Help! My Chinese dishes are lacking

I am an avid cook, but I know when to admit one of my recipes is not up to par. It seems like this dish lacks a certain…something…that is present in restaurant versions of it. I wish I could articulate this better, but I suppose if I could then I wouldn’t be having this problem.

The dish in question is a fairly typical, generic Chinese stir-fry dish. The recipe I use is sort of an amalgamation of various Chinese stir-fry dishes I’ve found online.

First, I marinate the meat for a few hours in rice wine vinegar. When a few hours have passed, I preheat the pan and spray it lightly with cooking oil in an aerosol can. Then I toss the (diced) meat into the pan and stir it around. About halfway through, I add it a few tablespoons of soy sauce and continue stirring until the meat is nearly cooked all the way through. Then I add in the vegetables (towards the end here so that they stay crisp). I continue stirring and add powdered garlic, onion, ginger, and red pepper flakes, then another few tablespoons of soy sauce.

Now, I quite like this dish, but I think it could also be very much improved. It seems like the restaurant versions of kung pa/garlic chicken/broccoli stir fry/etc. all have something distinct that I am lacking. I want to say that this mystery ingredient(s) mellows the soy sauce a little, but I’m not sure if that’s the most accurate culinary term here.

I know this has been more than vague, but if you have any suggestions to offer, they’d be greatly appreciated.

I don’t have an answer, but I hope you don’t mind my piggybacking and giving your thread a little bump.

I have a similar issue with fried rice. I’ll marinate the meat, then stir-fry it in oil (I’ve tried various kinds), then throw in chopped onion, give it another minute or so and then dump in rice (I’ve used both freshly-made and cold), peas and carrots and some soy sauce. I then scramble an egg and mix it all together until it’s all heated through.

The taste is close to what I want but not quite, and there’s something off about the texture of the rice. It doesn’t stick together and it’s not as firm as the rice in restaurant fried rice. What kind of rice do they use, anyway? I’m using plain old long grain white rice.

Skip the rice wine vinegar marinade. Instead, pick up Easy Family Recipes from a Chinese American Childhood by Ken Hom. He’ll teach you how properly marinate and create fantastic Chinese meals.

I believe what you are missing is generous amounts of peanut oil. From my (non-Chinese) perspective, it is to Chinese food what olive oil is to Italian.

Ac’cent. AKA MSG. “Mellows the soy” or “like salty but not quite” is exactly the flavor that MSG imparts to a dish. It’s a flavor called umami, which is Japanese for 'Delicious", according to Kikkoman’s advertising. It’s being added, slowly, to textbooks as another taste we have tastebuds for, along with sweet, salty, sour and bitter. It’s caused by the presence of a chemical called glutamate, present in meats, nuts, char lines in grilled foods and the like. It tastes “savory”, for lack of a better term. The sodium in monosodium glutamate adds to that hint of salty taste, as well.

The soy sauce has some umami taste already in it, but to get the exaggerated taste of restaurant Chinese, the powder’s the way to go. Some restaurants claim no MSG is added, but they use yeast powder, bouillon or one of the dozens of other forms or names of foods which contain the umami flavored compound glutamate.

Except for a very very small portion of the population, glutamate and MSG have been cleared of the scare stories about it. More people get sensitivity reactions like headaches to the incense they burn in Chinese restaurants than the MSG in the food. There’s also a whole heapin’ helping of self-diagnosis and somatic reactions to MSG.

Another piggybacking question. I’ve never been able to figure out how to get the meat I make for stir-fry to be the same texture as I get in a Chinese restaurant. The restaurant meat is much softer, to the point where you can’t really determine a grain to it or really much texture at all. No matter how much I pound the chicken or pork or beef, it still has the texture of small, pounded-out pieces of chicken or pork or beef.

I agree with peanut oil, and I’d also suggest white pepper.

I’m seconding this. It’s the first thing I thought of when I read the title of the post. My only difference is that I use Maggi Seasoning instead of Ac’cent.

My suggestion is to alter your cooking methods a little:

Marinate the meat in a little bit of soy sauce and cornstarch. Heat the oil, then add your aromatic ingredients (garlic, ginger, chili peppers, etc.) for 10 seconds, then add your meat. When your meat is mostly done, take it out, add your vegetables and sauce (soy sauce, rice wine, sugar, salt, sesame oil), and cook for a few minutes. After, add your meat back, add thickener if needed, and reheat.

I recommend any of Martin Yan’s (of Yan Can Cook) books. For all his showmanship, I think he still has a very good eye for what flavor combinations work well.

Many of the typical American style Chinese restaurants deep fry the meats that they use (oil blanching); this imparts extra flavor to the meat, but is impractical for most home cooks.

hobscrk777 - I suggest chopping up some fresh garlic and red chillis, and using that instead of the powdered kind. You could also try some sesame oil (but just a dash).

