Why doesn't my Chinese food taste like Chinese food?

I really love Chinese food, and I’m a decent cook, but I seem utterly incapable of recreating Chinese food at home. What’s the secret?

I have a wok. I get it really hot and use just a little peanut oil. I cut the ingredients into bite-sized pieces. I think I’m doing the actual cooking correctly. The meat is usually done and tender. The vegetables are crisp but not raw.

But the result always comes out wrong. It’s often tasty, but it doesn’t taste anything like the Chinese food you get in a restaurant. I’m screwing up the seasonings somehow. The sauce is often thin and watery. (Or, if I add cornstarch, too lumpy.) I’ve tried a variety of different sauce recipes, using a variety of different combinations of soy sauce, ginger, rice vinegar, black bean paste, brown sugar, sesame oil, hoisin sauce, oyster sauce, etc. But the consistency and flavor is always wrong.

I keep thinking that if, just once, I could produce a dish that tasted like it came from a Chinese restaurant then I could build on that and experiment. But I can’t even reach that first step.

So what’s the secret? How does one go about making decent Twice-Cooked Pork or General Jo’s Chicken, or Garlic Beef at home?

Restaurant woks generally are at much higher temperatures than you can get at home. You really need a commerical grade range to replicate restaurant meals exactly. The wok burners in restaurants are like jet engines.

As for lumpy sauce, just mix the cornstarch with a very small amount of liquid until all lumps are gone, then add the slurry to the dish.

One possibility is that you’re just not getting your wok hot enough. I’ve heard chefs say that you need to get it really, really hot and your home stove (assuming you don’t have a wok ring) just doesn’t get hot enough. One method I’ve seen suggested is to use a burner from a gas turkey fryer (on Good Eats, one of my favorite cooking shows). The term used is, I believe, ‘wok hey’ (I may have the wrong transliteration).

Are you silking your meats? That’s the process of dredging them in cornstarch and shaking off all the excess before you begin your stir-frying. This will add some extra crispiness and also help thicken the sauce.

When stir-frying, I like to begin with some garlic and ginger, then add the rest of the ingredients in order of necessary cooking time. Keep things moving, and if they seem to be getting close to done, move them up the sides of the wok where it’s not so hot.

Then, take the stir-fried items out of the wok, and start your sauce. Keep it simple - a bit more peanut oil, more garlic and ginger, any other aromatics, then your sauces (soy sauce, rice vinegar, honey, ketchup, hot paste, sesame oil, whatever floats your boat). If you’re going to add cornstarch to thicken your sauce, whisk it into the liquids while they’re cold - don’t try to add it directly to the wok. That will make them lumpy.

Add the stir-fried ingredients back to the sauce, toss them to coat and make sure they’re hot, then serve.

I hope this helps you in your quest!

Are you using MSG?

Sesame oil, just a bit, gives it a fantastic flavor.

You left out the dog? :smiley:
Seriously, my first thought was MSG, but most restaurants limit that these days, and label those dishes that have it. So it is probably the temperature. You really have a hard time getting things restaurant-hot at home, for either pizza or wokking.

Here’s how my family makes stir-fry:

Cut up the meat and put it to marinate with (if you are cooking for 2-3 people) a splash of dry cooking sherry, 1T soy sauce and 1t cornstarch. If you are cooking chicken, you might add some white pepper too.

Mix another T soy sauce with another t cornstarch and a little water; mix until the cornstarch is dissolved, and set aside.

Mince 2 cloves garlic and 2 slices fresh ginger, and slice 1 onion. Chop the rest of your vegetables roughly.

Heat your skillet. Peanut oil is good, but we often use plain old canola. Put in the garlic, ginger, and onions, and fry for a minute or two. Then put in the rest of the vegetables. Cook for a minute or two, then put them aside on a platter.

Pour in the meat, and fry it until it is partly done. Pour the vegetables on top of it, then pour in your bowl of sauce/cornstarch. You might want to add a little more water, too. Cover the skillet and let cook for 5-10 minutes. Serve with rice.

