Tools of Craft

The Best Flavors and Fixings for Cooking Chinese Food

Chef Brandon Jew on what he always keeps in his pantry.

AFTER DECADES OF FRENCH, Italian, and American reign over fine dining, Asian cuisine has finally and firmly established itself on the white-tablecloth map. And yet, in Western kitchens, Asian food is still largely seen with an air of otherness. Many will say they know how to whip up a good pasta dish or Mediterranean-style spread at home. But when it comes to craving Korean, Thai, Japanese, or perhaps the most elusive of all — Chinese food — it’s take-out or dine-out. Even the notion of grocery staples is Eurocentric: bread, olive oil, cheese (with “Asian flavors” limited to the meager selections of Sriracha and Kikkoman in the International aisle). But as the world widens, so too do appetites.

Here, we turn to Brandon Jew, executive chef and owner of San Francisco’s Michelin-starred Mister Jiu’s restaurant, and co-author (along with Tienlon Ho) of buzzy new cookbook “Mister Jiu’s in Chinatown: Recipes and Stories from the Birthplace of Chinese American Food.” We discuss his go-to Asian supermarket staples, cooking tools, and seasonal produce — and how to use them in your own kitchen. Pasta with red sauce? Step aside.


Key flavor staples.

“The first is fermented black beans. Dried, whole, fermented black beans. They're powerful — salty, kind of funky, and earthy. You’ll want to use them more sporadically, just a sprinkle on a dish. We add them to our mapo tofu to bring up that funky burst. I like adding them to steamed fish with ginger, scallion, and soy. It’s a really nice way to experience the flavor because the fish is so delicate, but then you have something contrasting it in a couple bites. They can also be dehydrated and used in powdered form. In our take on black bean and clam, we do this raw geoduck (it’s like a giant clam) with a sprinkling of the dehydrated fermented black bean on top.

The second would be black vinegar. It’s an ingredient that is so key in balancing richness. The most common way of having dumplings in China is with black vinegar with ginger that's been soaking in there. It adds a really nice contrast but it’s also super versatile. You can use it in braises to balance a beef braise, or even in spicy, oily sauces. We make a mouthwatering rabbit right now. It has a lot of chili oil and a ton of aggressive oily flavors going on. But when you add the black vinegar and soy, it makes this kind of vinaigrette that ends up really balancing out the oil.

The third is Chinese bean paste. I think people are now starting to get very comfortable using miso, but they don't know that much about Chinese broad bean paste, or doubanjiang. It’s spicy, salty, and savory. You can make a really flavorful sauce with a dab of that and a little bit of water or chicken stock.

The fourth is pickled mustard greens [Jew’s recipe below], which adds a little secret pop of acidity. It’s very similar to a macerated shallot in a vinaigrette. It has that same kind of texture and acidity so that when you get those little bites, they provide a lot of excitement to your palate. I suggest adding it to ground pork in green beans — super delicious. These are the things I always have in my pantry or refrigerator.

The fifth is not necessarily Chinese, but I do stock my pantry with a lot of unrefined nut oils. Some of the simplest things require just really good ingredients so all the flavors can stand out. Changing butter or olive oil to high-quality nut oils and flavored oils were pieces of that puzzle. There's a peanut oil I’m really fond of. The brand, La Tourangelle, makes many kinds of oils and we'll use the full range — pecan, almond, pistachio, walnut. There's another hazelnut oil I like too. These nut oils have so much flavor and I love using them. You can get them on Amazon or a lot of health food stores — Rainbow, Whole Foods. They’re how I maximize every ingredient that goes into the dish.”

A high-quality cleaver.

“The cleaver’s such an amazing tool and has many purposes. Smashing garlic or ginger with a cleaver, even multiple at a time, becomes very easy because of how much real estate you have. You can slice things very straight because it's such a hard rectangle, really look over the top of your knife and be very exact on how you cut things. A lot of Chinese mise en place is about how things are cut, so when they go into the water, they cook very purposefully.

I use cleavers made by CCK. They’re made in Hong Kong and are very high quality. I think there's a misconception that cleavers might be heavy or hard to use. But there's a wide array of cleavers on the market. CCK has a kind of numerical system where you can see different types — so there's a slicing cleaver that's actually very thin. Some of them are not even very tall. The numbers go all the way down to something that could cut straight through a pork bone — super heavy, all steel. So there's a whole range. I usually recommend people first use them as vegetable knives. Start with something kind of light and good for delicate vegetable cutting and get used to doing that. A cleaver gets you in the right mood. It's like, we're going to cook Chinese today, let's pick up a cleaver and start prepping.”


