The Art of Combination is an expert’s road map through the fascinating world of Chinese food mixtures. To the connoisseur, when diverse foods are brought together in combinations, the purpose is to heighten the taste, form, and appearance of the principal ingredient and of the completed dish. In this article, the cook is urged to substitute creatively when following a recipe, to invent her own combinations. It is clear, however, that not all mixtures are ideal; and that certain principles, stated or instated, are at work when the Chinese cook decides precisely what vegetable they will use, and in what quantity, to transform, say, a handful of shrimp into a masterpiece.
Roast beef, grilled steak, fried chicken are “autonomous” dishes that require little or no admixture; but a
Chinese menu takes in the whole gamut of cookery methods, and a single dish may bring together four to seven different foodstuffs. Variations lead to constant creation of new dishes, which explains the many schools of cooking in China.
Occidentals are always surprised to discover that lobster and chicken livers make a superb pairing. Or that
poultry, pork, and, seafood combine well. Chicken and ham complement each other miraculously. How does one make such decisions? The scientific mind can deduce some underlying rules that cover most cases.
The Vegetable Kingdom
The heart of the mixing problem is to decide what will mix well with meat. No Chinese would think of mixing
Two kinds of “red” meat, such as beef with mutton, or lamb with pork. They simply do not seem to blend, perhaps because they all belong to the land animal family, as distinct from birds and fish. Better marriages are made by going further a field. The vegetable kingdom is the richest source of culinary partners.
The basic vegetables in Chinese cuisine are:
Young peas or petits pois
Mushrooms, dried or fresh
Chinese broccoli (gai laan choy), the leaves of which may also be used
Chinese pickled mustard plant (called pickled or salted gai Choy)
Observe the omission of carrots, cucumbers, and cauliflower. These are eaten by the Chinese, but generally as separate dishes rather than in mixtures. A carrot is too sweet for mingling in Chinese food except where a “sweet and sour” sauce is used. Cucumbers have a high water content that would make a mixture too soupy. Cauliflower cannot be cut readily into the slices, strips, or cubes necessary for quick cooking and to match the size and shape of other ingredients.
The two queens among mixers are bamboo shoots and water chestnuts. They perform as catalysts, marrying the flavors of anything they are combined with, while not having too much taste of their own. It is their texture that is perfect. Bamboo shoots do especially well in stir-fried mixtures (ch ao) or in stews (mun). Water chestnut, cut in slices, is a desirable ingredient in chop suey making the difference, in fact, between a mediocre vegetable dish and one that is very fine. Minced water chestnut is excellent in meatballs and even better combined with minced shrimp.