My mother learned this technique in a Chinese cooking class, but I have seen it repeated, both by the son of a Hong Kong restauranteur and by a friend from Canton. As far as I can tell, this is the real deal, and tastes like the best restaurant food. Of course, I grew up eating it about twice a week, so it is “comfort” food to me and I am biased.

Favorite combinations: pork with cabbage, beef with broccoli and cashews, chicken with green peppers and peanuts.

A lot of Chinese restaurants use “chicken essence”, available from all Asian grocery stores. This is the stock for lots and lots of dishes, and might help the overall flavour.

Slightly related - I’ve tried cooking Thai food and it never tastes right. Then I had a Thai friend staying a few weeks ago, and watched how he made his satay and stir-fry. His trick for the stir-fry was way more fish sauce than I would have dared, an incredibly hot wok, and lots of movement. I copied him the next night and it tasted just right.

His trick for the satay was to buy a satay kit that I didn’t know existed. Amazingly good, tastes just like it does in Thailand. It’s a little packet that comes with sauce that you marinate the meat in, and peanut/chilli/sugar/MSG powder that you boil up with coconut milk - and even in the expensive UK costs less than $2.

I use sesame seed oil, minced garlic, soy sauce, oyster sauce and green onions as my base ingredients.

This is true, and usually recipe books printed in the States underestimate the garlic and chili. (Usually you should triple whatever the American recipe says.)

Also: If your stove and wok just can’t get hot enough, first cook the meat (with the garlic, shallots and curry paste), but only for a minute or two, so it stays tender. Then strain out the meat–that is, remove it, but leave the oil, etc. in the wok. Then cook the vegetables in the oil/seasoning (adding more, if necessary) until done. Then put in the coconut milk, and basil, and simmer for a while. Then, add the meat, and simmer some more, but not at really high heat.

It all depends on how hot your stove gets, and what kind of wok you’re using, and weather you’re cooking beef, chicken, or fish/sea food. You have to experiment a lot, trying different ways, until you’re ready to throw away the watered-down American recipe book.

Some of those instant packs are pretty good, and you have to consider the time to do it by scratch. Those store-bought curry pastes, however, lack a lot of the ingredients a home-made paste would have. But you have to consider how much time it takes, with a mortar and pestle to grind up about twenty ingredients.

I’ll call BS on the temperature thing. I melt lead on my stove and that requires over 800 degrees. If they are cookig that high in most restaurants I’ll be very surprised. Oils flash burns at temps like that.

It’s the seasoning and the technique that are doing the OP in, not the temps.

“Chinese Cooking for Dummies” by Martin Yan is full of really good tips and tricks for getting your food to taste as authentic as possible. I highly recommend it.

Oh, and Brownie 55, I’m NEVER eating at your house.

What, yoou don’t like a meal that stays with you for years? I now clean my lead outside using the turkey cooker, but did it on the “other” stove for years. Never cooked food on that one, just used it for bullets. Odd, I know.

Are you saying he forgot to wok the dog?

I know, terrible.

Regarding cornstarch: I dissolve it in a small amount of warm water before adding it to the sauce.

Good point, if you use it as a last second addition it should always be mixed with water.

I’ve never had a problem. The keys seem to be:

Fresh ginger (not powdered)
Oyster sauce
Soy Sauce
Peanut Oil

I went to “Bob’s Oriental Grocery”, which should be “Robert’s Asian Grocery”, which amid the posters of Iris with Asian calligraphy has pictures of Jesus with the bleeding heart on the wall, but I digress.
My goal was Five Spice Powder, and not the stuff from Kroger.

Dynasty Chinese Five Spices.
A Traditonal Blend of Spices Used In Chinese Cooking.

So far, so good.

Ingredients: Cinnamon, Star Anise, Fennel, Ginger, Cloves, White Pepper and Licorice.

Okay, Ainse and fennel might be the same thing, but even then, isn’t that six spices?

No, seven!

Ugh. I hate Five Spice Powder. My family often makes Asianoid stir-fries with random sauces and spices from around the house added on a whim, and whenever someone thinks they can get away with adding just a little Five Spice Powder, everyone agrees the dish is completely inedible. I can’t think of any dish I’ve ever had in a Chinese restaurant that tastes like Five Spice Powder, or at least the kind we have.