I hate to report that the following story has happened to me more times than I can count. It usually begins on a bus/train, because a bus/train is where all the slightly off-kilter botherings happen to you. It is inevitably a short, scraggly, high-pitched man who starts the conversation, with a squeaky yet assertive, “aheeeeemmm. ahem ahem.”
I had been raised exceptionally well by my parents, so of course I respond with a, “Why hello there, sir!” And so begins the never-ending bus/train ride where I converse about different aspects of the weather and sometimes they tell me how pretty I am. (Oh lucky me!!) I just finished reading Bluebeard, in which a woman converses by starting with, “Tell me how your parents died,” but I have a slightly less invasive tactic. I figure, if I’m going to have a strange conversation with a stranger, why not make it even stranger by plugging my food blog?
I always advertise my food blog to the poor bus/train man who now probably regrets starting the conversation with me, and generally several decibels louder than the preceding snippets of conversation so that other unwilling citizens on the train can also hear about my wondrous food blog. Sometimes he’ll ask me what kind of food I cook the best. Do you want me to answer truthfully, sir? I will tentatively answer, “Chinese food,”…tentatively, oh so trepidatiously, because 9 times out of 10…
He will respond with, “Oh then you must know how to cook General Tso’s Kung Pao Orange chicken then! Wow, oh golly, I love Panda Express! Do you have a recipe for Sweet & Sour Pork?”
This very response is a murky swamp over the atmosphere of my soul. First of all, Mr. Bus/Train Man, Panda Express, despite what it says on its website, is not “Gourmet Chinese Food.” Strike that, it’s not even Chinese food; it’s this gloppy and overly sweet bastardization of Chinese food. Referring to Panda Express as Chinese food is like saying that Taco Bell’s Volcano Nachos is Mexican food or that your local Little Caesar’s is the best that Italy has to offer.
Second of all, Panda Express is especially offensive to me because Panda sounds like Wanda. I would make a Wanda Express instead, but I might attract customers that instead expect a 5 minute hand job. I imagine that these would much resemble my bus/train conversation buddies.
Did you come here for a recipe on Sweet & Sour Orange Chicken? I can teach you how to make it.
Sweet & Sour Orange Chicken
1. Melt a butt ton of sugar in a pan with some Kikkoman soy sauce. Scrape a little frozen orange juice concentrate into it.
2. Let stand in the back of your warehouse for at least 6 months, but preferably a year.
3. Pour this on some chicken, then microwave to kill the Salmonella friends. TADA!
Third of all, EW.
What is real Chinese food? I could write a book. I should write a book. I will be rich when I write my vegan Chinese food book. If one of you beat me to it, I will be mad. Many people have written books. It’s hard to say what Chinese food is, because it spans so many regions and peoples and tastes.
But I would say that good Chinese food is food that is cooked until just that perfect moment. It receives just a kiss of a flame, just a tinge of seasoning, here and there, coating small crevices, perhaps a slice of ginger to permeate the steam. Food is cooked until it is soft enough to eat but still fresh enough to be transportive to when it last saw the fields it was in, or the sea from which it was picked from. It is stingy, but not in a bad way; I want to take back that word for good. It is stingy in that it uses every piece of a food, nothing goes to waste. There is use for everything; no vegetable is deemed too weird or ugly to eat. It is at once grateful for all the hard work put into it, and momentous in its flavors…
My favorite dish would have had to be ox-tail. It might not be quintessentially what people think of when they think of Chinese food, since it isn’t a quick stir fry. But I like it because it is stingy in using parts of the animal that typically aren’t featured in Western cuisine, and it is oh so flavorful. Imagine a thick unctuous 2 hours long braise with ginger and garlic and star anise and soy sauce…yum.
I have since changed my ways and wish for all cows to have their tails, so I have made what I believe to be a perfect recreation of my favorite Chinese food. If it only changes one person’s mind about Panda Express, then I will be forever happy.
Vegan Braised Ox-Tail
serves 4-6 people | total time: 3 hours
Think of this as a silky, unctuous, super savory version of carnitas. The meat is fall off the nothing (seitans don’t have bones!) tender, and brain explodingly delicious.
- 2 cups vital wheat gluten
- 2 tablespoons garlic
- 1 1/3 cup water
- 1/2 cup soy sauce
- 3 tablespoons cooked oil, or sesame oil
- 1/2 cup regular soy sauce (I recommend Pearl River Bridge)
- 1/3 cup dark soy sauce
- 5 cloves garlic, smashed
- 5 slices ginger
- 3 stars of star anise
- 1 tsp of Chinese 5 spice
- 1/4 cup rice wine
- 3 tablespoons sugar
- 1/4 cup oil
- 1/4 cup cornstarch
1. To make the seitan, mix the gluten with the garlic, water, soy sauce, and sesame oil in a large bowl until all the gluten flour is incorporated. Knead for about 1-2 minutes, until the gluten ball is nice and holds together. It should hold together but look somewhat tired; the ball should slump over when you’re not holding it up. If it bounces and looks happy, you’ve probably not added enough liquid.
2. Divide this seitan ball into two large lumps. DO NOT, I repeat, DO NOT try and speed up the process but cutting it into even smaller pieces at this stage. It will ruin the texture and you will end up with something that tastes like water.
3. Bring a pot of water to a boil, then add the rest of your ingredients except the cornstarch. Add your two seitan lumps. Simmer for about 30 minutes.
4. Using a pair of tongs, or heat resistant hands, fish your seitan lumps out. Cut these up into thick slices. It will not be fully cooked, as you will see by a darker colored and smooth inside. I like to make horizontal cuts (see above pictures) on the seitan slices to mimic “grain” on the “meat,” and to allow for the sauce to really permeate the seitan, but this is optional.
5. Place these thick slices back into the water and simmer for about 1 1/2 hours longer, until cooked all the way through.
6. Take the pieces from the liquid and allow them to drain on a paper towel.
7. Bring the braising liquid in the pot to a rolling boil, until it is has about 1/3 of the liquid as before. Mix the 1/4 cup cornstarch with some cold water and mix this with that braising liquid, and simmer until thickened.
8. Meanwhile, heat a wok or large pan to medium high and pour some vegetable oil on it. Stir fry the pieces of seitan until well browned on all sides, about 5 minutes. You should only stir fry a couple pieces at a time or else they won’t get a nice crispy crust on them.
9. When all the pieces are browned and crispy, add in about 1/2 of the reduced liquid and stir to coat. Return to the wok to stir fry a bit more, until the sauce has permeated the crevices.
10. Serve on a bed of rice or noodles, with extra sauce ladled on top.