A carbon steel wok.

“The second thing, though it may be a little obvious, is a wok. I’m still fascinated with how many things you can do with a wok and how the shape really contributes to the cooking. I like using a carbon steel wok. Those are going to retain heat the best and are heavy duty enough to last a long time. But they're still light enough to be able to pick up and move around. Those two things are the real foundation of Chinese cooking, especially if you’re just starting out.”


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Fresh, seasonal Chinese produce.

“I've been seeing more and more farmers in the Bay Area growing things that feel like they're branching out more into Asian produce. It's really cool to see. The talent of our farmers often gets overshadowed. But a big reason why our food scene in the Bay Area is what it is, is because of the generations of talented farmers who have given chefs just amazing, amazing produce. So it’s cool to see them start to embrace Chinese vegetables.

Like celtuce. I've been seeing celtuce more readily available in farmers’ markets. You could eat the greens or use the stem, which is really versatile in stir fries or even salads — the flavor is a little reminiscent of hearts of palm to me. So whenever I see celtuce, I usually gravitate to that. I also love kohlrabi. Those kinds of root vegetables are really versatile because you can use them in salads just shaved raw, but you also can cook them and have them be a nice component in a broth. Long beans are also something I've been seeing more and more people grow. I'm looking forward to having them in the summer. I also always look for small, dwarf-size, white-stemmed bok choy because they're just super tender, take very little cooking, and are always crunchy.

I've also been really happy to see more cordyceps mushrooms. They’re something that we've been using more in our cooking here at Mr. Jiu's. Cordyceps are really good for you but they're also just an interesting mushroom with a beautiful color, almost like chanterelles with that same bright orange. They're a little stringy and versatile, so they can float in soups, but are also nice in stir fries.”

The power of food has always lay in its ability to bridge gaps, to be a universal entry point for deeper cultural understandings — even from one’s own kitchen. And for those moments when the exploration goes awry, you can always reroute to Chef Brandon’s restaurant for some potstickers, roast duck, and a taste of the Asian American legacy that has overcome so much to share its food with the world.


Recipe for Brandon Jew's Fermented Mustard Greens

Active time: 25 minutes
Plan ahead:
You’ll need at least 1 week or up to 1 month for fermenting, depending on the texture and intensity you desire.
Makes:
About 1 quart.

I started fermenting mustard greens in a Chinese way at Bar Agricole, which technically serves California cuisine with Mediterranean sensibilities. The sharp tang of suān cài (酸菜 in Mandarin) went perfectly with a dish of spot prawns, rendered bacon, chiles, olive oil, and crusty bread. You can’t go wrong with the flavor trifecta of fresh, salt-cured, and fermented. That combo feels distinctly Chinese to me, though there are echoes of it across every ancient cuisine. You can eat fermented vegetables straight as a condiment or garnish, or use them in smaller doses to bring the acid you need to balance richness. The same method works for fermenting greens as for hefty stem vegetables and roots. Look for leafy, mature peppery Chinese mustard, not the kind with big stems or flowers. Spicy gai choy or sweet napa work wonderfully too. How long you ferment is mostly up to you. If you wait a month as we tend to do, the vegetables develop a deep, intensely sour flavor and feel effervescent on the tongue.

2 bunches leafy Chinese mustard greens
Kosher salt
Seeded and minced red Fresno chiles
Minced garlic


Trim the mustard greens, cut into 2-inch pieces, and then weigh the pieces. Calculate the amounts of the remaining ingredients based on that weight (this can be easily scaled to a smaller or larger batch): 3% kosher salt, 5% Fresno chiles, and 2% garlic.

Put the mustard greens in a large bowl and sprinkle with the salt. Massage the salt gently into the greens, taking care not to tear them, until they are limp and most of their juices have been coaxed out, about 10 minutes. Mix in the chiles and garlic.

Tightly pack the greens with their juices into a nonreactive 1 ½ quart container. If the greens are not completely submerged, make a 3% brine by whisking ½ cup water with 1 ¼ tsp kosher salt and add what you need.

Press a sheet of plastic wrap directly onto the surface of the greens and secure with a lid or a cloth and rubber band. Let ferment at cool room temperature (65° to 75°F) out of direct sunlight for 1 month. Burp regularly. The ferment is ready to eat once the brine has turned yellow-green and the leaves have developed a bright sourness.

Store the ferment in the refrigerator for up to 2 months, though the flavor and texture will change over time.

Variation: Fermented Cabbage
Quarter and core 1 medium head green cabbage, then thinly slice and weigh it. Add 4% kosher salt based on that weight and then massage, pack, and brine as described in the method.


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