Baltimore has its share of great restaurants, but Chinese restaurants are few and far between. As someone who is used to the vibrant Chinese food scene in Boston and its large Chinatown, this is not an ideal situation. Before moving to Baltimore, I had grown accustomed to Chinese restaurants around every corner, ranging from spicy Sichuan places to hotpot locales to classic college late-night hangout spots.
Necessity is the mother of invention, and upon coming to Baltimore I decided to teach myself how to cook Chinese dishes. This was a bit of a challenge. I had many years of cooking under my belt as a child of two working parents, but my cooking expertise was very unbalanced. My area of expertise was Korean cuisine. I had learned directly from watching my mother in the kitchen, and I could make all the most common dishes and some of the more unusual ones. My favorite was setting up my own Korean barbeque for Thanksgiving. However, in all other cuisines I was very lost. For example, I had no idea how to make pasta for a long time until the empty shelves of the early pandemic grocery shortage left me with no choice but to try making some simple spaghetti. The very first batch was certainly very “al dente.”
Part of why I enjoy cooking is that each cuisine has its own chemistry in putting ingredients together. To learn a new dish is to figure out its inherent logic — how each ingredient is prepared and cooked. There are infinite ways that a set of ingredients can be combined into a dish, each method accentuating different flavors. A formidable challenge is to figure out how each ingredient plays a role in the completed dish. Since each ingredient cannot be separated from the whole, it can be very difficult to discern how it contributes to a meal’s overall flavor. Also, different cuisines may emphasize different sides of similar ingredients. For example, many Korean dishes have soups with a strong broth from fermented foods (miso soup), gelatinous plants (seaweed soup), or meat parts to provide richness (bone marrow soup). The trick is the long stew time to accentuate the flavor. Learning the logic of a new cuisine can require copious trial and error.
The first dish I attempted was mapo tofu, a spicy Sichuan dish I had first tasted when I was in Xi’an, China. The very first issue was getting ahold of the proper ingredients. It can be a bit daunting to decide what to buy at an unfamiliar section of the grocery store. Sichuan peppercorn, which gives a spicy, tingling flavor, was certainly tricky to find. The second challenge was learning a new technique: how to prepare chili oil, a key ingredient made by frying spices in oil, giving a very aromatic taste. There was a bit of trial and error at this stage. Too little oil, and I had learned how to make tear gas in the kitchen. Too much heat, and I had burned the spices to bitter crisps. With these high hurdles cleared, I could reliably make my own mapo tofu.
As I’ve settled into Baltimore over the years, I have learned to make other Chinese dishes, such as Yuxiang eggplant, dry-fried string beans and pork dumplings. I had my share of great dishes and some very poor improvisations, one involving anchovies and eggplant. There will be always new challenges as I continue my culinary adventures — at least until a good Chinese restaurant opens on my street.
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