To possess the services of a good Chinese Chef in one's home is like having a prima donna in close vicinity. He includes all the talents of a connoisseur with the knowledge of a herb doctor, the sensitivity of a mother-in-law, and the benevolence of a clucking hen.
He once held the title of Dai Si Mo which means "Grand Charge of Cuisine Affairs" and through the ages his title has grown in dignity and expanded to Dai Si Fu which identifies him as the "Grand Maestro of the Culinary Arts". Being a Dai Si Fu, he must be handled with the diplomacy and gentleness learned through time and experience.
No Dai Si Fu will remain in your home unless he loves you: and lucky and envied are those blessed with his solicitous attentions over the satisfaction of the stomach and health through the delicacies of his works of art and the science of leung-hay and yeet-hay (cool and hot chi force).
DOREEN YEN HUNG FENG
The Joy of Chinese Cooking, 1952
Ah Lung was a little girl when my family purchased her. It was the tradition for poor Chinese families with no money for a dowry to sell their daughters into service for life. In return for a new life in the household of a wealthy family, they worked as servants until they were old and many who never married were cared for by their employers until they died. Ah Lung died of cancer in the care of my grandparents in the nineteen seventies.
Little girls often started in the kitchens of the great Chinese houses and moved on to other tasks such as being maids as they grew. Ah Lung had been in the service of our extended family when my father was born and was chosen to be his nanny.
Becoming the nanny of a 'number one son' would have raised her standing in the hierachy of the household retinue and was a commendation of her skill. At that time she was probably around the same age as my grandmother, who had come to Hong Kong from Vietnam to find a husband. While my grandmother revelled in her new found life as a married woman in a sophisticated and modern family of influence, in a cosmopolitan city of the nineteen thirties, Ah Lung spoilt my father rotten.
My father is a stubbornly obstreperous character at times, and like a little Emperor he took advantage of her nurturing and kind heart. While my aunts and uncle dined together at the nursery table, his majesty was allowed to sit in his red pedal car and was fed mouthfuls of his favourite dishes.
My uncle - his younger brother - also had a personal nanny and their sisters shared another. I don't know anything of the other servants, but when my father's generation had left home and my grandparents downsized to just the one home on Hong Kong Island, Ah Lung became their housekeeper and Dai Si Fu chef.
By the time I arrived in the family Ah Lung had a gold tooth, a gappy smile and was deaf. In fact Ah Lung - pronounced ah-loong - 'deaf one' was her nickname, but she was strong and wiry and as wrinkled as a steamed tofu skin roll.
Dressed in the traditional clothes of an Amah she wore a three quarter sleeved, fitted, starched white mandarin collared top, that sat wide, stiff and loose over her hips and wide black pants. Her greying hair was cut short to the neck and pulled back tightly from her face with a wiry alice band.
At three months old I was taken to Hong Kong for my Mun Yuet. This is the time when the birth of Chinese babies are celebrated and named. I believe the tradition began at the third month because infant mortality had always been very high in China, with many babies 'taken away by bad spirits' in the first months of their lives. Prior to the Mun Yuet party, babies were given pet animal names to confuse the spirits and many wore little hats with small pointed ears sewn on them to disguise the child as a small animal.
When my parents decided to stay in Hong Kong and not to return to Australia, Ah Lung and my grandmother became very much involved in my upbringing. In fact such was their influence, I didn't learn to speak English until several years later, when we moved to England. Respectfully in Cantonese, I called my carers Ma Ma and Lung Por. I loved and revered them both.
In spite of my mother arriving in Hong Kong unable to speak Cantonese, Ah Lung and Ma Ma patiently taught her a great deal about Chinese cooking and by default, me also in later years, as I watched my mother recreating their dishes in our kitchen and later, when giving Chinese cooking lessons in shopping malls and in our home.
Mum had a lot to learn, because with the exception of roasted meats and wind dried specialties, everything was made from scratch in the family kitchen with fresh food purchased in the wet markets every day.
As if by osmosis the notion of a healthy balance of elements, textures and herbs in cooking was taken in by us and because it is now second nature to me, I am often startled when these principles are not addressed by others in their Asian cooking. I earnestly try to live up to the legacy of their mastery and subconsciously even apply Confucian notions to western cookery. But memory is such a strong thing that I feel certain I fall short of their skills.
