Well, there’s really no easy way to put this. So I might as well just come right out and say it.
I don’t know how to cook Chinese food.
Yes, I know this sounds ridiculous coming from a Hong Kong native who ate pretty much nothing else but Chinese food for her entire childhood. Naturally, you would think that Chinese cooking would come as second nature to me. But alas, nothing could be further from the truth. (Chinese eating, however, is another matter altogether and on that front, I believe I do my culture proud.)
I remember the first time I asked my mom to teach me how to cook something Chinese, way back in the day when I considered popping frozen mini-pizzas into the microwave as cooking. I honestly don’t even remember what she was making at the time. You see, what stuck in my memory are exchanges like the following:
Me: Mom, how much soy sauce did you just add in?
Mom: Oh you know, just enough.
Me: … um, how many teaspoons is that?
Mom: Oh I don’t know. It doesn’t matter. There’s no need to measure.
Let me tell you, when you’re new to cooking, nothing is more frustrating than figuring out what to write down in your notebook (aka future recipe treasure trove from whence magical dishes shall be recreated!) when all your mother will tell you is that you need to “add just enough soy sauce.” Right then and there, I became convinced that Chinese cooking was some crazy voodoo magic, possibly involving incense sticks and incantations but definitely not involving actual measurements. So instead, I turned to cuisines with actual recipes(!) published in actual cookbooks(!) and began learning to cook from there, all the while quietly avoiding the topic of Chinese cooking and hoping no one will notice.
That is, until my favorite cookbook-writing duo came out with a book focused on Chinese cuisine, specifically the cuisines of the minority populations of China. As wary as I was about Chinese cooking, I can never resist one of their cookbooks, so our cookbook collection got another book bigger. Thanks to this new addition, I’m slowly learning to overcome my fear of Chinese cooking. And these days, you can even find me guilty of foregoing measurements in favor of instinct. Because if ever there’s a cuisine flexible enough for creative/lazy measurements, it seems it would be ours.
You know what they say: Like mother, like daughter.
Adapted from recipes in the gorgeous cookbook Beyond the Great Wall: Recipes and Travels in the Other China by Jeffrey Alford and Naomi Duguid. Apparently, Laghman is a province in Afghanistan but here, it simply refers to the Uyghur name for “la mian” or handmade noodles. Since I wasn’t about to attempt crazy noodle-pulling stunts, I opted to make noodle shells, so this is not exactly a traditional “laghman.”