flavor. Is that right?
DK: Sesame oil is always used as a flavor enhancer. You shouldn't use it as a cooking oil because it has a really low smoke point. Just a little bit goes a long way.
CC: So what do you use these items to make?
CC: And if there's an ingredient that you can't find in your local grocery store, is there a more common substitute that you'd recommend for any of these items?
DK: Chinese rice wine is not a very common ingredient in grocery stores, but you can just use a dry sherry as a substitute. If you can't find Chinese wheat or egg noodles, I have found that spaghetti is a great substitute for things like dan dan noodles or cold sesame noodles. A lot of times my recipes call for Chinese black vinegar, which is this great aged rice vinegar, but you can always use a good balsamic vinegar as a substitute.