Today, in a time where households no longer have chefs and household servants, convenience is the driving force contributing to unnecessarily poor diets in the developed world, creating an obese population with all the medical complications that come along with it.
The same findings of poor nutrition and obesity resulting from a dependence on convenience foods have also begun to come out of China. In a country that has traditionally placed so much stock in the benefits of balanced eating with reference to herbal enhancement for well being - along with exercise through martial arts - western style convenience and apathy towards home cooking is emerging as a negative trend that is sadly mirroring the current malaise in the west.
While the Chinese turn their backs on centuries of tradition, in the west a few of us are looking back to restore the nurturing balance of days gone by and in one form this manifests as the Slow Food Movement.
Although there are people in the developed world who do not know a time when shopping was not done in the Supermarket - a time before packaged and processed convenience food became the norm - a number of us are taking stock of our habits and are questioning the notion of convenience, especially when it comes to the health of our families. What is the actual cost of packaged convenience in our lives? It saves us time and effort but is expensive per gram, not particularly delicious and loaded with synthetic additives that can impact negatively on the health of children. So in the long run is it really worthwhile to cut corners?
I - like many who claim that we are nuts about cooking and are agog about things gourmet - unconsciously used to reach for the convenience of a stock cube or vacuum pack of stock or veal jus. Although it is by no means one of the worst of convenience foods available, it is actually quite an insipid addition to meals.
While home made stock is the most simple and cheap of necessary items to have in the pantry, I used to put it in the 'too hard basket' and curiously turned a blind eye to the chemicals, stabilisers, flavours and colors in packaged stock that I would eschew in items such as packaged dressings and sauces. But I now realise that stock is the life blood of cooking; a fundamental.
If your dishes are to reach the dizzy heights of flavour, you have to be using a good stock. Once I turned the corner I found that this is what lifts home cooked meals above the fare cooked in some venues and I can picture Ah Lung laughing at me and calling me a silly girl, nodding knowingly with her wide gappy smile.
If you are passionate about cooking but not currently making your own stock or Bouillon - whether European or Asian - you are possibly, as the Chinese proverb says, "Riding a cow, looking for a horse". You're making do until you can afford - or can understand - better. Once you turn the corner, you just don't go back. And to be honest, I smacked myself in the forehead when I realised how cheap and easy it is to make. It is also convenient to have on hand and not difficult to store when you know how.
The Chinese Culinary Arts have recipes for a number of stocks. At their very basic, Chinese stocks are considered to be the life blood of good health, carrying the medicinal benefits of the same herbs and spices that ancient herbal medicines use as a base to eradicate toxins and to correct the balance of the life force.
The term 'Masterstock' is something that is now fashionably bandied about in the west, particularly in the Australian restaurant scene, but is not really understood in its correct form. Simply it is a basic meat based clear soup in which different meats have been poached. Then the solution is strained, boiled, added to and used over and over again.
Each time it is used to poach more meat, the flavour increases in pungency and it imparts a deep flavour to anything poached in it. In a restaurant the stock would be used every day for poaching and added to sauces. In a household this happens less often. There are two forms of traditional Masterstock. One is merely darker than the other, employing dark soy in the mix to create specifically richer dishes such as Red Braised recipes.
The use of Chinese Masterstock evolved from a technique known in Cantonese as 'Dunn'. This is steaming and double boiling. The meat involved is browned, then submerged with vegetables in a pot of stock, which itself is then placed into a shallow bath of boiling water and the lot is covered, producing steam. After some time, the ingredients are then removed and sometimes a little of the stock is thickened with cornstarch and served with the ingredients. The rest of the stock is then reserved for use on another occasion.
The older the stock - having been used multiple times - the tastier the result. For Malaysian buffs looking for the best Hai Nan Chicken Rice, you'll find that the best ones have always been poached in an old Masterstock - which you drink slightly diluted as a side dish. To round out the meal it is mixed with dark soy sauce and chilli for dipping and is used to cook the rice that is served with the chicken. Similarly it is used for Chinese Baak Jaam Gai (poached chicken), Yow Gai (Golden Oil Chicken) and See Yow Gai (Soy Sauce chicken).