Susie Derkins - For fried rice, I usually go for Thai grain, which is a mid-length grain. Shorter than Basmati (the kind found in Indian and Middle Eastern rice dishes), but not as short as Japanese rice, which tends to be stickier. How long has your cold rice been in your refrigerator? My mother used to cook rice a day ahead and use that for her fried rice dishes.

As for Drain Bead’s question - have you tried using cornstarch to tenderize your meat? Mix a small bowl of it with water and dip each slice in the mix.

  • Flip (I’m not a cook, but I spent a better part of my childhood observing my Chinese mother in our kitchen.)

Another thing to add to your stir-fry: a dash of oyster sauce.

Chinese restaurants have huge burners under their woks, so the wok doesn’t cool off (much) when they add ingredients. Your home stove doesn’t put out so much heat, so you need to be careful not to overload your wok. Try frying the ingredients in batches, and let the wok come back up to temperature after each batch. Remove the ingredients after each batch - when everything is done you can put everything back in the wok to blend the flavors and get things hot again.

I second the motion to use fresh garlic/onions/ginger… there’s a world of difference between fresh and powdered when it comes to the flavour, and the fresh stuff will keep for a reasonably long time if you store them somewhere cool and dry.

Also, add the garlic, ginger, onions and chili to the wok first, so that they lend their flavour to the oil. As soon as the ginger/garlic is fragrant, add the meat and cook as usual.

Veggies should be added separately from the meat, starting first with the longer-cooking ones like carrots, then stuff like peppers/mushrooms/baby corn, and add any quick-cooking veggies like bean sprouts or snow peas in the last couple of minutes.

And speaking of oil - don’t be skimpy with the quantity. I know you’re probably trying to be healthy and all, but a good stir fry requires that you put a good pour of oil in the wok rather than a light mist.

Powdered ginger? That’s the whole problem right there.

Use fresh.

It also doesn’t hurt to get some oyster sauce and add that.

Peanut oil? That seems odd to me. My parents never cooked with anything other than corn oil for frying… That or the leftover oil (lard) from frying pork.

I’m going to guess the flavor you’re looking for is sesame oil (which is added for the taste and not used for cooking). Ginger, garlic, soy sauce (in moderation), sesame oil and “star anise” are what I think of as the bedrock flavors… And green onions (scallions) for fried rice (white/yellow onions are called “foreign onions” in Chinese for a reason).

Toasted sesame oil is the key to many dishes.

Okay, these have already been said but fresh ginger, fresh garlic and sesame oil to finish (not for cooking in). You could also use some toasted sesame seeds for garnish.

My first point was going to be MSG, I’d say the oyster does add a flavour but not always the right flavour, try it and see…

But when the fried rice question came up, that was definitely sesame oil, sprinkle some over the finished product. Simple egg fried rice:

Boil rice and leave to dry for several hours
Either fry egg first in wok, or cook separately
Add rice. Once fried a bit, add soy sauce around edges of wok to allow to heat up quick.
Once done, sprinkle in sesame.

If I was doing “something fried rice”, I’d do the rice separately and mix at the end.

Gotta third MSG. Every kitchen in China that I’ve been to has a big old bag of MSG next to the stove. Some restaurants will bring it to the table just like salt. Personally I go for the “Naw, I’m not just dumping MSG in my food” contrivance of Maggi Seasoning, but really it’s all the same thing.

Also, powdered garlic is not a substitute for minced garlic. It’s not really useful for much of anything beyond making really cheap-o fake garlic bread. Buy the real thing.

Finally, don’t throw too many ingredients in a stir fry. Keep your veggies at one or two different kinds. You will have a better chance of cooking them to the right degree and you want the individual tastes of the vegetables to be noticeable. Plus, that is how it’s generally done in China. The whole idea of a “generic stir fry” with random stuff thrown in is a pretty foreign one. Most dishes involve one or two main ingredients and rather specific cooking methods- nobody is going to cook their carrots the same way they cook their green beans or their mushrooms.

Mmmm Chinese food. I wish it was dinner time!

Baking soda. Add a little bit of baking soda to your marinade. You can Google for more info, or I can ask my sweetie for instructions.

Yup, peanut oil. It’s good for high-temp cooking like stir-frying, and adds a different flavor to the food.

I’d have to agree with the fresh ginger and garlic, sesame oil, oyster sauce, white pepper, and MSG suggestions.

The “saute aromatics, cook meat, remove, cook veggies, combine” method is the correct way to stir-fry.

A good specialty cookbook will do wonders. Instead of always having “generic stirfry that I made up”, I can now make actual DIFFERENT DISHES when I cook Chinese.

Multi-quote is THE DOPE!