Some people pass some of their stock down through the generations and a top Chinese restaurant will have a stock that predates the venue - which would have accompanied their first Dai Si Fu. My current batch is only approaching its third year, but if you taste a spoon of that and then a spoon of packaged stock, the difference is immediately evident. Masterstock is silky and rich. It has a sheen and a depth of texture as well as flavour. It makes all the difference to a sauce, a braise, a daube, a curry, a risotto or a paella and is fantastic simply served with fresh, fine egg noodles, torn lettuce and some won ton dumplings.
As with all things, the better the quality of your ingredients, the tastier the result. I choose to use free range, ethically raised local meat and locally sourced heritage vegetables because they taste significantly better and help to support other 'Aussie Battlers'. The intensity of the stock develops faster with these ingredients. I get the spices whole from my local Asian Grocer and suspend them in a muslin bag which can be bought there too. You can even buy the complete spice mix at some Asian Grocers.
My home made stock is cheap, dead easy to make and a wholesome convenience food. I keep it in sterilised glass jars with metal lids in the fridge and some of it becomes ice cubes that get tossed a couple at a time to season stir fries. At least one litre is kept frozen in reserve, to add to the next batch I make. If I poach meat in it I reserve that batch to use again too and it all goes into the pot when I make more of the basic stock.
The key to keeping your stock from going off is to keep the solution sterile. If you're not using it every day, once you have opened a jar of it you must boil the solution again before re-refridgerating, so as to rid it of micro-organisms. I just nuke mine in the microwave, replace the lid and allow it to cool and form a vacuum again before returning it to the fridge.
If you think you don't have time to make it, consider pulling it together before watching a DVD and let it simmer away while you relax. When the movie's finished, let it cool and then strain it. Heat again and bottle it. Simple stuff really.
Because I am a fuss-pot, I cook about a six litre batch over the course of a day. Usually after a saturday morning visit to the market, I start it in the pressure cooker and then remove the spice bag. Then I add the vegetables and simmer it down gradually, adding more water as it gets low, skimming along the way. Just before dinner, at the end of the process I remove the fresh herbs and vegies doing one last batch of water to simmer then switch it off and allow it to cool. After dinner I filter it twice through a Chux. But that's me. Mum does hers in a crockpot/slow cooker/electric congee maker from Hong Kong and leaves it alone.
Masterstock is not uniform in flavour, so my approach is adhoc now that I have an older potion. Depending on what is emerging as the dominant flavour over time I adjust the seasoning to taste. However if you want to start down this path, below the picture is the formal recipe that kick starts a Masterstock. Do you yourself a favour and revive a tradition.
Chinese Masterstock starter
In 3hrs it makes roughly 3 litres of stock
1.5kg Chicken carcasses (include necks and feet if you have them)
Optional - 650g pork spare ribs OR a 10cm square piece of pig or ham skin
For a vegetable version substitute the meat with:
500g bean sprouts
10 dried Shitake mushrooms
250ml Shaoxing Rice Wine
6 slices of ginger (if it's old, bruise it with the flat of a cleaver)
6 spring onions (scallions) tied in a knot, with the roots removed
2 large cloves garlic
100g rock sugar
3 tablespoon light soy sauce
4 or 5 litres of water
1 large carrot sliced in half vertically through the length
1 whole stick of celery
(Optional) a bunch of parsley stems (no leaves) tied with cooking twine
Placed in a muslin bag or a small cloth tied with string:
4 cardamon pods OR 2 large round brown cardamon
1 tspn fennel seeds
2 pieces of Cassia bark
2 star anise
1 piece of dried Mandarin peel
4 coriander roots
1 tsp Szechuan Peppercorns
Remove any excess fat from the meat and place in a stock pot with all the other ingredients. Bring to the boil and simmer for 20minutes before removing the spices, or do the same in a pressure cooker.
Cook over low heat for 2-3hours, occasionally skimming the surface - though you can leave this until the end. Taste the stock, if it is too weak reduce it further and then add back some water. Cool.
Line a colander/strainer with a fresh piece of Chux cloth or cheesecloth and place over a bowl to strain the solution. Repeat on returning it to the pot if there's still a lot of silt like residue sinking to the bottom.
Bring to the boil again and then bottle it or freeze in ice cube trays and then transfer the frozen stock cubes to a bag so you can grab a couple as you need them. Reserve some stock for the next time.
When you run low and need to make another batch, do exactly the same and add in the reserved stock. The Chinese ethic is to waste nothing, so the bones from the discarded carcasses feed my pets and some of the meat is made into rillettes or tossed into congee made with masterstock.